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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

There is an old joke about a man obsessed with finding the world's best Bavarian creme pie. He travels to the finest bakeries in Vienna, Salzburg and throughout the Black Forest--but to no avail. Finally, as an elderly man, he learns about a legendary baker who can be found at the top of the highest mountain in the Alps. He scales the mountain and, exhausted, reaches the summit where there is a small shack; from it comes the most fragrant smell of Bavarian creme pie the man has ever experienced. He approaches the master baker (quite an old man himself) and says, "Please, kind sir, I have searched all of my life for a spoonful of your Bavarian creme pie." The old baker, somewhat astonished, apologetically replies, "I am sorry, but I have just sold my last piece." Devastated from the news and realizing that his life's ambition will go unfulfilled, the man pauses...and then says, "OK. I'll take apple."

My search has been almost as elusive. For the better part of my life, I have been seeking the world's finest felt hat. My interest in hats is both professional--as the owner of Worth & Worth, the oldest men's hat shop in New York--and personal.

I can trace my early interest in hats, in the 1950s and '60s, to my great-uncle Abe. A stockbroker and successful businessman, he always seemed to wear the perfect fedora for every occasion; a charcoal gray with his navy business suits or a dark olive with his camel cashmere topcoat. He once confided to me that his hat had always been his signature. Not in any garish or contrived way; in fact, it was because his hats always had an understated dignity that they were so compelling. They were what separated him from the ordinary gray suits, made him instantly recognizable and conferred a sense of authority.

Of course, he had a favorite hat shop. It was the old Cavanagh shop on Park Avenue in New York City. There, the store's salesmen welcomed him as a member of a revered and select club, and maintained a record of his hat size and his style preferences. There were other rituals, to be sure: the way the salesmen handled the hats and presented them to a client was always great theater, the way they brushed the hats off before a customer would be permitted to exit the store.

I remember the quality of the hats as being extraordinary. The felt was not particularly lightweight, and it appeared to be extremely dense. Yet, it felt mellow to the touch. Most of all, I recall the sound of the hat when placed on a table; it was a muffled, almost inaudible, thud, as though it had been dropped onto a cloud. I later learned that the soft touch and sound were a result of curing the felt, a process similar to aging a fine wine.

Fine hat making was far more commonplace then than it is today. The center of hat making in America was Connecticut, in the cities of Danbury and Norwalk. (At the turn of the century, more than 30 hat factories employed at least 15,000 workers in Danbury alone.) At its peak, Danbury was producing between five and six million hats per year. Great names, such as Lee, Rundle & White, and Mallory, were all produced there. These hats were essentially made by hand and produced by artisans, many of whom had roots in fine European hat making traditions.

But the Industrial Age was unkind to hat making. The ability to mass-produce hats fostered unfortunate compromises in the process. Hydraulic presses, aluminum blocks and large dying bins may be great for large quantities of cookie-cutter styles, but unevenness in the felt, porousness and unsightly mottling were, and are, most often the result.

My search for the world's finest felt hat had taken me to places I never expected to go--to England, France and Germany, of course, but also to Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia. My search seemed fruitless until a few years ago when, quite by chance, in Italy I stumbled upon the world's finest hat factory and the old master who runs it.

The most famous name in hats in Italy has always been Borsalino. Its largest competitor was a company called Barbisio. Both factories had been known for making exceptional quality fur-felt hats, although each had its areas of specialization. In the early 1980s, Borsalino was sold to an investment banking group, which moved its production from the original factory, founded in Alessandria in 1856, to an industrial park on the outskirts of town. With this move came a greater capacity for efficiency but also the diminution of the hatmaker's distinctive qualities. The company reduced the number of available colors from more than 150 to a couple dozen, it no longer made sizes larger than 7 3/4 and it cut back on hand-sewing and other finishing processes that had once made it famous.

Barbisio fell on even harder times during the 1980s, and by decade's end had to liquidate its equipment and close its factory. When I went to the Barbisio factory in search of salvageable old equipment, I met Tibaldo Eden, who had a small factory just a few hundred meters from Barbisio's. Nearly 80 years old at the time, Eden had spent his entire life as a hatmaker. For many years his factory, Cappellificio Cervo, had been a subcontractor for both Borsalino and Barbisio and had produced some of the most famous styles in history under their labels.

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.

When selected for production, the felts are carefully sanded by hand to create the perfect finish. Several artisans diligently work the felt, both inside and out, until the hat is of a perfect softness and smoothness. About 30 percent of the weight of the hat will be sanded off. For hats designed to have a longer nap, machines using shark skin are employed. It is most important that the longer hairs are raised so that they lay in one direction.

Shaping the hat is done using wooden blocks and old steam presses. Today, as always, Cervo makes most of its styles with a certain intent: that the retailer or the client himself shape the hat by hand. Therefore, Cervo ships many of its hats with an "open" crown, meaning the crown has a rounded form that is in perfect dimension for each style. Ultimately, the hats are so fine that they can be shaped by merely pinching the crown. However, when Cervo does pre-block a hat, it uses antique wooden blocks for the crown and a separate one for the brim. Each size must have its own set of blocks, so the factory is nearly overrun by the numerous wooden forms hanging from ceilings and shelves.

Finally, the hats are trimmed by hand, using the finest leathers for sweatbands and grosgrain ribbons for hatbands. Today, hats are often finished with more casual dress in mind, and Cervo has created marvelous new treatments such as hand-detailing of the felt, or the replacement of the hatband with circular stitching or trapunto around the brim. Even the satin linings are stitched in rather than glued--one last refusal to compromise quality in the name of efficiency.

Eden is justifiably proud of his small factory and its great traditions. He no longer solicits new clients, nor exhibits at any of the famous European fashion shows. He has the luxury of selecting his clients carefully, and often refuses to supply customers who do not show an appreciation for his art. "I am 82 years old," he said last year. "I have spent my life making hats, and every one is precious to me."

A finished hat by Cappellificio Cervo, retailing for $200 to $385, is like no other made today. Its felt is so light and soft that it's a sensual pleasure just to hold. The color is authentic, rich, deep and perfect. The fit is like no other; the level of comfort is such that the hat feels as though it was made for your head alone.

I have been truly fortunate to have discovered this great factory and the talented family who run it. Luckily, Eden's son, Costanzo, and his grandchildren are determined to continue the legacy. This year, Cervo will celebrate its centennial anniversary. Its most remarkable achievement is its stubborn unwillingness to compromise or to modernize.

Harry Rosenholtz is the owner of Worth & Worth, a men's hat and accessories store in New York City. He often writes about men's fashion, jazz and ice hockey. Where to Find Hats By Cappellificio Cervo:

France

Gelot/Hermes
15 rue du Faubourg Ste. Honoré 75008 Paris
Phone: 33 (1) 44 71 3161

Italy

Cappelleria Barbisio
Daniele Rossi
Galleria Vitt. Emanuele II, 16 Milan
Phone: 39 2 876460

Cappelleria Rialto
Ponte Rialto, 5163 Venice|
Phone: 39 41 5221960

Cappelleria Viarani
Corso Vitt. Emanuele, 27 Torino
Phone: 39 11 6699672

Combini Veronica
Via Calzainoli 22/R 50122 Florence
Phone: 39 55 215498

United States

Barneys New York
660 Madison Avenue New York, New York 10022
212 826-8900

Georgetown Tobacco
3144 M St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20007
800 345-1459

Worth & Worth
331 Madison Avenue New York, New York 10017
800 428-7467

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