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Spoorenberg top hat factory

Personal recollections of the Silk Top Hat

[ During a visit of Ton Meeuwis to Mark Spoorenberg, Summer 1997. Photo: RHC-e. ]

"The special smell of shellac still makes me feel wistful". With feelings of nostalgia, Ton Meeuwis, founder of the Black Tie formal attire business in Den Bosch (The Netherlands), looks back on his youth. He grew up "among top hat and tails".

His father, Wim Meeuwis, as a tailor in Eindhoven, laid the basis for the current formal attire business and the top hat factory of Jan Spoorenberg NV was located just around the corner from Meeuwis' parental home. This was the last Dutch hat factory, and was forced to move to Vienna at the beginning of the seventies. Years later, in 1997, the last descendant of seven generations of hat makers, Mark Spoorenberg, and the man who could not forget the smell of shellac, Ton Meeuwis, met on an autumnal summer morning in Alphen.

As a supplier of top hats, among other things, Ton Meeuwis was more than just professionally interested in Spoorenberg's collection. The Eindhoven hat factory was inextricably linked to his youth. A local industry whose history dates back to the start of 1800 is evidenced by the wooden signboard that hangs on the wall in Spoorenberg's living room.

"At the start of 1800, this hung on the outside wall of my ancestors' tannery", says Mark, enthusiastic about so much interest in his inheritance. It was called "The Leather Trousers". But in 1820, when the silk hat industry arrived from England via France, his ancestors took the signboard and made it "The Silk Hat". That moment marked the start of seven generations of silk hat makers.

Mark Spoorenberg is the last that still learned the old trade and obtained his master tradesman diploma in the fifties. A 1950 film, which Spoorenberg takes out for the first time in years, shows how things were run in the factory that he took over from his father in 1969 - old-fashioned, black-and-white footage in which material such as linen, cheesecloth, flannel and silk is transformed step by step into the old headwear favourite. From the 'baking' of the shellac in the brim with the help of a flat iron and the shaping of the hat itself around a five-piece wooden hat block, to the making of an upright rim and the positioning of a hatband ("Look, there's 'the girls' on screen"). Tombstones were used as a smooth base and the hat was shaped correctly in all forms and sizes using special flat irons.

It becomes clear from everything that the hat makers' trade - obviously pure craftsmanship - required the necessary practical experience. Every worker had his own task in the hat production process. For instance, only the master tradesman (foreman) was permitted to cut the expensive silk.

Seeing the images on the screen, brings back the memories that highlighted Spoorenberg's youth. He still knows the names of the many processes and tools - in French naturally, because most roots of the hat industry lie in France. For instance, words such as "brideren" stood for making a curved brim, "fascineren" for introducing the round shape and then there was a formillion that was used to make the brim of the hat upright.

10,000 hats were produced in the first year that Jan Spoorenberg's factory reopened after the war. On the occasion of the 10,000th hat - in 1950 - the mayor of Eindhoven was presented with the film of the business that had already been based in the Brabant city for generations. An irrepressible enthusiasm for the secrets of the hat makers' trade takes over Spoorenberg when he displays his own "mini museum". As a hobby, a few years ago, he started reproducing miniatures of all the hats that ever left his family's factory.

He also made the necessary tools for this purpose on the same small scale. A number of original specimens are stored in a glass cabinet: an Ascot hat, tropics hat, silk cocked hat, jockey's cap, three-sided cocked hat, hunter's hat of hare's fur felt and a bellboy hat. These are hats from an era when headwear conferred a definite status on the wearer.
As such, Spoorenberg's silk hat factory received the order to make fifty cocked hats every time there was a cabinet reshuffle. Even the hat for the coachman of the golden carriage came from the Eindhoven studio.

Spoorenberg carefully takes out some specimens. The priest's cocked hat, for instance, which was still worn until the mid-sixties "with purple tufts for the bishop and green for the abbot", he still remembers. And the Opera Hat, a particular favourite - as the name suggests - among opera-goers. An ingenious mechanism built into the hat, which still works, makes the hat collapsible.

An extensive range of curious tools were used in order to get the shape of a hat exactly right. These include the flat irons in all sizes and designs, such as the one with the one centimetre wide base that fits precisely in the upright brim of a top hat. The irons were heated around the potbelly stove, an image that is still engraved in Ton Meeuwis' memory.

"Better" retailers had what is known as a hat conformer or conformateur, a device for measuring the shape of hats, on their counters. Spoorenberg still has one in his collection. He used it to measure a design that would fit his customer's head perfectly. These made-to-order hats made up around four per cent of the total production.

Spoorenberg still has the description of every hat made in the Brabant factory after 1949. Until 1920, the silk top hat was a customary part of the ritual of going out. It only subsequently acquired the status of an 'item for special occasions' and is now only seen at weddings, funerals and other special occasions.

Finding a genuine silk hat maker today is like looking for a needle in a haystack. They disappeared in the Netherlands in 1997. Two picked up the threads after the war: Spoorenberg in Eindhoven and Bogers in Rotterdam. Both have long since shut down.

Suppliers such as Black Tie must now switch to countries like England and Germany, where the silk hat makers of yesteryear now only produce hats from wool and fur felt. The original silk top hats are now only available as restored items.

Every manufacturer has its own designs. The silk and somewhat hollow-shaped hat, for instance, comes from England. A quarter of the hats that left the gates of the Spoorenberg factory found their way to the funeral industry. From way back, felt hats were for the pallbearers and silk hats were for the undertakers. The funeral announcers wore a cocked hat.

According to Spoorenberg, these designs have changed very little over the years and the height - of between 12 and 13 cm - has remained constant since 1920.

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