Friday, April 29, 2011

Oh Joy! My Conformateur

I've just taken a huge plunge and invested in something that's been on my 'fantasy hat making' list for a long time- a conformateur set. I love these tools because they'll provide me with the rare ability to shape a hat to a customer's exact head *shape* in addition to their size. Something all new hat makers come to realize pretty quickly is that heads come in so many individual shapes; mass-produced hats are generally made in only one shape (regular, or average, oval), but every person's head is different, which is why so many people have a hard time finding hats to fit. It's similar to mass produced clothing, where since very few people have the same proportions of the 'average'-shaped fit model, the resulting clothes fit most people somewhat / not great, but fit many people not at all, and fit only very few people very well. Fit in hats can be even more important than in clothing, because there is so little tolerance between a hat that fits comfortably and a hat that doesn't. Custom shaping gives a much better fit than relying on size alone, and is even more important in harder hats, like traditional top hats and some bowlers, which are so stiff they're not even really wearable without a proper fit. I'd love to start producing really nice, old-school full size top hats, so being able to provide custom fitting is crucial for me.

In terms of my yearning for a conformateur set, it also doesn't hurt that the set looks like something invented by Jules Verne! I've been actively searching for one in good condition for some time, with little success until now. They're quite rare to find, and almost never seen with more than one piece of a set together. I've never seen *any* pieces in such excellent condition before, have never seen or even heard of a full set being found all together before, and don't expect to again.

This system for providing custom shaping for hats was invented by a French company called Maillard in the 19th century. Mine was patented by an Argentinian company called Vega.

Here is a diagram of a typical conformateur.

Maillard's initial design was originally intended to be used in phrenology, (some silly people in the 19th century thought that the shape of the skull dictated personality traits), but the machine was soon re-engineered for use in hat-making (much more practical).

Here's how it works.

The piece that looks like a top hat made from piano parts is the 'conformateur'.
It is placed on the head like so, at whatever angle the customer likes to wear their hat (tilted forward, back, straight on, etc.):

Here's mine:

The levers that come down from the top are attached to little fingers inside that are gently pushed inward to touch the head all around its circumference. There is also a vertical ruler on the side, attached to a pad inside that touches the top of the head, to measure the height of the head. Here's what the inside looks like (held upside down):

Just for comparison, to give you an idea of why I'm so excited, conformateurs are usually found in pretty rough shape, more like this:

Or at the very least dirty, rusty, with a few missing or broken pieces. And who knows how much wear and tear to the mechanical parts on the inside that's not apparent on first glance.

While the conformateur is on the head, after the fingers are pressed in so that they are conforming to the head shape, a piece of paper is placed into a frame on the top of the machine. Little pins stick out of the top of the machine, each one attached to one of the fingers, so that the pins now reflect the head shape as well, but in miniature. The frame swings down on a hinge to press the paper into the pins, perforating the paper. In this photo, you can see that the inside of the frame is lined in cork, and there are little holes in the cork where the pins have pressed.

The perforations in the paper make a pattern that's a recording of the person's head shape.

The hat maker then cuts the pattern out with scissors along the perforations to store for future use. Here are some examples of the paper patterns. Because it's a shrunken version of the person's head shape, any bumps and asymmetry in the head shape (we all have them) are exaggerated in the pattern, as you can see here.

In the next step, the paper pattern is used to re-create the customer's head shape with a different tool, called a formillon.

Most of the time, high-end mens hat makers use band blocks, discs of wood made to a set of standard head sizes and shapes (the measurement of the customer's head; regular oval, long oval, or broad oval), at the end of the hat-making process to set the size and shape of the hat.

What the formillon does is to create a custom band block for the customer, on the fly whenever needed, using the paper template as a guide. As you can imagine, depending on the circumstances of the individual hat maker, storing custom band blocks for lots of customers could be prohibitive in terms of storage space, not to mention expensive to have them all custom made. And in any case, a really good way to get the exact head shape is needed to create a custom band block in the first place (this is even fiddlier and more difficult to do than it sounds), which points back to the conformateur. I love the idea of being able to use one formillon to do custom shaping for an an unlimited number of customers, and all you have to store is the one set of tools plus the paper patterns.

The formillon also has little fingers like those on the inside of the conformateur. They are mounted on a brass oval, and can slide in and out to expand and contract to make different shapes.

The screws that hold the fingers in place are tightened down with a key, like this one from my set. I've never seen an antique conformateur key before, only seen them in period illustrations.

To re-create the shape of the customer's head, the paper pattern is mounted in the center of a plot board. You can see the little oval in the center, where the pattern goes. I've never come across an antique plot board before this one I've just purchased, only seen them in the patent illustrations and old hat making manuals.

Then, the formillon is placed around the pattern onto the board, pushing the inside end of its fingers to touch the edges of the paper, like so:

Here's my formillon on my plot board.

Because the fingers of the conformateur and the formillon are calibrated to correspond to each other, the outside edge of formillon now mirrors the shape of the customer's head as measured by the conformateur. For the final shaping, the finished hat is slipped down over the formillon and takes on its shape.

I've just purchased this set from a dealer in Argentina and await its arrival anxiously. It was advertised as being in museum condition, very close to mint condition, so I'm hoping it won't need very much work to get it up and running properly. I'll send it out for a bit of repair if needed, then I'll be able to roll out custom shaping as an additional service to my customers. All I'll need is to be able to take a measurement of their head once, and from then on can custom shape hats for them, even for long distance / mail order sales. I plan to have a travel box made for the comformateur so that I can take it with me when I travel to different cities, taking measurements as I go along. The possibilities! I'm totally thrilled.


  1. You just solved a mystery for me. On a visit to Lock&Co in London I took a picture of some odd shaped pieces of paper with famous signatures. Now I see these were the head shapes of famous clients who were purchasing bowlers and top hats.

    How cool!

    photo from flickr

    Lock & Co

  2. That's right, Austin, some of the old-school hat makers in the UK have paper patterns on display of past clients. I can now offer the same custom-fitting service to my customers.

  3. What a wonderfully informative blog post. Well done! I always wondered what happened with this device after the impression on paper was made.

  4. I have a Lock & Co top hat, and it's very specific in fit. They'll refit it if I ever get to London. I have a fairly dolichocephalic head (long and narrow) and it's hard to find to a nice fitting hat. I walked into an antique store once, and found a straw skimmer from a long time ago, and it fit perfectly - they made all shapes back then.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing. I have seen the device but never with this information.

  6. Would you care to share the cost? I'm interested in one as well, and I just don't know what kind of investment I'm getting myself into. ;)

  7. What a wonderfully informative blog post. Well done! I always wondered what happened with this device after the impression on paper was made.