16. The craft becomes industrial
Northern Italy seemed to naturally enjoy favourable conditions for the birth of the hat industry. The accessibility of water was the first fundamental factor for manufacturing, and the second was skilled labour. This was a decisive element for the productive cycle, which had been manual up to the end of the 1800’s.
Towards the end of the 1700’s Giovan Battista Gnecchi distinguished himself from all other hat makers. He established the first Italian “modern” plant in Milan. By following in the footsteps of his French colleague Leprevost, he introduced and improved the use of silk in the making of hats.
Alessandria, Intra, Biella, Monza and Montevarchi are all historical sites of the hand crafted tradition. By the end of the 1800’s there were factories even in Voghera and Cremona. Meanwhile, numerous workshops continued to survive, stubbornly fond of hand crafting, and this certainly guaranteed (at least, in this phase of industrialization that was not yet perfect) a more valuable hat thanks to its softness, durability and fine details.
In 1857 Giuseppe Borsalino and Lazzaro’s brother began to manufacture a fur hat in a hand crafted workshop in Alessandria consequently laying the foundations of an art that would render their creations synonymous to Italian elegance. The Borsalino became famous for its “feather” felt hats and its “Godfather” style.
Many industries were documented in Intra in 1874. It was an area of ancient tradition since from the beginning of the 18th Century hats were made on the banks of Lake Maggiore. Count Borromeo financed the installation of a refined hat factory. The hatters that were committed to becoming entrepreneurs were: Frova, Nava, Petroli, and at the end of the 1800’s, Albertini. But above all of them we find Giovanni Panizza whose name would become one of the most famous trademarks in the world.
The Panizza hat factory opened in 1881 in Griffa and quickly reached unquestioned prestige. His name was linked to both sports hats and elegant ones. They were made with very light felt called Bon Voyage and felts of mixed colours thanks to the use of a dozen grams of raw material. In more recent years, the lake shores gave birth to the Verbano Cap Factory. Established by an ex- Panizza employee, this small craftsman firm distinguished itself for it’s high productive quality and its valuable material.
Another Piedmont area famous for its hat factories is Biellese. Workshops, often home based, existed from the beginning of the 1800’s, but the true conversion to industry occurred in 1862 with the creation of the Rolando Barbisio and Milanaccio company. The Barbisio hat owes its tremendous popularity to the quality of the workmanship entrusted to the expert hands of the “sons and grandsons of hatters”.
Specialized in the production of exotic hats, its style was appreciated and exported to South American markets. In 1897, the Cervo a Sagliano Micca hat factory was founded and its name was tied to the renowned “Princeps“, synonymous for elegance and quality.
In 1885, fifteen hatters formed a partnership and establish the Grosso Valtz and Co. Hat Company in Adorno. Tuscany, undisputed queen of straw hat production, gave its contribution to felt hats. At the beginning of the 1800’s, the Giuseppe Rossi hat company was set up in Montevarchi, and later in 1918 Nino Donati began to produce hats for men and women after having traded braids to make straw hats.
The Tesi Company was born in 1850 as manufacturer of products for the production of straw hats. At the end of the 1800’s the company became producer of finished hats. It became famous for its “Leghorn”, “Magline” and “Canotti” that the world recognizes as “Chevalier”, “Boater” and “Sailor”.
The Tesi Hats Company reached its fifth generation and today has a primary role in the trimming of Panama hats in Ecuador. This was an important step due to the decline in grain production used to make Florence’s straw hats.
The art of leather tanning is another art that belongs to Tuscany and that is at the basis of leather hat production. In first position: the shearling hat. In this sector, the Anne Mary Hat Company of Empoli is not to be forgotten. The picture is completed with the Lucchese area that is a great producer of caps.
Maysern, in Germany, is known for its typical Bavarian regional styles and the sporty “traveller”. Flechet, in France, is famous for his refined velour. Hückel, a Czechoslovakian, specialized in velour and in particular in Hebrew “rabbi” styles. Stetson, North American leader in the production of the classic cow-boy hats offers an innumerable variety of western models and colours.
Even though not factories, two famous hat shops are renowned for having had workshops for trimming which were particularly equipped and specialized: Lock, the London milliner of the Bowler, and Gélot in Paris, in Place Vendôme, who is most sought for his stylish and tailored headwear. 1
1 F. MONDOLFO, op. cit., pgs. 62 s.