A visit to The Atelier-Musée du Chapeau
Covering a week’s ‘Straw-Braid Making’ course (The HAT magazine Issues 62 &70)
Chazelles-sur-Lyon, located in the undulating countryside of central France, was at the heart of French hat making for many centuries. By the early 20th century, Chazelles had become the country’s principal city for the production of high quality felt hats. At its peak in 1930, 28 factories and 2500 workers (the majority of the local population) produced felt and felt hats, exporting their famous brands around the globe. Names such as Fléchet, France and Morreton were recognised worldwide, labels with a reputation for quality and style that led the market, particularly in the menswear sector.
Then in the 1960s, as a new generation turned the tables on fashion and took to the car, the hat became an old-fashioned and discarded item. And so one by one the factories slowly closed, until in 1976 Fléchet, the last prominent name and the largest manufacturer in Chazelles, ceased production. After so many years as the central hub of the felt industry in France, the companies, and all their expertise disappeared forever.
The large Fléchet factory and its tall chimney and cobbled floors remained idle as state bureaucracy took its toll. Then in 2002 it was announced that the local hat museum in Chazelles, set up in 1983, was to be given the land and all the buildings, and the Atelier-Musée du Chapeau would become the official headwear ‘Musée de France’. Funding would come from the European Commission who had agreed to invest €9million transforming the factory into one of the largest and most comprehensive hat museums in Europe. Work soon began on this major project that would give the museum an area ten times as large as its existing ‘small space’. The new museum was officially opened in 2013.
With a new contemporary design the factory was transformed. It became not only a museum but also a European hat centre, offering spacious displays, a working demonstration area, current and historic collections, a gallery for exhibitions, workshops, a cinema and, most important of all, a training area where hatters/milliners could learn the skills from the most prominent hat makers of today.
Today the Atelier-Musée du Chapeau offers specialised hat-making courses at all levels throughout the year; for beginners interested in learning the craft; makers who want to improve and extend their knowledge; and for high level milliners, including those running their own small businesses, a chance to learn new techniques.
I visited the musée in May 2016 to cover the high level course on ‘Sewing Braided Straws’ both natural and ‘paille Zan’ (man-made braid) to be taught by Jean-Pierre Tritz, chapelier modiste.
Tuesday (Day 1): The six students gather around the table while Jean-Pierre explains that they will be working first with the man-made synthetic braid, followed by the Chinese fine natural straw braid.
Further coverage of this article, including a chat with each of the students, and coverage of Musée’s biennial international competition can be read in The Hat Magazine Issue 70 – now available from Denford Publishing.