Saturday, July 10, 2010

Derby Deconstruction

In this installment, I'm endeavoring to describe the construction methods that were unique to Derbies, though some, such as the brim curling and binding methods, also apply to many Homburgs. It's not going to be a comprehensive discussion of hat making, as I'm hoping you have some knowledge of that. If not, check out The Fedora Lounge for more information. They're a swell bunch with the most knowledge of hat history in the country, if not the world, and (WARNING! Shameless plug!) I also happen to be a Bartender (our word for moderator) there.

Felt bodies for Derbies are crafted as with any other hat, but one important distinction is that they are impregnated with shellac after the felting process was complete, but before they are dyed. The shellac is what gives the Derby its stiffness. All hats, even soft felt ones, have a certain amount of shellac in them, but Derbies have more than any other.

Blocking the Hat
Originally, Derbies felt bodies, as with all hats, were stretched over wooden blocks that gave the crown the desired shape. Because of the copious amounts of shellac in the felt, the bodies were heated and then muscled down onto the block. Once done, the next step was to iron the crown to set the shape, and to pounce (or sand smooth) the surface to the required finish.

Derbies require a different block shape than a soft felt hat. For one thing, the crowns are not creased in any way, and so they don’t need to be taller to accommodate the crease. The height of the block is the height of the finished hat’s crown. For a soft felt hat, the block is taller than the finished crown height, to give enough felt for, say, a deep center crease, as was popular in the 1920s and 1930s.

Additionally, the profiles of the crowns will be different. There are different styles of crowns for Derbies, just as there are different styles of crowns for soft felt hats, and each one gives different results. In general, though, Derby blocks are easily distinguished from their shellac-deficient brethren.

Here are a couple of photos of hat blocks to give you some idea of the different profiles. They are different hat sizes, but just look at the height and profiles. The block on the left is a Derby block. It’s only five-inches tall, and has more rounded shoulders than the six-inch soft felt hat block on the right.

Side View

Front View

Most manufacturers eventually switched to hydraulic presses to block their stiff hats. Crofut & Knapp, who once boasted about their hand-blocked Derbies and chided their competitors for using hydraulic presses, eventually switched to the presses as well. The bodies were heated in a gas or electric oven, and then placed upside down inside an iron mold in the shape of the crown. A rubber bladder was placed inside the crown and filled with cold water, which forced the sides of the crown up against the iron mold and gave the Derby its final crown shape.

C&K Postcard showing the Hydraulic Press

Rounding the Brim
Whereas most hat brims have a fixed brim width all the way around, Derbies require a wider brim on the sides than on the front. This allows the brim curler to give the brim a very short, perpendicular curl on the front, and a wider, taller, and more pronounced curl on the sides. To achieve this extra width on the sides, known as a dimensional brim, a rounding jack with special adjustments for Derbies is used. The knobs adjust the contact points so that the jack rides farther out on the sides from the crown than on the front. Derbies generally are 1/8" to 1/4" wider on the sides than the front.

The Business End of a Rounding Jack

Ironing the Brim
Once the brim is cut to the correct size, the brim break, the angle where the brim meets the crown, is set by ironing the brim on a set board. It’s a concave board that adds the proper curl to the flat portion of the brim. I don’t have a set board, but here is a drawing from Henry L. Ermatinger’s 1919 Scientific Hat Finishing and Renovating.

Making the Front and Rear Curls
The secret to a stylish Derby is in the brim curl, which, is properly done by hand by a master curler, an artiste extraordinaire.

The side curl is called a D’Orsay curl. It can be open, as seen here in this Dobbs Derby, or ironed much flatter, more like an overwelt that isn’t sewn down.

Derby curling was originally done by hand with specialized tools, but by the time of the 1958-59 Derby revival, this had changed. Between not having any expert curlers in the factories due to sparse sales, and also for the sake of the profit margin, the style of curl was changed to a very simple upright curl, the same as contemporary Homburgs. This could be done with a flange and greatly sped up the manufacturing process by not requiring the hand labor, but the classic sense of elegance was lost.

Cavanagh Derby from the 1958-59 Derby Revival

Another feature of the classic Derby that is missing from modern ones is the increasing curl from front to back. The curl in the front and back is about as minimal as it can get, perhaps 1/8" or 3/16", and is essentially perpendicular to the brim. As the curl progresses to the sides it increases in width and height, presenting an extremely streamlined looked long before Art Deco was born.

A Front-Rear Tolliker is used to create the narrow curl on, obviously, the front and rear of the brim. It's built very much like a tolliker that is used to set the brim break, but instead of being completely flat on the foot, it has a narrow V-groove cut into it, starting from the flat plane and deepening into the foot. This allows the curler to set the tight, narrow curl with ease.

The Finished Front Curl

D’Orsay Curl
The curler uses a shackle to make the D'Orsay Curl on the sides. Different shackles can make different curls, which is why a combination curl is a handy tool to have.

The Finished D'Orsay Curl

Sewing on the Binding
After the brim was curled, it went to the Trimming Room, where the ladies would sew on the sweatband, hatband, and bind the edge. Since the sweatband and hatband procedures are not dissimilar from soft felt hats, I won't go into them here. However, the binding is a bit different.

First, the edge binding is sewn into a loop of the proper circumference, as is true for any bound-edge hat. However, the first stitching is done with the ribbon inside out. In this photo, you can see the inside of the rear seam of binding. The ribbon is laying outside down against the brim, and it is stitched to the brim using a lock stitch, as with a stitch awl or sewing machine, sewing the bottom edge of the binding along the outer circumference of the brim. This way, the inner part of the binding is given a very strong stitch, and when the ribbon is folded back over the outside of the brim, the stitching is hidden from view.

Installing the Wire Loop
Many early Derbies utilized a loop of wire along the inside of the curl to provide extra support for the brim. At this point, after the inside of the binding is stitched down, the wire loop is tucked into place, and the binding is ready to be wrapped around the outside of the brim.

Finishing the Binding
The outside of the binding is sewn using tiny hidden stitches spaced about an inch apart along the edge. These tiny stitches provide surprising strength while giving a very clean look to the binding. Again, this is something missing in today's machine-stitched brims.

And that, in a nutshell the size of a boxcar, is how you make a Derby. Any questions?

Crofut & Knapp Derby (1906-1909)



  1. thanks for this ! i am trying my hand at millinery and ran across this post as i was trying to find info about curling the brim edge.

  2. Glad to help! Good luck on the curling, and keep us posted how it goes.

    Thanks for reading,


  3. Excellent background information. My great-grandfather worked making bowler hats in Stockport, England. I still have a bowler he wore (from maybe the end of the '50s) and an earler one he never wore from around the 1930s.

    The contrast between these two and a modern one I purchased for wearing is exactly as you described, though I didn't have the technical vocabulary you have to describe it. The brim shaping has disappeared from cheaper hats.

    I wonder what (if any) differences there are/were between the design and manufacturing of American 'Derby' and English 'Bowler' hats. To me older Derbies seemed to have very curled sides and sometimes slightly higher crowns. A little different than the original bowlers of Lock & Co.

    Or is that me seeing imaginary differences?

  4. Hello. Can the brim binding be removed? I'm looking for a derby with a high crown with the brim turned down front and back.Thank you!