Meet Trent Johnson, a master craftsman whose clients include famous riders, past presidents, musicians and movie stars.
How did you get started in hats?
The family that owned Greeley Hat Works before me had a cattle ranch. I lived and worked on the ranch while I was attending the University of Northern Colorado. I tended to normal ranch chores such as feeding cows, calving out heifers, branding, irrigating and fixing fences. The hat shop at the time was on the ranch so I spent my free time learning the trade. They later moved Greeley Hat Works to a building in town and that is when I started doing more hat work and less ranch work. I was an apprentice for about three and a half years before I had the opportunity to buy the business. I have owned it for over 15 years now.
How are hats made?
The process to make a custom felt hat take about six hours. The time is spread over several days due to the heating and cooling processes. We begin with the ‘Conformateur,’ an antique head measuring device that was invented in 1843 in Paris. The one we use was built around 1909. The conformateur is placed on the customer’s head and gives a paper pattern the exact shape of the individual’s head. The paper pattern is then placed into the ‘Famillion,’ the sister piece of the conformateur. The famillion makes the pattern life size to create a cast of the client’s head. The pattern is cut out of cedar and the template remains with the hat throughout the process.
Once the colour, quality and style of the hat have been chosen the appropriate block (a wooden form) and hood (hat body) are picked. The hoods are made of different blends of European hare and beaver here at Greeley Hat Works. The hat block that we choose is close in size to the customer’s head. The taper of the block as well as the height of the block are also taken into consideration. The hat body is then steamed and pulled over the hat block. After it has cooled it is hand sanded to take the nap (hair) down and its silky texture is brought to life.
Next, we press (iron) the brim of the hat to make sure it is flat and level before the next step can take place. The hat is ironed in a flange (brim board) and then placed under a sand bag press. The hat is then laid out on the flange to cool and dry. This can take up to two days. Next the hat is taken to have the brim cut to size using a rounding jack. The top and bottom of the brim are then sanded and lured (luring is the process of putting natural oils back into the hair of the hat). While all of this is taking place the hand reeded leather sweatband is cut to the customer’s head pattern. The sweatband is then printed with the appropriate markings.
The back bow and sweatband are then sewn in. The head pattern is then steamed into the hat and re-pressed to the shape of the client’s head in the sand bag press. In most cases, the hat band is made from the excess felt cut off the brim. A buckle is added and a sating line is put in the hat. The hat is now ready to be hand creased to the customer’s liking.
How does the process differ between straw and fur hats?
The straw process is quite different. The straw body, in most cases, is rice paper woven by machines in China. Some other hats are woven palm leaves from Mexico. They are then pressed and cut. They are sized by standard hat sizing and sewn and trimmed.
What is the significance of the bow at the back of the hat?
It was once told to me that because mercury was used in the felt making process hatters got mercury poisoning. This is where the term ‘Mad as a Hatter’ came from. The US government wanted makers to label hats with the Jolly Roger (the symbol of poison) but as no one would want to buy a hat with a skull and cross bones in they used a bow in the back as a stylised skull and cross bones.
Which furs are used for hats and why?
Many types of fur are used in hat making - wool, rabbit, European hare, beaver - and all in different blends. Wool, the least desirable, has less ‘barbs’ per hair (projections that lock together to create strength) and is poor in quality. Rabbit has more barbs per hair and beaver has the most and smallest barbs per hair making it thinner, lighter, more weather resistant and durable.
Explain about the ‘X’ labelling system
I hate the X system of rating hats. In the 1800’s X’s were used to communicate between the old world and the new world when we were trapping beaver and shipping them to Europe. X’s were used to rate the quality of the pelts and the more X’s the better.
Jump ahead to the 1940’s. The hat companies were still using X’s honestly. Each X was 10% beaver and $10. You could look in a 10X hat and know that it was 100% Beaver and $100 dollars. When the hat companies started getting wise to the ‘value’ of X’s for marketing and they kept putting more a more X’s in hats even if they had no beaver!
There is a popular brand out there today that now makes a 100X, 500X, and even a 1,000X hat that contains only minimal beaver. At Greeley Hat Works we do not use the X rating system. Our Classic is a good European hare blend and our Competitor Quality is a superior European hare blend. Many of our retail partners compare our Classic to many others manufacturers’ 15X, and our Competitor to other 20X hats. Our Beaver20 is 20% Beaver and 80% European Hare. Our Beaver Blend is over 50% beaver with the remaining being European hare. Our Pure Beaver is just that.
Do hats go through fashions?
Hats do go through some fashion trends. Both the western hat and the Fedora have gone through waves of popularity and style changes. We have been on the cutting edge of hat stylings for years! We proudly make fashion, western and dress hats in retro and contemporary styles.
Are all hat shapes good for all disciplines?
The stylings for all different breed classes are all based on the quarter horse crease. The Cattlemans Crown is basically the same for all breeds and disciplines but the brim styles do change a bit more depending on the discipline, trainer and the region you are from.
What are your top tips for looking after a hat?
It is very important to brush a felt hat off each time you wear it. It is also equally important to brush the top of the hat (both crown and the top of the brim) counter-clockwise and the bottom in a clockwise manner. This is the way the nap is laid down when the hat is made.
Who are your most famous clients?
I have had the honour of building hats for many famous people. I have also built hats for music videos and movies. A few at the top of the list would have to be President Bush (twice), Vladamir Putin, the Amir of Kuwait, Michael Crighton, Steven Tyler and Charlie Sheen!