Based a half hour east of Dallas, the legendary hat company Stetson makes premium hats at a large factory in a quiet neighborhood. Inside a sprawling beige building, workers follow a process relatively unchanged for over a century. On the factory floor, the stark juxtaposition of felt and steel is constant. As hats move through the factory — transforming from unshaped, rough bodies to beautifully finished, shaped hats — they are handled by scores of workers operating 60- to 70-year-old machines.
And, where they sit, steam fills the room. The powerful natural ingredient plays a crucial role in blocking and shaping the hats, and is omnipresent in a large swath of the factory. At times, it floats lazily upward from a station unmanned. At others, it forms a near cloud that envelopes the worker. Though the whir of machines and hiss of steam create an environment of constant action, the factory is relatively subdued. Workers patiently move from hat to hat, blocking, sanding, burning, shaping, finishing. The factory produces around 1,500 hats per day, ranging from fedoras and Panama hats to cowboy hats and newsboys.
The company, founded in 1865 by John B. Stetson, only recently moved to Garland, Texas. In 1870, Stetson opened a factory outside of Philadelphia, which would subsequently become the largest hat factory in America by 1900. By the ‘20s, Stetson was making more than 2 million hats a year and employed around 5,000 employees. As fashion norms changed through the ‘60s, the hat became less of a wardrobe necessity. Popularity waned, and Stetson eventually moved production to a factory in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1971.
The company made a partial move to Garland in ’86, completing the relocation in 2004. Stetson creates close to 1,000 unshaped hat shells a day at a nearby felt factory, utilizing beaver, rabbit and wild hare fur. Though production numbers are down from the Roaring Twenties, there has been a growing interest in Stetson’s premium hats in recent years. Stetson’s have been popularized by celebrities and musicians, and a new generation of consumers are rediscovering this iconic brand. After 150 years, the mesmerizing process turns out a classic product, a timeless piece of heritage Americana.
These photos were taken during a factory visit in 2016.