STEVE HENDERSHOT: This is Cedar Cathedral, a podcast about artistry, craftsmanship & the creative life in the Great Lakes. I’m Steve Hendershot, along with Clare Hendershot, from The Diving Bell, our band in Chicago. When you put on a mask, you become someone else. You are suddenly replaced, whole cloth, by Batman, or a Sith lord, or a Mexican wrestler. But when you put on a hat, something different happens.
CLARE HENDERSHOT: It’s still you, but it’s a version of you. The right hat can draw you out, and steer you a certain way. You see yourself in this new, hat-wearing light, and you act accordingly.
SH: It makes sense. Your personality and your creative output are shaped not only by what’s inside of you, but also by your tools and your surroundings. When Neil Young or Nathaniel Rateliff picks up an electric guitar instead of an acoustic, they become very different artists.
CH: And when you think about a hat like that — not as an accessory but an instrument — then your choice of hat becomes very important.
SH: And the profession of hat-maker becomes not just cool but noble. In the making of a great hat, and the matching of that hat to the right wearer, you’re helping people discover and share something about themselves. It’s one-part craftsmanship, one-part show business and one-part counseling session.
PART ONE: ORIGIN STORY
KATE McLAUGHLIN: I’m Kate McLaughlin, my husband and I, we’re hat makers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Anyone can sell a hat, anyone can be a retailer of a hat. The difference between John and I is that we had this history, and we knew about the soul of a hat.
SH: That’s what I’m talking about, the soul of a hat. How does one learn to plum those mysterious depths, cloaked in shadow and lined in felt?
CH: John and Kate McLaughlin took different paths. Kate spent a decade as a staff artisan at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, and on the side she worked for TV shows that needed historically accurate hats — the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, even the Weather Channel. John started wearing a fedora in 5th grade.
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: I was just that weird kid in elementary school who wore a velour fur felt fedora, you know. Wore it until it just fell apart, but that's what turned me into a hat guy. So, over the years I learned, just, you know, if my ribbon would break or if I wanted to change it, how to just sew a new ribbon on and how to steam them and clean them and change the shapes. As you’re taking them apart, you see how they were put together and you get to really delve into the innards and the workings of them. So the difference between completely cleaning and repairing a hat and making a hat really aren't too far apart.
SH: So Kate and John know their hats. They also understand the power of a hat, how it can tweak your identity just a little bit so that the real you can shine through even more. Accessories have played a big role in their lives. Listen to the way that they met, this is some sort of punk-rockabilly fairy tale, with the star accessory this time not a hat, but a 1961 Buick LeSabre with hydraulics.
JM: Kate and I had kind of orbited around each other for a while. So we’d be out at a swing dance and see each other.
KM: Before I’d have an opportunity to say, 'Hey, Hi! Do you want to dance this one?,' he’d be gone. Poof!
SH: Until one fateful afternoon.
KM: I was driving down Capitol Drive, here pulls up next to me is this revamped low rider and this guy hanging out the window. I was like who is he? And I’m driving, and I was distracted by the handsome man in the car.
JM: And just started veering off and almost hit a lamp pole.
KM: Oh, there’s a light pole! Don’t want to hit that. And then I just carried on my way.
CH: A full year passes, until they finally meet at a swing dance. He asks her out, and on their first date, she pops the question.
JM: She looked at me and she goes, would you have been driving down Capitol last year in a low rider? I pulled out my phone and said, 'You mean that low rider?' That was pretty much it. After our third date we were pretty much just inseparable.
SH: A few years and a couple kids later, Kate turns to John as they’re driving down the highway and pops the other question.
KM: 'Honey, what do you think about opening up a hat store?'
JM: She said, 'What would you think about opening a hat shop?'
KM: He pretty much instantly said 'Yes, let’s do it.'
SH: There it is. No hesitation. I think of the amount of imagination and courage it takes me to put on a new hat and consider wearing it—like, in public—and these guys are trying on something much bigger. A new career, a new artistic focus—this is a big deal, not just financially, but creatively. Deciding to open a hat shop together would shape the next phase of John’s and Kate’s creative and professional lives. John had been a musician; in that instant he became a hatter. Kate had been a costume designer who made hats, but now, in a flash, she’s all in on headwear. They’re joining this special old fraternity, very cool but not especially popular or lucrative, and they’re planting their flag there. There was money to worry about, but they really didn’t flinch.
KM: There was that shock of 'Oh my God, now what do we do?' Because we had the know-how, we had all these things, but we’re a family of artists and we have two small children at that point and it was the recession. We had really basically our gumption and the fact that when somebody says no, we just kind of do it anyways.
SH: The banks were no help, no rich uncles, no venture capitalists. Instead, they spent two years saving their pennies, eating leftovers, darning their own socks—which sounds really extreme until you remember that these guys are pretty good at that sort of thing. But still, kind of extreme.
CH: And meanwhile, John was working on his craft. Thanks to all that time in theater, Kate was a master milliner—a maker of women’s hats. John needed to become a master hatter—a maker of men’s hats, and found it was tough going.
JM: I started working with other master hatters that I could find around the country, but they tend to be very secretive. Western hatters are totally open about the process. They will tell you anything and everything you want to know about how to make a hat. Dress hatters, as soon as they find out you're a hatter, they just shut down and they won’t tell you anything about what they do, how they do it.
SH: Related problem: hatting equipment is tough to come by. These are specialty tools, and no one really makes them anymore. There are only two or three dozen boutique hatters operating around the country, John estimates, in addition to a couple of larger companies like Stetson. If hatting knowledge is scarce and fiercely guarded, so is the gear. Fortunately, Kate hit the jackpot, connecting with a retiring hatter named Clarence Reynolds, who was getting out after a tidy 65 years on the job at Henry the Hatter in Detroit, a store that’s been in business since 1893. Clarence passed on his know-how as well as his tools, and John was up and running.
PART TWO: HATTER AT WORK
CH: John and Kate finally opened Brass Rooster, a men’s hat shop, in 2011, and then added a women’s shop, the Hen House, in 2014 when they moved the business to its current home in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood. John is surrounded by awesome and frightening old tools, some a full century old, with a framed picture of Clarence Reynolds looking down to check his work.
JM: So a hat goes onto a flange, and then gets covered with a flanging cloth and roped off, pulled taut and actually I tune it like a drum, and that’s how I’ll tap the center, and that’s how I’ll know if it’s tight enough, and then we slide it underneath here, and this is a drum with 60 pounds of heated sand. So we’ve got two flame-proof asbestos cloths with heating coils, so this heats up to about 130 degrees, and then when we pull it down, the heat rapidly evaporates the moisture out of the hat and the heat chemically bonds the stiffener to the felt, so it leaves you with that traditional brim where you can still snap it up or down, but it will keep its shape but still be soft and pliable.
SH: Here is my report from the shop floor: Hatmaking is cool. I mean, John sets hats on fire, and apparently there is an actual, justifiable, hatmaking purpose to this — there’s a video on our Cedar Cathedral Instagram that you really should check out. Hatmaking also is time consuming. Each Brass Rooster hat gets at least four hours of individual attention and takes at least 48 hours to complete. John is making 300 hats a year these days, just on the men’s side. You might assume the whole process is getting to be a little old hat, but John swears it isn’t. And remember, Clarence Reynolds practiced his craft every day for two-thirds of a century. By that score, John McLaughlin is just getting started, still reveling in the nuances of a well-made hat.
JM: Pouncing is the finish that’s on the hat and how it looks and how even it is. That’s the widow maker of quality. You can really tell the difference between a hat that’s well pounced and one that isn’t. Anybody that’s hand-crafting anything, you can tell the difference between that and something mass-produced.
PART THREE: SOUL OF A HAT
CH: Let’s go back to where we started, to the matching of the perfect hat to its ideal wearer.
SH: Kate McLaughlin is really good at this, at helping each customer fall in love with the right hat for them, whether it’s a old pillbox in need of a spruce-up, or a new creation. Remember, Kate herself is kind of Stray Cats-era punk rock—as we interview her, she’s wearing Day of the Dead-style skull earrings. But when it comes to the sacred process of matching person and hat, she is just a vessel. While we were there, customers came in wondering about hats for horseback riding, for church socials, you name it, and they all got advice tailored expertly and personally for them. So we asked to try her magic on Clare, and to show us how it works.
KM: So we’ll engage our customers and we’ll welcome you to the store and see if you’re just in the neighborhood, and as we’re talking I’m kind of seeing with your eyeglasses, the cut of your hair, the shape of your face, your shoulders, just maybe the style of your clothes. There’s a classic about you but there’s something that you’re a very contemporary woman. You know there’s some fun things that I’m seeing from your great little sweater jacket. There are things that instantly I would put you in that I know would look good. Like this here is this beautiful, classic cloche. It is made out of cotton chenille and like a fishing line, so as beautiful as it is, you don’t have to be particularly kind to it, but look how beautiful that is.
SH: This hat is straight out of Lady Mary’s wardrobe in Downton Abbey, and not out of Clare’s closet. And yet, yeah.
CH: It looked really good. And the more Kate talked, the more it felt like my hat.
SH: And now it is your hat.
CH: And now it is my hat.
KM: I betcha there's a little glimmer of you. You put it on and you go ok, 'Persona!'
CH: Yep, it feels like ok, I'm ready now.
SH: With their hats, John and Kate have helped build and shape the images of all kinds of people, from cancer patients who have just lost their hair, to brides who want to project a little persona on their wedding day. Hat-making and hat-matching have also given definition to the McLaughlins’ own creative lives. They’ve built a family business at the intersection of timeless style and obsessive craftsmanship, where they can express themselves creatively and help their customers to do the same.
CH: For more on Kate and John McLaughlin, the Hen House and the Brass Rooster, visit Cedar Cathedral.com and check out our Instagram, Cedar Cathedral.
PART FOUR: "SLEEPING GIANTS" BY THE CRANE WIVES (GRAND RAPIDS)
SH: Now for music. We head to Grand Rapids and a band called The Crane Wives. This tune called Sleeping Giants has got a little surf to it, possibly because the arrangement came together late one night on a beach in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
—the song plays—
SH: This episode of Cedar Cathedral was produced by Steve and Clare Hendershot from the Diving Bell in Chicago. That's us. We’re sharing photos from our visit with John and Kate McLaughlin on our Instagram, @cedarcathedral, and you can also find photos and an episode transcript online at CedarCathedral.com. Thanks to John and Kate and Nicole at Brass Rooster, and to The Crane Wives in Grand Rapids.
CH: We’d also like to thank you for listening, and for spreading the word about Cedar Cathedral. We’ll see you in a couple weeks with another tale of Great Lakes creativity.