Aussie Icons Series: Akubra Hats Australia
Today, Akubra is a fifth-generation family run business. Back at the beginning, Benjamin Dunkerley – an Englishman from a family of cotton weavers based in Stockport, Cheshire – emigrated to Australia in1974. He sent for his wife and six children soon after. He teamed up with a Mr. Glenhill and, together, they established the Kensington Hat Mills. The factory was situated in Glenorchy, now a suburb of Hobart, Tasmania, and soon was employing 30 workers and producing 750 hats per week. Unfortunately, due to the difficulties faced with production the company faced some financial difficulties and was declared bankrupt in 1879.
Fast forward a few years, a number of international patents, some very clever inventions to streamline production and the making of a new business partnership with a Mr. Dugdale in 1893, the Kensington Hat Mill was again breeding some success. The factory was moved first to Melbourne, then to Sydney in 1900. In 1904, a hat maker named Stephen Keir from Manchester, England, entered the employ of Mr. Dunkerley. Stephen Keir and the daughter of Dunkerley (Ada) worked in the factory together and fell for each other. They wed in 1905. The current managing director, Stephen Keir IV is the great-great-grandson of this union.
The origin of the brand name ‘Akubra’ is lost in time, although we know it came into use in 1912. It is believed the word was an Aboriginal word meaning ‘head covering’, but who knows? What we do know is that the company Akubra Hats Australia has gone from strength to strength over the last century and has become part of the national identity of many, many Australians for generations.
The famous hats have been a part of country life ever since these humble beginnings. Offering the hard-working country men and women of the outback good-looking protection from the harsh Australian climate, these hats have in recent years been seeing an ever-increasing popularity with city folk, celebrities and the younger generation. Hugh Jackman is often photographed wearing his Cattleman, Prince William owns a Coober Pedy, Sam Armytage prefers her Avalon, while Lisa Wilkinson rocks the Coolabah. The wide range of around 60 styles means there is a style for everyone – men and women – whether you need a wide brim or a higher crown, there will be a style to suit your needs and your style.
Step 1: The rabbit fur is blended and cleaned to remove clotted hair, dirt, and any impurities. This is done on a multipart blowing machine, by the end of the process the fur looks more like downy cotton than rabbit fur.
Step 2: ‘Forming’- the fur is sucked onto large revolving cones and sprayed with hot water as it rotates. This begins the felting process and begins to lock the fur fibres together in each direction. At this point the hat form is tall and fragile and ready for shrinking.
Step 3: Shrinking- the hat form is now wrapped in cloth and placed between rollers for shrinking. The shrinkage is dramatic at first, and slows as the hat approaches its finished size, about a third of the size it entered this process.
Step 4: Dying and proofing- the dying is carried out in large vats that can hold around 200 hats. There are many, many colours you can buy your Akubra in, and they are continually developing beautiful new colours to add to their range. The hat forms are impregnated with a shellac solution, known as proofing, which offers the fibres some protection and stiffens the fur felt to give the shape and construction better durability.
Step 5: Blocking- the hats, which are currently cone shaped, are dipped in hot water to make them pliable and are manipulated over ribbed frames. The crown is taking shape, and the brim is now broken out.
Step 6: Stoving- the wet hat forms are placed on racks and are slowly dried overnight in what is essentially a warm oven. Warm air is circulated around for even and complete drying.
Step 7: Pouncing- the still fluffy felt forms are sanded and brushed to make the proper surface. Quality control now step in to ensure every hat despatched has no imperfections like stretch marks, blemishes, or holes. The hats are now stretched over hat blocks to give them their correct size, then are held in place while the brim is shaped flat and clear away from the crown and begin to look like recognisable Akubras. The hats are now ironed to give a smooth surface. The heat reacts with the shellac to set the shape and give the brim durability.
Step 8: Creasing- The hat is pulled onto a wooden hat block, steamed and left to set with the correct crown shape and correct size. The Huon pine hat blocks are precious and given much care to keep them in good condition.
Step 9: Trimming- the hat is clipped and the trimmings (sweatband, hatband, edge ribbon and any embellishments like feathers) are added at this point, including the iconic Akubra crest and it’s ‘Made in Australia’ stamp. The brim is moistened to help shaping, and gently manipulated into its final shape.
Step 10: Packing- all that remains is to carefully pack the hays and send your finished hat out from the factory. Akubra hats are sent all over the world, including to us, right here at Lake Leather.
There are not many things in this world more Australian than a well-worn Akubra. Whether you live on the land or live in the city, the appeal of these iconic hats is certainly not waning today. The troubles faced in the past year have reminded people of the value of slow fashion, things that are well made and made to last. That is certainly what you get when you invest in an Akubra. The unprecedented demand they have seen since the start of this year means that production cannot keep up with demand, and we retailers have all been put on rations for the time being. Your orders may take some time to get to you, but it is certainly worth the wait. We are pleased and proud to be stockist of these Aussie icons, so don’t hesitate to pop in to find your new favourite hat at Lake Leather Evandale and Campbell Town!