Robin Longbottom examines how the hat trade grew locally

ON December 1, 1608, Agnes Shackleton, a widow from Sutton-in-Craven, made her last will and testament before two independent witnesses, Richard Spencer and Helen Harper.

She left several financial legacies to members of her family including a daughter, Alice, to whom she also left a chest and a hat. There are no other personal items recorded in the will and therefore the chest and hat must have been of significant value to have been included.

Whilst a chest would have been an important item of household furniture, a hat would at first appear to be of little consequence. However, in the late Tudor/early Stuart period, hats were not only items of fashion and status but were particularly valuable if they were made from beaver felt. A hat is defined as a “covering for the head usually having a crown and a brim” and those of the period were made in two forms. The first type had a tall crown and a very wide brim and the second had a low crown and a narrow brim. Both were worn by men and women and the tall women’s hats still lingered on in Wales into the late 19th century.

The earliest record we have of a beaver hat is from the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The prologue describes the merchant as a wealthy man wearing a "motley gown and a Flemish beaver hat". By the 1550s the fashion for beaver hats had gained popularity and this continued into the early 20th century. The demand for hats was so great that it had contributed to the extermination of the beaver in the British Isles and large parts of Europe by the 1600s and consequently the hats' value increased.

Hat makers were known as hatters, although the word milliner came into vogue in the 19th century. Hats were made from felt and the finest felt was beaver fur, although rabbit fur and wool were also used. It is not until the 18th and 19th centuries that records of hatters appear in the South Craven area. By this time beaver was being imported into the country in large quantities from Canada. In the mid-18th century two brothers, Richard and John Riley, set up in business as hat makers in Cowling. It would appear to be an unlikely location but at that time Cowling was very much a crossroads of trade between Yorkshire and Lancashire.

The Rileys would have bought beaver fur already separated from the pelt in a form known as fluff. The amount required for each hat was spread out on a fine lattice surface and beaten with a hatter’s bow. The bow was like a large violin bow and about seven feet long. It was held horizontally, and the string plucked so that it vibrated on the fluff to make any dirt fall through the lattice and to encourage the fibres to overlap. The next process was felting, an operation in which the mesh of fibres was dipped in and out of a large vessel of boiling water to shrink it. It was then laid out in a circular shape and rolled until the final finish was achieved. The felt was wet again and pulled over a wooden, or stone, block to make the shape of the crown, with the surplus used to form the brim. Once dry a hat was given its final shape, trimmed, and waterproofed with a mixture of wax and gum.

The Riley family continued to make hats in Cowling and also in Sutton into the 19th century, when factory-made hats finally put local hatters out of business. Hats remained popular headwear into the mid 20th century, but today top hats, the trilby, bowler hats and ladies' hats are rarely worn, other than on special occasions.