We have to be thankful for the sweaty feet of farm workers long ago. If it were not for the habit of stuffing bits of wool into their shoes to make the long walk to work more comfortable, we might not have discovered felt. And then we would not have had the basic material for the hat industry which thrived in this country until the 1940s.
In order to make felt, as Year 6 pupils from Alexandra Park Junior School, Stockport, discovered, you need wool, heat, moisture and pressure. All these were present in farm-workers' shoes. The children are engaged in the satisfying task of making a decorated sample of felt from raw materials as part of a Terrific Textiles and Block to Box workshop at Hat Works, the museum of hatting in Stockport, Cheshire. The town was the centre of the hatting industry until people became more interested in hair than hats.
"The joy of making felt is that everyone can do it," says Lynne Taylor, education officer at the museum. "It can be as simple or as complicated as you like so this activity crosses all abilities and ages. Reception children can make pictures and Years 12 and 13 textile students treat it in a more sophisticated way."
Felt-making is just one of many programmes that the museum has to offer, covering history, science, DT, literacy, and PHSE aspects of the curriculum. In the Head Start programme for Reception to Year 2, you find out about the materials and processes used to make felt hats, observe machinery in operation, learn about the lives of factory workers and, most entertaining of all, have a chance to try on lots of hats.
Literacy "specials" throughout the year consist of storytelling and big-book work using museum objects and artefacts, and take place in a Mongolian yurt, a giant felt tent made by Stockport school children.
"We will adapt our programmes to suit a teacher's requirements," says Lynne Taylor. "Often we are asked if we can cover a particular aspect of science or history, and we will if we can. We are very flexible and have some talented staff. If we need more technical help, we will bring it in."
For older children, there are full and half-day workshops. Living History provides the chance to experience a day in the life of a Victorian child, including taking part in the school room and undertaking household chores in a hatter's cottage. Other workshops look at fashion, shopping and technology since 1930.
On the factory floor, the Alexandra Park children are told why hatters became mad - it was the mercury inhaled during the "planking" (the process of rolling and heating the hoods to complete felting) process. They compare material made from wool with that made from fur. "The fur feels nicer, silky and luxurious," is the verdict. The machines, originally from Christy's factory, clank into operation and the children see how the blocks for hats from cloth caps to policemen's helmets are made.
They are interested in the social stories hats have to tell. "The factory worker would wear this cloth cap," the guide demonstrates on one child.
"While the foreman would wear this bowler, and the owner would wear this top hat. And they would all take them off when speaking to a lady."
The children seem touched by the pleasure to be gained from wearing a hat.
"It's sad we don't wear them anymore," remarks one girl, eyeing up some bonnet trimmings. But the final large order was in the 1940s, for Trilbys to accompany each demob suit, and the last Stockport hat factory closed in 1997.
Hat Works, Wellington Mill, Wellington Road South, Stockport SK3 0EU
Admission from pound;2.40 to pound;4.50 per child depending on the programme.
Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; Sun 11am-5pm Tel: 0161 355 7770 www.hatworks.org.uk