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Top hats - Beaver or silk?

post #1 of 16
Thread Starter 
A seller of a vintage top hat claims all top hats are actually made with beaver fur, not silk, even though such hats are described as silk top hats. Is this true?

What about hats which can be stored flat?
post #2 of 16
Beaver top hats were supplanted by silk versions in Europe in the mid 1800s. The price of beaver pelts fell dramatically. I don't know why you couldn't make a beaver top today if you have the pelts.

Production of the silk ones has ended because there is apparently no more supply of the shellac, which came from India. I don't recall the insect it was made from but apparently people can't be bothered to collect the raw material any longer and I'm not sure I blame them.

Most of the collapsible versions were made with satin instead of silk. Don't know why.
post #3 of 16
If you look closely at old pictures of american top hats you can see the fur that points in a circle around the cylinder of the hat. Beaver felt is the best hat you can buy.
post #4 of 16
As I understood it, the swtich to silk originally was caused by the overhunting of beavers and steep declines in their population. Then, when the silk hat went out of fashion, nearly all (if not all) of the highly specialized machines used to make them were scrapped or destroyed.
post #5 of 16
Shellac is an animal product, a resin secreted from the Coccus lacca (lac beetle), a scale that feeds on certain trees in India and southern Asia.

After hatching, the nifty little bug snoops around for a place to eat, selecting a stem or leaf as its breakfast counter. It has a sharp teensy beak, and it uses that to puncture the tissue of the plant, and settle in for a lifetime of sucking nourishment.

After feeding, the insect secretes a resin, which dries and hardens into a protective covering called lac. The lac is collected, crushed, washed, and dried. After cleaning and heating, it is drawn into thin sheets of finished shellac.
The level of refinement, the timing of harvest, and source of the lac,
determine the specification color that comes to you, the happy woodworker.

You can still buy it at woodworking stores if you're planning to get into the top hat business
post #6 of 16
What in intersesting forum - Hello all !

Well to clear up a few points. Toppers were first made of felt, most commonly of Beaver.

In the Americas they became commonly known as "Beaver Hats", with large fur trade there the name stuck. Due to prohibitive UK governemt legislation, the cost of beavers beacame too high, alog with hunting volumes and about the same time Silk hats became popular ( early 1800'es) so by around 1830 more hat were being made of silk, beacuse Silk was cheaper to manufacture and also lighter to wear for long periods on the head then beaver.

In the UK & Europe the were known as "Silk Hats" wehere as in the States they were still commonly known as "Beaver" hats or "Silk Beaver" Hats, even when there may be no beaver felt in them.

Shellac is still available - what stopped main line commerical production of Silk many decades ago was plush that the hats were made from. The French who were producing the last plush destroyed the looms and so the material is no longer availabe in the shops.


Pip Pip

Doug
post #7 of 16
As I understand it, nobody makes silk hats anymore. Top hats of beaver felt or rabbit-beaver blends or just rabbit fur felt should be available from any hatmaker. I am sure my friends at Baron's California Hats could easily accommodate anyone who wants a top hat made from felt. I think rabbit fur felt would be the best choice. You are not likely to be subjecting the hat to hard exposure to the elements that beaver felt withstands. Beaver felt also seems a little fuzzier to me and thus less appropriate to a topper, and a topper made from rabbit fur felt would cost no more than 40% of one made from beaver felt.

As a historical note, my understanding of the switch from beaver felt to silk for toppers was no so much the overhunting of the beaver but simply fashion. The silk was more elegant. In fact, this switch pretty much ended the Mountain Man era in the history of the American West around 1840 or so. The beaver just weren't as lucrative to trap. Beaver are very abundant, to the point where they are often pests, over much of North America today.
post #8 of 16
I've always wondered why the French would do such an hideous act. They are usually the ones who love historical heritage.

Maybe the Americans were out to buy the looms.
post #9 of 16
Shellac is all over the place, and is still really the stuff it was two hundred years ago. It's available in colors from blond (almost no color) to amber.
post #10 of 16
Thread Starter 
Very interesting.

With respect to silk and the need to use shellac or lac, or whathavyou, and the fact that silk is cheap, with all the current modern-day biochemical technology, I'm surprised it's no longer feasible to make silk top hats.

With respect to fur, it's interesting to know even rabbit fur may be more suitable than beaver fur (credit to JLibourel), but if Prince Charles is willing to pay five or ten thousand quid for his son's antique top hat, I'm surprised mink is not used; after all, unlike beaver or rabbit, mink probably doesn't need to be dyed black, if there's any need for an excuse to use it for a ten thousand Pounds top hat fit for a king.
post #11 of 16
Quote:
Originally Posted by The Happy Stroller
Very interesting.

With respect to silk and the need to use shellac or lac, or whathavyou, and the fact that silk is cheap, with all the current modern-day biochemical technology, I'm surprised it's no longer feasible to make silk top hats.


No matter how cheap something is to produce, if nobody's buying, it's a losing proposition.
post #12 of 16
Lock still advertises antique top hats renovated in silk plush. Do they have a secret supplier, or did they just stockpile material, I wonder.
post #13 of 16
Quote:
Originally Posted by JLibourel
As I understand it, nobody makes silk hats anymore..
For the momment that is near enough correct, depend who you ask


Quote:
Originally Posted by JLibourel
Beaver felt also seems a little fuzzier to me and thus less appropriate to a topper, and a topper made from rabbit fur felt would cost no more than 40% of one made from beaver felt..

A lot of Beaver hats were a mixture of furs, Russian Rabbit was popular. Dont get confused with the name. "Beaver" was commonly used for mixed blend "Stuff hats" that were part beaver. I have even found reference to "moleskin" being used in the mixture with beaver, which was a common name to hear in europe where they are called "Moleskin hats" instead of "Beaver Hats" - Though that actual material is in fact Silk!


Quote:
Originally Posted by JLibourel
As a historical note, my understanding of the switch from beaver felt to silk for toppers was no so much the overhunting of the beaver but simply fashion. The silk was more elegant.
Lightness to wear and cost, made them popular, They always look elegant!
post #14 of 16

Curious to see if this thread is still active.  I've begun collecting and researching top hats but it is very difficult (so far impossible) to find a good factual source.  I currently have three hats, two of which are furfet and one I believe to meuseline, which is a kind of cotton silk finish. 

 

A lot of the hats I see on ebay claiming to be silk sure look like furfelt to me.  

post #15 of 16

Would it be possible to identify the material of my topper from this pic? Full size

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