Stephen Temkin’s
Hat Primer

© Stephen Temkin 2018


When the Hat Becomes Yours

A prospective customer once sent me a picture of an old Borsalino fedora that belonged to his late father. He really liked the hat and was now wearing it himself. However, the hat had pretty much reached the end of its life and he wanted to know if I could make a hat just like it. I told him what I tell everyone who makes such an inquiry: maybe. I explained that I can certainly make a hat in the style of the old hat, but the chances of it being identical are remote. That’s because it is doubtful that any of my blocks are exactly identical to the block used for the original hat. It’s certainly possible, but not likely.

Fortunately for this hat, the challenge looked promising. The hat, though quite severely bashed, pinched and contorted with wear, appeared to be very much the sort of hat produced by my Geneva block.

I had him measure the brim width to make sure there was no guessing there, and set about to make the hat. When it was done, I was quite confident that this was a very successful reproduction of his father’s hat, much better than most.

A couple of weeks after I shipped it off, I received a distressing email from my client expressing great disappointment: the hat wasn’t anything like the original hat. He wanted to know if I knew of anyone in his hometown who could fix it.

I asked him to send me a couple of photos of himself wearing the hat, which he did. The problem was immediately obvious: he didn’t understand felt dress hats or his options as a hat owner. First, he assumed that a brim snapped down in the front is made that way, which it isn’t. A flanged brim has an upward curvature all around the hat and it is the customer’s option to snap it down in front, back, side, fool around with it however they like or do nothing at all.  He hadn’t snapped down the front of the brim like his father’s hat, leaving it upturned all around the crown—a very different look. As for the crown, he didn’t understand that he can manipulate the bash, tightening the front pinch and working in the side dents as deeply as he likes. His father had worked in the hat over time, and he mistakenly believed that the character of the hat with its deep side dents, tight front pinch and a snapped down brim in the front was how it was originally made. Or perhaps he assumed that I would make him a hat that looked like it already had thirty years of wear. He was essentially ignorant about hats, how they are made, and how to handle them. (I say ignorant in the strictest definition of the word, not to be demeaning.)

So, I suggested that he snap down the front of the brim in a way that pleased him and begin to work in the pinch more deeply, either over time as he wore the hat (and as his father likely did), or using a bit of steam for a quicker fix. I suggested that if he did so, he would see that the hat was indeed very similar to his father’s.

I also explained that this was typically how men once understood felt hats. The hat as you receive it is not necessarily the end of the process. Men routinely modified the look of their hats, either naturally with wear over time, or with considered intent. Indeed, this is one of the pleasures of owning a good felt hat—manipulating its evolution over time as it develops its individual nuances of shape and patina.

I also assured him that if after following my suggestions he was still disappointed with the hat, he could return it for a full refund. I never heard from him again, so I assume all turned out well, although I may have inadvertently embarrassed him.

I suppose he learned something through that experience, but so did I. Until then, I hadn’t yet fully grasped that most men now know next to nothing about hats. But can you blame them? We’ve gone through at least two generations of mostly hatless men and this has resulted in a loss of the sort of basic knowledge that most men would have known sixty years ago. It has also left us with a mere rump of a devastated industry that no longer has any expectation that men want or understand fine dress hats. As a result, most mass market dress hats today are little more than cheap costume facsimiles of what they once were. And yes, you will now see hats already made with the front of the brim snapped down, a concession to ignorance.

For those who want a new hat that already looks old and beaten up, there are several hat makers out there who produce pre-distressed hats, and some do a rather impressive, artistic job of it. However, as I jokingly like to say, “I’m a craftsman, not merely an artist.” Leon Drexler makes new hats that look new, not new hats made to look like they were found in the remains of a dumpster fire. These are classic hats, crafted with a concern for refinement and precision in construction, finish and detail. The objective is a quality hat that will grow old with you like a lifelong friend. Nevertheless, after a customer receives their hat, they are welcome to smash, scrape, rip, puncture, torch and adorn it as much as they like, and I sincerely encourage them to do so if that is the sort of self expression that brings them joy.


What is Felt?

Felt, as it applies to hat making, is essentially a textile composed of the matted fur or hair of an animal. The degree to which fibres will effectively mat, and the character and quality of the felt, depend upon the type of hair used.