Old West hatmaking lives on in Trinidad
Trinidad Campus / August 9, 2016 / Written by Greg Boyce
(Trinidad, Colo.) There are probably no more than 50 people in the United States who earn a living making hats by hand, the old fashioned way. One of those spent a week in Trinidad each of the last two summers passing on this dying art to eager students at Trinidad State’s Southern Rockies Heritage School.
Tom Hirt of Penrose, Colorado has been making hats for decades. His hats have graced the heads of famous people including Sam Elliott, Kurt Russell, Sharon Stone, Tom Selleck and even President Ronald Reagan. “I was roping down in Canon City and the people I was roping with said, ‘Hey Tom, we want you to meet Max.’ He said, ‘My name is Max Baldridge.’” Malcolm Baldridge was the Secretary of Commerce under Ronald Reagan. Hirt said Baldridge ordered a couple of hats, one for himself and one for Reagan. “Ronald Reagan sent me a nice little letter, which was more than I expected.” About a year and a half later Hirt said the phone rang and it was the White House. President Reagan said, “’Tom, you sent me that hat and I want to thank you for it. I really, really like it. I need two more hats. I’d like you to send them to the ranch in Santa Barbara for me. Could you do that?’ I said, ‘You betcha.’ He said, ‘I don’t want you to give it to me, I don’t want you to discount it for me. I don’t want any special treatment. I can afford to pay for it, probably better than you can afford to give it to me,’” recalled Hirt. “Besides, I’ll write it off my taxes.’”
Using the traditional method, hat blanks made from beaver and other animal fur are formed over wooden blocks, then steamed, shaped, sanded and stitched by hand. This past July three students took the class in Trinidad. Two of them, professional hairstylists, came all the way from the San Francisco area. They flew home at the end of the week with two hats each.
One of them, Le Lu, views the human head the way a painter views a canvas. “To me, the space that I work within is the head. This (the head) is a moving gallery,” said Lu. “I’ll study any form that allows me to articulate this space.” To that end she has studied fiber arts and wig making. And this isn’t the first time she’s taken a hat making class. She’s been making hats for about five years.
Last year in Los Angeles she noticed hats had become a hot fashion item. “I was at a hair show and there were some pretty elite hair stylists and they were all wearing a particular kind of hat. And that made me really interested.” Lu wanted to know more. “I didn’t understand what I was looking at. I didn’t understand the method. I thought I could just look at youtube and just do it, because I have a history in hatmaking. No. It wasn’t the same. The more research, the more questions I had.” She found Hirt and began asking him questions and he suggested she come to Trinidad for a week. “Now, after taking this class I go home with so much knowledge. What Tom has taught me is to transfer what’s in my mind. I didn’t even know this world existed,” said Lu.
Andrea Zanella is a fellow hairstylist in the Bay Area. “She (Lu) knew I was looking for a hat and I was going to go down to Los Angeles because there’s this guy who makes hats for Madonna and a lot of celebrities. But they’re well over a thousand dollars. They could be thousands. And she said ‘We can learn to make hats ourselves. Why spend that money?’ So we kind of made this pact that we would take a road trip and take this class together and have fun with it.” Zanella made a hat for herself and one for her husband. “Tom has helped me understand a new craft and allowed me to bring my own personal style into it. It wasn’t ‘We’re all going to make the same hat, we’re going to do the same thing.’ I think as hairstylists we need creative freedom. And the class was small enough that he could really help us customize and personalize our hats. It’s been a very fun adventure. I think it was cheaper and a lot more fun,” said Zanella.