Friday, 2 January 2015

The Luton Hat Trade

Actress Blanche Sweet in straw hat c.1915 [Wikimedia]

Saturday 2nd January 1915: As 1914 ends and a new year begins the ways in which the war has affected the straw hat industry are becoming clear. During the autumn the straw hat trade was unusually depressed with velvet hats very popular. Luton’s market for these suffered from competition with absurdly low priced hats produced by Jews in the East End of London. Fortunately the local industry is able to look confidently forward to the new year.

The main sources of straw and hemp plait supplies for ladies hats are in the Far East. For some weeks interruptions to the route through the Suez Canal caused a shortage of material and an increase in the value of supplies that were already in the country. When new supplies did eventually arrive there were delays in delivering them from the docks. However the elimination of Germany as a competitor and a reduction in demand from Paris will help to secure future supplies and thanks to the efficient protection afforded by the Army and Navy it is expected that shortages can be avoided.

Manufacturers producing men’s hats are faced with the prospect of significantly reduced demand as a million men are expected to be engaged in some sort of military capacity. If the war lasts until the summer these men are no longer likely to want the straw hats they would normally wear. On the other hand it may be possible to capture some of the South American market from the Germans, although the New York trade will gain the most benefit from the diversion of German trade.

Great efforts are being made to win a share of the early spring trade and manufacture must begin early to ensure plenty of stocks are available for the spring rush. Predicting new styles and market requirements is important to ensure that the right hats are produced. It is expected that demand for lower priced hats will be higher than usual as higher taxation to meet military expenditure will reduce demand for luxury items, including higher priced hats. Customers are also likely to make do with two hats where they would normally buy three.

Spring styles are expected to be small hats made of fine materials with a military and international influence. Scottish, French, Dutch and Russian features are likely to be popular. Moving into the summer season larger hats than those currently being worn are likely to come back into fashion. Hemp plait is easily the most popular material. Most supplies of this come from Japan, supplemented by Italian and Swiss plait. All three of these markets remain open. The Swiss plait is by far the best, but its use is limited by its high price. Fancy plaits made from artificial silk are also in demand. The normal supply from Vienna is unavailable so English manufacturers are now producing these with great success.

Luton News 31st December 1914

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