I recently traveled to a different kind of “great wide open” by visiting Wyoming for the first time. While I was pretty busy with work while there, I did manage to squeeze in an hour-long adventure of learning a skill…one might even call it an art…that is unique to this part of the west: hat shaping. You can probably guess the type of hat that I learned to shape? Yes, a Cowboy hat.
Having lived my entire life up and down (but mostly up) the east coast I thought “cowboys” only lived in Texas. Boy was I wrong. Cheyenne, Wyoming is thought of as the rodeo capital of America, and they have the event to prove it. To further demonstrate my naiveté to all things west of the Mississippi, I was also unaware that cowboy hats were shaped differently, nor did I understand that the shape of one’s hat can offer clues as to where its owner is from. Needless to say, I received quite an education when I walked into The Wrangler in downtown Cheyenne. The Wrangler is local institution, and one of the few places that still shapes hats. In addition, they sell all sorts of western ware and fashions indigenous to this part of the country. I have never seen so many cowboy boots in my life.
Jeff Mullins is The Wrangler’s resident hat shaper. He started shaping hats at the age of five, in his native Texas, and was kind enough to give me a lesson on this dying art. While the fact that cowboy hats are shaped was a surprise to me, the technique used was not. To shape the wool or felt (two common materials, sometimes supplemented with beaver or rabbit fur), Jeff uses steam to make the material malleable, then he works it into the desired shape with his hands. This is the same technique that Marie Galvin used to shape the beret we created together on my day as a milliner. I was pleasantly surprised that this skill was actually coming in handy for a second time! Like so many of the experts I learn from as part of this blog, Jeff is self-taught. While he now uses a steam machine to heat the material before shaping, he started out using steam from a tea pot on his family’s stove.
Cowboy hats are initially shaped to satisfy the style and shape requests of a customer. All hats initially come with a full, round, dome-like top and a perfectly flat brim. To steam the material Jeff held the hat close to the steam machine, at times moving his hand away when it got too hot (burning digits is an occupational hazard, he explained). As the material got softer, he used his hands to shape the brim (the curve of a brim should start in line with the wearer’s temples) and used his fingers to create creases and dimples in the top of the hat. There are three popular shapes: cattleman’s crown (which accounts for 65% of all hats sales), “brick top,” and “Gus.” After an initial purchase, hats can also be re-shaped throughout their lifetime to maintain its shape, change its shape, or if it gets squashed when you are bucked off a bronco (it seems that happens more often than an east-coaster would think).
During our lesson, Jeff also explained how certain shaped hats are popular in different parts of the country. This fact allows experts like Jeff to identify where someone is from (Texas, Colorado, or Wyoming for example) by the shape of his or her hat. Jeff said he gets lots of people who comment that he is not from Wyoming, which is true. He is from Texas and wears his hat accordingly.
As with all things there is a right way and a wrong way to shape a hat. But to be honest, the differences in the curve of a brim can be so subtle that it seemed that a novice (like me) could make up their own shape and style and have it look pretty o.k. But of course, if I did that, no self-respecting cowboy would dare wear it so I guess that would defeat the purpose.
I did a little shaping, but this is one thing I am smart enough to leave to experts like Jeff. But I may have to bring the cowboy hat look back to Boston. I look pretty good, no?
Many thanks to Jeff Mullin for taking the time out of his day to show me how real cowboys shape their hats. I’d also like to thank Pam and Lacy for letting me take over the hat shop at The Wrangler. It’s a must-see if you find yourself in Cheyenne. Thanks also go out to the talented Jeff Allen — who is quickly becoming a regular on this blog — for documenting my lesson. Here are some pictures I took on my trip into the other great wide open. Enjoy!