Ravalli Republic Newspaper Article: Custom Crowns
Darby man crafts handmade hats for country stars and guys in bars.
By ROD DANIEL Staff Reporter for the Ravalli Republic
Never run after your own hat - others will be delighted to do it. Why spoil their fun? - Mark Twain
Jimmy Harrison is a man of many hats. And one look inside Darby's Double H Hat Company will affirm that fact. For more than eight years, Harrison, known locally as Jimmy the Hatmaker, has constructed felted fur hats for people far and wide. Those who've donned a Double H headdress include country-western stars Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson, NFL hall-of-famer Dick Butkus and San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. But ask Harrison who his favorite customer is and he's likely to look no further than his hometown streets. "I'd a lot rather build someone a hat who's gonna appreciate it." Harrison says. "And Darby and the Bitterroot Valley have been real good to me."
Harrison threw his hat into the Darby retail arena about five years ago; before that, he had a shop in Wisdom. But it wasn't too much earlier when the Dillon native practiced a trade in another arena, and it was there that he got interested in his present art. "When I was young playing in the rodeo I was always steaming and shaping other people's hats," he says. "When I was busted up enough, I started to make hats." Harrison recounts a painful tale of breaking his pelvis during a spur-of-the moment bronc-riding demonstration for his sons. After recuperating from his fateful fall, he says he learned the art of hatmaking from Sheila Kirkpatrick of Wisdom. Currently one of about fifty hatmakers nationwide, Harrison's decision to set up shop in a little town on a two-lane road in western Montana has turned out to be a good one. "We're plenty busy," he says while sanding the felt of a fedora. "We've got customers from all over the world - shipped one last year to the South Pole station." A couple of years ago, thinking he might increase his exposure, Harrison opened a second, Sedona, Ariz., store, which he still shares with a custom boot maker. But the events of 9-11 blew the lid off that idea, he says. "Everybody who goes to Sedona gets there by airplane," he says. "When people stopped flying (after 9-11), business down there just stopped. We're just now seeing things turn around down there." Darby was insulated from the airline scare, he says, because "not that many people fly here." And the people who live and visit here seem to be interested in nice hats.
Summer and fall are the busiest times of the year for Harrison, and he gets a lot of business from the folks at Triple Creek Lodge up West Fork Road. "I go up there and show hats once a week in the busy season," he says. Harrison says the process that leads to a finished, custom-made felt hat begins at a factory in Tennessee where raw beaver or rabbit fur is converted into felt by special machines. The quality of felt - a thin durable material created when the fine animal hairs wrap around each other and are pressed together using heat and pressure - varies according to what it is made of, he says, and 100 percent beaver felt reigns supreme in the hat world. Standing in front of a display that shows enlarged photos of both beaver and rabbit fur follicles under a microscope, Harrison explains the differences between the two furs commonly used in fine hats. The fur, or downy undercoat, of the beaver is finer than that of rabbit and makes for a tighter and stronger felt, he says. The two furs are often mixed together during the felt-making process, and while a 50/50 blend of the two furs still makes for a very fine felt, he said, anything less than that compromises quality. "I don't build anything cheaper than a 50 percent beaver hat," he says The Tennessee-pressed felt comes to Harrison in the shape of a cone. The raw bodies come in a variety of size ranges and may retain their natural color or be dyed another color. Starting with this semblance of a crown and brim, a hatmaker like Harrison magically transforms it into a finished hat in the same way a sculptor turns a piece of clay into a finished sculpture, with the magic trick taking about six hours to complete.
Harrison works the crown of a hat on the crown spinner, giving shape to what previously was a raw-bodied cone. Handling it firmly but gently, he pulls the hat from the spinner and roughs the felt with a sanding block to make the hairs stand up. Then he sprays the hat with a light mist of alcohol, and with a magician-like gesture, sets it ablaze to singe off the loose hairs. When the quick-burning inferno goes out he brushes it lightly and then irons the felt to smooth it out.
One hat-making trick only Harrison is known for involves placing decorative individualized inlets in his hats. The time-consuming technique, he says, came about by accident when he found a material flaw in a hat he was working on. "One thing led to another and I ended up sewing an inlet into the hat to hide the flaw," he says. "Now I do it for people who want to personalize their hat. I think I'm still the only hatter that does any inlet work." Decorating a hat with a braided horse-hair band is another way to personalize a hat for someone, Harrison says, although it's expensive because the braiding process takes many hours. With a display case full of hitched horse-hair bands behind him Harrison points to the ornate hand work. "Most of this comes from the prison," he said. "Trust me, it's the only people who have the time to do it."
Harrison's not sure how many hats he's made over the years but he knows it's in the thousands. His hats range in price from about $425 for a basic 50 percent beaver hat to $2,500 depending on how fancy people want them. He says he makes between 300 and 400 hats a year. Most of what he makes are Western-style cowboy hats, but he's built many other styles as well, including bowlers, fedoras, top hats and derbies. The sizes of his hats have ranged from five-and-a-half to nine, the latter belonging to a giant of a man whose picture adorns Harrison's store. One thing all his hats have in common, he said, is the Double H brand - Harrison's personal seal of excellence. "I put my Double H brand on every hat I build," he said, "but only when I'm satisfied with it. I hope every hat I build is a little better than the last one." Harrison has seen his hats in movies and on CD covers, and he says the recent Academy of Country Music awards had a number of artists sporting his felt hats. Two hats on display at his store were part of a traveling Western Art Display that made its last stop at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
His biggest thrill as a hatmaker, he said, is helping someone create a hat that specifically suits them, and that means looking at a variety of factors - their height, the size of their frame, the width of their face, even their social position. But despite doing everything in his power to make sure people get the hat that's right for them, Harrison says he still defers to the client in the end. "The bottom line is the customer is always right," he said, "but I hate to see a guy leave here looking silly. You take a big guy and put a little hat on him and he looks twice as big." As Harrison gives the hat he's been working on one final steam before shaping it, he holds it up to the light and tilts his head, perhaps imagining it on the head of its new owner. With the elegance of artist signing a painting, he gives the hat a final bend and cracks a satisfied smile. "I'll be doing this the rest of my life," he says. "I enjoy it too much."
Reporter Rod Daniel can be reached at 406-363-3300