Hat Making and the Pleasure of Craft
Photographs courtesy of Ritch Rand
In writer and historian Glenn Adamson’s recent book Fewer Better Things – The Hidden Wisdom of Objects, he writes, “Craft is a two-way street: As you shape the material, it shapes you right back. You are learning the process the whole time that you are engaged in it. In automated forms of making (manufacturing), this doesn’t happen, because the feedback loop is not nearly so tight…Craft, by contrast, is immediate. It binds both process and product to the individual maker.”
That combination of process and product neatly describes the reason hat maker Ritch Rand has been creating hand-made hats for more than 40 years.
“The first time I went into a hat shop with my brother and dad when I was a boy, I was intrigued,” Rand says.
He grew up in an outdoorsy family near Meridian, Idaho, and his family would take the boys to Rowell’s Custom Hat Works. Custom hats in the late 1950s and ‘60s were $15. Mrs. Rowell ran the shop as her husband had passed away, and the whole process fascinated young Rand.
Later, when college called, so did the Vietnam War. Drafted, it was during his processing at Ford Ord in California that Rand learned his brother, who had been called up before him, had been killed in Vietnam. Rand’s parents arranged for him to return home as the “sole surviving son.”
After returning home, his life started to get complicated. He was in college, married and had worked out a deal with Mrs. Rowell to buy her hat shop.
“I was thinking, ‘How tough could it be to make a hat?’” Rand says. “That was my youthful, stupid inexperience and pride talking. I had paid Manetta – Mrs. Rowell – $5,000 to buy her out with what they called a signature bank loan, with my truck as collateral. I started making hats one at a time, and it was hit or miss for a while, but I got the hang of it as the whole deal fascinated me. New hats were $20 and a complete renovation cost $5. Different prices today, of course, as that was a long time ago, but I still make and work on them with the same motivation – to create something that my customer will enjoy.”
There is something about a hat that fits right and has a look that celebrates the wearer.
“Every hat I make or renovate – and I do as many renovations now, if not more, than I ever did – needs to leave my hands into the customer’s so that, when they put it on and look in the mirror, the look in their eyes says it all,” Rand says, smiling.
When Rand started out in the mid-1970s, he worked in Idaho for a couple of years, then moved to Billings, Montana. The newly married hatmaker settled in an apartment on Grand Avenue and worked out of a small space in the back, seven days a week. At lunchtime, he would visit Western stores in the area to get their empty hatboxes to use to ship his hats to customers.
“It didn’t matter what make of hat the box was; I needed boxes and couldn’t afford new ones,” Rand says. “It was truly a different time back then. This was PFM time – pre-fax machine. There was no social media or Instagram to lean on for marketing my hats, as the only real advertising I had was a little ad in the Yellow Pages and, hopefully, positive word of mouth from customers. The Internet changed everything and made it incredibly easy and immediate to reach customers. Back in the day, our only options were the phone books, maybe a printed catalog, if we could afford it, and costly ads in Western magazines.”
It was hard, especially with a new family, but Rand loved the process and the fact that he completed every step in making a customer’s hat. He holds a couple of design school degrees he was able to finish after his military service started and stopped. He found he developed a devotion to the craft – to the care of each step in the making-process and a respect for the material at hand. A characteristic that craft writer Glenn Adamson describes as “material intelligence” – a deep understanding of the material world around us, an ability to read the material environment, and the know-how required to give it new form.
“Every hat body – the fur material used in making hats – is a mixture of fur pelts,” Rand says. “A living thing, in a sense, and I literally treat each hat body differently, as I see both its potential and limitations. It means when the shape comes into view, I have already seen it in my mind’s eye and, after all these years, I can pretty much tell how assertive I can be with the shaping – how much steam it will need and alterations in design I might need to make during the process. It makes each hat unique, each hat a bit different, even though they all may look like a style of cowboy hat. Each hat, to me, is a unique product for a unique individual, and I respect the craft in that way.”
Into the 1980s, Rand’s reputation grew, and he experienced a lift in his business when he was invited to produce some hats for the popular television show and cultural phenomena Hee-Haw – a variety show that featured country music and humor from the fictional “Kornfield Kounty” as the backdrop.
The show aired first on the CBS TV Network from 1969 through 1971 and then in syndication for another 20 years from 1971 through 1993. It can still be viewed on cable television today.
“That show started a number of introductions in the entertainment business for me and came along with the Urban Cowboy-era where we made a lot of hats for people who never would have thought of wearing a Western hat before,” Rand says. “Television, movies and the music business became another segment of our business, along with regional shows and trunk sales.”
The entertainment business was kind of exciting, but he found there were too many “freebies” – not a great business plan. So he hit the road.
“There was a time in the 1980s when I traveled with a truck and a trailer to over 22 shows a year, but I found it was a pace I didn’t like,” Rand says. “I wanted to maintain that one-on-one with each customer and we were growing pretty rapidly, so I focused on that and doing a bit of wholesale to specialty dealers. That decision brought two self-eliminating problems – increased production costs and slow paying customers. So, I slowly weaned myself from wholesale and focused on my retail-direct customers. It also meant I had to maintain my relationships with suppliers as there are few places to source pieces for handmade hats.”
Hat making is a traditional craft and supplier relations are critical. Hat bodies come from a handful of sources and properly cut sweatbands, trim and ribbons come from an even smaller number of sources. Even the little bow that sits at the back of the sweatband comes from only one or two sources, as the actual hat making side really hasn’t changed in more than 100 years.
A fur felt hat has over thirteen hand operations, but before one even starts, it takes an enormous amount of equipment, really – antique equipment – and manpower to manufacture hat bodies. Some are made in Texas, some in Tennessee, some in Portugal and some in Ukraine. The real issue is meeting certain health standards in processing this stuff. You cannot grandfather it in, so it’s a difficult process, according to Rand. The question begs asking, if it’s so hard to do, why do it?
“I love the business and the people in it,” Rand says. “It’s a really simple story, actually. I grew up wearing custom hats and they gave me great pleasure – holding them, looking at them and wearing them. I came to find that, through the years, my customers felt the same way and would search me out. Providing that experience to folks, one-at-a-time, has filled my life and continues to do so. It truly centers me.”
Recently, after more than 40 years, Rand decided it was time for a new chapter. He sold his longtime hat business and all of its trappings in order to return to a one-person shop as when he started. Ritch Rand Designs is now operating in Billings and serving customers, one person – and one hat – at a time.