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Winchester Hat Corporation -- Making the Felt

Discussion in 'Hats' started by jimmy the lid, Feb 10, 2009.

  1. jimmy the lid

    jimmy the lid I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
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    Location:
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    This past weekend, a number of Loungers had the privilege of visiting the Winchester Hat Corporation in Winchester, Tennessee. The purpose of this thread is to follow, as closely as possible, the felt-making process from start to finish.

    The project is a rather large one. I have 50 photos to upload and then post. In addition, I will be leaving room to incorporate photos from other Loungers who may have captured aspects of the process that I did not. In the end, I hope that this thread will provide a flow of photographs and information that helps to provide a coherent view of what many of us were lucky enough to witness in person at the Winchester plant.

    Incidentally, if there are aspects of the process that I have forgotten, or if I get something wrong, please don't hestitate to point it out, and I will edit things accordingly. Major Moore -- I hereby appoint you as the Chair of the Editorial Review Board! :)

    The process will take a bit of time, so thanks for your patience as this thread comes together!

    Cheers,
    JtL
     
  2. jimmy the lid

    jimmy the lid I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
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    Location:
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    There is no other way to start this thread than by thanking Greg Fiske, the Vice President and General Manager of the Winchester Hat Corporation. Greg was gracious enough to welcome all of us to the plant, and to take the time to show us every aspect of the felt-making process. Greg patiently and enthusiastically answered all of our questions and made us all feel at home. He and his wife, Ruth, also joined us for dinner on Saturday night at the High Point Inn -- a fitting culmination to an outstanding weekend: Monteagle 2009.

    Thank you, Greg!

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    Here is the outside of the plant. It looks unassuming from the highway, but the plant actually goes back quite a ways (as you will soon see)...

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    As we began our tour, Greg showed us the huge bales of fur that were waiting to be processed:

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    As a general matter, there are four kinds of fur in these various bales: nutria, rabbit, hare, and beaver. The rabbit and hare fur comes from Belgium and Portugal. In the old days, the rabbit and hare fur came from wild animals, but, today, it comes from farmed animals. Arguably, this results in some differences in the nature of the fur itself. As far as the beaver fur goes, however, it comes from animals that are trapped in the U.S. -- so, with regard to the beaver fur, the modern source is the same as it was years ago. Interestingly, the beaver pelts are shipped abroad (to Portugal, I believe) for processing, and the fur is then shipped back to the U.S. I forgot to ask about the nutria fur -- so perhaps someone can chime in on how this is sourced.

    The rabbit fur is very soft to the touch. The beaver fur is perceptibly softer. The nutria fur has a different feel altogether from either the rabbit or beaver -- it is harder and rougher to the touch.

    As a first step, the fur is unloaded from the bales. If a particular blend is being created (i.e., rabbit and beaver), then precise proportions of each of the different furs are combined so that they can be mixed together uniformly. The fur is initially fed into a machine that creates a loose layer of fur for further processing:

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  3. jimmy the lid

    jimmy the lid I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
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    Location:
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    Turning to the next phase...

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    The fur is next run through a machine that is designed to filter out materials that constitute impurities that may have become mixed in with the fur. The fur is fed into a long machine that has a system of rollers designed to cause the impurities to fall through to the floor. I should note that it is truly amazing to witness these old machines continuing to do their work in the modern day. Many of the machines used in the process are made of wood and what seems to be ancient metal -- one has the sense of being a time traveler, witnessing the exact same process as it would have unfolded many years ago...

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    The fur is then ready to be taken to the blower...
     
  4. jimmy the lid

    jimmy the lid I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
    5,647
    Location:
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    The next step in the process involves weighing the fur in precise amounts and sending it on its way up a conveyor and into the blower. Since rawbodies are made in different sizes, the amount of fur is adjusted accordingly.

    Here, the fur is being weighed on a digital scale:

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    Then the fur is placed on a conveyor that feeds into the blower:

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    The blower itself is a chamber in which a large cone is placed:

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    Then the door is closed and the fur is blown into the chamber. At the same time, air is being sucked down through the cone. The result is that the fur fills the chamber and is sucked onto the cone. Soon, the entire cone is uniformly covered with the fur. I just have to say that this entire process is simply amazing to witness!

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  5. jimmy the lid

    jimmy the lid I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
    5,647
    Location:
    USA
    The next step is to cover the fur with wet burlap and remove it from the cone:

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    Several of these fur bodies are then bundled together and immersed in water:

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    The water bath serves to help bind the fur. After being removed from the water bath, the bodies are then run through a ringer:

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    [Thanks to BobC for some of the above photos]
     
  6. jimmy the lid

    jimmy the lid I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
    5,647
    Location:
    USA
    The fur bodies are then run through a machine that applies steam. This process is repeated numerous times (up to 20 times, if I remember correctly), which results in significantly shrinking the bodies.

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    The result? Felt bodies that are ready for further processing:

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    Greg actually picked up one of these bodies, which was still wet, and tried to tear it apart as hard as he could. The felt didn't budge. Absolutely amazing!
     
  7. jimmy the lid

    jimmy the lid I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
    5,647
    Location:
    USA
    Moving on down the line...

    These large machines were next in sequence (on the left). I am not sure of their function, so perhaps the Major or others could weigh in...

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    In general, however, the next area was devoted to the dye process. Winchester uses a pressurized system to dye the felt bodies, resulting in color fastness (no unsightly bleeding!)... Here are some of the dye tanks:

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    Also in this area was machinery that applied shellac to the felt bodies. The application is graded, so that less shellac is applied to the crown of the hat, and more shellac is applied to the brim. The application of the shellac takes place later in the process, once the felt bodies have acquired their brims.

    In order to prepare the bodies for the next steps in the process, they are placed over machines which have long metal "fingers." The "fingers" pulse outwards, and gently open up the top of the cone so that the top of the hat begins to take shape:

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    Here are a number of raw bodies that have been through this process. If memory serves me correctly, I believe that these particular bodies are nutria -- destined for military or state police lids. Winchester is the principal supplier of felt for such lids across the country.

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  8. jimmy the lid

    jimmy the lid I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
    5,647
    Location:
    USA
    The next step in the process is truly fascinating, and like the blower, has a real "Wow!" factor. The felt bodies are processed on machines that, for the first time, turn the cones into bodies with a distinct crown and brim. Like every other single step in the process -- this is all accomplished in a "hands-on" fashion. In other words, one of the amazing things about the entire process is that, while machinery plays its role, there are Winchester employees who are handling the felt every step of the way. I should pause here to note that these folks could not have been nicer to us, and took a real interest in our visit. Just outstanding!

    The first step in the crown/brim process is to take the cones and begin expanding them. So, as in a previous photo, the cones are placed on a machine that has metal "fingers" that gently pulse to open up the cone:

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    Then the edge of the body is folded up, ready for the next step in the process:

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    The next step is to place the bodies on a machine that will establish a crown and brim. The body is placed on the machine so that the edges of what will be the brim are firmly clamped into place:

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    Then the cone is covered by a metal cap, and water is streamed onto the body:

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    When the metal cap is lifted -- Voila! -- the felt body now has a distinct crown and brim! It is just amazing to see the new felt body once the metal cap has been lifted:

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  9. jimmy the lid

    jimmy the lid I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
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    Location:
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    Once the brim and crown have been established, the felt bodies are taken to the "drying room":

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    [Note: It is not completely clear to me how many times the felt bodies are placed in the drying room as part of the process. This last photo above shows bodies that are still in their "cone" state, and I'm not sure why they would be in the drying room prior to achieving the brim/crown state. Perhaps the Major can weigh in on this.]

    Here's a storage rack idea...;)

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    This photo provides a good sense of the state of the felt on a dried body:

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  10. jimmy the lid

    jimmy the lid I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
    5,647
    Location:
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    The next, and, I believe, final step in the process is to sand the felt bodies:

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    [Need photo of one of the bodies actually being sanded...]

    Greg also showed us how one of the sanded bodies can then be treated to have a "satin" finish. The body is brought into contact with a rotating wheel covered with tiny metal spikes. This process essentially pulls some of the fibers back out of the densely packed felt. Very cool:

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    And here is the end result:

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    [thanks to Portolan for the additional photo]

    Once the felt bodies have been sanded, they are then placed in storage according to color -- ready to be shipped out to your favorite custom hatter:

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  11. jimmy the lid

    jimmy the lid I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
    5,647
    Location:
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    After viewing the finished product, we all gathered back in Greg's office, where Greg showed us old original photographs of the location in Portugal where felting originated. No machines in these photos -- just wrapped felt drenched in water and pounded with rocks! The resulting lids were quite nice!

    Thanks again, Greg -- we all hope to see you again!

    That's it folks, the end of the tour:

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    Please feel free to post away! :)


    Cheers,
    JtL
     
    Cornshucker77 likes this.
  12. carter

    carter I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
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    Location:
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    Great stuff Jimmy

    Thanks for this thread, Jimmy and all those who contributed pictures. This has been a most interesting and educational journey. It looks like you folks had a truly unique experience. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    This thread should become a Sticky for all future Fedora Loungers to enjoy.
     
  13. Stoney

    Stoney Practically Family

    Messages:
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    Currently on the East Coast
    Excellent Thread Jimmy

    Thanks for posting it. I'm sure it was a blast to be there in person to see this.
     
  14. BobC

    BobC My Mail is Forwarded Here

    Messages:
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    Fabulous, Jim, simply fabulous! If this thread doesn't become a sticky, I'll eat my Banjo Patterson. Thank you so much. I know this took a LOT of work.
     
  15. Boxerken

    Boxerken One of the Regulars

    Messages:
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    Location:
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    Very well done. I'm glad this got posted since i wasnt able to go.
     
  16. :eusa_clap :eusa_clap :eusa_clap :eusa_clap :eusa_clap
     
  17. warbird

    warbird One Too Many

    Messages:
    1,171
    Location:
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    OK, I'm gonna petition that we not make this into a sticky, because I just have to see Bob eat that Akubra :p

    Great job Jimmy, it was almost as if I was there.



    Oh yeah, I was. ;)
     
  18. BobC

    BobC My Mail is Forwarded Here

    Messages:
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    :eek: :rolleyes: :D
     
  19. indycop

    indycop I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
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    Great job Jimmy!!:eusa_clap :eusa_clap
     
  20. Bob Smalser

    Bob Smalser One of the Regulars

    Messages:
    139
    Location:
    Hood Canal, Washington
    Great post, thanks.

    Today by trade I'm a forest biologist, but as a kid paid for a couple years of college from the proceeds of a trapline. A farm boy, I trapped muskrats and mink every winter from age 10 until I left for college. With what became eventually a hundred traps and 3-15 or so rats a day at $1.75 to $4.00 a pelt from December 1 to March 15th, in 1960 that was an excellent return on time.

    The beaver's niche is making ponds so it can get at the cambium layer of the trees it feeds on protected from predators, and it opens up the forest in the process. As the pond grows in size it supports the aquatic plants that the smaller muskrats require. Wild mink prey primarily on muskrat, and are almost always incidental catches made by muskrat trappers. There are hundreds of muskrat for every mink. Nutria is the South American muskrat (although it also fills the beaver's niche there), a larger more adaptable critter that eats both plants and cambium and was introduced into the US in fur farms, later escaping into the wild, becoming a pest throughout the Southern US. As the best quality fur comes from only the extreme northern and southern areas of the nutria's range where winters are relatively cold, much commercial nutria fur is trapped along our Gulf Coast and in Patagonia. As it was also introduced into European fur farms and has become a pest there, I imagine it's also trapped there commercially.

    If you gander at turn-of-the-century clothing catalogs like the 1902 Sears reprint, you'll find some of the best hats made from nutria fur and not beaver. I suspect that's because there weren't many beaver remaining to trap, as fish and game laws were in their infancy then, and beavers didn't resurge in numbers until a combination of strict seasons and catch limits, lowered demand for beaver hats, and suburbanization of the US hunting culture.

    The material shown in bales is only the downy underfur. To obtain that from the stretched and dried pelt sold by the trapper, the fur had to be shaved off and the long, oily guard hairs separated from the underfur, which also would be an interesting process to see, as I wonder how the guard hairs and leather are used in other products.

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    My wife Betty crossing a small beaver dam during our annual Spring check of salmon fry.
     
    Cornshucker77 likes this.

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