Arizona Artbeat: Custom Hat Maker

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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.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: In tonight's Artbeat segment, we visit a local hat maker. Eric Watson is the youngest hat maker in the country but as producer Shana Fischer and photographer Scott Olsen show us, he's doing things the old-fashioned way.

SHANA FISCHER: Most days you'll find Eric Watson sitting at his prohibition era sewing machine, hat in hand.

ERIC WATSON: We actually make the hats, from beginning to end. That way, it's perfect for the customer when it's done. It's exactly what they wanted.

SHANA FISCHER: 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 actually 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 like Indiana Jones's.

SHANA FISCHER: After a brief stint as a pilot, Watson followed his passion, because hat-making is a dying art, he had to rely on elder hat makers for advice and equipment.

ERIC WATSON: Most of the equipment we have in our shop came out of the oldest hat shops that were in the U.S. So we have equipment that dates from 1860 to 1940s.

SHANA FISCHER: Getting a custom made hat at Watson's hat shop is a special experience.

ERIC WATSON: Well, the first thing we do is when you come in, customers either know what 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 esthetic of the hat that goes with who they are.

SHANA FISCHER: The next step is measuring a client's head circumference. At Watson's head shop, that means using an old-fashioned contraption called a conformateur. After that, it's time to make the hat. The walls of the shop are lined with forms are cowboys, derby and Tanema hats. Watson offers different colors of beaver felt. It's water resistant and durable.

ERIC WATSON: You can actually see how there's a machine coming on the hat. We go through about 65 different processes from start to finish when we make the hat. So the whole time the hat is being handmade but it's being made with old antique hat-making equipment.

SHANA FISCHER: Watson's attention to the old ways serves him well. On his list of clients --

ERIC WATSON: We've made, of course, hats for a lot of people. You know, a few famous people, Kenny Chesney, we made a really nice 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 FISCHER: But it's not just the famous who are collaborating on creations.

BRYAN DOOLEY: It was amazing. It looks exactly like the photo on the album cover and I was really excited.

SHANA FISCHER: Chef and owner of the black mountain barbecue Ryan Dooley wanted a replica of a hat worn by Thelonious monk.

BRYAN DOOLEY: I said can we make this hat? And this hat 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 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 FISCHER: Watson says hats today are often an extension of one's personality like Dooley's but that wasn't always the case.

ERIC WATSON: Hats have been very popular since the 1700s, 1800s, even early 1900s but during that time frame, you had horsebacks, you had carriages, and so you would walk or you would, you know -- horseback somewhere, you would ride somewhere horseback so the hat was a 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 FISCHER: And that tradition is dying out. Consider this: In the 1900s, 700 there were 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.

BRYAN DOOLEY: A cool thing about Eric in town here is I've noticed over the last couple of years that 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, all over. And that's really cool to see and that's because of Eric.

SHANA FISCHER: Watson's hats range in price from $300 and up.

NARRATOR: We want to hear from you. Submit your questions, comments and concerns via e-mail at [email protected].

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Tuesday on "Arizona Horizon," we'll hear about a planned lawsuit that is aimed at changing American Indian family law. And hear about the non-profit employment sector. That's at 5:30 and 10:00 on the next "Arizona Horizon." That's all for now. I'm Steve Goldstein in for Ted Simons and you have a great evening.

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