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Good Fur for Cowboy Hats Hard to Round Up

Foreign demand, falling dollar and even global warming drive up cost of beaver and rabbit pelts.

October 19, 2005|From Associated Press

PENDLETON, Ore. — In some parts of the country, a man can be judged by the cut of his suit or his designer tie. Here, in a town known for its rodeo culture, men size one another up by the quality of their cowboy hats.

But good quality beaver and rabbit furs -- which are used to make felt for the hats -- are increasingly hard to find, making it more expensive to be a well-dressed cowboy. A top-grade hat can run as high as $6,000 today.

"It used to be you could pay $30 for a hat and it never leaked. Now you pay $300 and as soon as it clouds up, it leaks," said cowboy Bill McCoin, 55, a hired hand at a local cattle auction.

Hat makers, he said, used the best quality beaver and rarely mixed the high-grade fur with lower-quality pelts, such as rabbit, creating hats that were feather-light yet durable.

In Garland, Texas, home of the 140-year-old Stetson Hat Co., the cost of the raw materials determines the bottom line, said Gary Rosenthal, Stetson's product development manager. "And the raw material has gone up -- a lot," he said.

At the high end, for hats starting at $800, the felt is made of beaver. But at the lower end for hats in the $250 range, the felt is often mixed with rabbit fur, mostly from Europe, where rabbits are raised for meat and fur traders bid on the skins after the animal has been butchered.

The dollar's drop against the euro has made even inferior fur expensive for U.S. hat makers.

The exchange rate is only part of the problem. Chinese fur manufacturers have recently embraced rabbit as well as beaver for garments, pushing the bidding higher. And butchers are killing rabbits younger. Although the quality of the meat does not suffer, the fur does.

Another factor is the growth in popularity of white rabbits, whose fur is not as durable as that of their colored cousins.

Compared with rabbit, beaver always has been expensive. But in recent years, the pelts' price has climbed even higher.

In December 2002, wild beaver pelts averaged $14.86. A year later, the price surged to $17.96 and by December 2004, they averaged $20.02. The most recent figures -- for May -- have beaver pelts selling for $21.20, according to Fur Harvesters Inc.

Even hat makers that have the money to spend on top-of-the-line pelts find the best quality beaver often ends up in the hands of foreign competitors.

"Russia and China have been gobbling them up," said Dean Serratelli, co-owner of the Serratelli brand, the No. 2 cowboy hat company after Stetson. Add to that global warming.

The best quality fur comes from the underbelly of the beaver, which grows thick to protect the animal in the cold winter months. With winters around the world warmer than in the past, the pelts have not gotten as full as they did decades ago.

Quality -- or the lack of it -- is easy to detect, said Mike Wallis, owner of Red's Clothing Co. in Pendleton, a regular stop for style-conscious cowboys. "A really good hat is so light it's like putting a dollar bill on top of your head," Wallis said.

But it's strong enough that "you can lean back in a four-wheeler and stare at the stars and not have it blow off," he said.

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