I spent today at the study day in Dorchester Museum that accompanied their Hats to Handbags exhibition. One of the speakers, and the person who gave a tour of the exhibition, was Veronica Main who is curator at Luton Museum. Luton was of course the centre of the straw hat making industry in England, and Veronica is a brilliant speaker who knows her subject inside out and is incredibly enthusiastic.
So what did she have to say about straw hats and in particular early modern, which was covered in only about five minutes of her talk? The first thing is that straw is not just cereal (wheat, barley, rye, etc.) straw, it covers a whole variety of fibres from bast, (rag) paper, horsehair, ramie, pineapple fibre, etc., up to more recent use of cellophane, sinamay etc. One of the earliest fibres used was wood chip, this is shaved wood, usually from poplar or willow, hence chip hats. There are some good photos of a wood chip hat making demonstration at Ross Farm Museum in Nova Scotia.
Veronica suggests the earliest painting to show a straw hat is a mid 15th century painting by Pisanello in the National Gallery depicting St George with Virgin and Child. A straw hat was bequeathed in an English will as early as 1449, and by 1568, as Cunnington has pointed out, in a “Debate between pride and lowliness” the grazier wears a felt on his head while the husbandman wears a “strawen hatte”
Veronica said that the straw hat making industry started in Luton in the 1600s, and quoted Pepys in his diary on a visit to Hatfield (15 miles from Luton), saying “being come back to our inne, there the women had pleasure in putting on some straw hats, which are much worn in this country, and did become them mightily” (11th August 1667)
The eighteenth century saw an enormous expansion in the straw hat industry both in Britain, and Europe. Britain was importing 2 million straw hats a year, mainly from Italy and, because these were shipped through the port of Leghorn (Livorno), they became known as Leghorn hats.
One of the comments Veronica made was that she had probably spoiled historic film dramas for us by pointing out that the mottled straw used nowadays is very easily discerned and comes from China. My own thought is that on my reproduction of an 18th century hat the most obvious thing to me, is that the plait has been machine stitched. Ah well.