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Art Fawcett Jr. makes custom fitted hats in his retail shop on North Pacific Highway. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell

Old-fashioned hat maker

Only a handful of people in North America make hats the way Art Fawcett does.

There might be 200 who answer to the call of Western hatters, but there may not even be a dozen who make dress hats.

It's an exacting craft, one that by its very nature roots out poor performers or low-cost competitors.

Fawcett, a stone mason by trade, entered the world of hat making in an online chat room in the late 1980s. He began commercial production and selling his products online in 2006 after selling his business and moving to a ranch outside Butte Falls.

He makes hats the same way it was done a century ago — and much of his equipment is that old.

"I decided to only make 10 of any one design, because I didn’t want to (merely) be a hat factory,” Fawcett said. "I showed the first design to a group of online friends, and the first design sold out in 36 hours."

An online business — VS Custom Hats — was born.

The majority of Fawcett's work is felt hats, although his resume includes Panama hats, one of which sold for $15,000, and going forward he sees opportunity in Western hats.

 Hat making is neither rocket science nor heart surgery, but anything less than perfection is basically failure.

"When you're working on a Panama hat, your heart is in your throat the whole time, you have to be absolutely perfect," Fawcett said. "I have some very demanding clients."

His clients range from Hong Kong, India and China to South Africa, Dubai and all of Europe.

Fawcett's felt hats start at $275 and run up to $1,149. Panama hats are decidedly more expensive.

"There are Stetson Montecristi hats with 200 weaves per square inch." he said. "The hat that sold for $15,000 had 3,000 weaves per square inch."

The body of the hat, woven in Ecuador, took more than a year.

"It took me three weeks just to block the hat," he said.

Typically, it takes him four to 12 hours per felt hat. The fabric is soaked and steamed, and then it takes several days to dry.

"I do about 20 hats per month, that is all I can do," Fawcett said. "I could probably do more, but the maximum would be two a day, and that's really hard to do that."

He sends first-time customers a kit enabling them to not just size hats right but to fit the shape of their head, as well.

VS Custom Hats occupies 1,500 square feet in the former American Prospector mining supply store next to Dilligafs bar and grill on North Pacifc Highway.

There's nothing fancy about the digs, but when a divorce forced him to leave the ranch, Fawcett said he wasn't picky. 

"It was an affordable location," he said. "There are few hat makers in the country, and it's a tough way to make a living. But as long as I can pay the bills, I'm good to go."

He is apprenticing 42-year-old Eagle Point resident David Gibson in cooperation with the Cowboy Corral, a Western hat maker in Grants Pass.

"I had a hard time deciding whether to be (brick-and-mortar) when 99 percent of my business was online; I didn't need walk in," he said. "But once I accepted an apprentice, it changed things economically."

Fawcett was born in Oakland, Calif., and was a stone mason in his early years. He worked on floors throughout the country, including Washington, D.C., and the World Trade Center in 1972.

"I had some success early in my career," he said. "I've always been an artist, but I'm doing hats now instead of stone; it's so much easier on the knees."

For nearly 20 years, Fawcett said, his world swirled between his masonry business, a vintage clothing business his former wife operated, and a company that put on vintage fashion shows.

"We sold out the vintage fashion and exposition businesses in 2005 and moved to Butte Falls," he said. "Before that, I didn't take a day off for 17 years."

During that period, the Fedora Lounge online chat room provided both an escape and window into his future.

"In 2003, it had 50 members," he said. "Now, after several rounds of purges, it has 30,000 followers."

Granted, the breadth of conversation has expanded beyond hats, but that remains a driving force.

One thing he learned is that men's heads are bigger than they were a century ago. Another is the dearth of manuals explaining how to make men's hats. 

"There are bazillions for women's hats," Fawcett said. "But there is one instructional book out there for men's hats and it was written in 1919; I still have a copy of it."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

 

 

 

 

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