Blog 114 05/09/2022 A Literary World: The History of the MontCapel Hat Factory in France.

Posted in on 6 September, 2022 in News

A Literary World

The History of the MontCapel Hat Factory in France.

In August, I had the pleasure of visiting the MontCapel Hat Factory in Montazels in the Haute-Vallée de l’Aude, a region that I discovered was one of the most important hat manufacturing areas in the world in its heyday. MontCapel opened its doors in 1923 but the history of hat-making in this area goes back earlier than that; to the beginning of the 19th century.

According to the legend, it was soldiers of the Imperial Army, assigned to the Bugarach regiment, who, returning from Silesia, brought the wool felt technique back to the region. Wool felting is an ancient technique used by various cultures, but it’s a particular type of felting that is used for the hats from MontCapel, as the tour through the factory showed.

The hat industry in the area took off with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of the first steam engines in the region. The construction in 1878 of the railway line that follows the course of the Aude, connecting Carcassonne to Quillan, helped the businesses expand as raw materials and other supplies could be transported quickly to the region and locally made hats were exported worldwide. The availability of water from the River Aude was also important.

In the aftermath of the First World War, France had to rebuild economically and the Haute-Vallée de l’Aude was not spared. It was at this time that the MontCapel hat factory was born. At the beginning of the 20th century, the region included at least fifteen hat shops and the best known located in Espéraza, considered to be the cradle of French industrial hat making. Esperanza is three kilometres away from Monazels.

In the Roaring Twenties, hats were extremely fashionable; an indispensable accessory to any outfit and indicative of one’s social status. During this time, the hat industry exploded and thousands of hats left the factories every day. Hats from MontCapel, were not only worn by ordinary people, the military and the police, but were created for the great couture Houses such as Balmain and Lanvin. Indeed, many of the great couturiers, such as Chanel, started their creative careers in the hat business.

The Great Depression of 1929 hit the industry hard, but it rebounded as the 1930s in particular, was a period  of unique and beautiful  hat styles for women. With the Second World War, scarcity of raw materials and workers did not help the industry and afterwards, the wearing of the hats declined. Added to this, in the later years there was competition from emerging countries, which severely affected the remaining Aude factories. Throughout all this, the MontCapel hat factory still managed to survive until March 2018, but only on a small scale. Where once 600 workers perpetuated this know-how, at the time of its closure, the hat factory had 9. The machines fell into disrepair through lack of use and when MontCapel closed its doors for good, it resulted in the loss of 9 jobs and the obvious disappearance of a unique know-how in France.

In November 2018, when Sonia Mielke, now the President of MontCapel, discovered what had happened, she set about trying to preserve the industry and know-how. Sonia knows the village well because her grandparents lived there and she spent all her childhood holidays there and she found it heartbreaking to see this industry die out in the Haute Vallée de l’Aude.

Sonia Mielke

During the next 10 months, she set about studying the subject, mobilized her family and friends, and exchanged ideas with the various private and public interests. Her energy paid off and the first group of people began the project to restart the hat shop as a SCIC (Cooperative Society of Collective Interest) to respond to this project of unprecedented complexity. The regional cooperative movement, URSCOP, accompanies and supports the project very effectively and a real relationship of trust and collaboration has been established with the Town Hall of Montazels.

In September 2019 the cooperative was created with 7 founding cooperators. In October, the first workers joined the adventure and became cooperators in their turn. Since then, more than 170 people and companies have joined to form a capital of €350,000. This money is mainly spent on the investments and wages needed to restart production. Indeed, the machines are all between 50 and 100 years old and need to be restored and repaired.

The rebirth is there, but it remains very fragile. Sonia knows that they need an additional €300,000 to restart production in a sustainable way.

As she says: “Every day, we fight to revive this hat shop that is unique in France.” The hat factory reaches out to work with fashion again and has also agreed to take students, particularly from the Fashion industry, who want to spend a short time learning the industry and process.

At a time when countries realise the importance of retaining their skills for future generations, I hope MontCapel can become a success story.

The process of making a felt hat goes through several important steps, but it is the cone shape bell that makes MontCapel hats unique. The MontCapel hat factory is the last hat factory in France capable of making hats from wool to finished hats. The bell is the basic element of any felt hat and to create the bell, the wool is carded repeatedly to form a veil. This veil is wrapped around a wooden cone. The bells thus created, are then felted in three stages, then tinted, sanded and worked to bring the required finish. 1,500 hat molds tell a story that dates back 100 years. It is with these molds that the bells are formed into hats. At the stitching workshop, the hats are then trimmed and finished according to the customer’s wishes.

Hat moulds

MontCapel and the Retirada.

During the Retirada when more than 500,000 Spaniards fled the Civil War, just over 600 women and children were housed in the factory from Feb 8 1939 – May 8 1940. (The men and women were earlier separated and the men went elsewhere.) A picture was put up on a door by a series of opaque and old windows.
The poster tells us that rooms in the hat factory were transformed into dormitories, and beds made from straw were strewn between the machines. There were only six toilets and showers for all these people.
Outside, in a narrow space, behind the opaque windows, we discovered the actual showers, and I am sure no-one had been there since the days of the Spanish refugees as Sonia and our guide had difficulty locating a key to open the door. Walking among the brambles and broken glass , it was hard to imagine that over 600 people had to wash and use the toilets here.

The original showers and toilets used by the Spanish refugees.

More about MontCapel and the making of the hats can be seen in this short video:
MontCapels FB page:

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