Steamboat Hatter brings new art form to town

Kay McKenzie and Sam Daniels celebrate an exhibit of their Steamboat Hatter hats at the Standard Gallery and Wine Bar in downtown Steamboat Springs. (Courtesy photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In the midst of a pandemic, creativity emerged, and for Kay McKenzie and Sam Daniels, it was in the form of hats.

“I’ve always had a love of hats and the character each one embodies,” McKenzie said.

Coming from a metalworking background with explorations in stained glass and other mediums, McKenzie has always had an affinity for trying new crafts.

When she decided to try her hand at hat making, she and Daniels spent hours reading about and researching the process online.

“It’s a fairly secretive art, so it took a lot of time before we even started just learning what we needed and how to go about it,” she explained.

After months of research, they started collecting the materials and tools they would need to start crafting their hats and thus, Steamboat Hatter was born. McKenzie and Daniels work out of a workshop, taking mostly custom orders but also designing a few ready-to-wear hats as well.

They currently have 20 finished hat designs with 15 more in the works.

“Hats are so particular to each person based on size and style alone, and we try to make each one very unique,” McKenzie said. “Therefore, the hat that someone falls in love with might not always be in their size or fit their head quite right. When that happens, we usually work with them on a custom hat that is similar to the one they liked.”

The process for making the hats involves a number of steps from start to finish. Using a felt hat body that resembles a cone, they steam and stretch the material over a wooden block in the size of the customer’s head. After blocking, the brim is ironed flat, and the hat is sanded until the body resembles a rough hat shape. The next step adds a surprise twist when they light the hat on fire.

Hats are set on fire to finish the sanding and burn away loose felt. (Courtesy photo)

“This finishes the sanding and pouncing steps by burning away any loose felt,” McKenzie explained.

In the final stages, the brim is cut to size, a sweatband is sewn in, the crown is shaped and a custom hatband is created using leather fabric and vintage accents. Then the hat is shaped to the customer’s head for a perfect fit. The entire process can take several weeks between communicating design details for custom orders to sourcing materials to the actual making of the hat.

McKenzie said most of their customers desire a traditional Western hat.

“Most of the hats we have sold thus far are somewhat classic with a modern twist,” she said.

The duo draws their inspiration from sources such as classic Western films and the landscape of Colorado, but meeting the customer is an important part of the design process.

“We try to use a myriad of shapes, colors and textures,” McKenzie said. “Meeting our customers is the largest driving factor in our custom hats. Once the conversations start, the ideas become a one-of-a-kind hat.”

Hat bands are typically made of leather with vintage accents like fabric, sterling silver and feathers. (Courtesy photo)

Not all of their hats go on heads though. A display at the Standard Gallery and Wine Bar in downtown Steamboat Springs features a wall of their hats, and McKenzie said they have other collaborations in the works.

In the future, McKenzie and Daniels hope to have a downtown store front to display and sell their hats.

“Our vision is that we have a place where customers can come in off the street and watch us building the hats and have a really hands-on experience,” McKenzie said.

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