Christys is one of a handful of hat makers left in the UK. It supplies Lock & Co and Bates (neither of whom make their own hats) as well as having its own label. For much of its history Christys was the largest hat maker in the UK, with over 3000 staff at one point. (Today it is 30.)
|Some of the Christys flanges are over 150 years old|
Christys is also one of around 10 makers in the world that does both its own felting and blocking. Felting is the creation of the raw material. It involves blowing rabbit fur or sheep wool in a machine the size of a small office, to separate out the finest hairs. A second machine then blows the hairs onto a cone mould, while that mould emits steam. The combination of heat and moisture causes the hairs to bind together, forming felt. It’s a little like putting your merino wool sweater into the washing machine – it comes out shrunken, the hairs densely packed together. The felt is then rolled and compressed, to bind it more tightly.
|An old '16 Guinea' - the original sewing machine for hats|
The Christys felting (known as the wet side of hatting) is still done in Stockport, while the blocking is done in Witney, just outside Oxford. Christys acquired its Stockport felting facility in 1821. At that point the company was still owned and run by the Christys family, going back to Miller Christy who founded the company in 1773 in London.
With Luton perhaps a close second, Stockport was the traditional centre of the hat industry in England. The football clubs of both towns are still known as The Hatters. The two other big makers, Olney and Failsworth, are headquartered in Luton and Manchester respectively.
Interestingly, around a third of the Christys business today is making hats for the military and police force. The traditional Metropolitan police helmet has a plastic base but a felted outer layer that is formed on top of it. They also make panama hats and an astounding number of bowlers and toppers – 10,000 this year. That’s a bowler below being steamed before its edge is curled, prior to shipping.
I visited the Christys factory in Witney this week and will do a step-by-step post on the blocking side of the process after Christmas. As with many of the factories I have reported on, the age of the machinery involved makes them unique and fascinating places.