Frisco artist brings her hats to Smithsonian Craft Show

Finished hats are pictured at the Diane Harty Millinery studio.
Photo from Diane Harty Millinery

FRISCO — Diane Harty Schlaefer didn’t set out to make a living as a milliner, also known as a maker of women’s hats, but that’s what she’s been doing for over 20 years, including selling her wares at the prestigious Smithsonian Craft Show this week.

“I graduated from college in Wisconsin and started making hats mostly from vintage fabrics,” Schlaefer said.

She started selling hats at farmers markets in Montana in the 1990s before moving to Denver, where business began to take off. She eventually was able to move to Frisco and set up her studio, Diane Harty Millinery. She’s been in Frisco for over 20 years and in her current location for at least seven.

Like many small businesses, the ongoing pandemic has been difficult for her. Most of her sales traditionally come from setting up booths at juried craft shows across the country, where she will bring and sell as many hats as she can. Since the shows have been forced online, she said her sales have been “hit or miss.” Schlaefer said that while craft shows typically have a pretty loyal following, people tend to like to try on hats before they buy them, which isn’t possible with a virtual show.

For her, the Smithsonian Craft Show has been a great opportunity. The annual show is in its 38th year, and typically hosts a fall and spring show. Schlaefer already had been invited to the 2020 fall show, which features wearable items, before organizers decided to merge the spring and fall shows into one large online event featuring over 100 artists.

The show’s goal is to “celebrate the best in American craft and design.” It also raises funds for the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, which awards grants and endowments throughout the Smithsonian Institute.

Wynne Teel is a member of the committee and one of the co-chairs of the artists shops for this year’s show. She noted that the show is very selective and the artists who were invited are “some of the most highly skilled artists in their field.”

“Diane has already been in this show nine times, which I think speaks to the level of her work,” Teel said. “She is truly outstanding. Her hats are creative, imaginative and beautifully made.”

The size of the event, and the fact that it has been online for two weeks as opposed to a few days like some other online craft shows, has helped Schlaefer out. She’s gotten hat orders from Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Illinois and the Boston area, and she said several buyers are customers to whom she’s sold when she’d previously attended the show in person.

Aside from direct sales, she’s also seen increased traffic to her website and people joining her mailing list. And she’s been able to spend more time at her studio, which she keeps open to the public whenever she’s not away at shows.

Diane Harty Schlaefer stands in front of her Frisco studio.
Photo from Diane Harty Millinery

“I’ve been trying to be more accessible than I’ve ever been,” said Schlaefer, who has a small show floor in her studio where people can view and try on her hats. Being hand-crafted and labor intensive, the hats aren’t cheap. Hats for sale at the craft show run between $140 and $270, but each one is a product of hours of hard work and artistry.

“I always feel like craftwork is more of the skill of creating something that is both artistic and useful,” she said.

Schlaefer’s process starts with raw materials and a 100-year-old chainstitch machine — a device that is critical for sewing her hats together. The machine stitches strands of hat braids together and enables her to form the hats. She’s been using the same chainstitch machine throughout her career and is always on the lookout for spare parts in case something breaks.

“I probably have four or five other machines that are backups,” she said. “It’s definitely a pretty specialized, unique machine.”

The Smithsonian Craft Show runs though Oct. 25 and can be accessed at Schlaefer’s hats can be purchased through the show or at her studio, 120 N. Seventh Ave. Suite B in Frisco.

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