Boon & Lane supplies bespoke wooden and cast-aluminium hat blocks to leading milliners. Photograph by Richard Cannon.
Established by Peter Lane and John Boon in Luton in the 1960s, Boon & Lane is the only British company still producing handmade hat blocks. Now run by Peter’s son, Steve, and Alan Davies, who went to school together, this highly specialist firm supplies bespoke wooden and cast-aluminium hat blocks (used to shape and stiffen hats) to leading milliners such as Philip Treacy and John Boyd.
‘No one questions how hats are made, but it all starts here with plaster of Paris, sand and lots of mess,’ explains Alan (pictured). Starting at 6am each day, the pair creates hat blocks of all sorts of shapes and sizes – there are more than 10,000 ‘shapes’ squirrelled away in the premises. Hat blocks are either carefully fashioned from wood or moulded out of plaster of Paris, then tightly packed into a sandbox, with the void left by the mould filled with molten aluminium, then allowed to cool in the same way cannon-balls are made.
‘What we do is unique,’ Alan confirms. ‘Everything is handmade, so we’re not limited by machinery. It’s very labour intensive, but the upside is that you can have whatever shape you want.’
Although the trade has shrunk dramatically since the 1900s – most hats are now mass-produced from Chinese-made metal blocks – Boon & Lane is as busy as ever. ‘There’s always a backlog of work,’ admits Alan, who, despite having worn the same leather Outback hat for 14 years, is pleased his sons, aged 11 and nine, are keen on classic designs such as the trilby.
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Alan and Steve also confess to paying close attention to the elaborate hats guests wore to the wedding of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011. ‘We were watching and saying “We did that hat and that one”,’ laughs Alan. ‘It’s great to see our work as a finished hat and you’d be amazed at how we can recognise the shapes.’
Boon & Lane, 01582 723224; http://hatblockstore.co.uk
For more information about heritage craft skills, visit: http://heritagecrafts.org.uk/redlist
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