The World of Sustainable Hat Making
In “Cheers,” the 80s American sitcom of that Boston bar where everybody knows your name, an interesting history of hats unfolds during the theme song.
As Ted Danson and the rest of the cast’s names dance across the screen, chummy men and women clinking glasses can be identified by their respective eras based on the types of hats they are wearing — from top hats and elegant, feathered Victorian hats to boaters and fedoras to derbies and fiddler caps.
Earlier modes of transportation, such as horseback and the many horse-drawn carriages that enabled expansion, gave rise to the hat. This practical accessory, which predates sunscreen, could provide shade and protect the face from sun and rain. The Ancient Greeks are cited to be the first who sported petasos, or brimmed-hats, that shielded their skin from the strong Mediterranean sun.
Obi Kauffman, author of “The California Field Atlas” and “The State of Water,” said “The right hat, to the child of the West, is a psychic filter that makes all climatic environments the same, and gives proper license to ambulate anywhere and everywhere, when called.”
But once the Model T, Ford Motor Company’s first affordable automobile, hit the pavement in 1908, the popularity of hats dematerialized. Low roofs left little room for a person to sit up straight with his or her hat on. Once inside the car, people no longer needed hats for protection.
In the last four or five years, however, hats have become fashionable again. Dana Estelle of The BKMC, an acronym for Brooklyn Millinery Company, posits that people are becoming a little more braver and bolder in their fashion choices.
According to Statista, an online portal that provides statistics and quantitative data from 425 economic divisions in various countries, revenue in the hats and caps segment has steadily increased in the last decade. Come 2023, this segment is expected to see a 6% compound annual growth rate (CAGR). A bar graph indicates that roughly $7,295 million U.S. dollars was spent on hats in 2019, with over nine million projected to be spent in the next decade.
At d’emploi studio, a creative space Estelle shares with two other artists in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, she creates custom, one-of-a-kind hats for both men and women. Her clientele includes both national and international hat lovers and, most recently, Nashville’s Best New Artist Grammy-nominee singer-songwriter, Margo Price, who wore a custom BKMC during her “Good Morning America” performance this past winter. Price also wore a BKMC hat in April when she received the honorary title of Style Icon from Nashville Fashion Week.
Estelle did not always know she was going to be a hat maker, though her creative muscle was inherent. Her mother taught her how to sew at a young age, and as a teen Estelle shopped at the Salvation Army, buying second-hand clothing to which she would cut off sleeves and swatches of fabric to sew onto her own creations.
In school she felt limited. Save for Home Economics’ sole unit on pillow making, creative outlets in textile and design were scant.
After high school, she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Apparel and Textile Science from SUNY Oneonta. Then, wishing she had pursued a degree in something with more artistic flair, she enrolled at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. There she delved into fashion but soon realized it was not the avenue she had anticipated. This epiphany was perhaps elucidated by the number of her peers who did not know how to sew.
“My time at Parsons was not great,” she admitted.
She had felt unchallenged, but the experience helped her realize her true calling.
On campus she became friends with people who dressed in drag. She would often make them head pieces for photoshoots.
“It just kind of clicked,” she recalled. “I’m more of a maker and that is what really brought me here as opposed to being a designer or a drawer.”
Following this epiphany, Estelle began a degree in hat making at the Fashion Institute of Technology [FIT], an experience she credits to her current success as a hat maker. Learning under the instruction of teachers who had been in the profession is a skill she said cannot be learned from YouTube. Mastering a craft or skill takes constancy and tenacity; it is through repetition that a foundation is cemented. And with this foundation in place, Estelle is able to grapple whatever trials and tribulations may emerge.
“I really like to just make everything that I’m selling.”
“I really like to just make everything that I’m selling. So I’ve been really fortunate to find a craft that fits into that realm,” she said.
While at FIT, Estelle remembered “hats not really being a ‘thing.’” In the last four years, however, the industry has returned from what she refers to as “this ghostly industry.” Today, she is grateful to have a modern market for people who want custom hats.
Another reason why she thinks people have gravitated toward hats again is that people are more into well-made goods.
To learn what factors influence how consumers feel about brands and what impacts their shopping habits, Nielsen, the British data firm, polled 30,000 consumers from 60 countries. Its findings reported that “66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable goods” while 73% of Millennials are willing to do so.
“What really irks me,” she told me on a recent sunny afternoon at her studio, “is this whole fast fashion thing, the way that our clothing is made, the way we’re treating people who are making our clothing — and how we can just ignore that in order to look cute.”
To maintain sustainability, she is focused on using the highest quality materials. This way, a person will need fewer hats in his or her life because one hat will last a lifetime.
“It’s really important to me that these hats can be passed down from generation to generation,” she said.
She also does not accept refunds because she does not want to see expensive materials go to waste. She finds it ludicrous to waste a beaver’s life on somebody who does not quite know what he or she wants. Fortunately she has never even remotely come close to a client who has been disgruntled over her refund policy.
While a beaver’s life is not sustained through the hat making process, Estelle maintains a level of sustainability in terms of labor and waste reduction.
She uses 100X beaver felt, a natural water repellant, to make hats. (The X system can be perplexing: some hat companies have different scales but typically 100X and 10X means 100% beaver felt). Beaver felt is made similarly to how paper is made — by pressing, matting, and condensing natural beaver fur or fibers (not the skin, which is a common misconception) together.
This unique design, with its memory-like material, can be molded and reshaped multiple times. If a hat gets crushed in the overhead bin of an airplane, for instance, it can essentially be reshaped, eliminating the need to shell out money for a new hat. At her studio, Estelle will reshape or iron out a person’s hat for free because, as she put it, “well-made clothes, well-made shoes, and well-made hats can be repaired and can be worn for so long. We just need to get out of this disposable cycle that we’re in.”
A beaver’s life is not spared when its pelt is removed. At the end of the day, she said, a beaver is a rodent, and in some regions in North America, it is detrimental to the environment.
“It is something that I struggle with,” she said of the beaver’s life.
Some hat makers will use wool felt as an alternative, but it does not possess the same structure as beaver felt does, so stiffeners have to be added. Also, wool is not water-resistant. This alternative, Estelle said, “won’t last nearly as long, so you would be having to buy more hats.”
Animal fur, as indicated in the article, “From Felt to Pelt: the Making of a Beaver Top Hat,” has “microscopic ‘teeth’” that fasten together with the aid of heat and moisture. For centuries, beaver fur has been considered “superior” for hat making because these “teeth” are prominent on the inner wool of the animal pelt.
She justifies using beaver felt by reminding herself that she is making the best quality hats.
“I spend a lot of time on making them, so I know that they are going to last generations, and that’s the most important thing to me,” she said.
Down in the swampy marshlands of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, the invasive nutria, a type of semi-aquatic rodent, poses a threat. Since the 1930s, when the rodent was brought to America from South America to restore the muskrat decline, the nutria has proliferated in population. With its long, buck teeth and 14-pound body mass, it is responsible for the coastal degradation of some 1,900 square miles.
Though levee systems along the Mississippi River and dredged canals brought on by oil and gas companies certainly contribute to this wetland loss, this giant rodent does too. The documentary, “Rodents of Unusual Size,” informs audiences of the implications brought on by a “governmental abdication and lack of foresight onto a single giant rodent.”
Because their fur is similar to that of a beaver, some hat makers have begun using 100X nutria fur felt, inadvertently contributing to the restoration of Louisiana’s wetlands. Estelle plans to obtain a sample of the nutria fur felt and test it out.
She uses natural embellishments she finds while hiking in the Catskills, such as feathers, as well as dried flowers she salvages from events around the city before they make their way into the trash. If a client is looking for a particular feather, say a peacock feather, and wants that feather dyed lilac, she will contact her feather guy in NYC’s garment district, though she prefers foraging them in the wild. She believes that “Feathers should have a certain life to them.”
She wears her hats every single day, often getting stopped and complimented by passersby on subway cars throughout the city. When people ask where she got the hat and she then hands them her business card, they are incredulous: “Wow, I’ve never met a hat maker before.”
One of her most impressive designs is the new mushroom hat, a labor of love that innovatively makes use of a laser cutter. First, she traced the brim of a hat on tracing paper, drew various mushrooms and fungi by hand in a circular pattern to match the brim, then scanned it. Once the image was scanned into the computer, it linked to the laser cutter machine. She then placed the hat in the machine, which uses the scanned image to detect the edge of the actual hat brim before lasering the design onto the hat. Finally, using a laser cutter, she permanently singed the design onto the brim like a tattoo on the skin.
Some hat makers use a woodturning knife to achieve this effect, but because Estelle’s drawings were so delicate and detailed, a laser cutter’s precision was needed. She also pointed out how Photoshop — if she was well-versed in it — could accelerate this time-consuming process. She prefers to take her time though, retracing each mushroom by hand.
“I love the entire, slow process,” she said.
Estelle, who has always loved eating mushrooms, feels intrinsically connected to them. Growing up in the Hudson Valley of the Catskills, she recalls a childhood foraging for fungi with her siblings.
Recently she had an interesting realization when she was foraging: mushrooms all wear hats.
“Why do I love mushrooms so much? Maybe the mushroom journey has brought me too these hats” she said with a laugh. Since this realization, she has been on a “minimalist, psychedelic kind of nature vibe collection.”
Another gorgeous hat on display at her studio has been hand dipped in indigo, a deep blue hue that would complement any denim jacket. While she mostly sources from a supplier who does hand-dying, she has delved into it herself, a corroboration of her desire to be a master at hat making. She even hosts dye events at d’emploi, a demonstration of her desire to connect the community through artistic endeavors.
On an adjacent shelf sits a hand woven Panama straw hat with whimsical, psychedelic mushroom embroidery. Each stitch is a reminder of the passion and dedication that each BKMC hat possesses. Hours of meticulous care and detail contribute to a hat with longevity.
Hours of meticulous work also deserve fair compensation.
“I think it’s important in a craft to maintain a price point that is doing justice to your craft and to the other people in your craft who are doing it as well — hat making is certainly in that realm,” Estelle said.
A BKMC hat is priced starting at $450. The Panama straw hats and berets cost less, but she does not make them as often.
“I knew what people were charging for hats, but i knew that maybe my skill wasn’t there; I had just started,” she said, recalling the reclusive two-year span of time when she made hats in her apartment, but did not show a soul.
“I was so self conscious; I didn’t think they were perfect, I knew they weren’t.”
After both her skills and confidence grew, she felt comfortable sharing her hats to friends and family. Soon, her friends were requesting hats, and then she decided to start a website.
Like most creatives, Estelle has an inquisitive mind, and constantly seeks to hone her skills with the hopes of becoming a master hatter. By creating and pushing the limits, she said, “You realize how capable you are of doing, and I think a lot of people don’t think they are capable of doing.”
To date, Estelle has made over 150 hats. These hats have character, tell a story and last a lifetime. The rapport she has built with her clients is a testament to her artistry.
Pop into her studio in Greenpoint where she will measure your head and design the hat you always knew you wanted, never knew you wanted, or always wanted but never thought you could pull off. I fall into all three categories.
Across the continent, in the high desert region of Madras, Oregon, Cate Havstad, of Havstad Hat Company, creates one-of-a-kind hats out of a 32-foot Airline Streamer mobile home situated on a biodynamic farm. Using natural dyes she sources from the wilderness that is her backyard, she brings nature and textile together in ways that are an art all in itself.
After departing from her northern coastal California home in 2014, Havstad quickly became enamored by the tenacity and natural beauty of the Oregon Badlands. Its ruthless weather patterns — red-hot summers, drought, and severe, white-blanketed winters — particular to this corner of the country, are no match for the curly dock, sage, juniper and rabbitbrush plants. This vegetation not only flourishes but also has inspired Havstad’s “Hues of the High Desert,” a collection of hats made from wildcrafted dyes that embody her “quest for resilience and deeper connection to the land.”
Ultimately she hopes that once people start harmonizing with their environments, they cannot help but feel a want to protect them. These are notions we should emulate.
With various wildcrafted plants, Havstad bathes 100X Premium Beaver fur felts, sourced in the U.S., in natural, wildcrafted botanical dyes she concocts on premise. It is a practice she accredits herbalist and acupuncturist Julie Moulton, of Woven Acupuncture, for introducing her to.
Moulton, she said, not only taught her to see the potential of using plants to create hues that tell a story of the land we live on, but also inspired her to “see how starting a conversation around how a color of a hat is achieved through the use of plants might extend into a bigger conversation about what else these plants provide us with.”
Watching Havstad build hats is like watching Bob Ross paint murals: both possess an ability to take a blank canvas, and — with their respective strokes of genius — spin gold out of straw. Her process, equal parts mesmerizing and awe-inspiring, is often displayed on her Instagram account (@HavstadHatCo).
Constructing a Havstad hat begins and ends in sustainability. First, she lets the fur felts soak in natural dye baths between one and three days, and then leaves them to dry. The sagebrush dye bath, which produces a beautiful, olive green hue, extends its beauty later in the process through the olfactory senses. When she steams hats made from this dye bath, she shared via Instagram, the aroma is redolent of warm, summer days right after an ephemeral High Desert storm sweeps by.
After they have air dried, she carries the felts over to the adjacent Airline Streamer she has converted to her workshop where they are hand-blocked. This process takes the once flimsy felt and gives the hat its shape. Using equipment that originated during the turn of the 20th century, Havstad maintains an esteemed craftsmanship and has garnered quite a following.
Travel down to Nashville, Tennessee, the buckle of the Bible Belt, where a powder blue Havstad hat sits on display at a new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, titled “All of the Colors,” honoring Kacey Musgraves. The Texas native singer-songwriter, who won this year’s Grammy for Best Album, was asked to curate an exhibition replete with childhood trinkets, photographs, costumes and handwritten lyrics from 1998 to present day, celebrating her soaring career.
Havstad was floored to be included in the exhibit.
“I’m just a one-woman operation building custom hats in the middle of agricultural Oregon, and to have my work sit next to giants like Stella McCartney [and] Nudies…gives me goosebumps,” she wrote on her Instagram, beneath a photo of the exhibit.
Nikki Lane, the country singer-songwriter who left Nashville for Austin also proudly wears Havstad hats on stage, as does Canadian singer-songwriter Colter Wall, and Willie Watson, actor and founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show.
Though her hats have graced various concerts and red carpets, worn by both movie stars and musicians alike, she cares neither for fame nor limelight.
“It’s the people who care about craftsmanship and quality, to unique designs that speak to a sense of place and tell a story”
“It’s the people who care about craftsmanship and quality, to unique designs that speak to a sense of place and tell a story” that matter most to her.
In 2017, Havstad began hosting 10-person hat making workshops, in the intimate setting of her mobile home. This year, she was indecisive as to whether she wanted to host a Fall 2019 workshop, but a heartwarming email from a woman who attended a previous Havstad workshop changed her mind. After thanking Havstad for the beautiful experience of her workshop, the woman admitted that the drive and inspiration that Havstad extracted from her transitioned to her personal life.
“This work would not be fulfilling if I was just production-style building hats; it’s all about the people, the stories, the connections,” Havstad wrote in another candid post.
Since its inception in 2014, her business has become so demanding that this year she hired help to handle communications; she has also adopted a new ordering policy system to “pace out the influx of orders,” she shared via social media. Between October and April 2019-2020, she will only be taking on 75 custom orders, parsed out over four-order intake periods; between the months of May and October, she will work on Casad Family Farms with her fiance.
It is her hope, she said of these new policies “to provide great customer experience and keep building custom, one-of-a-kind hats by hand, with heart, in the way I have for six years now.”
Similarly to Estelle, Havstad adorns her hats with unique treasures: feathers, turquoise beads, leather cords, and Roadside Remedies’ loom-beaded hatbands. She also lines each hat with beautiful, vibrant silks along with embossed inspirational quotes on the sheepskin leather sweatband. “I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself”, “Don’t lose your head” and “Eventually, all things merge into one and a river runs through it” convey a sense of both inspiration and tenderness.
Havstad practices what she preaches. She brings hats back to life, including her own, eliminating the need to waste materials. On her Instagram page, a tattered, stained and misshapen hat accompanies a post that reads: “I’ve let this felt bounce around, from living on a fence post to buried in the snow, outside for over four years. It’s seen all the winters, spring, summers, and falls, lots of bird shit, lots of critters, going to have some fun and rebuild it this week.” In another post, after ripping a pair of work pants, she asked her 31,000 followers for suggestions in functional women’s wear.
Either directly or indirectly, she teaches the importance of quality goods. While fashion campaigns across the world — New York, Milan, Paris and Tokyo — pump out new looks with every changing season that will ineffectively become unfashionable the next, there needs to be a shift. Society must gravitate toward sustainable products, and hats are no different.
When she is not making hats, she devotes her time to Casad Family Farms, a biodynamic farm, with her fiance, Chris Casad. This work landed the couple on the cover of Bend, a Central Oregon lifestyle magazine.
Recently she gave a speech on the conservation and education of America’s public lands at an event hosted by Oregon Backcountry Hunters & Anglers [BHA] and Filson, admitting that the experience helped her overcome her fear of public speaking.
To say that Cate Havstad is intrinsically associated with nature is an understatement. Through her work, she opens her window of the west, inviting us to her backyard, the land she appreciates. Her connection with nature is not only a nod to Muir and Emerson, but also a refreshing reminder of humanity’s impetus to be sustainable.
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