in Bad Ischl
Katharina Bittner is a 6th generation milliner
What do Michael Jackson and Emperor Franz Joseph have in common? They both wore an original Bad Ischl hat. The Bittner millinery has been on Bad Ischl Esplanade since 1862. Now in its sixth generation, the family business sells hats to customers around the world. Today, Kathi Bittner creates and trims handmade wool hats, and with her own signature collection she has breathed new life into the traditional head coverings. There are only four businesses like this in the whole of Austria.
Steam, iron, brush, trim and shape – Kathi Bittner is deft at every touch. “Not much has actually changed about the manufacturing process in the last 160 years, since my great-great-great-great-grandfather founded the business,” says Katharina, who is in her late twenties, as she shapes a steamed woollen blank over a lime wood block. She adjusts the hat, moulding and brushing the sheep’s wool into shape. “Fashion is very different nowadays,” she adds. Distinct shapes, strong colours and high-quality materials are what customers from around the world want to buy from the Bittners in particular. Around 15,000 hats per year make their way over the counter. Alongside the “Kathi Bittner” range, the traditional “Kaiserhut” emperor’s hat with chamois beard and cord is the family business’s flagship product.
The Kathi Bittner range is characterised by distinct shapes, strong colours and high-quality materials.
With hat in hand
The young fashion designer has each headpiece in her hands around 70 times before it’s ready for sale.
From a scout hat or bowler hat to the cylindrical top hat, the small hat manufacturing business sells everything, so it can fulfil even the most unusual customer requests. In the workshop in Schützenbichl there are around 2000 wooden hat moulds. And these moulds can be combined with countless brims. Which means keeping on top of all the options is no mean feat ...
It’s a well-known fact that Emperor Franz Joseph wore Bittner hats. “My predecessors were suppliers by appointment to the court. That was an extraordinary privilege.” But not just the emperor – King of Pop Michael Jackson wore an “Original Ischler Hat” on his head too. “Jackson was a passionate hat-wearer. We sent him a hat, which made its way to him via what felt like a rather roundabout route. He did actually wear it at some point, but sadly I don’t have the photo any more. I gave it to a magazine to print and never got it back.”
How a blank becomes a hat
The wool or fur felt blanks are called bodies. They are placed over a mould made of lime wood and heated in steam. After they have been moulded in the steam they are dried. Between the individual stages, Bittner works the headpiece continuously with a soft brush so that the hat has a “nice grain”. It’s this “grain” that is the mark of quality of a well made hat. After it has been dried, the hat is finished: the brim is attached and the lining band is sewn on. Then comes the trim, where the hat is decorated with straps or bows.
Giving joy for 40 years
What does Kathi Bittner like most about her work? The variety and creativity – “I make people happy every day, when they put their hat on. Recently a customer came in to have a 40-year-old Bittner hat freshly steamed. She said she had been given the hat 40 years ago by her husband for her birthday. Needless to say, we made it look good again and brushed it. And now the woman can carry on enjoying her headpiece. Is there any better job than that?"
Top three Ischl insider tips from Kathi Bittner
The Habsburgs and the Salzkammergut
“White gold” has been mined in the Salzkammergut for more than 7000 years. Up until the 19th century, salt was one of the most important export goods, alongside iron and linen. It was also a means of taxation, making it a central component of the royal “Kammer” (an administrative authority for the provinces of Lower Austria) and the treasury. The income from the Salzkammergut defrayed up to 25 per cent of the emperor’s annual costs. No wonder, then, that members of royalty frequently liked to travel to the Salzkammergut for their summer break to check up on things. Until the 18th century, the Salzkammergut was a “state within a state” – with high salt prices due to a policy of monopoly. Bad Ischl was often called the Monte Carlo of old Austria by the locals.
2024 Capital of Culture
Together with 23 other municipalities from the Salzkammergut, Bad Ischl is the 2024 European Capital of Culture. “Culture is the new salt” is the motto. The aim is also to discuss current issues such as overtourism in Hallstatt, for example, and the rural exodus among young people. However the focus of the year of culture is on salt and the power of water as emblems for the entire region.
For more information, visit: salzkammergut-2024.at