Cowboy Hats

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Cowboy hats are much more than a piece of apparel.

In The Old West, cowboys and citizens of the Plains seldom ventured outside without a hat to protect them from the hot sun. In fact, that’s why Mexicans called their wide-brimmed hats sombreros, which literally means “sun shades.”

Cowboy hats remain important to working cowboys and ranchers who still count on them for protection from sun, wind, and storm. But the cowboy hat is much more than a piece of work clothing: It is a symbol of western values and lifestyles, worn by people from all walks of life.

A hat says a lot about the person who wears it, and some of us form our opinions of others based on their hats. We shouldn’t be too closed-minded about this, because the man who wears his hat once a year at a rodeo may be just as proud of it as the world champion cowboy wearing his newest signature model.

With hats, as with most clothing, styles change with time. Popular creases come and go, brim sizes shrink and grow, and bright, fancy colors sometimes compete with the more somber and traditional black, silver belly, and brown. But one thing remains unchanged: A quality hat never goes out of fashion. Well-made felt hats, though expensive, can last through several hard years of wear with proper care. A good straw hat will outlast a shoddy, loosely woven hat every time.

Chuck Bailey of the Bailey Hat Co. knows a lot about what goes into a quality hat. Bailey shared some of this information in a seminar held at the annual Denver International Western/ English Apparel & Equipment Market.

In a felt hat, the quality depends on the materials used. Most lower-cost hats are made of commercial rabbit fur, which comes from northern Europe and is a byproduct of the rabbit meat industry. Higher-quality hats contain fur from beaver and/or wild hares, obtained in Canada, Australia, and Argentina.

Generally, the more beaver fur the hat contains, the more costly the hat. A beaver hat has a more luxurious feel to it than a rabbit fur hat. Beaver fur has much thinner, finer fibers or filaments than rabbit fur. Felt that is largely or completely made of these finer filaments will be denser, more durable, and water resistant than felt made of coarser fur.

Beaver fur from damaged pelts – those with cosmetic flaws or holes – is acceptable for most hats, but the very finest hat fur is taken from garment quality pelts. Manufacturers must, therefore, compete with the garment industry for these top-grade furs, hence the higher cost of the hats.

Cowboy hats are more than just an accessory: it is a symbol of western values and lifestyles, worn by people from all walks of life.
Photo by Ross Hecox

Felting is the process by which fur, whether rabbit or beaver, is transformed from loose clumps into a hard, dense fabric. Fur contains tiny barbs that become tightly interlocked when repeatedly wetted and compressed.

The hat body is formed over a wire-mesh cone that looks, more than anything, like a witch’s hat. The fur is carefully applied to the cone in an overlapping fashion, much like shingles are applied on a roof. It is crucial that no thin spots occur, because these will result in soft spots in the hat. Hatmakers check the thickness by shining a light through the still-translucent hat body. Failure to correct any flaws would result in a hat crown that wouldn’t hold a crease.

After being formed, the body is hardened by repeated wettings and mechanical wringings. From the time the hat is initially formed to the time it is ready for finishing and shaping, its size will shrink by more than half. At the end of the felting process, the strongest light could not penetrate the dense felt.

Following the final hardening and felting operation, the hat body goes into a dye vat. Machines then pull and stretch the felt to roughly form the peak and brim. As the brim is pulled and stretched, a crown former presses down on material to shape the hat, which now resembles the finished item. The hat is set aside to dry.

Pouncing takes place next. Pouncing means sandpapering the crown and brim to remove loose fur fibers on the surface. Pouncing is performed mechanically on lower-cost hats, and by hand on higher-quality beaver hats. Hand pouncing requires great skill, and the people who do it are regarded as the finest craftsmen in a hat factory.

After pouncing, the hats are made ready for shaping. Leather brim linings (sweatbands) are used for all but the cheapest hats. The better hats will feature calfskin, which is softer but as strong as cow hide. The leather should be supple and not stiff like thin cardboard.

Once finished, a hat may be shaped in the factory according to the retailer’s order or it may be sent as a blank that will be shaped by a retail sales clerk. All told, a felt hat will have gone through as many as 200 procedures and will have been handled by a dozen or more people before it leaves the factory.

When it gets to the store, the hat manufacturer hopes that the consumer recognizes the differences in quality between an economy hat and a fine-quality hat. To distinguish among varying levels of quality, the manufacturer usually adds a string of “X” marks along the inside of the brim. In this system, a 3X hat will be of lower quality than a l0X hat.

A problem with this system is that no two manufacturers grade their hats exactly the same. This means that a 5X hat from one company might be comparable to a l0X from another company. To further complicate matters, some companies have ratings that go up to 10X, while others go much higher.

Cowboy hats are more than just an accessory: it is a symbol of western values and lifestyles, worn by people from all walks of life.

So how do you compare different hat brands? A hatter with experience can tell the difference with a look and a feel. You can gain some expertise by carefully comparing different hats while shopping. Having a knowledgeable and honest sales clerk to point out the differences in quality can be a big help.

There are subtle but significant differences between a fine felt hat and a lower-quality hat. A full beaver hat will have a thinner and more pliable brim than a rabbit felt hat. Lower-quality hats will have a thick and coarse texture while top-quality beaver hats will feel soft and smooth. A beaver hat will hold a sharper crease, and it will hold any crease longer and better than a rabbit felt hat. This is because the dense body has more memory-the ability of the hat to return to its original shape after being bent or dented.

A hat’s stiffness depends on the density of the felt and the amount of sizing added to the hat during manufacture. In addition to adding stiffness, sizing helps to waterproof the hat. Color can be an indication of quality, too . Dark colors should be deep and rich. Pastels should be uniform. You may have seen light-colored felts with cloudy areas, or with non-uniform coloring. This results from sizing that failed to penetrate the felt, or manufacturing in which dark fur was added in the forming process. Light-colored felt should be made of pure white fur to yield a clean, rich appearance.

Another thing to consider is what’s inside the hat. As mentioned earlier, sweatbands can be of either cow hide or calfskin. The sweatband should be the only place where the hat comes in contact with your body. Consequently, leathers used in making sweatbands are specially tanned to keep them from fading due to perspiration. This leather should be very smooth, without veins or hard places that can cause the band to buckle with changes in humidity. When looking at the sweatband, check to see that the leather is sewn in evenly and the crown is creased in line with the brim.

As you move in quality from rabbit fur to beaver hats, the quality of the lining should improve. Silk linings are standard for beaver felt hats, but a synthetic material may be substituted in a lower-quality rabbit felt hat.

About 5 years ago some makers began rating straw hats to help customers judge relative quality. Straw hats vary in quality depending upon the types of straw fibers used. The finer the straw, the finer the hat. Quality also depends on the weaving process, which can be performed by hand or on a loom.

The most popular material used by makers of quality straw hats is Shantung straw. About 80 percent of straw hats are made from this Asian fiber. Shantung straw has largely replaced Panama straw as the preferred hat material because it is more available and less sensitive to heat, sun, and weather. Panama straw hats are made from relatively rare Toquilla straw, which only grows on the steep western slopes of South American mountains.

Another popular hat straw is Bankok-Toyo, which is marketed under the names Bandera, Bandit, and Bangora. Bankok-Toyo straws tend to be uniform in thickness and are more coarse than the finer grades of Shantung. Often, hats made of Bankok-Toyo feature a ventilated crown. Solid weaves, with or without eyelets for ventilation, remain the most popular western straw hats. However, ventilated crowns, either in Shantung or Bankok-Toyo straw, are becoming increasingly popular.

Shantung hats may be woven in a number of ways. The 1×1 weave produces a lightweight hat that doesn’t hold up as well as the heavier 2×2 weave. The 2×2 is distinguishable by its herringbone appearance and heavier feel. There are also fancy weaves to produce ventilated panels in the crown, or interesting patterns in the hat itself.

The blanks, or hoods, for Shantung and Bankok-Toyo straw hats are imported from Asia. Panama straws are handwoven in Central America and South America. A hatmaker will shape the blanks, add wire to the brims, and apply a special formula of lacquer to protect the finished product.

Wire helps the hat hold its shape, and allows the hat owner to create the shape that suits his own particular style. A good wire won’t bend or kink if the hat is dropped, and won’t flatten out when the hat is laid down. It must be malleable in order to shape the hat, but not so flimsy that it fails to hold the shape when the hat is not in use.

Straw hats are made for hot, dry days and won’t handle much rainfall. If you should get caught in a rain shower, put a hat cover on your hat as soon as you can. If you forgot your hat cover and your straw hat gets wet, turn the sweatband out, set the hat down on its crown, and allow it to dry slowly. Depending on the hat’s finish, it may still warp. But a good straw hat should hold up to a brief rain shower. Straw hats can be wiped clean with a damp cloth or towel.

This articles was originally written in the 1994 Western Horseman Consumer Buying Guide

Gavin Ehringer lives in Colorado Springs and is a frequent contributor to Western Horseman.

The 1994 Western Horseman Consumer Guide was published by Randy Witte and inlcuded an array of articles that showed how the experts used various horse products, riding gear, and western clothing. Among the topic of Cowboy Hats, other topics included: buying a new horse, saddle fit, saddle comparisons, bits, grooming a horse to win, plus articles on equine health care, chaps, boots, and other outer wear.

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