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Open Day at Walter Wright – A Traditional Luton Hat Factory

The Walter Wright hat factory is a family firm established in 1889, and is the oldest in England still run by its founding family. It is situated in central Luton, which for years has been the heart of the hat-making industry, which not only involves those that actually make hats, but all the supporting functions from manufacturers of ribbons and other accessories, dyers of hat materials, to the engineering firms

Philip Wright

that specialised in making equipment and machines especially for making hats. In early February this year, Philip Wright, the current proprietor opened up the factory and the studio to the public to give them an understanding of the hats they design and make, as well as the techniques, materials and equipment used by the company in their manufacture.

So, it was on a grey Saturday afternoon that I visited Luton and the Walter Wright premises and joined the people already admiring and trying on the wide range of men’s and women’s hats designed by Philip and his Belgian design partner, Valerie Corona, and which had been made there using traditional methods, skills and materials like fur felt, angora and all manner of fabrics and feathers.

Between welcoming visitors and serving up cups of tea, Philip moved around the small studio and showroom, helping people to choose and try on hats.

I assumed that wearing a hat was not a difficult thing to do, but I admit I was impressed by the way Philip could briefly study a person who had put on one of the designs, which one thought looked fine, but then he would make an adjustment to the angle on the head or a slight rotation to the hat, and so transform the way the hat worked for that individual.

Aluminium block on a gas burner

At 3.00 pm, Philip led a group of us down for a guided tour into the actual factory area. The term factory conjures up an image of a large industrial complex, and indeed we were told that in the earlier part of the 20th. century, over 1000 people were employed at Walter Wright alone, to make hats in the large quantities that were sold, in those days. However, with the decline in the wearing of hats on an everyday basis, coupled with the transfer of most mass production to the Far East, Philip now employs just seven, albeit highly trained and skilled people. Philip explained that originally Luton was the centre of straw hat making, using the fine locally grown material, but that the skills for making felt hats were later learned, probably from manufacturers in the North of England. 

In the first factory room we saw the aluminium blocks made by specialist local engineering firms. These blocks are in a myriad of shapes, and are used to shape the hat material.

The blocks are heated and the wet felt, straw or fabric is stretched over the shapes until it is dry, a process known as blocking. The material is impregnated with a stiffener, such as shellac, so it will maintain its shape, when dry.

Around the room were blocked crowns and rims ready for the next stage where they will be trimmed down, and brim edges covered with petersham, the ribbon material used in hat-making. The brim will then be put in a hydraulic press for reblocking, then sewn on to the crown.

Blocked hat crowns made of banana fibre awaiting the next stage

We moved to the next room, where this process was performed. There was a wonderfully colourful array of petersham ribbon on the shelves and on the benches, on which also specialist sewing machines were mounted, the youngest of which Philip told us, dated from the 1950s. These machines are no longer made, and they take great care of them. Any spare part has to be made by hand and is consequently very expensive.

Philip shows a hat sewn together but still needing final trimming and decoration

And so we returned to the showroom, where there were still plenty of hats to try on, and cups of tea to refresh. There was even a cake specially baked and iced to look like a hat, but looking so decorative that no-one had had the heart to cut into it and eat a slice.

The Master is pleased with her purchase

Ace sewing machine circa 1939

Philip was opening up Walter Wright for visitors over a four day period starting the Thursday before and ending the following Sunday.

On the Friday afternoon, a party of Feltmakers, having enjoyed the Luton Lunch at the Luton Masonic Centre, not too far away, came to see the hats and the factory. The Master couldn’t resist buying a hat before she left.

Many thanks to Philip for a most enjoyable and informative afternoon.

Peter Shirley

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