Victorian-era Beaver Fashions: a Steampunk Perspective

Oscar Wilde in a beaver fur-trimmed coat

There are two species of beaver, the European Beaver and the North American Beaver. Both these species have been hunted for their fur, not just for fur coats, but for the superior millinery felt that can be made from beaver fur. Historically, the very best quality hats are made from beaver fur. It was this demand for beaver pelts in Europe that drove the animals to near-extinction in Europe, and encouraged the fur trade in Canada and America.

In the Victorian era, the process for making a beaver hat took seven hours and required over 30 procedures conducted by various fabric or millinery specialists.

Beaver fur felt hat circa 1868

The felt was made from the underhairs from the beaver pelt, so the first part of the felting process was to pluck the coarse hair from the pelt. The underhairs were brushed with a solution of nitrate of mercury to ‘roughen’ the shafts of the hairs; this process often turned the hair orange and was referred to in the millinery trade as carroting. In a poorly ventilated room, a hatter would be breathing in mercury fumes and would eventually suffer from mercury poisoning. This type of heavy metal poisoning causes sensory impairment of the vision and hearing; affects speech; sufferers have disturbed sensation; they can suffer impaired brain function and become erratic, manic or aggressive; and can be observed to lose coordination. This is why hatters are often labelled as ‘mad’. This roughening of hairs was an important part of the felting process. The fur was then shaved from the pelt.

The next part in the process was the bowing, as a Hatter’s Bow resembles a large violin bow. In a ‘still’ room – designed to have no drafts – the fur was arranged on a special table with slots, so that the dirt from the fur could fall through and to allow circulation around the fur. The vibrations from the plucked bow agitated the hair, evening it out and starting the matting process. At the end of this process, a batt has been formed.

Basoning was the layering of two or more batts. At the point, the batts would be placed over a mild heat source to shrink and encourage further matting. Some preliminary shaping might take place at this point, as the fabric shrunk and firmed.

Planking was when the final formation of the felt occurred. (So, not the modern practice of lying like a plank in public.) This involved placing the shrunken bats into a headed metal basin filled with a mixture of wine waste, sediment, and hot water.  The batts were agitated both by hand and stirring planks –hence the name – in order to cause them to shrink, matt and felt. The matted fabric was pummelled and boiled repeatedly, resulting in a shrunken and thickened felt.

Finally, the felt was shaped over hat blocks to dry and take its eventual shape, and this process was called blocking. (The process names aren’t terribly original, but common sense obviously dictated the naming.) Once the hat was dry, it could be dyed, brushed, trimmed and lined. Expensive hats were often treated to be water resistant.

Parisian Fashion Circa 1878

Towards the end of the Victorian era, silk hats began to replace beaver hats in the popularity stakes. I imagine the beavers were relieved.

Every Steampunk Cosplayer should plan on owning at least one top hat. They look good with everything … including goggles. As a writer, hats are an important part of character construction, as they ‘signal’ status and occupation. A person in a top hat is top notch…

Silk Top Hat

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Filed under Bling, Characterization, Fashion, Steampunk, writing

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