You are about to plunk down a fortune for your fabulous new famous-name cowboy hat. Before you do, you’ll want to know what your hat is made of and how it was made, because folks will ask.
Like jewelry, the statement of style that you wear on your head speaks of the quality materials and careful construction that went into it. Answers to the most frequently asked questions about cowboy hats follow.
What is a cowboy hat made of?
I’m going to talk about the real thing here. No knock offs, no cheap imitations, no plastic hats, costume accessories, or WalMart specials. A real cowboy hat is made from beaver fur.
The fibers -- the beaver hairs, if you will -- are sheared from the animal and chemically treated. A mix of long and short, downy soft and coarse fibers of fur are manipulated with hot water and steam, kneaded, and pressed into a fabric called felt. The softer and shorter fibers yield a higher quality felt fabric. The higher the quality, the more expensive is the hat.
Other animal furs are also used as well, particularly rabbit fur and nutria. The former is less expensive than beaver; the latter is more expensive than beaver.
Felt fabric can also be made from wool. Hats made from pure wool felt are the least expensive cowboy hats and fall in the cost structure right before the Wal Mart specials. I’m not going to consider wool felt here, although a little wool fiber can be mixed with the beaver in a real cowboy hat.
What do the Xs mean in a cowboy hat?
The fur fabric from which the cowboy hat is made carries an X designation ranging from 1X to 100X or more. Anything below a 5X hat is made of poor grades of fibers and may contain no beaver fur at all. It’s been said around the ranch that the lowest Xs mean more mouse hairs in your cowboy hat. That may be a cow poke’s jest, but maybe not.
The higher the X rating, the more expensive your cowboy is going to be. A 100X cowboy hat can cost in the thousands. As in dollars, partner.
How does fabric get shaped into a hat?
It takes a lot of heat, steam, and manipulation to get a piece of flat fabric shaped into a three-dimensional form without seams. Check out a real cowboy hat for seams. There aren’t any. Unless, of course, you got the WalMart special.
The material is first shaped into a cone, taking on its first resemblance as something for your head. The crown of the hat is formed with a forming machine, making the crown much larger than it will be when finished. At this point, the crown gets dunked in hot water, which shrinks the fibers a bit. Lots of experience goes into knowing how much shrinkage will result.
Rough shaping follows by stretching it over a wooden block. Final shaping occurs by blocking the crown and flattening the brim but not before a ninety degree angle was formed between the two.
If this sounds like a lot of patient manipulation by hand, it is, which is why making a cowboy hat is an art. David Johnson, owner of D Bar J Hat Company, shows in this video how it’s done with the help of some historical equipment and experienced hands.
The finished cowboy hat is now ready for personalized customizations with jewelry, silver, horse hair, or ribbon bands to make your hat speak of your own special style.
Oh, and, no offense to WalMart. I love WalMart. But, buy something besides your cowboy hat there.