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The felting process began with camel hair in what is now a part of Turkey. The hair of camels was made into tough felt material for tents. It was discovered that the felting process was accelerated with the urine of the camel. The art was brought back to Western Europe by the followers of the Crusades. It become the habit for the workers to urinate on the fibres before felting them. The story goes that one particular workman (probably in France!) was being treated with mercury for a venereal disease. It was noticed that his fibres, after the treatment mentioned above, felted quicker and better than that of his more healthy comrades. This was the secret which gave the process the name of 'le secretage' in France. This may be an old wives tale, but it has been passed down in the Felt-hat Industry as the origin of the use of mercury.
The Huguenots were the main hat makers in France in the 1600s. It's thought that they possessed a secret technique, called secretage, for treating the fur with mercury nitrate to produce fine felt. Persecuted for their Protestant beliefs, they fled to England, taking the secretage process with them. England became the European centre for fur hat making.
In England the process of secretage became known as carroting because the mercury nitrate turned fur orange. Carroting was a necessary treatment for furs like rabbit to rough up the fine fibres to make them mat. Beaver fur is naturally serrated, so while carroting wasn't necessary, it made the matting process easier. Hatters later shaved the furs, boiled the fibres in acid, steamed and shaped the fabric into hats.
The term 'mad as a hatter' was not coined by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland, but was in widespread use when he wrote the book. The carroting process relied on toxic mercury nitrate that built up in the bodies of hatters over time. They suffered from tremors called 'hatters shakes' and from personality changes, irrationality, slurred speech and irritability. As an American hat making centre grew in Danbury, Connecticut, similar symptoms were recorded there as the 'Danbury shakes'. The use of mercury nitrate in hat making was finally banned there in 1941. Mad Hatter Syndrome is still used to describe mercury poisoning.