Felt Hatters & Journeymen
The Victorian Association of Journeymen Felt Hatters was established in 1878. In 1912 it officially joined with a number of other unions: Australasian Association of Felt Hatters (established 1892), South Australian Association of Journeymen Felt Hatters (established 1887), Victorian Felt Hat Trimmers and Binders’ Society (established 1891) and New South Wales Society of Journeymen Felt Hatters and Trimmers and Binders (established 1902).
Together they formed the Federated Felt Hatting Employees’ Union of Australasia and provided representation for hatters and milliners. The union was registered under the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act on 29 June 1912 although the amalgamation had established it in 1911. As a union it operated under formally structured divisions as follows:
No. 1 Division – journeymen, felt hatters, managers, sub-managers, proofers, dyers and foremen. Machine blockers, pressers and pullers-up could choose to join this division or No. 3 Division.
No. 1A Division – all employees wholly or partially engaged in work covered by the terms of the Federated Felt Hatting Award Appendix Part 1, Millinery Award, 1948.
No. 2 Division – trimmers, binders, wool formers, weighers, feeders, apprentices and forewomen.
No. 3 Division: assistants and any employed in the felt hat trade who are not members of other unions.
The Federated Felt Hatting Employees' Union of Australasia and its predecessors flourished from the nineteenth century up until midway through the twentieth century in what was a protected domestic industry. Hats were in great fashion at the time and Australia had an abundance of the key component in making a great quality felt hat – rabbits. Australian rabbit skins were in great demand both here and overseas, with large quantities exported to the USA and UK. As troublesome as rabbits were for Australian fauna and flora, selling rabbit skins became huge business and the work of preparing rabbit fur for felt hats employed many people.
A 1934 article in The Age about the Australian hat industry reported that the first felt hat factory was established in Melbourne in the early 1880s and by the 1930s there were 78 hat factories in Australia employing over 3,000 people. Their work was painstaking and included “some twenty-seven distinct operations, from the early fur cutting, blowing, forming, hardening, settling, crazing, bumping, dyeing, stamping and pouncing, down to such later finishing processes as steaming, pressing, curling, rounding, trimming, velouring and the packing of the finished article” (The Age 1934). As part of these processes, hatters applied a variety of chemicals to assist with smoothing of the felt, including mercury, which led to significant health problems for workers and the colloquially known ‘mad hatter’s disease’, which was essentially mercury poisoning of the central nervous system.
The union re-registered as the Federated Felt Hatting & Allied Trade Employees' Union of Australia in 1950 but in ensuing years the industry, and consequently, the union, began to wane with the multiple onslaught of mechanisation, imports, and changes tastes in fashion.
In 1984 the union amalgamated with the Australian Textile Workers' Union and in 1987 became the Amalgamated Footwear and Textile Workers' Union of Australia after another amalgamation, this time with the Australian Boot Trade Employees' Federation.
By 1992, this union had merged with the Clothing and Allied Trades Union of Australia to form the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA).
In March this year, both the TCFUA and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) amalgamated with the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) to form the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union of Australia (CFMMEU).
The Noel Butlin Archives Centre holds several deposits of records of the Federated Felt Hatting and Allied Trade Employees’ Union of Australia Federal Office and Victorian and New South Wales Branches from the late 1800s to the 1990s. These deposits also include records relating to the Victorian Association of Journeymen and the Australian Textile Workers’ Union.
‘Making hats’, The Age, 6 September 1934, p. 24, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/205883962>
National Museum of Australia, From paddock to pate: good Australian felt, 25 January 2016, <https://pateblog.nma.gov.au/2016/01/25/from-paddock-to-pate-good-australian-felt/>