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Custom hats still made the old fashion way in Arizona

S. Grant Sergot is the hatter and owner of Optimo Custom Hatworks in Bisbee. There are two custom hatters in Arizona, Optimo in Bisbee and Watson's Hat Shop in Cave Creek. Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service.

S. Grant Sergot is the hatter and owner of Optimo Custom Hatworks in Bisbee. There are two custom hatters in Arizona, Optimo in Bisbee and Watson’s Hat Shop in Cave Creek. Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service.

BISBEE – Bill McKay strolled into Optimo Custom Hatworks to pick up his new hat.

S. Grant Sergot had the custom-fitted, custom-styled hat ready. He checked to make sure it fit, then showed the Sierra Vista man how to properly wear it. You don’t just plunk a $1,000 hat on your head.

“Respect it like you would a camera or eyeglasses,” Sergot said. “Keep your friends away from it. Keep your friends and your hat separate, and you’ll keep both of them.”

For men and women who dress well, nothing tops off a look — any look — like a perfectly fitting, perfectly styled hat. Whether it’s felt or straw, a hat is the last detail that finishes an outfit. Finding the perfect fitting hat, however, is like finding an asteroid in a field of rocks: not so easy to spot.

Added to that is the fact that those who practice the art of hat making are rapidly finding themselves on the endangered species list. As accomplished hatters retire, few are training to replace them. Today there are only about 32 custom hatters in the United States, according to Eric Watson, owner of Watson’s Hat Shop in Cave Creek. Watson, 33, is one of the young artists who has taken up the art. He became interested in making hats as a youngster, after he saw his first Indiana Jones movie.

“It was a hobby as a kid,” Watson said. “I wanted to find a good, old hat but couldn’t find one, and everything back in the old days was quality. I found out that good hats were made out of beaver fur felt and found some old hats to fix up when I was little. One hat led to the next hat, and before I knew it it was 30 hats I had restored. Later on down the road, I sold them and I used that money to start my business.”

Eric Watson holds a $1,500 fedora he just completed for a customer in Washington. Watson is the owner and hatter at Watson's Hat Shop in Cave Creek. Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service

Eric Watson holds a $1,500 fedora he just completed for a customer in Washington. Watson is the owner and hatter at Watson’s Hat Shop in Cave Creek. Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service

S. Grant Sergot, a Bisbee hatter, works on a customer's fedora, installing an eyelet for the leather thong that keeps the hat on in the wind. Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service

S. Grant Sergot, a Bisbee hatter, works on a customer’s fedora, installing an eyelet for the leather thong that keeps the hat on in the wind. Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service

Sergot, a 40-year veteran hatter, maintains there are only three or four hatters left that “are old-school, doing it the way it should be done,” he said. Still, here in Arizona there are two places you can get a hat made just for you and Optimo is one of them. Watson’s Hat Shop is the other.

Not all the hats Sergot sells are custom-made and that makes a difference in price; another factor is material. At Optimo, wool felt hats start at $70. Rabbit fur felt hats start at $450. Hats made of 100 percent beaver felt — by far the studiest — start at $850. Prices for a Panama hat begin at $250 and that goes up depending on the complexity of the weave and quality of the straw it’s made from. Still, some say the price of a great hat is well worth it.

“Custom work is worth paying for,” McKay said.

Decorative stuff, such as leather bands with silver conchas or beaded bands, adds to the cost and that can go into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

Sergot is also a self-taught hatter and discovered the art by accident.

“I actually started at the Grand Canyon,” he said. “I was living in a truck; I was 22 in 1972. Broke down on the way to Supai from the South Rim Village. Back Roads. Eight feet of snow that year and I didn’t understand the conditions in the west….I found this hat on the side of the road, an old, blown-out felt hat. … I’m sitting around a juniper fire with a dog on each side, huge snowflakes coming down and the hat was getting wet and the brim started to slump and it was the wetness that was making it malleable. I started working the brim to gutter the water off the front and back over (my) poncho, realizing what a tool it is.

“When I went to bed that night, I threw (the hat) up on the dashboard, which you shouldn’t do, and the sun was drying the hat in the morning, and the drier it got, the less I could work it, but the more it would hold the form of what I was wanting to do with the brim. I realized this is a medium like clay, like plaster; this is a sculptural form.

To begin your own hat adventure, step into Optimo, a small shop on Main Street in Bisbee, where the back walls are lined with hats. Come with time to spare, however, as Sergot says he likes to start with a short two-minute lecture about the many different types of hats and materials there are and the way they are fitted. Once that is out of the way, Sergot measures your head, which, it turns out, is a two-step process.

S. Grant Sergot gets ready to take a head measurement with a conformer, an antique device that maps out a hat customer's head shape. (Full disclosure: The writer's head is potato shaped, according to Sergot.) Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service

S. Grant Sergot gets ready to take a head measurement with a conformer, an antique device that maps out a hat customer’s head shape. (Full disclosure: The writer’s head is potato shaped, according to Sergot.) Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service

He begins with a tape measure around the part of your head where your hat will ride. Then he gets out a device that looks like a steampunk top hat made of aluminum bicycle spokes and places that on your head. The device, called a conformer, is a product of bygone days. In fact, most of the tools that both Sergot and Watson use are no longer manufactured.

Sergot pushes the conformer down onto your head, takes it off, opens the lid at the top and takes out a 4-inch piece of paper with oval-shaped holes punched in. That’s the shape of your head. No one head is the same as another, but it’s that shape that partly determines the best style for a wearer. This, along with the tape measure, lets Sergot know what your size is, and that’s when the fun begins. He starts bringing out hats for you to try on.

It is not a fast process. McKay said it took more than three hours to measure his head and find the right style. He had to choose the color, the bow, the ribbon. He ended up with an undyed fedora featuring a somewhat wide brim and a hint of up-curl at the back. Sergot said some people have an oval-shaped head that looks like a cucumber. Those people need a brim that curls up at the sides. It’s actually physics that determines the shape. If your head pushes on your hat at the front and back, the sides will be forced to curl up and you get a western-style hat. A fedora is defined as a hat with an indent on the left and right sides of the front half of the crown. This definition applies to any hat no matter the style or material so a Panama hat can also be a fedora.

To make a hat, Sergot begins with a “blank,” what he calls a raw body, which he buys from the Winchester Hat Corp. The company also makes the blanks that later become Stetsons. A hatband gets hand-sewn into the inside, and then Sergot steams and dries, shapes and dries, and shapes some more. He trims the brim to the proper size and sands the surface to a smooth finish by hand with 120 grit or finer sandpaper. That part is done in his home garage because he said dust can take over at the shop.

At Watson's Hat Shop, a stack of raw bodies, or blank hats, waits for Eric Watson to make them into expensive, custom-made hats. Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service

At Watson’s Hat Shop, a stack of raw bodies, or blank hats, waits for Eric Watson to make them into expensive, custom-made hats. Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News

Along the way Sergot uses wood forms called flanges to give shape to the brim and then fine-tunes it with the odd piece of wood, sometimes even finding a use for a stick-like thing that was meant to tamp down TNT. A week later, a finished hat emerges from his assembly line.

Both Sergot and Watson take great pride in providing an excellent product. They work hard to see to it that customers get what they want within the limits of the hat. They also work on hats that need a bit of restoration, such as cleaning, blocking or re-shaping. Sometimes a hat needs to have a hole repaired or a new band stitched in. However, the hat has to be able to “accept” the work.

S. Grant Sergot steams a customer's hat, getting ready to tweak the brim. When it's done, the brim of this beaver felt fedora will feature a rakish angle, making the customer, Bill McKay of Sierra Vista, very happy. Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service

S. Grant Sergot steams a customer’s hat, getting ready to tweak the brim. Sergot said it’s a slow process because you have to “convince” the hat to take the shape you want. Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service

“You have to convince (the hat),” Sergot said. “You shouldn’t force it. You have to let it tell you what to do. And then the content — whether it’s rabbit, beaver, whether it’s a brand new body or if it’s an older hat that’s in for restoration — all works a little differently, so the learning curve is always there. Each one has its own parameters that you need to figure out.”

Back in the shop, McKay’s hat needed some adjusting. The brim in front needed to be brought down just a little bit, so Sergot took the hat to the back to steam it. Once the brim was warm and moist, Sergot coaxed the brim into a more rakish angle.

When McKay glanced at himself in the mirror with his new hat, he laughed.

“You hit a home run,” McKay said. “I once saw Willie Mays hit a home run in Los Angeles, right there at (Dodger Stadium). I watched him and that swing looked like a work of art. Just like that hat. That’s what that is right there. That is Willie Mays hitting one out of the park.”

Bill McKay is very happy with his new fedora, which he bought as a 60th birthday present for himself. He said hatter S. Grant Sergot hit a "home run" with the hat. Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service

Bill McKay of Sierra Vista is happy with his new fedora, which he bought as a 60th birthday present for himself. He said hatter S. Grant Sergot hit a “home run” with the hat. Photo by Karen Schaffner/Arizona Sonora News Service

“Now you’re practicing safe sun,” Sergot said with a chuckle.

McKay gently adjusted the brim down over his eyes. He pulled back his shoulders and smiled.

“I’m chuffed!” he said and walked out of the shop.

Karen Schaffner is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at kschaffn@email.arizona.edu.

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