One day in 1960, the schools closed in Adamstown, Pennsylvania, in Lancaster County, as much of the population spilled out onto the streets to greet visiting royalty. Roy Rogers, America's famous singing cowboy, had come to town to personally thank the good folks who made his hats.
Bollman Hat Company owns some of the world's hottest brands, including Kangol and Helen Kaminski. And wearers of hipster fedoras have recently stirred demand. But the factory--which occupies half-a-million square feet across eight buildings connected by catwalks and tunnels--operates much as it did when Rogers stopped by to say howdy. In fact, production has hardly changed since 1868, when George Bollman, the son of German immigrants, set up shop in a former whiskey distillery on Main Street. Well, electricity has been added. Back then, a nearby creek powered the machinery, which churned out men's hats that were sold by stores under their own names. As it was with the Model T, you could get any color you wanted so long as it was black.
Three generations of Bollmans expanded the business before selling the company to a group of managers in 1974. In 1985, Bollman adopted an employee stock ownership plan.
Today, after surviving the Depression, the hairy, hatless '60s, the textile exodus of the '80s, and a painful downsizing to respond to intense Chinese competition, Bollman is the oldest hatmaker in America. The factory employs 121 people who have worked there, on average, for 21 years--some for half a century. The machinery has clanked along even longer. Robotics companies aren't a threat to disrupt this tiny business. Don Rongione, who joined the company in 1982 and became CEO 20 years later, credits a strategy of acquiring brands (though it still does private labels), diversifying products, and developing e-commerce for its resilience. Bollman has also accepted globalization not only of its market but also of its sourcing. Today, 70 percent of Bollman's hats are made overseas, a fact that riled the FTC when the company rolled out an "American Made Matters" campaign in 2009. (The case was settled.) Bollman won't disclose revenue, but sales are poised to grow 7 percent in 2019 following a 13 percent increase last year.
Bollman makes fur-felt, straw, and knit hats. But its specialty is wool-felt headwear. Its operating systems comprise water and wood, sandpaper and steam, and fingers that mold and pull. This is not the factory of the future. It is the factory of our collective memory-- still creating jobs and helping customers look sharp.
From Ewe to You
Bollman's hatmaking process begins in Texas, where sheep provide wool that is degreased at the company plant in San Angelo. The wool is shipped to the factory in Adamstown, Pennsylvania, where Thi Phu (above) turns a raw hat body produced by a carding machine inside out to increase tension on the fibers and strengthen it for further operations. The hat shrinks by two-thirds during the felting process.
Here's Your Hat
Most hats, wet from felting, are circulated through an oven to dry. Some models, like these unfinished cowboy hats, contain a lot of shellac, which stiffens the felt when it is exposed to heat. They are being air dried instead, making them easier to sand and shape.
Bollman imports the bodies of its handwoven straw hats from Ecuador. Greg Nelson, a 15-year employee, prepares to place one in a hydraulic press to form the crown. Earlier, the hat got a proprietary treatment so it will hold its shape and repel water.
The Heat Is On
Floppy-brimmed women's fedoras for Bollman's Betmar brand undergo a blocking process called French pressing. Gas-heated dies from above and below come together to shape each hat.
The conical body begins its transformation into a flatter crown. A worker pulls the hat down over a block while a spring-loaded tipper presses on it from above. Brims are flattened using the same process on a differently shaped block.
The hat is lifted off the pulling machine, where a heated block of a specific depth and size shaped the crown while metal clamps stretched the brim to the desired width from below. Applying lots of steam makes it stretchable without tearing. From here the hat goes to final crown and brim blocking and, ultimately, to a head seeking shade and style.