Hat making in Florence + Tuscany

Hat making in Florence + Tuscany

Hat making in Tuscany still benefits from the wealth of history behind the tradition.

Wed 12 Jun 2024 10:41 AM

Hat makers go by the name “milliner”, originally deriving from the word “Milan” and linking the craft to the fashion hub in northern Italy. However, numerous luxury artisanal milliners in Florence, past and present, cite the city’s historic hat-making practice as an inspiration for design and technique, and in some cases, the creation of the workshops that still operate today.

Milliners Grevi
Milliners Grevi

Florence’s tradition in hat-making can be traced back to medieval times, but the 18th century saw a boom in the creation of straw hats in Signa, slightly to the west. Straw hats had been used for centuries as a means of protecting heads against the harvest sun, but early examples called for stalks left over from the wheat harvest that would otherwise have gone to waste. In 1718, Domenico Michelacci began to experiment. He discovered that sowing marzuolo (March) wheat more densely would encourage the plants to grow taller in search of light, producing a longer, thinner and softer stalk. By trimming off the ears of wheat before they reached full maturity, the stalks maintained their elasticity, producing the ideal straw for weaving. This marked the first time that straw was grown specifically to be woven instead of being a repurposed leftover. Nothing was wasted as the farm animals made good use of the premature trimmings.

Milliners Grevi
A hat by Grevi based in Signa with a store in via dei Fossi, Florence
Part of the hat-making process

Following the agricultural breakthrough, the straw produced could be much more effectively and attractively woven, and a specific type of straw hat was developed in Signa. Weaving techniques and designs were developed, and the leap in quality soon saw the hats being exported all over the world. The model was locally named “the straw hat of Florence”, but became known internationally as the Leghorn hat, linking it instead to the port of Livorno from which it was shipped. Ambiguous geographical titles aside, the style achieved global recognition. Florence’s affinity with artisanal practice kept hat-making buoyant, something that has endured throughout the decades, even with the ebbing and flowing of hats in fashion.

Primario Nesti, based in Campi Bisenzio
Milliners My Mother Is A Biker
My Mother is a Biker, based in Florence

New milliners’ workshops have been consistently joining the more historic since the industry’s genesis three centuries ago, helped by the legacy and expertise of many family-run organizations. Some companies that still sell hats today can trace their origins back to the 19th century or to a direct ancestor of their current bosses. These companies prove the style’s durability in the face of fleeting trends and the dawn of fast fashion, whilst also seeking to modernize to global markets and current tastes, a particular challenge since the 1950s when trends broadly started to shift away from hats. At this point, they were seen as a symbol of the past and of a class-divided society, but the aesthetic value and connection to tradition has kept Florence’s milliners in business.

SuperDuper Hats Manifattura Tabacchi Ph. Marco Badiani
Behind the scenes at Super Duper Hats at Florence’s Manifattura Tabacchi. Ph. Marco Badiani

Since 1986, the Il Cappello di Firenze consortium has united the efforts of some of the area’s finest hat manufacturers. At present, the 12 companies comprising the association pride themselves on the quality of their products, materials used and constant innovations in manufacturing, which makes Tuscany a stronghold for the millinery of the future. Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the British Royal Family are among their loyal customers and their hats have also starred in blockbuster movies, such as Pretty Woman, Eat Pray Love and the Florence-based Tea With Mussolini

While the term millinery might belong to Milan with its dominant reputation in fashion, Florence’s claim to the trade is stronger as ever. Consider the milliner a profession—and a tradition—reclaimed.

Visit the Straw Museum in Signa

Museo Civico della Paglia. Ph. comune.signa.fi.it

The Museo della Paglia e dell’Intreccio in Signa is open Monday to Saturday, 9am to 1pm every day, and from 3 to 6pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The permanent collection of hats, machinery and other artifacts is periodically joined by exhibitions connected to weaving, embroidery, fashion, art and agriculture.

Where to buy a hat in Florence + Tuscany

Grevi Mode (via dei Fossi 7, Florence) is one of the oldest hat-makers in the consortium, founded in 1875. The original smokestack factory from when the business first began still survives, in Signa, and they have a showroom and outlet in the center of Florence. 

My Mother Is a Biker (via del Moro 58R, Florence) puts modern and decorative twists on the traditional models. Every hat is made individually to suit the customer, making them permanent accessories for every style. 

Superduper Hats (Manifattura Tabacchi, via delle Cascine 33, Florence) challenges the standard operating model of fashion e-commerce. They can make a hat in 72 hours, transforming the finest raw materials in the hands of their team of young artisans.

Primario Nesti (via Vittorio Alfieri 155G, Campi Bisenzio) is run by the great grandson of the company’s founder, who had been raised in a family of tailors, but ventured into hats after the second world war. Each model is still made by hand, and sold from their workshop in Campi Bisenzio. 

Visit Il Cappello di Firenze Consortium website to find out more about hat making in Florence.

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