I have already explained in detail how one should source a silk top hat and talked about the basic ins and outs of toppers. However, I have not explained how silk top hats are made. This blog will concentrate on that.
Before the method of silk top hat making came into being, the topper was made from a blocked piece of wool felt which was covered in the beaver/fur plush before being trimmed. This is essentially the same method that is still used for fur melusine hats today (the grey felt topper is blocked in the same way without the covering of course). The other method of using a gossamer base shell instead of the wool felt was probably invented by Lincoln Bennett and this method came to dominate how silk hats where made until the plush ran out in the 1940s.
The basic principle of this method is summarised in this video of the founder of Patey’s making the topper:
The information is very brief but it shows the main process of making one.
There is another video of the Dutch hatmaker, N. V. Jan Spoorenberg, demonstrating in detail the process of how his workshops make silk hats.
The process is slightly different at the beginning but after the shell has been made the rest is pretty much the same as the English method.
Below I have translated the text of the Dutch video (using Google Translate, I must add, so there may be mistakes!) and have also included my commentary on the process (with points on the English method where it differs from the Dutch). My commentary and edits will be in parentheses and italics. If you don’t understand some of the terms and topper jargon I use, please refer to the glossary at the end of the Guide to Buying a Top Hat blog.
At the beginning of December 1950, Mayor Kolfschoten visited the company of N.V. Jan Spoorenberg Silk Hats Factory of Van Kinsbergenstraat 39 in Eindhoven.
This workshop was founded in 1820 but was bombed in 1942 which completely destroyed it. On 1st September 1949 it was put into operation again.
Making the hat
The fabrication of a high hat starts with the brim, which is constructed out of flannel [?] cut into the correct shape.
NB: the English method starts with the crown first before making the brim.
By ironing the flannel with shellac [powder], the flannel is hardened into a brim.
In order to strengthen the brim, the top [upperbrim] and bottom [underbrim] is faced with a layer of cheese cloth [which is ironed on].
NB: the English method uses four layers of goss ironed together to make the brim. This makes the brim very stiff and can withstand more pressure. The Dutch method takes more time and produces a more flexible brim.
After the correct [hat] size is chosen, the brim will be prepared with an upstanding edge [i.e. inlay].
NB: this means the inner edge of the brim is ironed up to form an upstanding edge or inlay by first softening the inner edge with an iron, then it is slipped over a spinner (which is on a brim block) and the inlay is ironed against the spinner to form the inlay. The inner brim circumference is smaller than the spinner (with the actual hat size) so there is enough inlay to do this.
A silk hat [block] consists of five parts, from which the crown is manufactured from.
White linen is soaked in the dissolved shellac which is hardened and applied to the sides [of the hat block].
NB: this ‘white linen soaked in shellac’ is gossamer/goss. As explained in the Patey video, this is made of linen, calico or cheesecloth that has been soaked in a solution of shellac, hot water and ammonia which is then stretched on a frame and allowed to cure for several months before it is used. This is where the English method starts; the crown’s side piece is cut to shape then both ends are seamed to form a cylinder, the hat block is then inserted into it, the top inlay is ironed flat onto the tip, the tip piece is ironed on to the top of the block, trimmed and the inlay is ironed onto the sides. Gum dammar stops the iron sticking to the goss. The Dutch method differs in that it directly applies the goss to the block with a cloth wrapped around it to stop the iron sticking to the goss.
The brim is attached to the crown and the shell is complete.
NB: this is when the hat block is removed. The English method attaches the brim by slipping the goss with the hole correctly cut to size over the shell on a brim block and the inlay is ironed onto the crown.
The brim is cut to the correct width.
[The underbrim] will be faced with a layer of black [wool] merino, after which the [upperbrim] is faced with a strip of black [petersham? Grosgrain?]
NB: the traditional English facing of the upperbrim is with silk plush. The Continentals often use grosgrain or plain silk satin to face it. The underbrim is faced with wool merino twill but can also be faced with silk serge or (very rarely) silk plush.
The accurate cutting to size of the silk [plush] for the [covering] of the crown is the job of the manager.
NB: the silk plush comes in straight lengths with the silk nap running on the bias. The silk plush strip for the side piece is thus cut on the bias; the ends are thus angled. The side and tip pieces are seamed together carefully.
The affixing of the [crown piece silk] to the shell is a highly [skilled] work.
NB: the silk covering must fit around the shell like a second skin. The shell is first varnished with shellac before the silk cover is eased over it. The key thing is to get the end seams of the side piece to match exactly. The nap of the left end must conceal the seam. The seam and the whole hat is carefully ironed so the silk cover is firmly affixed to the shell. The hat is then halfblocked on a potance frame to align the silk nap and fix the crown shape.
To prevent further damage to the finish, the crown is wrapped in paper.
The brim of the hat must have its special shape. For this purpose the brim, with a hot iron [and tolliker], is [curled].
The folded edge is cut neatly.
Then the edge is [hand] moulded.
Now the hat is in the hands of the ladies. [Silk grosgrain] ribbon is [handsewn] onto the [edge].
NB: the hatband would also be installed.
Assembling of [the slip-in] lining.
NB: in the olden days, the lining would be ironed onto the shell before the crown is made.
With gold letters the name of the retailer is embossed onto the leather [sweatband]. It is then [sewn onto] the hat.
After being passed under the watchful eye of the master, the high silk hat is then cased.
Also chapeaux-claques [opera hats], stabbing [bicornes?] and rijhoeden jachtcabs [riding hats?] are manufactured in diverese variations.
The maufacture of 10,000 high hats and the commissioning of the new plant was presented Mayor Kolfschoten.
So far as I know, only Patey’s have retained the goss method in making new top hats. They particularly use many layers of goss to make rather heavy hats and cover them with fur plush.
I hope this explanation illustrates the skills and effort involved in making top hats and that they aren’t just blocked like a normal felt hat. There is a lot of skill involved in their creation.