THE ABANDONED FACTORY IN BELGIUM
‘Hoedhaar’ was an abandoned hat factory. Lokeren has been important in the hat and felt trade for a long time. Until the late 1960’s the city was the world centre for this industry.
Hoedhaar imported specific breeds of rabbit to produce felt for its famous hats. After the animals were brought into the factory, the first process was to remove the fur from the rabbit, cut open the skin and remove the ears and feet. The second process was in hands of the female employees working in the factories. The wind hair from the animals was cleared off the skin and used as pillow filling. Only the underfur of the animals was used, because only this fur was suitable for the matting process involved in felt making.
The Mad Hatter
After these first two steps, it went to the male employees, the hatters. They did the more dangerous work. The tanning process, with chemicals like mercury, turned the skins into fur. It involved as many kinds of chemical as cloth. Breathing in these fumes is very unhealthy, but for the hatter it was just one of the hazards of the trade. Working in poorly ventilated workshops caused symptoms like trembling, loss of memory and mood swings. In fact the brain damage caused by inhalation drove a good number of them out of their minds. Hence the term The Mad Hatter.
Out of the 35 factories, there is only one active hat factory left in Lokeren. Changes in both fashion and environmental laws ended most of the trade after the 1960s. In recent years, many of the traditional hat factories have been faced with closure as a result of cheaper imports from both the Eastern block countries as well as the Far East.
The site consisted of a street with two large buildings on both sides and some smaller ones at the end. The buildings were not in good shape, but there were still some machinery there. You can still recognize the blower machines in one of the rooms. Eventually the site was demolished in 2009 and the first houses were build on these grounds in 2014. I visited ‘Hoedhaar Lokeren’ in 2006.