Hat couture

At Hats-O-Fancy, Renée Roeder Earley keeps high style functional and fashionable.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Royalty. The Kentucky Derby. High fashion. What do these things have in common? Hats. Big hats, little hats, and fancy, unique head-topping creations called fascinators.

Renée Roeder Earley has been fascinated with hats all her life, creating her first from denim as a teenager. Eventually, the fiber artist would be designing and sewing hats not only as hobby, but also as the owner of Hats-O-Fancy in Madison.

“Hats extend your personality,” Earley says. “Wear a hat and people will notice you.” That’s true for both men and women, she insists, because frankly, it’s not all that common to see someone wearing a fine hat. “But they should!” she insists. Hats can be practical, harboring the body’s warmth in the winter or keeping UV rays off the skin in summer, and they can also be a signature style point.

“There’s always been a market for hats,” she notes. “They are for people who like being unique. To some degree it takes courage.”

And perhaps a little extra cash, too, because Earley’s fancy hats are unique art pieces, as well.

Then there are those fascinating fascinators!

“A fascinator is a little head piece, almost a saucer size, that perches on the top of the head,” Earley explains. Her unique, almost museum-quality collection includes several adorned with flowers, netting, ruffles, and even a pink wool teacup!

Thrifty business

Top to bottom: Small felt wool circles are punched from fabric using a metal die and mallet; Earley’s “fascinators” include exquisite details with one even sporting a pink teacup; a hand-made flower enhances a wool cloche.

Hats-O-Fancy opened in 1993 and for the past 22 years has occupied a corner of suite No. 12 at Main Street Industries in Madison. As we arrive, Earley is arranging cardboard pattern pieces onto a thick piece of wool. “Making a hat is sculptural because it takes an ability to visualize in 3-D,” she says.

Earley designs and sews all of her hats, and has developed mix-and-match patterns for each style, size, and brim type. Her personal favorites are wool cloche hats with small brims — perhaps a throwback to her affinity for 1940s fashion — but the business inventory includes hundreds of hats of many shapes and sizes.

Earley stays well stocked on fabrics, but throughout the year she’ll also visit thrift shops in search of winter coats to repurpose into hat fabric. It takes time to disassemble a coat, she acknowledges, but a good day is when she’s fortunate enough to find a slightly used, heavy winter coat from the 1980s when styles were oversized.

“Coat fabric is usually really, really nice and you can’t find it in stores anywhere,” she explains.

On this day, pattern pieces are arranged to get the most efficient use of the wool, and Earley traces around each piece before cutting.

“Cutting is tiring,” she admits, reaching for a large pair of scissors. Often she’ll spend an entire day cutting and the next day assembling and sewing.

Fabrics for hat brims, bands, and trim are meticulously organized in drawers by size and hue. Sticky dots affixed to individual pieces designate their size. Everything with a green sticker, for example, will be used on a medium-sized hat. She uses wool or upholstery fabrics for winter hats, and linens, cottons, and sometimes silk for summer varieties.

All Hats-O-Fancy hats are hand cut and sewn, not glued, including floral appliqués used for decorations. Buttons added for embellishment are actually cutouts punched through thick wool with a metal die and a rubber mallet. Even buttonholes are punched out. It takes some muscle, Earley admits.

Why wouldn’t she just go out and purchase buttons or pre-made flowers? “Because anybody can do that!” she fires back. “I try to make things you can’t make yourself.”

That is, after all, where the artistry comes in.

The silky, inside liner of a hat is equally important. “Isn’t it better to have a nice surprise on the inside?” she smiles, showing off a newly completed wool hat with multicolored silk fabric on the inside.

Brims, she explains, can vary in width and be starched or reinforced with an interfacing, but more commonly, she’ll attach a thin wire around the edge to hold the shape.

Across the room, pre-cut hat trim fabrics hang like ribbons from wall hooks, while embellishments are stored neatly in drawers. She has repurposed some of her handmade flowers into lapel pins. “It’s fun to be creative and whimsical,” Earley says, “but it takes time.”

She moves to the back of the room to continue working on a black-and-white beret that’s in progress. The old, mechanical machine hums as she sews around the black fabric decorated with white zigzag stitching. Fancier stitches may require the use of a nearby home sewing machine, while a serger is used to finish fabric edges.

Hats-O-Fancy offers hats for babies through adults, but not surprisingly, women are her primary customers. Men buy hats, too, she notes, just not as often. “Men are more shy about hats. They really don’t want to look weird and usually end up wanting a baseball cap. But I don’t make baseball caps or hats you’d see anywhere.”

Pricing depends on the amount of detail and the time involved. A simple hat may take a couple of hours to make and average $75. The most expensive hat she’s made took many days to construct and sold for $400. “That was my idea to go all out and not worry whether or not someone would buy it,” she says. “Sometimes you need to do things for your own fun and art.”



Traveling show

Tom to bottom: Earley works on a beret; she traces around pattern pieces before cutting them out of the fabric; hat trim hangs like ribbon and is ready to be added to a hat’s brim.

Occasionally she’ll create hats on request, but “99%” of her Hats-O-Fancy sales are the result of art shows, including Madison’s Art Fair on the Square. Earley travels to between six and 10 shows each year, which she admits is not very many. “I limit myself.”

If the show is a juried event (scored by professionals), artists may have to apply months in advance, and competition can be fierce, she admits. “You send in your work and write a paragraph or two knowing that the jurors may spend just a few seconds scoring it because they have so many projects to consider.” The trick is being able to capture their attention quickly.

Chicago’s 57th Street Art Fair and Art Fair on the Square are among her favorite shows, but she’s also been invited to Smithsonian craft shows in Washington, D.C.

Hat popularity and style is often driven by other events, she observes. Royal weddings, for example, certainly boost interest, while the show Downton Abbey sparked requests for cloche-style hats.

Hats, she says, should complement an outfit or put an exclamation point on an individual style no matter what that style is.

So, should a fancy woman’s hat perfectly match a dress, coat, and shoes?

“No!” Earley retorts. “Only the Royals do that!”

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