How Are Cowboy Hats Made?

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Cowboy hats have been ingrained in American culture for so long that it’s easy to forget that there was a time when they didn’t exist. Like many aspects of Americana fashion, the iconic cowboy hat was born out of necessity.

Steeped in over 150 years of history, the beloved cowboy hat style is believed to have originated in the early 1860s when John B. Stetson fashioned a tall-crowned, wide-brimmed hat—the “Boss of the Plains”—as protection from the elements.

At the time, the members of his party are said to have mocked him for the style! Little did they know that the impromptu head cover would spread like wildfire and remain a cultural staple for well over a century and going strong.

So, how are these legendary hats made? That depends on the manufacturer. Although most cowboy hats are mass-produced in modern factories, some brands, including Stetson, still use the same traditional methods and antique machinery established over a century and a half ago.

Here’s a look at how a classic American cowboy hat is typically made using the techniques and equipment of yesteryear.

1. Processing the Fur Into Down

The original cowboy hats were made from the pelts of animals. Beaver fur was a very popular choice because it’s naturally water-resistant. Not much has changed, as many high-quality cowboy hats are still made from beaver fur, as well as rabbit and wild hare. Cowboy hats can also be made from other materials, such as straw, felt, leather, nylon, and many others.

The first step in making a traditional cowboy hat is turning the fur into felt through a process called felting. The fur is typically mixed and placed in a special machine that blows the fur to separate the long hairs from the short hairs. Once the long hairs have been removed, the remaining material is called down. At this stage, the down is very thin and wispy, kind of like cotton candy!

2. Forming the Felt

Photo by Matthew Pablico on Unsplash

Next, the down material is blown onto a metal cone that’s usually around eight times as large as a cowboy hat, give or take. The large size is necessary because the down will shrink as it’s turned into felt. The cone with the down is then wrapped with large burlap straps, and a second cone is placed on top for extra protection.

The wrapped cones are then placed into a hot water bath that’s around 160°F. The hot water causes the delicate down material to shrink and tighten, and as the fibers interlock, the material turns into a solid felt.

After the hot water bath, the material is further processed by running it through a roller machine around six times or so. The pressure from the rollers tightens the fibers even more so that the felt becomes sturdy and able to be shaped into a hat.

3. Dying the Hat

After the material has been thoroughly exposed to a great deal of heat and pressure, it’s ready to be dyed. The color of the dyes can range widely, and some hats aren’t dyed at all to give the finished hat a natural appearance. On the other hand, some cowboy hats are meant to be statement pieces and are dyed bright colors.

After the hat has been processed in a dying machine, it’s typically coated in shellac for added durability. Without shellac, the material will be very floppy and flimsy. The shellac gives the hat its structure and rigidity so that the brim protrudes out and the crown maintains its crease.

4. Shaping the Hat

Next, the dyed (or undyed) material is pulled and stretched to form a hat shape. First, the crown is formed, followed by the brim. This is usually done with machinery that has brass “fingers” that form the hat’s shape while it’s submerged in another hot water bath. Additionally, wooden blocks may be used to push the hat into shape.

5. Further Refining

At this point, the material resembles a hat, but it still needs to be refined further. The hat will be dried and then usually formed, trimmed, and shellacked again, although different manufacturers have their own methods.

Next, the hat is sanded to make it smooth to the touch, and powder may be rubbed into the material. A press that applies a great deal of pressure is used to give the crown its crease and curve the brim.

6. Finishing Touches

At this stage, the hat is basically done. The manufacturer may add a tag and their branding. They may also add embellishments, such as a sweatband or feather. Once the hat is ready to be sold, it’s packaged and shipped to retailers or individual buyers.

Not All Cowboy Hats Are Traditionally Crafted

It’s important to note that this crafting process isn’t the norm. Many manufacturers employ modern methods that are more cost-effective and efficient. However, for those who want to own an authentic cowboy hat, only traditional techniques will do! While you can get the same look at your favorite fashion icons with an inexpensive cowboy hat, it’s always worth investing in quality pieces. A well-made cowboy hat can last for life, and there’s something about that authentic look and feel that transports you back to a simpler time with every wear.

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