06 May A Hatter Hits the Road
Combine one Labrador-mix canine named Charlie, a chewed-up hat (thanks to Charlie), the inspiration of country-folk singer Willy Tea Taylor, and a creative Bend resident, and you have the origin of a flourishing custom hat business in Central Oregon.
Meet Cate Havstad, who in less than three years has turned her curiosity in hat making into a successful classic western- and dress-style hat enterprise that blends traditions of the past with a modern flare for design. Here’s how she describes her passion for the art: “I want to be a custom hatter who makes each hat with great care, one at a time. I want to create unique, inspired pieces of functional art. I want to honor the trade and the centuries-old, hand-shaping techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation of hatters.”
Her story begins in 2013 in Santa Cruz, California, where she joined friend and songwriter Willy Tea Taylor on the road to film a music documentary. Taylor gave her an old flattop hat and encouraged her to listen to her heart and follow her inspiration on their journey. The hat was a treasured possession, until one day she returned home and found her beloved keepsake destroyed by Charlie. Devastated, Havstad began researching hatters, hoping to find someone who could repair her hat. She learned that over the years, offshore imports and the mass-production of huge hat factories had taken their toll on the custom hat-making business, and that there were a very small number of traditional custom hat makers still working. As she learned more about the trade and the process, her interest grew.
“I had no intention of creating a hat company when I started down this road. I was purely interested in learning,” she says. “Interest turned into curiosity, which turned into research and apprenticeship, which led to hunting for vintage hatter’s equipment from throughout the U.S., which led to turning my passion into a business,” she explains. At the urging of friends and the offer of an attractive equestrian job, Havstad moved to Tumalo. She then apprenticed with a master hatter in Sisters who taught her the fundamentals of hand blocking, pouncing, shaping, dyeing and the other nuances of custom hat crafting. In the mornings she worked as a horseback trail ride leader, using her free time later to hone her hat-making skills.
In 2014 her passion bore its first fruit as she made her initial retail sale at a music and arts festival in Bandit Town, a popular ghost town and arts venue near Yosemite National Park. Since then, as Havstad describes her journey, “I have been blown away by the interest in my handcrafted hats. The way business grew so quickly was almost intoxicating.”
A major catalyst for her success was a mobile hat tour in 2015 that she dubbed the “The Hatter and The Hound”. Havstad packed her life, along with Charlie and three friends, into a 32-foot Airstream mobile home, left her home and workshop in Bend, and hit the road. “Since I’ve started this business, it’s always been a dream to create a mobile workshop that I could take on the road with me,” she describes her wanderlust. Her goals were to gain inspiration on the road, host “pop-up” sales booths at music and art festivals, ride with cowboys in Colorado, and meet other handcraft hatters throughout the country.
Since then, her order backlog has grown steadily and currently stands at 12 weeks, a wait-list limit she has set for herself. Many of her customers are country and folk singers she has met on the road. They have provided the marketing inspiration for many of the style names she has given her hats, such as The Goodwood, The Oregon Outlaw and the intriguing Whiskey Comatose.
Each hat is handcrafted by Havstad from start to finish, using the finest fur felts, hand-shaping techniques and original hatter’s equipment dating back to the 1800s. She collaborates with Bend’s Judy Moultan of Maindenhair Botanical to create a line of naturally dyed hats that reflects the palate of the high desert. Called “Hues of the High Desert,” the collection employs naturally foraged plants—such as sage, juniper, dogwood and rabbit brush—to dye hats in a myriad of natural colors.
The process of ordering and receiving a Havstad hat is not speedy. It typically takes three to four days to craft each hat that comes off her block, with prices ranging from $400 to $900, depending on detail. Havstad considers her pricing model competitive with comparable higher-end custom hats, but reasonable, given the handcrafted nature of each Havstad hat.
As for the business’s growth, Havstad has chosen a “steady as she goes” attitude. “In the last year, I’ve been approached about increasing production, and in today’s world one can often feel like fast growth and quick success should be the goals,” she says. She even flirted with the idea of moving her business to Nashville to be closer to the bustling heart of western and country music. “But my heart and intuition knew better,” she says. “I want to live a balanced life, and Central Oregon provides me the space to be patient in my life and creative in my work,” she adds. Havstad is now happily living on a farm and working out of her Airstream workshop in Bend’s Maker’s District, a collaborative industrial neighborhood in the city’s center. Come this summer, however, she and Charlie will likely hit the road for arts and music festivals throughout the West. For Havstad, it’s all about “following your compass and paving your own path.”