Hats off to Schlaefer
FRISCO – Hats have the ability to transport you into another dimension – another part of yourself, another aspect of your personality. At least Diane Harty Schlaefer’s hats do.
When you walk into her Frisco studio at the corner of Third and Main streets, it’s as if you’ve stepped back in time. Reams of colorful braid bulge out of tall shelving units stacked against one wall. Across from the raw material, finished straw hats – some with large, floppy brims, others with wild tubes and knots on top – cover a long table.
But the most charming items in the studio are the antique chain stitch machines Schlaefer uses to create her braided hats. The machines were invented in the 1890s and haven’t been produced in the United States since the 1950s, so Schlaefer had to travel to New York and buy a rebuilt one. In fact, she invested $1,000 and bought three. The simple, black machines don’t have bobbins like regular sewing machines, so they produce a loose chain stitch, which allows Schlaefer to curve and bend the braid into unique shapes.
Though her most popular hats are basic sun hats with wide brims, she prefers wilder styles, such as the cocktail hats she calls “Hear Me Walk” because a wide, braided tube flares out of the top of the hat like a speaker or megaphone. Her latest favorite hat is a headband with tilted discs layered atop each other.
“I like asymmetrical hats because when you try to do something stiff and fitted, it doesn’t seem right to me,” Schlaefer said. “It seems like people are more fluid than that, and they should wear something that kind of puts a kink in their shape. You can have fun (with hats). Hats throw people off a little.
“I like to do things that throw people off a little about what they think a hat should be, but I’m not making it a point to be unconventional because I appreciate the traditional styles, too. I like clean and simple styles so people can appreciate the beauty of it.”
The art of millinery, or making women’s hats, initially attracted Schlaefer because it blended sculpture with fashion. She began making hats in 1992 by cutting up clothes she picked up at thrift stores and transforming them into headware. Before that, she never imagined a career in hat design; she just enjoyed scouring thrift stores for funky outfits – like her favorite: huge, olive-green terry cloth pants held up by suspenders, complemented with an orange mohair sweater.
She began to think of herself as an artist after taking a ceramics class her senior year in college, when her teacher suggested she pursue art school. Until then, she had planned on attending graduate school to continue her South Asian and botany studies.
After selling her unisex cloth hats at farmers’ markets and universities, she decided to make more “elegant” hats. Since then, she has displayed and sold hats throughout the nation at such prominent, juried shows as the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival and the Cherry Creek Festival. She sold about 800 a year before she had a child (who’s 1), and now she sells about 600.
“The last five years, people have become more bold about (wearing hats), but I think there’s closet people who really, really want to wear hats,” she said. “A hat brightens people up. It makes them feel special. I think that hats make people smile or make them feel more elegant.”
Still, there’s those who are hat-shy.
“They’re comfortable with their identity, and it just changes what they look like,” she said. “When they wear a hat, they’re not presenting themselves the way they usually do, or they’ll say, “I look like my mother.’ It does change the whole face because of the proportions with the forehead and head.”
Her hats, hand-crafted from about six different materials including chenille, hemp, straw, paper and synthetic fibers, sell for $110-200 each. With each unique creation, she strives to fuse vintage art with a head-turning experience.
Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 245 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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