It's rare to see Australian Manufacturing in action these days. And to see an Australian Hat Manufacturer still doing it the old way? Well, it's so rare there's only one of them - AKUBRA.
On first glance, the Akubra factories are just a couple of big, low-slung tin sheds, reminiscent of those utilitarian shearing sheds that dot Australia's landscape. It's inside where the magic happens. It's not the old machinery that immediately stands out; it's just how hands-on the process is. Making an Akubra is an old-school, handcraftsmanship that is still practised today. People are key in the process, but there are old machines that help along the way. We still use Huon pin hat moulds that have been used for generations and are shiny from their use.
Pressure, heat and water are used throughout the process. As are 60 pairs of hands.
Hats in all shapes, sizes and stages of creation are being formed, trimmed, strengthened or finished, or await packing on shelves. There is a startling lack of people running around with barcode scanners to check stock levels, but it's clear that everyone knows whats going on.
First, the rabbit fur is blended together cleaned and the manufacturing process can begin.
The fur is placed in an 8-section blowing machine which mixes it, removing any clotted hair, felt or dirt. When the fur leaves the machine, it's like a sheet of soft, downy cotton.
The key to hat making is forming the cone and this is done in the Forming machine.
Here, the fur is sucked onto a large revolving cone and, as it rotates, hot water is sprayed onto the fur. This interlocks the fibres in each direction. When the layer of felt is stripped from the cone, it is extremely fragile and about three times the height of the finished hat.
The fragile felt is then wrapped in cloth and placed between rollers for shrinking.
At this early stage, the shrinkage is rapid as the fibres become tightly locked. As the felt becomes stronger and tighter, the rate of shrinking is reduced. This process is repeated several times, the hats being repositioned regularly to ensure even pressure.
Each machine can only reduce the size of the hats so far. Before the hats undergo the next stages in the manufacturing process, they must be shrunk to near their final size. The equipment for this job is an Apron machine which reduces the hats to about a third of their original size. They are now ready to be dyed.
The dying is carried out in large vats, each holding about 200 hats.
This is the end of the body making process. The part of the hat which will be the brim is now impregnated with a shellac mixture to make it more durable (referred to as Proofing.) Proofing helps the crown retain its shape and gives the brim greater durability.
Now the body is complete, the hats are tip-stretched and blocked.
The hat changes shape, from a cone to a hat with a definite crown. Dipping the hat in hot water again makes it pliable. It's eased into shape by metal fingers stretching it over the ribs of a frame (referred to as Blocking). A brim is now broken out.
After the blocking and brimming, the hats come to the last of the wet processes - stoving.
This is the final drying of the hats before the trimming takes place. The hats are placed on racks in large ovens to be dried off overnight. The temperature is kept low and the air is well-circulated at all times.
Pouncing is the first of the finishing processes.
Hats have their fluffy appearance cut down evenly, using sandpaper on a fast wheel to give a smooth, proper finish. Hats are placed on a fast wheel to brush off surplus dust. Once the hats are pounced, they are quality inspected for imperfections against the specification, including welts, holes and proofing marks.
The brims are then stretched flat and the body of the hat is pulled over a wooden block. A metal ring holds the hats band line close to the bottom of the block, while fingers stretch the brim flat and clear of the body. We now have a hat of the correct size, shape and brim width.
After this, the hats are automatically ironed. This provides a good face for the final finishing. The ironing also causes a reaction with the shellac and sets the brim, giving it firmness and durability. The hand-controlled rounding process is where the excess brim is trimmed from the hat.
80% of the hats leave the factory pre-creased - the crown is already shaped.
The hat is pulled onto a rubber mould, placed in an aluminium dish and left to set. The hats are then steamed on a block of the correct size and shape. It's the last chance to check the hats dimensions, so the blocks (made of huon pine) are kept in top condition and regularly maintained.
Many of the trimmings, such as sweatbands, bows and silk linings, are prepared in the factory.
There is a wide variety of bands and bows used for the various styles of Akubra hats. The leather sweatband is cut and stamped with gold foil to show the Akubra crest, the hat name and that the hat is made in Australia. It's then carefully fitted to the hat.
One of the final processes is flanging. here the hat is placed in a frame to give the brim its ultimate shape. A wet cloth is placed over the brim to help the shaping and the bags of hot sand and pressure is carefully used to change the shape of the brim.
One of the final processes is packing the hats.
Here the hat is placed with ultimate care into our shipping containers and distributed all over the world. Australian Made - Worn The World Over