For some, hats more than weather protection

By Kevin Wilson

For some it’s a fashion statement, or maybe a statement of team allegiance. For others it’s just a way to protect against sunlight. For nearly everybody in the United States, there’s probably a hat to match.

“Over the years, I’ve had all kinds of people ask for all kinds of things,” said Rod Dickinson, who runs The Hat Barn in Clovis. “I had a person come in wanting a Sherlock Holmes hat with a double bill, one in the front and one in the back.”
However, it’s the cowboy hat that is most popular in the area. Several stores sell the hat and a few of them can make custom hats.

Dickinson is one of those people, and hat-making kept him in business when John Travolta threatened to ruin him and others. When the movie “Urban Cowboy” came out, Dickinson said, the landscape of western wear changed and national department stores decided to enter the market. That was bad news for Torrance Western Store, which he operated for nearly 20 years.

“It forced us to do one of two things,” Dickinson said. “You either got bigger or you got more specialized.”

That specialization became hat-making, and he opened The Hat Barn in 1991. Although his store has a wide variety of hats, it is the cowboy hat that makes up most of his business.

Elsewhere in Clovis, Design-A-Tee does most of its business in team-based hats. Mike Harris, a manager at the store, said that his business probably sells 2,000 to 3,000 hats a year featuring various team or company names. The most popular hat he sells, however, is not his biggest seller. It’s the golf cap, which is cheaper to buy and strikes many buyers as a more unusual gift.

“Golf caps are the biggest part of our (business) because (the businesses that order them) do them as give aways,” Harris said.

Not everybody who makes hats in the area does it for a profit, though. Stella Buie, an assistant professor in Eastern New Mexico Univeristy’s Theatre Department, is the costumer in residence. If there’s a costume to be found or made, it is Buie who has to find it. The university has no particular theme for its shows, so the hats Buie has to find are varied.

“We do shows from every time period and every place,” Buie said. “Quite often, you use hats, but there are plenty of shows you don’t use them for either.”

Buie said in a warehouse owned by the department are various clothes, including about 300 hats of all kinds.

“We get lots of donations from people. If a lady passes away and the family is giving away her clothes, we’ll get those,” Buie said. “We’ve gotten hats from the 40s and the 50s.”
For some shows, donations just don’t work.

“We make hats for earlier periods,” Buie said. “If we don’t have it, we’ll make them.”

There are various ways that Buie can make a hat. One device, which she calls a cartwheel, allows her to build a hat from a mold out of any fabric color or type. The cartwheel can produce a farmer’s hat, a pirate’s hat or many other items in the hands of Buie, who owns a masters degree in costume design.

For the stage, the main quality for a hat is to be convincing enough in appearance the audience doesn’t notice it. When it comes to higher-end hats for profit, meanwhile, it’s about the look and the feel — and the X’s.

“The X’s are a way and have been for years to represent the quality of a hat,” Dickinson said. “The more X’s you have, the finer the quality of the hat.”

The felt that a hat is made from, Dickinson explained, is made up of different types of animal hair. Hair from beavers and rabbits, among other animals, have barbs that cling together and help protect the animal from foreign substances. A finer quality of hair does the same thing for a hat.

“As the Xs go up,” Dickinson said, “they lessen the amount of rabbit hair and they increase the amount of beaver fur, so it produces a finer looking product.” He compared it to cotton and silk — both are made in the same way, but higher standards in production create a better final product.

A noticeable difference is the price. Dickinson said he sells the average 5X hat for $99, the average 10X hat for $199 and the average 20X hat for $299. When a hat reaches the 100s — Dickenson once saw a 1,000X Stetson at a conference — the hat often comes with its own display case.

Hats can also be conversation pieces, and Dickinson knew it when he held a grand opening for his store in 1992. The opening’s main attraction was a 20X hat to be given away, and the entry fee was a hat that had some kind of interesting story. The hats are still up at the store with the original owner’s names.

“It’s become quite a conversation piece,” Dickinson said.

Some interesting tidbits about hats:
• The fedora is a hat with many famous appearances in real and fictional settings. The hats were worn by fictional characters like Indiana Jones and James Bond (when he was played by Sean Connery). Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry was known for wearing a fedora on the sidelines of football games, while rap group Run DMC wore them on the stage.

• For one national group, hats are the surest sign of membership. The Red Hat Society, which has groups in Portales, Clovis and Muleshoe, has no rules other than members being women 50 and older. The calling card for a group member is a large red hat, usually including purple, decorated as lavishly as the member chooses.

• The type of hat worn by Smoky the Bear is also known as a campaign hat.

• The tall black hats worn by regiments of the British Army are called bearskins. The hats, 18 inches tall, are made from the fur of a Canadian black bear.

• In the mid-1990s you might have seen a hat without any type of brim called a mambo sock. The hat, which looked like the a single pant leg, was popular with skiiers and snowboarders but not many other people.