The Hats of Montappone
The small but historic town of Montappone, in the Fermana hills in the province of Ascoli Piceno in Italy's Marche region, is the center of Europe's most important hat-producing district. Over 60 million hats made of straw, fabric, felt, wool and leather are produced every year in the area, equaling 70 percent of Italian production and 50 percent of Europe's. In Montappone, a town of 1,800 inhabitants, 50 percent of the population is directly or indirectly employed in hat production, and there are around 1,500 people employed in the sector. Hat making is at the core of this small hilltop town, just as it has been for 800 years.
The tradition of producing hats, or cappelli, began in 1300 when hats were used exclusively for farming activities. Grain harvesting produced straw, which was then braided to be used as a raw material for making straw hats. The customary harvest hat was hand-sewn with a large needle and thread, edge to edge, with one stitch on the inside and one on the outside.
As early as the 17th century, the area around Montappone specialized in the working of straw for the production of hats, together with the nearby towns of Massa Fermana, Monte Vidon Corrado, Falerone, Mogliano, Loro Piceno and Sant'Angelo in Pontano. Hats were produced by hand-weaving straw, a simple but time consuming task that locals did while doing something else, like walking about the town. This is evidenced by a 19th-century fresco that hangs in the town’s municipal hall, which features figures walking about Montappone’s townscape with golden ribbons streaming from their hands.
The traditional craft working of straw hats was transformed over the years into the production on a vast scale, and towards the end of the 19th-century, the town became the first Italian center to industrialize hat production. The first genuine straw hat factories appeared in the 1890s, and were small workshops that employed their own workers. It was only in the late 1950s that the Hat District became a highly specialized single-industry hub.
Since the second half of the 1980s, strong competition inside the district and the production innovations introduced by the businesses of Montappone have driven many companies to strategically reposition. Producers have elevated themselves from makers of standardized hats at a low price to highly differentiated producers of hats with significant added value. This leap in quality has allowed the hat district of Montappone to become an extremely dynamic area which has obtained success all over the world.
One of the largest companies in the town is Icas, with over 100 employees. Compared to the dominant situation in the area of family sized companies, Icas is a real giant, producing 10 million hats a year. Owned by the Sorbatti family, the company started out as a small artisan operation 70 years ago and has since transformed into a modern, dynamic and strong firm, rooted in the Marche’s entrepreneurial tradition. Icas has received orders from the Italian Army and was the exclusive producer of the World Cup caps for Italy in 1990 and France in 1998. The company has grown over the years, adding items in fabric and felt alongside traditional straw hats, to diversify production and reach higher bands of the market.
Today, hat making remains Montappone’s largest source of both income and tourism. The art is celebrated by the Museum of Hats in Montappone, where visitors can learn the entire hat making process, from straw picking and selection, to plaiting, weaving and sewing. Each step is illustrated by slides, pictures, panels and vintage machines. There is a remarkably wide collection of traditional and innovative hats, including the priceless straw hat last worn by the Italian cinema maestro and film director Federico Fellini.
Every year the town of Montappone plays host to an international hat show: "Il Cappellaio Pazzo," or The Mad Hatter, whose last edition attracted around 3000 people. The three day affair celebrates customs old and new, as “master hatters” use traditional methods to transform cappelli into elaborate works of art. This spectacle takes place in late July when the wheat harvest begins, signaling the dawn of a new year of hat making in Montappone.