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Arts & Life

From Heads Of State To Heads Of Ranchers, Greeley Hatter Covers Them All

Since 1909, Greeley Hat Works, or The Shining Parlor as it was named back then, has been making hats.

“I’m the fourth hatmaker to own it, and I’ve been doing this about 25 years,” said owner Trent Johnson.

And while hat styles may have changed a lot over the last 109 years, the equipment used to make them really hasn't.

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Greeley Hat Works owner and hatter Trent Johnson sits in the showroom with the shop's original conformateur, used to custom fit hats to the customer's head.

“For a custom hat we use what’s called a ‘conformateur,’” Johnson said. “It was invented in 1843. Ours was built in about 1900.”

The conformateur looks like some kind of Victorian torture device, featuring more than 40 wooden pegs and pins, but the process itself is completely painless. A piece of card stock is placed between the person’s head and the machine and the pins poke holes through the paper around the wearer’s head.

The machine was an original purchase for the 1909 store. It has been passed down to each owner ever since.

Most of the equipment used at Greeley Hat Works was built between the early 1900s to about 1953, general manager Damon Smith said during a tour of the shop. Everything from the 1920’s Singer 107-1 model sewing machine to the 1950’s Michelangeli hat blocker from Italy.

“We bought that maybe 10 years ago and rebuilt it,” Smith said. “It was in pretty rough shape when we first got it, so we tore it all down and refit all the parts and painted it and put it back together.”

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The conformateur uses a piece of card stock is placed between the person’s head and the machine and the pins poke holes through the paper around the wearer’s head.

Because not as many people are making hats, hat-making equipment has become extremely tough to come by, he said. That’s why they don’t shy away from old relics.

“Also, the equipment lasts so long that anytime a hat company goes out of business or gets rid of something, even if it’s in rough shape like this device, we’ll buy it and fix it because they last for a really long time,” Smith said. “They don’t have disposable parts on them. They’re engineered to last.”

Fifteen years ago, Smith was just a Greeley Hat Works customer. He struck up a friendship with Johnson, who later asked if he was looking for work. Smith said he jumped at the chance to give hat making a try. He started as a hat builder -- blocking and sanding hats -- and then eventually mastered shaping and finishing hats. It’s something that’s encouraged.

“Anytime someone gets really good at their job, we’ll just sort of add a new job on there and there’s infinity jobs,” he said.

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Dayzha Morales sews a sweat bands for some of Greeley Hat Works' custom hats.

Dayzha Morales has only been with Greeley Hat Works since November. He’s still working on mastering sewing sweat bands and doing trim work. He never expected to work in hats but says he’s discovered a new passion for fashion.

“There is so much more about hats than just a hat,” Morales said. “It’s like food. Like when you cook food, you put soul into it. It’s more than just food. It’s art. It’s the same thing with hats.”

Costing between $400 to more than $1,000, a Greeley Hat Works hat might seem like something for the elite, but Johnson said most of his customers are everyday folks, often with an agriculture background.

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Every custom hat features the Greeley Hat Works brand as well as the initials of the lead designer/hatter.

“That’s our bread and butter, that’s really what keeps everybody here fed,” he said. “However, we get to do lots of fun stuff, too.”

That includes making hats for minor celebrities, such as bronc riders and rodeo queens, to big time celebrities, like country singer Drake White, cowboy poet Red Steagall and members of the rock band Aerosmith.

Greeley Hat Works also made all the hats for Kevin Costner’s new TV series “Yellowstone.”

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A wall in the Greeley Hat Works shop is covered in photos of some of their most loyal clients, rodeo queens.

Johnson has even made hats for both George H.W. and George W. Bush. A contract with the state department made him Bush 43’s the official hatter, in charge of making gifts sent to dignitaries around the world.

“So we got to do things like the president of Guatemala, the president of Mexico, secretary general of the United Nations and -- this one was cool at the time but politics change -- we actually did a hat for Vladimir Putin,” he said. “I think he wears it when he wrestles his tiger.”

In the showroom, a giant card catalog sits in the corner.

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A card catalog in the corner of the showroom features the conformateur cards for all of its clients.

“In each drawer, alphabetized, is everybody’s head pattern that we’ve ever done,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of repeat customers as well so it’s important to keep all that stuff on file.”

But don’t expect there to be a hidden second card catalogue for the celebrities.

“We keep the celebrities in with the hard-working people,” Johnson said. “They’re all the same, they’re all the same when it comes to building a hat.”

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