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Arizona Artbeat: Custom Hat Maker

Airdate: January 6, 2016
Meet the youngest custom hat maker in the country. We’ll show you how Cave Creek hat maker Eric Watson makes hats the old-fashioned way.

Guests:
  • Eric Watson - Hat Maker
Category: The Arts

Keywords: Eric Watson ,

View Transcript

Ted Simons: Arizona hard beat looks at a hat-maker. Eric Watson is the youngest one in the country but as producer Shana Fischer and Scott Olson show us, he's doing things the old fashioned way. Most days you will find Eric Watson sitting using a prohibition sewing machine, hat in hand.

Eric Watson: We make the hat from beginning to end. That way, it's perfect for the customer when it's done. It's exactly what they wanted.

Shana Fisher: Watson opened his hat shop in cave creek in 2012. But, his fascination with hats goes back to when he was just 12 years old.

Eric Watson: I loved Indiana Jones as a kid. That's what inspired me, and I had my mother drive me around to old antique shops, and we found old hats. I found some old hat-making equipment. And then I would restore those old hats and make them look at Indiana Jones'.

Shana Fisher: After a brief stint as a pilot, Watson followed his passion. Hat-making is a dying art, he had to rely on Elder hat-makers for advice and equipment.

Eric Watson: Most of the equipment that we have in our shop came out of some of the oldest hat shops that were in the U.S., so we have equipment that dates from 1860 to you know, 1940s.

Shana Fisher: Getting a custom made hat at watson's hat shop is a special experience.

Eric Watson: The first thing that we do is when you come in, customers, either know what type of hat that they want or they have no idea, so we take a look at their features, because the facial proportions, their body proportions, that all goes into building the hat style, but also, the correct Aesthetic of the hat that goes with who they are.

Shana Fisher: The next step is measuring a client's head circumference. At Watson's hat shop, that means using an old fashioned contraption, called a conformateur. Then it's time to make the hat. The walls of his shop are lined with brim forms and hat forms for cowboy, derbies and Panama hats. Watson offers 32 different colors of beaver felt. The felt works well because it's water resistant and durable.

Eric Watson: You can, actually, see how there is a sheen that's coming on the hat. We go through about 65 different processes from start to finish. When we make the hat, so, the whole time that the hat is being handmade, but being made with antique hat-making equipment.

Shana Fisher: Watson's attention to the old ways, serves him well. On his list of clients --

Eric Watson: We have made, of course, hats for a lot of people. Is a few famous people like Kenny Chesney, a black cowboy hat for him. We also made a hat for Justin Timberlake. Another hat that we made was for Al Roker, and that was a fedora style hat.

Shana Fisher: But it's not just the famous collaborating on creations.

Chef Bryan Dooley: Wow, it's amazing. It looks like the photo on the album cover.

Shana Fisher: Chef and owner of Brian's black mountain barbecue, Bryan Dooley, commissioned him to mak a hat worn by his famous jazz musician, felonious monk.

Chef Bryan Dooley: I said can we make this hat, and this has here, and as we went to put the hat together, he found lots of interesting things about the hat. He was wearing it backwards in the picture. He took the feather out of the side, and he put it in the front, which is why I have it right here in the front. So, we had a lot of fun kind of just replicating that.

Shana Fisher: Watson says that hats today are often an extension of one's personality like dooley's, but that was not always the case.

Eric Watson: Hats have been very popular since the 1700s. 1800s. And even early 1900s. But, during that time frame, you had horseback. You had carriages. And so, and you would walk or you would you know, horseback somewhere, and you would ride somewhere, horseback, so the hat was the utility item, and it was meant to shelter you, while you were doing your commute. But also, it was traditional through a long period of time.

Shana Fisher: And that tradition is dying out. Consider this -- in the 1900s, there was 700 hat-making shops in New York City alone. Now, there are just a handful of custom hat-makers like Watson, but the tide could be changing, notes Dooley.

Chef Bryan Dooley: The cool thing about Eric in town here is I noticed over the last couple years, there's so many more hats in town, and it's really changed, not just the look of myself, but the look of the town, itself. You can walk down the street and see, hats. And that's really cool to see, and that's because of Eric.

Ted Simons: The prices for Watson's hats begin at $300.

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Ted Simons: Thursday on Arizona Horizon, we'll take a look at the results of a new survey that focuses on education, and members of the environmental community talk about their expectations of the upcoming legislative session. That's at 5:30 and 10:00 on the next Arizona Horizon. A reminder, if you want to watch tonight's show again, see what we have in store for the future, maybe take a look at past shows, check us out, and azPBS.org/horizon. That is it for a now. I am Ted Simons. Thank you very much for joining us. You have a great evening.
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