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The World's Best Hats

A Search for the World's Greatest Hatmaker Ends in Italy
Harry Rosenholtz
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 1)

Cappellificio Cervo is located in Sagliano Micca, a small idyllic village about 20 minutes north of Biella, where the finest woolen mills produce the most luxurious woven cloth in the world. Famed cloth and clothing makers such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Giorgio Armani, Luciano Barbera, Nino Cerrutti and Loro Piana all have factories in Biella. That the world's finest hatter is in the same region is not mere coincidence. The factory is located at the foot of the Alps, and a crystal-clear mountain river, the Cervo, runs through the factory, supplying it with water for processing as well as hydroelectric power. The water is particularly pure and exceptionally soft, perfect for producing felt and wool. During May there is usually sediment in the river, Eden said, so the factory simply does not produce hats during this time.

During the late nineteenth century, the Cervo valley was home to more than 30 hat factories. Today, Eden's family reigns over the last. They employ only 20 workers, but, like extended family, each one is fully conversant in the complicated process of making a fur-felt hat. Entering the factory is like walking through a doorway into early industrial Italy. Founded in 1897, Cappellificio Cervo is both a working museum and an impossible combination of outdated machinery and vintage tooling. As Eden explained, "We never felt the need to update our factory after we made hats right."

The factory has a labyrinthine layout with separate areas for storing the fur, coloring, and trimming, along with showrooms and even its own archives. If anything, it is anti-efficient. Yet, it is precisely this milieu that sets the tone for unhurried, perfect hat making, because the most important ingredient in making a fine hat is time. To produce the finest felt hat can take six months or more. More than 70 hand processes are involved and each hat is the result of patience, experience, chemistry and sorcery.

Cervo begins the process by buying the finest fur available (mostly rabbit, but occasionally nutria, hare and beaver). The secret is to use the fur from only the plushest part of the animal. Often this means buying fur from countries with colder climates where the hairs are naturally longer; this is important, because when felt is formed, the longer and stronger hairs form a natur-ally stronger felt. This fur is then stored for up to two years in a humid environment.

Once the correct fur is selected for a certain style of hat (this depends upon the eventual weight of the hat and length of the nap), the fur is combed in an ancient contraption that resembles a cotton gin. The machine removes impurities in the fur, which is then pressed to resemble soft, downy cotton.

Next, the fur is mulched into very fine particles and, in a predetermined mixture with other furs, is blown into a large brass machine with a perforated conical cylinder inside. The machine, which looks like one that makes cotton candy, is responsible for the most important step in hat making and requires an experienced engineer to operate. The fur is blended with hot water and slowly sucked onto a rotating cylinder until the first felt is formed. The felt must be perfectly distributed by weight and by size or the entire process must be repeated. After this stage the hat body is three feet tall.

This is followed by a series of steps designed to shrink the hat body. Workers repeatedly dip the bodies at once into steaming hot water, twisting and turning them as one would knead dough. The hats are folded, unfolded and pressed using as much pressure as the craftsmen can exert; this process is repeated several times over three days. One machine employed in shrinking the hats, called a multiroller, jiggles the bodies while injecting steam into their fibers. After this last stage of reducing the hat, the fibers of the felt have remarkably congealed and tightened, so that the felt is pre-shrunk and nonporous, yet malleable.

After the felts are dried in a small centrifuge, they are prepared for dying. Most of the factories today color their hats in lots of a gross (144) or more. The hats are placed in large vats and colors are applied as evenly as possible. Cervo, on the other hand, dyes no more than six hats at a time, and after the felts are dried, it dyes them again. The resulting felts have such richness, clarity and depth that they are unlike any other in the world. Cervo then places them in a special brick room where they are slowly dried from the gentle heat of a wood stove. Even the types of wood are specially selected; this is one of the secrets that Eden would not share with me.

However, he did share the techniques of his coloring procedure, and it is one of the things that makes Cervo so special. In a small room at the back of the factory, Eden opened two armoires filled with old dyed felts. There were more than 300 colors, each with its unique formula. He can reproduce any of these colors and, given enough lead time, can match any fabric color with a color in felt. There were earth tones and pastels, magentas and grays. It was a rainbow of rich color, unlike anything I had ever seen.

After the hats are colored, they are placed in a temperature-controlled, humidified room for several months. There, the felts continue to cure, the fibers tightening and softening to their final tolerance.

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