Italian handcrafts: Biella hats
- WTI Magazine #146 Dec 18, 2021
The production of hats in Biella is a tradition that dates back to 1700. As with textiles, this type of activity developed largely because of the mountainous location at the foot of the Alps, which precluded extensive crop cultivation, favouring the breeding and rearing of sheep for wool and textiles. Thus it is no coincidence that hat factories were established and evolved in the Cervo valley that takes its name from the water course of the same name, an area that does not alow much more than small holdings for personal consumption and the rearing of livestock.
The hat manufacturers stand out for the care and quality of production and intensive use of local labour. It is not a coincidence, therefore, that at the end of the 18th century hats from Biella were compared in quality to those of Lyon, in France, considered the best on the market at the time.
Over time, other fine materials, such as rabbit, hare, otter and camel skins, have been introduced alongside the manufacture of woollen hats. There were 29 hat manufacturers in the valley in 1873, providing work for around 600 employees (around 5% of the workforce of the province) and producing 450 thousand hats annually with a turnover of 2,250,000 lire. Head wear from Biella was sold all over Italy and also in France, Austria, Switzerland, Malta, the Middle East, South America, Asia and Africa.
Entrepreneurs in the Cervo valley strongly resisted mechanisation because they believed that the cult of perfection would be lost with mass production and also because of the availability of stable and qualified workers that obviously opposed the introduction of technology. The solution was to concentrate on small-scale, high quality production, abandonning wool hats in favour of producing hats in fur of various qualities.
Production remained stable until the 1930s. The crisis for Italian hat manufacturers did not result from the second World War but from the change in fashion as a result of which hats were no longer essential daily wear for men, women and children. The establishments were oversized and inflexible with regard to demand.
From the 1969s, little by little, all the Biella factories, which had been the source of high quality head wear for decades, closed down. The Cappellificio Cervo with the brands Barbisio and Bantam keeps the history and the great manufactirung tradition of the region alive.
Manufacturing a hat is an ancient tradition with many secrets. The fur, normally rabbit or hare, is selected with care from the best fleeces and treated to prepare it for the subsequent manufacturing processes. The complete process includes: distension of the skins, secretage or etching, drying, trimming, cutting or shearing, blowing, sorting, seasoning and mixing.
The first stage is “white” processing. This term defines the first stage of manufacturing a hat. The first step is the mixing which ensures a homogeneous fur that is separated from any remaining dirt, the fur is then divided by weight and subsequently the felt making process begins by creating the layers. This is done by meshing the fur together on cones with the aid of hot water jets. The layers, the very first step of the felt production process, have an inadequate consistency so they are reinforced by dipping and fulling. The felt thus obtained moves on to shaping and then it is seasoned for six months.
The next stage is the “black” processing. At this point the dried and seasoned felt can be dyed and it moves on to the steam shaping process which takes place on wood shapers. This is where hats of different sizes are produced according to the circumference of the head of the wearer.
Heat, humidity and steam are indispensible for stretching and perfecting the felt. This stage of the processing still uses many old craft tools. After checking and trimming, the hat is finished off with an outer ribbon or moroccan leather, or the inner leather band is added with the brand and name stamped on it. Finally the satin lining is added.
Hat manufacturing developed in the Biella region and particularly the Cervo valley in the 18th century as a result of the characteristic landscape and the resident population. The mountanous nature of the Biella region was not suited to extensive agriculture but favoured the raising of livestock, particularly sheep, the fleece of which was used not only for fabric for clothing but also for head wear.
The land also featured numerous water courses characterised by very low dry residue content with minimum amounts of sodium and other mineral salts. The “softness” of the water made an important contribution to the final quality of the hats as it did not weigh down the fibres.
There was an abundant supply of labour that was inexpensive. The goodwill of the workers allowed the know how required for manufacturing hats to be spread and high quality standards to be achieved. Human and industrial settlements respected the environment for the most part, creating a balance of great value between man and nature that constitutes one of the main components of the high quality of life in the area.
By Camera di Commercio di Biella with Unioncamere