Hats for sale at Chapellerie
Hats for sale at Chapellerie Hats Block Laforest, where the blocks on the shelves are the main business. Credit © Gillian Thornton

Northeast of Montauban, on the road to Cahors, the hat industry in Caussade employed more than 2,000 people during the 19th century. Among its specialities was the canotier style of straw boater, as worn by singer Maurice Chevalier.

Just two local companies still manufacture felt hats, while a third works in straw, but Caussade is still renowned for quality millinery, producing haute-couture designs for companies such as Lacoste, Yves Saint Laurent and Hermès. And in the midst of it all is Didier Laforest, not a hat maker but – appropriately for a man with a woodland surname – an expert maker of hat blocks, the wooden forms used by designers to shape their creations.

“I work in lime wood, which is good to sculpt, but has to be dried for three years before it is ready to use,” explains Didier, whose grandfather made carts and whose father also worked in timber. So rare is his skill that UNESCO includes Didier on its Patrimoine Vivant list of Rare and Exceptional Crafts.

Each block takes many hours to complete and Didier is currently working on commissions for clients in Sydney, Berlin and Paris. Meanwhile, his Russian wife, Aliona, produces exquisite floral decorations for hats and headpieces from silk and leather.

Their workshop lies behind a shop and show room packed with headgear, from straw boaters to berets, wedding hats to Peaky Blinders caps. Drop in to browse or buy, but book ahead for a workshop tour by Didier (June-September for individuals) and an insight into local and global millinery.

For more information about Chapellerie Hats Blocks Laforest: www.hatsblocks.com

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From France Today magazine