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VCH Visits Paul's Hat Works in San Francisco

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Paul’s Hat Works. It’s a place where high quality fedoras, homburgs and bowlers are still made the old-fashioned way—by hand, one at a time. Today it’s painstaking, highly specialized work, almost a lost art. It can also be dangerous.

In the work shop in back, where the real magic happens, proprietor and hat maker extraordinaire Abbie Dwelle points to the ancient brim flanging or “sandbag” machine that she still uses every day.

“One minute on the machine is good, three minutes and you’re burning down the place,” she says with a smile.

Paul’s Hat Works has been in the same neighborhood in San Francisco since 1918. By 2009, former owner Michael Harris wanted to retire after 28 years in the hat biz. But he hated the idea of “parting out” the store’s tools, collection and heritage to collectors and other hat makers on eBay.

Over breakfast one morning in 2009, Michael told Abbie and three other young lady residents of the Richmond District that they should buy the shop and keep the collection together and the store alive. The intrepid quartet stepped up and did just that—having never made hats a day in their lives.

“It all made sense, somehow,” says Abbie. “We all had our role.” They may not have been hat makers prior to buying Paul’s, but the ladies did have rich and varied backgrounds in fashion, textiles and costuming.

They made it work. Of course, this was after apprenticing with Michael and learning the craft of making hats by hand. This is something that isn’t learned overnight.

It’s now six years after the breakfast with Michael and the decision to buy the store, and two of the ladies have moved on to other interests. Kirsten Hove is still involved with the business, but isn’t in the shop every day.

Abbie is, and remains the hands-on hat maestro at Paul’s. She now has her own small team of apprentices. It’s quite an accomplishment to have gone from apprentice to master in a mere six years.

It probably helped that Abbie considers herself a tinkerer at heart, and in the best sense of the word: she enjoys experimenting with tools and materials and making things work.

She loves the very material she works from, not just the process of making it and the final product. “I’m wild about fiber,” she says. She loves the way it looks and feels, and she loves working with it.

It’s rather like hearing an artist say they are just wild about paint and the canvas, too. It makes you smile to see such passion in somebody who creates something from nothing with their own hands.

Abbie learned the craft well enough that today she makes hats anybody could be proud of, and that’s part of the problem. Consumers conditioned to buying hats at the mall or online with one click are used to buying $35 hats.

Paul’s Hat Works isn’t about making $35 hats. Abbie knows that making the call to buy a handmade hat that costs between $350 and $550 is a big decision for most of us.

Abbie feels that the words bespoke and handmade are thrown around a little too casually these days and most people don’t really know what handmade, custom quality entails. Or how much it costs.

She likes to help her customers understand what a custom hat is all about. She then helps them get the style and details right for the hat that is right for them. It’s one of the things she likes most about her job—meeting the folks who come in the shop, educating them about hats, helping them get the most out of the experience.

Is there a secret or tip she can share for buying the perfect hat? Abbie says it’s probably the fit more than anything else.

“You aren’t going to wear a hat that doesn’t fit you well,” she explains. “People look natural in a hat that fits them well and is made for them.”

So Abbie concentrates on getting the fit right. She can mail out different sweat bands for a customer to try on; she can then fine tune the fit with an in-store visit. She says this happens quite often when customers are in town on vacation or for business.

She tries to educate her customers on the advantages of classic hat styles, despite the current popularity of shorter “stingy” brimmed hats. Abbie says she tries to persuade her customers to consider the more classic styles, which are her “bread and butter.”

“Longer brims block the sun and rain,” she points out. They are more practical than the hipster stingy brims. She wants her hats to be as practical as they are aesthetically pleasing.

Hatmaking is obviously a labor of love for Abbie. One imagines she could sell a heck of a lot of stingy brims if she were only interested in profit. But she’s not.

“I’m proud that despite all the challenges, I’m making a quality product here, one that isn’t disposable,” says Abbie. She adds that she is also proud to have played a part in preserving the history and legacy of Paul’s Hat Works and to have kept it in the old neighborhood.

Abbie and the team at Paul’s are aces with all of us here at VCH. Be sure to give Paul's Hat Works a serious look the next time you are in the market for a fine chapeau.

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