January 22nd, 2021

Felting and the fur trade

By Lethbridge Herald on March 1, 2016.

In the 1660s, two Frenchmen, Radisson and Groseilliers, explored the Hudson Bay area and found that it was rich in furs. Together they raised money to ship furs back to England and the fad caught on quickly.
Later, in 1670, King Charles granted the company a fur trade monopoly and this officially started the Hudson Bay Company. They traded several items but the most popular was beaver pelts. The fur is versatile and easy to felt, making it very desirable for hats. Beaver felt hats rose quickly to high fashion in England because it was a symbol of wealth and social status.
Sadly, the beaver population in Canada suffered greatly because of the demand across the country and in Lethbridge. Housed in the Galt Collections is a beaver hat owned by the wife of Lieutenant Colonel W.C. Bryan, the first chief of the Alberta provincial police.
In the 1800s the hat-making industry was still thriving. To make the felting process quicker, a mercury solution was commonly used to turn the animal fur into felt. It was not known then but mercury gives off highly toxic metal fumes. With poor ventilation in the workshops, long working hours and enormous volume of production, the hat makers were exposed to this toxin in high dosages. This resulted in shakes known as “hatter’s shakes” or “mad hatters syndrome.” Craftsmen have become aware of the dangers and mercury is no longer used. Felt is made commercially by pressing the fibres together with heat, and moisture.
This week you can take part in a hands-on history workshop for adults. Join us at the Galt Museum on Thursday from 7-9 p.m. and make a felted pot-holder with safe and fun commercially made felt. Admission fees apply, which includes supplies and access to exhibits. Registration is not required.
Your old photos, documents and artifacts might have historical value. Please contact Galt Museum & Archives for advice before destroying them.

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