There is probably no more iconic symbol of the west than the cowboy hat, and there is certainly no shortage of places to buy cowboy hats. Like any other product, there are hats that vary in quality and in price. If you are a rancher or farmer and want a hat that will last for many years and not a hat that is the latest in fashion, then you probably want to look at a custom hat.
You are not going to find a custom made hat in a catalog or off of a shelf. It is a face to face project of discussions and measurements. Fortunately, one of the best custom hat companies in the country is located in Colorado. Ted and Susan Williams of Colorado Hat Company have been in the custom hat business for 20 years and have made Estes Park their home for the past 11 years. Colorado Hats is proud to be recognized as one of the three established major brands of Estes Park, Colo. - Colorado Hats, The Stanley Hotel and Rocky Mountain Nation Park.
The quality of a custom hat is based on the original measurements, the quality of the felt, and the skill of the people in the manufacturing process. At Colorado Hat Company only two people are involved in the construction of custom hats. Ted Williams makes and shapes the hats and Susan Williams does the trim and finishing, or, as Ted puts it, "makes them beautiful."
All of the custom hats made at Colorado Hat Company are literally made by hand. "There are no machines used in making our hats. These are my machines," says Ted, as he holds up his hands, "This is manual labor - not easy, but it is the best way to do it. It's not about doing it fast. It's about doing it right."
A good initial measurement is critical as it not only affords a comfortable fit but it allows additional hats to be ordered from anywhere in the world and have them fit just like the original. A lot of hat manufactures use a 'conformer' to take measurements. The conformer is a device made in the 1800s that looks like a top hat made of adjustable metal pins. It looks more like an instrument of torture than a measuring device. Acceptable technology in 1800, but this is 2012.
"We have one," said Williams, "We got it on E-bay, but we don't use it. It's great 'sizzle' when you go to a show and put that on people's heads and do all the pin adjustment." At Colorado Hats they create head patterns and blocks by using a Computer Assisted Drafting (CAD) program. "We looked at the way things were being done and we said 'we can do that better.' We're applying the technologies that are available today to making hats," said Williams.
At the core of custom hat making is the felt. Basically felt is tangled fibers in a continuous mat. It can be any fibers and is a very versatile industrial product. When the term felt is used regarding hats, the fibers are animal hair such as beaver, wool or rabbit. They can be used alone or in combination with each other or with some chemical or unknown substance.
Felt is a totally unregulated product and this is where the marketing device of 'X' comes in. You would think that 100X was better than 10X and it might be, but then again it might not. Is 10X from company A the same as 10X from company B? A better way to describe the quality of hat felt is by percentage of components that make up the felt.
"Historically, the insulation fur from beaver and other animals that make their living in the water was used. Beaver fur is very fine and has a very specific characteristic that it is barbed. It has these scales that stick out, so when you tangle them they lock together." said Williams, "Wool is fur but it is a very course fur, and when you compact it into a felt, it's very strong, but it can't get very dense. Most of the crushable hats are made from wool."
"We use fur - just fur at Colorado hats," said Williams. Fur is perfect for hats, but it is also very expensive. Hats for mass distribution have to blend fur with something else to make the process affordable, so manufactures came up with the 'X' factor. There is nothing wrong with using 'X' to designate the quality of a hat. There are a lot of excellent hats that use that designator and not everyone wants a custom hat. But, if you are going to spend $400 and up for a custom hat, you should know what it is made out of.
Colorado Hat Company sells 100 percent fur felt hats in two grades. The best is a 100 percent Garment Grade Beaver that is made from the belly fur of the beaver. The second grade is 75 percent Grade II beaver from the back strap of the pelt mixed with 25 percent European Wild Rabbit.
A true custom hat is made from the ground up and not just blocked and sized. Making a custom hat is also very labor intensive, especially the way that Colorado Hats does it. They use a proprietary process for the felt manufacture. The felt is then soaked in pure water at a specific pH for four days before it is compacted and formed by hand. It is rigorously tested for shear strength and density. The density is very important, because at a specific density UV rays cannot penetrate the felt. The hat becomes a sunscreen and, after years of testing, the hats from Colorado Hat Company block 98 percent of the total UV spectrum. That is a huge benefit to farmers and ranchers that spend their working day in the sun.
Colorado Hat Company makes over 300 custom hats per year and they are very good at it. "We've taken hats to the next level in manufacturing. We have met our original goal of making a better hat and a better fitting hat, but we are always striving to make our hats even better," said Williams.
A lot of hat makers proudly point to the celebrities that they have made hats for, and Colorado Hats has done their share, but Ted and Susan Williams look at it differently. "When you make a hat for a rancher and they keep coming back - that is everything to us. It's more meaningful to us when we go to a branding and everyone is wearing one of our hats."
Talk to the folks at Colorado Hat Company when you are in the market for a new hat. You can reach them at (970) 577-0500 or get more info on their website at ColoradoHats.net.