Started in 1889 by his grandfather, Walter Wright’s hat factory is the last remaining business engaged in making hats in a town once renowned for the hat making industry.
Not only that, it still exists in its original premises; a rabbit warren of buildings and corridors and changes of levels, situated in the area known as High Town, on the far side of the railway and bus stations, and in the opposite direction from the modern shopping centre of today.
Walter has been involved with the business all his life, and gave a group of about eighteen of us a fascinating history and tour of the factory, together with a pithy commentary which caused slight embarrassment to one or two listeners !
This is a hat block, made of aluminium, and heated by means of a gas jet, just visible in the lower right of the device. Completely original, it is one of one hundred and thirty five different styles, mostly stored on open shelves around the room. The upper part lifts off, a felt or straw shape, known as a hood is dampened with water, and laid over the mould, then the top part is lowered and clamped down by means of a foot pedal, and left for a few minutes. The experienced operator is able to tell exactly when to release the press, and remove the blocked shape, putting it on one side to cool where it will retain the moulded style. . Today, Walter only makes a few of each style at a time, but in the past, the factory was churning out a hundred and fifty hats a day. Most of these were for the London store Peter Jones, who were very demanding. One day, Walter decided enough was enough, and decided to stop supplying them….and did !
So now, he, and he alone decides what style of hat they will make, and we were able to follow the progress of one, starting from an original piece of bright pink fabric, through to the finished item.
This picture shows a general view of the blocking room,with a shape which forms the inside of a Guardsman’s bearskin ! It will be covered with real bear fur, and strengthened inside with a wickerwork cage. Some ready made ones can be seen in the background
First the fabric and some stiffener are pressed into the selected mould .
Then the work moves on to an upstairs workroom where the shape is attacked with an interesting pair of curved scissors and the centre part removed completely.
The brim is close stitched by
machine in a continuous spiral,
and a wire stiffener is inserted around the outer edge.
A contrasting crown is made in a similar way, and the two halves are stitched together with a wide band of white stiff fabric, which is then covered in loosely pleated black fabric A contrasting petersham ribbon is machined on all around the brim. Once assembled, the hat is lined and trimmed, and the WALTER WRIGHT label added.
The history of hat making in the Luton and Dunstable area goes back to the 1600’s, when straw plaiting was a means of earning a living for many families. The plaits were made in various different weaves, and a bundle of the same design was called a score, and measured twenty yards long . The bundles were sold in the plait market…see the Hats of Straw item in my blog at “historyonyourhead.com” . Initially the straw was locally grown, but much finer stalks began to come in from Milan in Italy, and were known as milanese…from which we get the term ‘milliner’.
Wool felting, not a local process, began to filter down from Stockport, and Huguenot immigrants had the knowledge of how to felt fur fibres, especially beaver pelts from America, almost causing the extinction of the animal . Using first ammonia from urine, and later on, mercury, (which was finally halted in the 1820’s because of the health hazard ) fur felt became another material from which hats could be made in quantity.
Walter Wright’s output was colossal, and at one time there was a bridge over part of the factory with a trapdoor in the centre . A horse and cart would be positioned beneath , and large cardboard boxes of hats dropped straight down into it , ready for speedy delivery to the railway station. The station is disproportionately large by today’s standards, but it had to handle the output of a huge number of hat factories in the area. Today, sadly, this is the only Luton hat factory in existence, and one wooden hat-block maker also remains.