Most people probably consider felt as a type of cloth - smoother and tougher than cotton or woolen fabric, but cloth nonetheless. But really there is little similarity. Unlike cloth, felt is made up of many short, single animal fibres. These fibres interlock; they have a natural tendency to "crawl" and twist when kneaded and manipulated in hot water and steam. Pressure, heat and water are used throughout the hat making process.
Felt is the strongest natural fabric produced, because every fibre is interlocked in every direction with a number of other fibres. All other fabrics are made of fibres which are first twisted into threads and then woven by hand or machine. Because these threads are always woven in either right-angled or parallel lines, the woven fabric can be torn along a straight line.
Since felt does not have the bulk of twisted threads that woven fabrics do, it's also the smoothest fabric known.
Felt is the lightest fabric known because few fibres are required to provide the strength necessary. For the same reason felt is the most resilient of fabrics.
It's also more impervious to water than any other fabric. This is for two reasons; first, the fibres interlock closely making them less absorbent, and second, the animal fibres themselves do not soak up moisture.
Most hats are manufactured from a mixture of furs from beavers, hares and rabbits. These are selected and used in percentages to suit the makers' preferences. Very fine hats are produced from these mixtures.
The largest market is for hats made from rabbit fur. Rabbit skins are obtained from many countries - England, Australia, New Zealand, many parts of continent of Europe, China and South America. English skins are preferred by some manufacturers, but Australian skins rank highly.
The fur used in manufacturing felt hats is the downy-under-fur of these animals, not the long, coarse hair commonly called fur. This under-fur has tiny barb-like projections on the surface of each fibre and these barbs lock the fibres to make strong felt.
The fur is graded (cheeks, flanks, sides, centre-backs or entire) and then packed into different bags for storage. Fur from the centre-back is the choicest fur, the fur from the sides is the poorer quality. A good blend is a proper combination of furs, skillfully selected by the hatter.
The Akubra hat making tradition has been maintained now for 130 years and continues to demand the hands on skill, quality product and processing today. With no less than 11 key steps in the Akubra Hat making process, its no wonder why Akubra quality is regarded so highly worldwide.
First, the hair tip is cut from the rest of the fur - it's not used in hat making. The down under-fur is then cut from the pelt, cleaned and the manufacturing process can begin. The fur is placed in an 8-section blowing machine which mixes it, removing any clotted hair, felt or dirt. When the fur leaves the machine, it's like a sheet of soft, downy cotton.
The key to hat making is forming the cone and this is done in the Forming machine. Here, the fur is sucked onto a large revolving cone and, as it rotates, hot water is sprayed onto the fur. This interlocks the fibres in each direction. When the layer of felt is stripped from the cone, it is extremely fragile and about three times the height of the finished hat.
The fragile felt is then wrapped in cloth and placed between rollers for shrinking. At this early stage, the shrinkage is rapid as the fibres become tightly locked. As the felt becomes stronger and tighter, the rate of shrinking is reduced. This process is repeated several times, the hats being repositioned regularly to ensure even pressure.
Each machine can only reduce the size of the hats so far. Before the hats undergo the next stages in the manufacturing process, they must be shrunk to near their final size. The equipment for this job is an Apron machine which reduces the hats to about a third of their original size. They are now ready to be dyed.
The dying is carried out in large vats, each holding about 200 hats. It takes about an hour and a half to dye the hats. This is the end of the body making process. The part of the hat which will be the brim is now impregnated with a shellac mixture to make it more durable (referred to as Proofing.) Proofing helps the crown retain its shape and gives the brim greater durability.
Now the body is complete, the hats are tip-stretched and blocked. The hat changes shape, from a cone to a hat with a definite crown. Dipping the hat in hot water again makes it pliable. It's eased into shape by metal fingers stretching it over the ribs of a frame (referred to as Blocking). A brim is now broken out.
After the blocking and brimming, the hats come to the last of the wet processes - stoving. This is the final drying of the hats before the trimming takes place. The hats are placed on racks in large ovens to be dried off over night. The temperature is kept low and the air is well-circulated at all times.
Pouncing is the first of the finishing processes. Hats have their fluffy appearance cut down evenly, using sandpaper on a fast wheel to give a smooth, proper finish. Hats are placed on a fast wheel to brush off surplus dust. Once the hats are pounced, they are quality inspected for imperfections against specification, including welts, holes and proofing marks.
The brims are then stretched flat and the body of the hat is pulled over a wooden block. A metal ring holds the hats band line close to the bottom of the block, while fingers stretch the brim flat and clear of the body. We now have a hat of the correct size, shape and brim width.
After this, the hats are automatically ironed. This provides a good face for the final finishing. The ironing also causes a reaction with the shellac and sets the brim, giving it firmness and durability. The hand controlled rounding process is where the excess brim is trimmed from the hat.
80% of the hats leave the factory pre-creased - the crown is already shaped. The hat is pulled onto a rubber mould, placed in an aluminium dish and left to set. The hats are then steamed on a block of the correct size and shape. It's the last chance to check the hats dimensions, so the blocks (made of huon pine) are kept in top condition and regularly maintained.
Many of the trimmings, such as sweatbands, bows and silk linings, are prepared in the factory. There is a wide variety of bands and bows used for the various styles of Akubra hats. The leather sweat band is cut and stamped with gold foil to show the Akubra crest, the hat name and that the hat is made in Australia. It's then carefully fitted to the hat.
One of the final processes is flanging. Here the hat is placed in a frame to give the brim its ultimate shape. A wet cloth is placed over the brim to help with the shaping and the bags of hot sand and pressure are carefully used to change the shape of the brim.
Finally, the hats are sanded once more, achieving the best possible finish on each Akubra produced. The final touches are now added - Bands of material or leather, feathers, buckles and bows are hand sewn to the hats, giving each one the distinctive Akubra style, and upholding the strong tradition of quality.