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Arts & Culture
The endangered art of making hats
It’s hard not to notice that it’s getting colder. You can tell how cold it is just by looking at what people are wearing nowadays: thicker leggings, furry boots, scarves, and, of course, hats.
San Franciscans have always loved hats, since the first half of the 20th century and earlier. Streets were often a sea of hats: rounded bowlers, creased fedoras, wide-brimmed ladies’ hats ornamented with flowers and birds.
Though Cityfolk still don hats aplenty, the hat’s popularity is a shadow of what it once was, and local hatters have all but disappeared. But there’s at least one place where the local hat-making tradition goes on – behind a nearly 100-year-old storefront in the Richmond District.
An almost forgotten trade
When you walk into Paul’s Hat Works, it’s a bit like stepping back in time. The shop feels well kept, warm, and decidedly old-fashioned with wood counters and glass cases. There’s an ornate yet functional metal cash register, an old record player, framed black and white pictures of people wearing hats, stacks of vintage hatboxes, and hats of every style hanging from brass hooks.
"I’m wearing a black fedora with a short curled brim," says Kristen Hove, co-owner of Paul’s, which dates back to 1918. "All the previous owners have been men, none of them named Paul, but as of 2009, this San Francisco institution has been run collectively by four women in their twenties."
The friends-turned-coworkers make a good team – they each fulfill their own niche in their quest to bring the hat back.
"Why are we bringing the hat back?" asks co-owner Olivia Griffin. "Well, I think the hat is just as necessary as a pair of shoes. So I think it’s a functional item first and foremost."
Griffin is wearing an optimo.She and her three business partners are all wearing hats, each made right there in the shop. Abbie Dwelly, another one of the hatmakers, is wearing a fedora.
And last but not least, Wendy Hawkins, is wearing a bowler hat.
"Someone joked once that it was called 'hattitude,'" says Griffin. "So we always say that – the way in which you wear your hat."
Urban Bernardo, a customer to Paul’s Hat Works from Hanford, California, has just walked in the door to pick up an order – a refurbished hat that belonged to his late father.
Hove retrieves Urban’s newly refurbished felt hat from a sliding glass and wood cabinet behind the counter and says, "This was originally something that we would call an open telescope or a loose porkpie."
Hove and her partners are dedicated to bringing back the old styles of hats, ones that used to be as common as today’s baseball cap. Olivia says that old-fashioned hats like the porkpie disappeared from fashion 40 to 50 years ago.
"And there’s a lot of theories as to why," says Griffin. "JFK didn’t wear a hat to the inauguration and that was a big deal because before that everyone else had. He left it in the car apparently. And the hatting company that made his hat were furious."
The girls had a hypothesis: cars.
"It’s hard to wear a hat in a car," Griffin says. "So the car thing is part of it."
"In my opinion," she went on, "hair kind of abolished the hats. We’ve joked about picketing outside of hair salons and stuff like that."
Whatever the cause, people just don’t wear hats like they used to. So you might ask yourself – why would anyone choose this line of business today? Well, when the women of Paul’s Hat Works tell their story, they make it sound like it was a matter of fate. But oddly enough, when they purchased the shop, none of the women knew how to make hats.
"It’s kind of scary to buy a business and not knowing how to do what it is that you’re going to be doing!" says Griffin. "But a lot of us had a background in textiles, and Wendy had a background in running a business, so it ended up being less scary than we thought."
For six months, the four women took a crash course in hat-making with their predecessor, who had run the shop for 30 years. Everything in the shop came with it. And that’s really important because, as Hawkins says, "You have to have very specific tools to make hats. And they’re tools that aren’t made anymore. Which is part of why it’s such a special and dying art. You can’t go to school to become a hatter because the tools just don’t exist. And people just don’t know how to do it anymore."
Making a new hat is a highly customized process. When designing a new hat for a customer, they use an ancient contraption called a “conformiture” that looks like a metal top hat with levers and knobs all around it. It measures the precise shape and size of a head.
"No one’s head is the same shape," says Hawkins. "It’s like a snowflake or a fingerprint."
The workshop, a tiny but neat room just behind the storefront, is where the hat really starts to take shape. "Hats before they are hats – we call them 'bodies,' says Hawkins. "You can also call them 'raw bodies' or 'blanks' but we usually refer to them as bodies, which means before they have a shape in them."
Basically hats are made with steam and wooden blocks. Once a hat has it's shape, the hatters bind the brim and stitch in a lining. They can adorn the hat with ribbon and feathers, and voila! It’s a bowler, an optimo, a top hat, porkpie, panama, or a fedora.
"The fedora is the most popular, most common, looks good on almost every single person. The fedora is a gateway hat." Says Griffin. "Once you get the fedora, then you want a bowler, then you want to try a porkpie, then you want to try something else. It’s the gateway hat to having a lot more hats."
Beware of the gateway hat! It could easily turn into a pricey habit. The cheapest new hat from Paul’s Hat Works is $250 – and they can run as high as $2,000. That might seem over-the-top when you consider you can get a similar looking hat for less than a hundred bucks at any store on the street today. But consider Hawkins' approach:
"I do basic math with people at the register. I ask, 'Well, how much did you spend on your laptop? On your cell phone? On your car? How long will that last you? Two years? Five years? Ten years? If you’re lucky? And you don’t drive that often? This hat will last you 80 to 150 years. So yes, it’s $600, but divide that over how many times you’ll wear it, over your lifetime and then it’s an heirloom for your family, and that’s priceless.'"
So what’s their vision for the future? Griffin says, "Our goal is to have everybody in a hat."
And after spending some time with the women of Paul’s Hat Works, it's not hard to imagine that they’ll make it happen. If these merry hatmakers have their way, they’ll be bringing back not only hats, but also an appreciation for what is handmade, with heart, and of course, “hattitude.”
This story originally aired on April 25, 2011.