An age-old feature of French fashion is new again, according to David Turecamo -- Our Man In Paris:
In the South of France is a small museum dedicated to a hat: the Beret. You know the small hat you always see artists and, well, French people in general wearing.
The French beret originated in the Pyrenees Mountains more than 400 years ago. Making one today draws on the same techniques that has been used for centuries, and yet it has never gone out of style.
It’s the must-have accessory of this season, according to Lord & Taylor’s fashion director Stephanie Solomon.
“It’s is the biggest trend we’ve seen in a long time, in terms of fashion accessories,” she said.
One hundred years ago, they were made on machines like one at left. Today the machines are faster, but almost as antiquated.
Mark Sanders is the sales and marketing director for Laulhère, the oldest traditional beret manufacturer in the world. They are the last manufacturer in France to make berets the way they do.
“In our heyday we employed up to 350 people,” Sanders said. “The factory worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Mark is Irish, and is part of the new management team that took over about four years ago after the former owners filed for bankruptcy. But rather than let it close, the employees fought to keep the plant alive.
“They spent their own money, they went and bought wool, brought it back here in their own cars, and they started making berets,” Sanders said. “It was very important for them not to let the machines stop.”
But the machines are just hardware, because the real work is done by hand.
“It is so specialized, you need a special touch,” said one employee.
And though they will produce about a quarter of a million berets in a year, it is a two-day process just to produce one.
Merino wool is knitted, looking like a large pizza before it’s cooked.
Then it goes through a process called felting, which shrinks the wool, making it soft and thick.
“Wool is a living material, and never the same,” Sanders said. “So you can put 400 berets in the machine at a time, but the time it takes to achieve the felting will change from batch to batch. So will actually check about every 15 minutes, like a chef would do in a kitchen.”
It’s then dyed, stretched and steamed to give it color, size and form.
Then it goes through a machine, whose drum is covered with abrasive metal brushes. “This machine here will actually scratch the wool to make the fibers stand up,” Sanders said.
Once they stand up, they can be sheared on another machine to make the fabric smooth.
“It really hurts our employees to know the French beret is being made in China or being made in India -- and most of all, sold in Paris,” Sanders said. “They’re making sure that this iconic product stays alive, and stays French.”
Alive, and just as French as Brigitte Bardot.
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