I left Basse Ariège to join Montazels in Aude. This trip which lasted around an hour and a half takes us through the bastide of Mirepoix and its covered market, Chalabre, Puivert and its medieval castle, right up to Espéraza.
Here we are in the Upper Aude Valley.
An industrial heritage in Occitania
I arrived in front of a building of 5000 M2. Thomas welcomed me and made me begin an absolutely magical visit to this felt hat factory, which is unique in France, MontCapel.
252 cooperators, grouped together in a SCIC (Cooperative Society of Collective Interest), had the wonderful idea of saving and rekindling this industrial heritage through the help of the municipality, owner of the buildings.
The industrial tool consists of a hundred machines which are required to manufacture woolen felt hats.
The millinery also has around 1,500 molds, which leads to 500 different models.
A unique know-how
One of the specificities of the millinery is its ability to make a hat entirely from wool, the raw material of a felt hat.
Due to this know-how, the factory produces “felt bells” the first element in the long creational process.
MontCapel acts as a subcontractor by offering:
- Felt bells to milliners, who make their own hats,
- Semi-finished hats,
- Finished hats for fashion brands.
Today, the company and its 12 employees have the capacity of making 350 hats per week.
The process of making a felt hat
It all starts with the Merino sheep wool from Arles…
This process has between 25 to 35 steps depending on the complexity of the hat, here are some of them:
1. Blending wools
2. Carding, which consists of disentangling and aerating the fibers to transform the wool into a veil of 1mm,
3. The winding of the veil on a double piece of wood known as “bi’-cone”,
4. Felting: this involves several operations to make the material more flexible, more resistant, denser, and waterproof. The bells are wrung out, dried, and go through the multi-rollers, drums…
5. The dye: To give the bell, until now white, its color.
6. Belling, during which the bell takes its final shape and size.
7. Last but not least, the final making of the hat.
I invite you to visit MontCapel website .
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The wool used in the manufacturing of felt bells comes from a specific species of sheep, raised in Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur, Rhône Alpes and Occitania. This species “Mérinos d’Arles” is quite recent and emerged between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, by crossing local ewes with fine wool and Merinos from Spain, from the Royal Sheepfold of Rambouillet. Merino sheep were offered to Louis XVI by his cousin the King of Spain, in 1786. A National Sheepfold was then created in Arles under the Empire.
The Merinos of Arles produce wool that is both qualitative and abundant. The establishment of the new species was carried out gradually during the 19th century.
The upper Aude valley and the hat industry
The Haute Vallée de l’Aude (Upper Aude Valley) has a long tradition of making hats dating back to the beginning of the 19th century.
Espéraza, a neighboring village, had 14 factories and employed 3,000 workers in 1929. Today there is a Hat Museum.
The upper Aude valley is a territory of great geographical (canyons, wine-growing hillsides) and historical diversity:
- Espéraza hosts Dinosauria, a paleontological museum specializing in the world of dinosaurs.
- Rennes le Château, deeply marked by the passage of Abbé Saunière, and the secret of the origin of the latter’s fortune. Many fables and hypotheses circulate around this source of wealth: Treasure of the Templars? Cathars?… It’s up to you to find out.
- Montazels is located in the “Cathar Country”, its medieval citadels, its valleys.
- Last but not least, the City of Carcassonne is located 50 minutes from Montazels.
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