This website will downgrade to a blog around April 19, 2023, which may result in a brief outage as I reestablish my presence here. Thank you for your patience.
Work on my book titled “A Storied Hat: My work in retrospect” is slowly progressing. Let me know if you would like to reserve a copy. If you have photos, stories, comments or reviews that you would like me to include, please send those to aphoenixhat at gmail. I am especially interested in hats you acquired prior to 2002, which is before I started keeping record.
I am wrapping up orders from December 2022 and am also preparing to move my studio. Once I am settled in to my new space, I plan to start work on the skirts, hoods and a jacket that I hope to launch later this year.
Thank you for continuing to show interest and support in my work and following my journey. I hope you will stick around for the next chapter…
I had intended to maintain the narrative here, but other projects have consumed my time and energy. So as I presented the first chapter here, I also now present the last…
London Accessory Week – July 2022. It is my litmus test. I send about a dozen hats ranging from whimsy cocktails to winter warms. I hope a broad collection will hit a few notes among the hat-wearers of British society.
Every hat I sent, is returned to me, crammed without mercy into the same box I had so carefully packed for the trans-Atlantic flight.
It’s my third show in a row with zero sales. It was one of only two shows that had even accepted my work out of the 10-12 I had applied to over the last 18 months. Many of my commissions have been do-overs. Every new hat style I try ends in utter failure. My Muse, and my interest in hatmaking, have apparently left the room.
I take another break to create a 1900s traveling suit to wear on a family history expedition to Colorado. That project would drive me in a new direction.
In August, I start rebranding my web presence from “Hats” to “Mercantile.” I narrow the selections in my custom hat catalog. I start discounting my hats at galleries and get a surge of custom orders later that month.
Over Thanksgiving I announce my retirement from hatmaking and issue a “Last Call” which results in another surge of custom orders. I sell off most of my remaining hats, and by Christmas I remove my catalog and shopping cart from my website. I stop looking for shows to apply to. I zero out my gallery inventories and stock rotation schedule. I start to jettison trade show equipment and selected materials from my studio.
And things suddenly feel so much lighter.
Walking away from hats feels a little like a change in identity. But after nearly 40 years of hatmaking and a few years of wrestling with the decision, I make the call to close that door and open the next…
The first and last chapters presented here are excerpts from my current work in progress – a book entitled “A Storied Hat: My Work in Retrospect.” Please contact me if you would like to be notified when it is published.
Thank you for supporting my work and following my journey.
I hope you will stick around for the next chapter…
It is traditional for small businesses to recap the Old Year before the New Year starts. But since I am transitioning to a new product line in 2023-24, instead of recapping my (mostly) final hats from 2022, I’m going to take you back to the very beginning in about 1985, when I was still a self taught hobby hatmaker.
I was person of little renown in a medieval group called the SCA, where I portrayed a storyteller whose name was Lao Xue-sheng. Ever the spendthrift, I saved wool felt that had covered old window display panels at my job, and shopped thrift stores for fur coats to cut up, and taught myself how to make early period hats. I gave the first few away to see how they would be accepted. Hatmaking also gave me something to do : )
‘Lao’s Hats’ became the name people used when describing my hats to their friends…
Lao Hats became my brand, and later, the name of my company when enough people convinced me that I could turn my hobby into a commercial venture.
My first business card was printed on construction paper and hand stamped with my chop, which also served as the first “maker’s tags” inside my hats, when I actually started tagging my hats. My first catalog was 4 pages, hand drawn…
A friend known in the SCA as Kerij-e, made a website for me in 2002, which landed me invitations to show my hats in galleries the following year.
And thus the tale of “The Storied Hat” begins…
I have now removed the shopping cart and Custom Catalog from this site and will not be seeking custom hat orders after December 31, 2022. If you are interested in a custom-made hat, choose from my most popular styles (shown below), and send me your color, fabrication and size requests either via email or via DM on Facebook. Please see my Contacts page for that information. If you want a style that is not shown here, send me a photo and we can discuss your project.
Payment – No deposit is required. I will send you an invoice via PayPal when your hat is ready to ship. Orders placed by December 31 will be ready to ship in 6-8 weeks.
NOTE: You may still see random ready-made hats available for sale after January 1 on Facebook, as I continue to finish up the half-made hats that remain in my shop as of December 23. Follow me there!
To find your hat size, measure around your head at your eyebrows. Your hat size is your head size in inches. CAPS sit above your ears, HATS will cover the top of your ears. I make my hats from vintage and reclaimed materials; only the beads, threads and some laces and buttons are new. See my FAQ & Policies page for additional information.
ALLERGEN ALERT – I own a cat and work in a very small studio. If you are highly allergic to furs or wools, my hats will not be the best choice for you. Meet the ShopCat here.
I would be remiss this Thanksgiving weekend if I didn’t give thanks to everyone who has supported my work, and who continue to follow me here. It’s been a fun and sometimes challenging ride over the past few decades.
If you follow this website, you know by now that, I will no longer be offering custom made hats after the end of this year. I am still finishing some “half-done” hats and will probably have some gallery returns in January, which I plan to post to Facebook. I plan to downgrade this site in December.
Some of you have been asking “What’s Next?”
Among my planned print projects is a retrospective of my work. Every hat has a story, as do those of you who now own them. So…. if you would like to share a photo of your hat and a few lines of your personal story, I will consider adding those to this book. You can send those to me at aphoenixhat at gmail. That project is a couple years away.
My next textile project is a very limited line of artisanal clothing, cut from mostly 1900s patterns, but with a twist, and featuring motifs from my more popular hats:
—Walking skirts inspired by those of the Eduardian era. A skirt with my “Wright at Home” applique at the waist. A ‘Fire Duchess” skirt with my Dumpster Fire flame motif along the hem.
—A Model T Duster coat with embroidered panels on the back. A frock coat in pieced wools. Jackets with ravens and crows, and a peacock inspired by the door at the Palmer House in Chicago, a design I have never successfully scaled down for a hat.
I hope to roll out the first pieces in the next few months. Follow me on Facebook and be among the first to see them!
I thought it would be fun to share the sewing tools I saw in museums during my tour of Colorado.
Many basic hand sewing tools have not changed much over the past few centuries.
In Gunnison, I was pleased to find a brass thimble that was as intricately decorated as the silver one I brought back from Turkiye a few years back. Also shown here are a needle case (date unknown), and the emory-filled strawberry that would have been attached to a tomato-shaped pin cushion, possibly dating to the Victorian era. A pattern tracing wheel with a package of Singer sewing needles that you might have in your collection. The orange card in that photo shows some small metal fasteners.
In the corner of a general store at a museum in Montrose, I peered into a case to see spools of ribbons which I assumed were for millinery but could also have been used for dresses, or for dressing hair. A counter full of bolts of thread for crochet or embroidery, and a traveling basket of similar threads at a museum in Silverton. I’ve got a few spools of those threads in my collection, in more muted colors, and a similar basket I have used to transport my needlework projects in. I suspect this basket may be missing its lid.
In the Gray House at the Pioneer Museum in Gunnison, the docent asked me about this tin, measuring 14-16″ across, with a dial in the lid. I informed that it was a sales case from a mercantile. The clerk would turn the dial to the selected item, and slide open the door, and retrieve the small wooden case containing the sewing machine needles or bobbin. I was allowed to demonstrate…
The tripod device in the first photo was issued to homemakers during WWI, along with 10 pounds of wool yarn, to produce socks for the armed forces. Those who volunteered for this duty were allowed to keep the machine after the war. This machine in Gunnison used to be threaded. If you know how to thread it, drop me a line in the comments, the museum docents would love to be able to demonstrate it again.
The other two photos are paddles for carding raw wool to make into roving, which would have then been spun into yarn. There was a two wheel, multiple spindle spinning wheel which I failed to get a photo of. Also shown in this glass case were a pair of fingerless mitts, resting on top of a pair of red mittens, also at the Pioneer Museum in Gunnison.
I did not see knitting needles, which would have been wood or perhaps steel, and crochet hooks, which I have seen in bone and ivory for the turn of this century. A household of this period may also have had tatting needles, which I’m sure were safely tucked away in a drawer.
Fabric would be pressed, and knit pieces would be blocked, with some form of iron. These are some of the more unusual irons I have seen. The first one was unusual to me because I had only ever seen this style of iron with a wooden handle, rather than this twisted metal one which would have been hard on the hands. It would have been heated on top of a woodstove. This iron was marked “25”, another one nearly twice the size was marked “50”. I hope that did not indicate its weight…
The second photo is a steam iron, if you look closely you will see my accidental self-portrait in the balloon-type water receptacle.
The last three photos are of a Chinese iron from the laundry cabin at the Museum of the West in Montrose. The pot was filled with coal, which would have kept the iron hot for an extended period of time. The handle is wood, the bottom is brass, and as you can see, the exterior of the iron is ornamented with continuous diaper patterning and Good Fortune symbols. I did not expect to be handed the iron when I asked to take a photo of it, and in my haste to give it back, I did not clearly note the design on the socket, which was secured to the wooden handle with a large copper rivet. The design might be fish or a dragon.
This final shot is of a General Store at the Museum of the West in Montrose. The sewing supplies and counter for ladies shoes and underwear were to the left of this counter. It hails back to the day when a clerk fetched your items, and you might even have them delivered to your door. Amazon does that now.
In my previous post about clothing I viewed during my recent trip to Colorado, I stated: “There were so many shoes and accessories that I am compelled to put those into a separate post…” This is that post. If I have mis-identified any of the dates on these pieces, please correct me by leaving a comment.
I saw the white pair in a display case in the Stratter Hotel in Durango, which I believe date to 1917-20. Note the embroidery on the toe. The display is augmented with a pair of gloves, and a peacock feather. The burgundy pair are from the Pioneer Museum in Gunnison, I believe they date to the 1870s.
A pair of boots from the Ute Tribe, date unknown. I was quite taken with the scalloped bead edging. The shoes, also date unknown, have tiny mink head detail as an extension of the lining. Both pair in Montrose.
A beaver top hat, worn by saloonkeeper F.W. Koehler in Silverton. The interior sizer band and directions are in the next photo.
Mining hats from Silverton, an adult size straw hat from Montrose, a child’s straw with a brown bow from Gunnison. A modern day railroad brakeman’s hat I got to hold while I was on the narrow gauge train headed from Silverton to Durango : ) A wall of cowboy hats from Gunnison, and the embosser that was used to monogram the interior band with the owner’s initials.
A lace bag, date unknown. A tooled leather handbag that I think dates from the 1940s-50s. A metal mesh bag, which I was allowed to open. I explained to the docent that it was constructed from tiny flat 4-prong studs interlocked by rings. I have a necklace made using a similar technique. All pieces in Gunnison.
A jeweled hair comb and hatpins from Silverton. A straw fan from Gunnison.
A glove case in Gunnison, the first I had seen, with apologies that the photos are blurry. The sign said that glove cases were used to keep pairs together and to keep the gloves clean since they were worn so often, though I did not see any gloves in this case. The second shot shows a front panel folded down, with clips for something I could not identify. The last shot is a large steamer-style trunk from Montrose.
An ermine muff (the docent said that ermines show up in his no-kill traps occasionally). A watch fob made in prison. A fur collar made from mouton with a heavily quilted interior. A lace collar. Evening capelets, the black one is beaded on the back as well as the front, the other one is embellished in passementerie. All pieces from Gunnison.
A parasol covered in brown water taffeta, with a collapsable handle. The brass sleeve on the handle slides down over the cord-hinged joint. It is very delicate but was also the least fragile parasol of those in this room.
If a yardstick was the measure of the clothing collections I found in museums on this trip (especially the Pioneer Museum in Gunnison), the photos I have posted would measure about a quarter inch on that yardstick. I hope to return to Gunnison to shoot and share more of their collection with you.
In the meantime, I invite you to date these pieces, and if you recognize any of them, drop those details in the comments as well. I have volunteered to assist the Pioneer Museum in Gunnison in dating their pieces, and will forward comments to them for that purpose.
It all started with a dress.
If you follow this website, you might remember that my great grandparents were married in Gunnison, Colorado in 1907. I inherited her wedding dress, and repurposed the damaged skirt into a 1910-inspired traveling suit to wear during my tour of mining towns and family stomping grounds on the Western Slope of Colorado. (You can review that project at “The Traveler’s New Clothes” and “The Traveler’s Shirtwaist”.)
I contacted the museum in Gunnison about donating the blouse, which was in near perfect condition. Pam answered my email, and after reading about the theme of my tour, said that she wanted to introduce me to a couple of local historians while I was there. Gunnison was my last and most important stop on my 10 day tour, so I made an appointment for 2 PM Friday.
I arrived in my traveling suit with the dress donation, notebook and files in hand, and met the two local historians, David Primus and Larry McDonald, the Outreach Coordinator for the Pioneer Museum. Larry had prepared a 16-page digital book on a USB drive, containing links to hundreds of articles about my family from both the Gunnison Museum archives and the Denver Digital Library. I showed them the wedding blouse and a couple of other textiles I had brought to donate. David was especially intrigued with the pillowcase with blue-on-white photos of J.J. Carpenter and Cebolla. I think we talked for about two hours, and Larry scanned the small collection of photos and newspaper clippings from the files I had brought to share.
I was looking for the marker for the Sportsmen’s Hotel – a hunting and fishing lodge built by my great great grandfather in about 1904, and was flabbergasted to hear that it had not been swallowed up by the Blue Mesa Reservoir, but had in fact been moved and is now an apartment building at the edge of town. I was also looking for Jack’s Cabin, where my grandmother and family lived during the 1918 Pandemic. I had spotted it on a historical map but could not locate on a current road map. David knew where that was, and gave me directions, which I would follow the next day after touring the museum.
The next day, Larry met me at the door and took me through the main building. My first stop was a wedding dress worn by Rose Mauer on October 23, 1900. It was fun to see the pleating at the hem, which was similar to the pleating that I was wearing from the repurposed hem from my great grandmother’s wedding skirt.
Larry invited me into a golf cart, and off we went. The Pioneer Museum can rightly be called the Smithsonian of Gunnison, comprised of 30 buildings and several outdoor displays on a 16 acre property. Larry pointed to the buildings and what they contained as we drove by; he knew of my interest in textiles and was taking me to those buildings first. I did not keep track of which building I was in for the next set of garments, these may be in the La Veta building.
This traveling suit belonged to Florence “Flora” Johnston Outcalt (1861- 1936) but no date specific to this dress. So if you can identify the date, please drop me a comment…
This dress was taffeta with a brocade vest and no informational signage. Larry pointed out the buttons made from tiger eye set into silver bezels. It would lead me to start a series on Facebook and Twitter called “Date That Dress” to tap into the knowledge of the costume historians I follow on those platforms. As of this writing, this dress has been dated to 1896 due to the shape and size of the leg-o-mutton sleeves, and identified as daywear due to its color, and the high collar (edged in netting rather than lace)
Another pair of dresses, not dated. I apologize for the lack of clarity, my hands were now shaking. I had brought a tape measure with me, the dress at right measured a 23″ waist, the one next to it, a 21″ waist. The draping at front and back was asymmetrical, and the velvet under panel was only exposed on the one side. It’s an inspiring piece…
There were so many shoes and accessories that I am compelled to put those into a separate post…
I believe this next set was in the Gray House, a building that dates to the 1920s but converted to give visitors an idea of what a Gunnison home was like between 1880-1910. Walking in, it felt as though the inhabitants had just walked out, leaving all their possessions in the spots they had last used them.
In the laundry area was a display of underwear. A sign informed that in the 1880s, women’s undergarments were made from muslin and nainsook – textiles that held together through lye soap and boiling. By the 1920s, silk and rayon came in to use, and below-the-knee bloomers of glove silk replaced the ‘slip’ under long skirts. Shown here are a crotchless bloomers and corset cover set, and another corset cover (at far right) that had “stay-like seaming to a 21 inch waist. The figure was laced in to match this measure.”
Upstairs in a bedroom I found this men’s shirt, starched so stiff that it was board like. I did not see any of the detachable collars or ties that would have been worn with it. Larry started to pull things out of drawers for me to look at, and turned on a still-operational 1912-era Victrola. I probably should have noted what the song was on that scratchy, time-worn record.
In the nursery we found a little girl’s fur coat, bonnet and purse, that I identified for Larry as being made from karakul. A little boy’s velveteen suit, that Larry handed to me and asked if I could straighten the pants so they wouldn’t hang crooked. “Sure!” Just as soon as I pick my jaw up off the floor and snap a few photos (darn my shaking hands)…
In the next bedroom, Larry pulls me over to a table and asks about a large white tin with a dial on top. I tell him it’s from a mercantile, and it’s how sewing machine needles and bobbins were sold. The clerk would turn the dial to the item you needed, and slide open the door, and select from the wooden cases in that section. Larry allowed me to demonstrate.
Another bedroom, another closet, this one filled with garments that appear to date from about 1880 through the Flapper era. Larry hands me a shirtwaist to photograph. I carefully turn up the waist to see the hook and eye closures.
We exit this home so Larry can show me one of his favorites – a bear skin coat from the 1920s that belonged to Edmond Leonard, who came to Gunnison in 1894 and who would become a rancher. Larry is a pretty big guy but this coat would have swamped him, I’m sure it must have weighed at least 50 lbs. There was also a horsehair coat that I didn’t get a photo of, and pair of leather breeches, no tag or sign, that I wish I had been able to get better shots of, especially of the embroidery.
At this point my battery died, so I tried to make mental notes of the other buildings so I could come back and photograph them later.
I would return with my camera, and then drive to the edge of town, where I found the old Sportsmen’s Hotel, now the Cebolla Creek Apartments. A couple of the tenants were in the yard, so I explained that my great great grandfather had built the building they were living in, and that it used to be a hunting lodge where the Blue Mesa Reservoir is now. They had no idea…
Jessica invited me inside so I could see what it looks like now. She called her landlord and left my phone number on his voicemail, and he called me back when I got back to Seattle. How he acquired the building, will probably be subject to a separate post.
I returned to the museum on Sunday to retrieve a flash drive I had loaned to Larry, and told Pam I had found the marker for Jack’s Cabin, where I believe my grandparents met, and where my grandmother harvested hay for the Spann family. Pam disappeared for a few minutes, and returned with the contact information for the Spann family, who still own the property, and who’s patriarch is old enough to possibly remember my grandmother…
My great grandmother’s dress – both the piece I donated and the part that I wore – opened more doors than just the ones at this museum. It helped me find the people, who knew the places, where there were people who knew other people, all of whom would help me to piece together the puzzle that family history can present.
And it all started with a dress… (to be continued…)
The proprietor of The August Phoenix Mercantile is on the road in Colorado! To those who are looking for the ‘postcards’ from my tour of old mining towns, railroads and family stomping grounds, you will find daily missives at Daveno Travels.
Next stop – the train station in Silverton to board this beauty to Durango. I’ll be back in my Seattle shop late next week.
After I finished the skirt (as detailed in my previous post), I turned my attention to an Edwardian blouse called a shirtwaist. Webster’s defines it as “a woman’s tailored garment (such as a blouse or dress) with details copied from men’s shirts.”
I had already disassembled the remains of my great grandmother Velma’s wedding skirt, which was too damaged to restore. The blouse however, was in nearly perfect condition, with a pleated front, and a stand up collar, and full sleeves gathered at both the shoulder and a lace-edged cuff. I decided not to replicate it, but instead, to lift details from it for a wool version which would match my walking skirt.
I searched for a pattern that echoed the details of this blouse, and that was simple enough to match my sewing skills since I’ve only worked in rectangular construction, and this was my first foray into a tailored garment. An Australian company called Repeated Originals had a pattern that seemed to fit the bill, so I selected their “Blouse pour dame d’un certain age” dating to 1907, which was the same year Velma wore this dress.
The pattern arrived as a 12 page pdf that you download, print and tape together, and then cut out the pattern pieces. The instructions were minimal and probably adequate for a dressmaker who was familiar with this type of garment. But it looked mostly straight forward, so I cut out the pattern pieces and started sizing them. The front was pleated, so adjusting the depth of the pleats would probably fix the sizing. The back was more fitted and was very short (41 cm) so I made it longer and wider to fit my more portly figure. The illustration showed a waistband that was not included in the pattern. A clothier friend confirmed that shirtwaists were often attached to a waistband, sometimes with a peplum, and that there were hooks on the skirt to hold the shirtwaist in place. Moving ahead, I cut a draft bodice from some linen, which seemed to fit pretty well.
I decided to replicate the embroidery from the back of Velma’s blouse onto my own shirtwaist. I don’t know if shirtwaists were embroidered for daywear, but my mission was to carry forward my family history in wearable form, with strict historical accuracy being secondary to my purpose.
I transferred the embroidery pattern by laying Velma’s blouse over a piece of Kraft paper, and used a straight pin to prick around the edges of the embroidery at 1/8″ intervals. I then ‘connected the dots” on the kraft paper with a sharpie, and then traced the design onto a piece of tissue paper which I pinned to the wool of my shirtwaist (a process I learned from Chinese embroidery technique)
My time was limited, so I appliquéd small flower-shaped lace pieces I had gleaned from a thrift store garment, instead of trying to replicate the flowers from Velma’s blouse. I applied soutache by hand for the stems, which worked fairly well and saved me hours of embroidery time. I lined the back panel with a piece of jacquard from my mother’s wedding dress, which made my shirtwaist a multi-generational heritage piece.
I didn’t have enough lace to inset into the shoulders of my shirtwaist, and decided 100 year old lace wouldn’t hold up at that stress point anyway. I did squeak out enough for the body of the collar, shown below and in comparison to Velma’s blouse.
Two lace appliques also hid a gaff I made when I lengthened the back but forgot to lengthen the front sides to match, which also created an unexpected fray point when I tried to turn the hem. Applique work has become one of my favorite “fix-it’ tools.
The sleeves posed another quandary. I had planned to cut the sleeves from the remaining panel of her skirt, to take advantage of the lace chevron detail, but there was too much damage to work around. I also couldn’t figure out how the sleeves from this pattern worked, so I gave up and disassembled something from my closet to get a pattern for a standard set-in sleeve. I turned to YouTube to learn how to convert a standard sleeve into the Bishop’s sleeve that was closer to the one in the pattern illustration.
I shouldn’t call it a Bishop’s Sleeve, for all the swearing that was involved. The YouTube tutorials said to cut the sleeve longer than your wrist, so it would blouse. But it came out too baggy, and the lace panel I had applied got lost in all the fabric. So I tore the sleeve out, moved the lace panel up about 6″, shortened and narrowed the sleeve by about 4″, and terminated it onto a shorter cuff. I reset the first sleeve three times to get the shoulder seam in its proper place. At least the second sleeve went in much faster, since I had made and corrected all of my errors on the first one…
At this point, I also realized that the ‘wool’ I had chosen for this project, was actually a wool-Lycra blend, with just enough stretch that buttonholes for the front placket became a terrifying prospect. I did consider making a placket from silk that would lay under the front placket, which would conceal the buttons and buttonholes and leave the placket unadorned (as shown on Velma’s blouse below).
But even that seemed daunting, and it left the front too plain, and I reminded myself that I wasn’t making a replica of Velma’s blouse. So I sewed non-functioning buttons onto the front of the placket, and I used hooks and eyes underneath as the actual closures. I moved those three times before I got them right.
The end result was a shirtwaist with a very pretty back, and a front I planned to let hang tunic style, after trials of mounting it onto a waistband made me look like a sack of potatoes. I ultimately added a small decorative brooch in front to cinch it in, which tricks the eye into seeing a peplum.
I have now deviated enough from the original pattern that I’m not sure I can call it a proper shirtwaist. But In spite of the trials, errors, and design deviations, I’m happy with my new traveling ensemble. I hope to get more photos aboard the Alamosa Car on the Silverton-Durango steam train in a couple of weeks…