Made in the West: Meet Your Local Western Artisans

The Hat Maker

Trent Johnson’s Greeley Hatworks has been proudly hand-making cowboy hats for more than a century.

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“I travel the world spreading the gospel of Greeley and the Western way of life.” Photo by Jeff Nelson

Wear a cowboy hat anywhere on the planet, and you’ll instantly be identified as an American. Probably a Western one. Can any other item of clothing make that claim?

“The cowboy hat is an American icon,” says Trent Johnson, owner of Greeley Hatworks, which still shapes, sews and decorates its chapeaux by hand. “It’s a piece of the past. But for a lot of my customers, it’s a piece of their everyday life, too.”

Invented by John Stetson, the high-crowned, sun-shading felt hats are known for broad brims that curl up (“One story is that they started doing that so three cowboys could sit side by side in the front seat of a pickup truck,” Johnson jokes) and are stiff (“If you’re going 90 on a horse, you don’t want your hat flopping”).

Johnson, who likes to talk about “the HATitude difference” and “HATisfied employees,” produces off-the-shelf models, but he is perhaps best known for his custom pieces, which can range in price from $450 to $1,125.

“In 1974, I remember going into Sears and buying Garanimals, and I knew I could mix and match and wear the hippopotamus with the alligator but not with the giraffe,” he says. “That’s the way our hats are. People will say, ‘I like that ribbon. I like that crown. I like that brim. And I want it in purple.’ ” (The most popular color, though, is black. As Johnson says, “It makes you both kinds of hot.”)

Johnson’s custom process is, well, old hat: When clients come into the store seeking a customized hat, Johnson seats them in an old barber chair to measure their heads using a peculiar’looking 19th-century device, with movable pins that look like piano keys, called a conformateur.

Using that measurement, he then cuts out a paper pattern in the shape of their heads: Some people have perfect ovals; others’ look like avocados, lima beans or even pears. (“Heads are like fingerprints,” says Johnson, who keeps all of his customers’ head patterns filed away alphabetically in an old wooden card cabinet.)

Next up: Deciding on color, quality of material and how a customer will use the hat. “All of my felts are made from animal fur, mostly wool, European hare and beaver. The higher the percentage of beaver, the lighter and more expensive the hat.”

Then Johnson gets into details like the height of the crown, the type of crease (every self-respecting cowboy hat has a crease), the size of the brim, whether the hat is “predistressed” and the hat band (grosgrain, leather, felt, buckle or no buckle …)

Greeley Hatworks has been in business since 1909, and has had only four owners, including Johnson, a Pueblo native who came to Greeley for college, apprenticed under the prior owner and bought the company in 1996. “I didn’t grow up thinking, ‘Someday I’m gonna be a hat maker.’ I honestly didn’t choose this profession. It chose me.”

Twenty-one years ago, the company was hand-making about 60 hats a year; now Johnson and his tiny team make about 4,500 hats, including supplying about 100 stores in the United States and 12 abroad. (“The Western horse is huge in Germany and Italy,” he says, “and I travel the world spreading the gospel of Greeley and the Western way of life.”)

“I’ve always had a thing for hats,” says Johnson, pointing proudly to his grandfather’s Royal Stetson perched high on a shelf. “As a kid, I used to wear that and pretend I was Indiana Jones. And my mom was a rodeo queen.” (Johnson is now the official hatmaker for Miss Rodeo America—or, as he likes to say, “I’m the king of queens.”)

Whether a hat is custom or not, it goes through the same 50 or so steps. The whole process for a non-custom hat takes four to six hours, stretched out over several days. For a custom hat, it takes six to eight hours.

“We start with a big fuzzy bell of felt, and we block the crown, using steam to make it more pliable,” Johnson says, pointing out row upon row of wooden hat blocks in different shapes and sizes (this is where the term “blockhead” originated). “After the hat dries, we sand it, press the brim, sand the brim, trim the brim and press it again. Then we sew in the leather sweatband and satin lining using an old Singer machine. Then we do another press, shape it again and add the hatband. At that point, we’ve just built ourselves a hat.”

GREELEY HATWORKS
What: Custom-made and off-the- shelf Western hats
How much: $350 to $1,125
Find it: greeleyhatworks.com

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