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Hat trick Craftsman keeps straw skills alive

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wohlen in the northern canton of Aargau was one of the major centres for woven straw production anywhere in the world, and even supplied the top international fashion houses. Kurt Wismer is one of Switzerland's last professional hat makers.

The farmhouse where he lives and works is the one he grew up in, and is more than 200 years old. Hats for women account for more than half his output, but there is no woman in the house to try on his creations. Wismer has never married, and prepares his own lunch on the ancient wood stove himself. He trained in the Huber hat factory, a few hundred metres from his home. Today he makes his hats in the attic rooms that were once his nursery.

There are two kinds of straw hat: knotted or stitched. Wismer sits close to the window, bending slightly over the oval limewood block, on to which he draws the carefully selected stalks of straw which he then ties together. It takes him a whole day to make a classic knotted hat, once known in English as a "yeddo" hat: the crown alone takes two hours. For this he uses locally grown wheat straw. More expensive models are made with rye straw. He cuts, dries and sorts the raw material himself.

In the next room is a Grossmann-Dresdensia B sewing machine, dating from 1900. A broad-brimmed hat needs a strip of woven straw about 30 metres long. It takes half an hour to sew it and it is then steam-pressed into its final shape. The outside of the hat is trimmed with a coloured border and bow, while inside is a fabric binding.

(Pictures and text: Thomas Kern,

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