Elwyn Crawford of O’Lover Hats has been making custom hats in Oakland, California, for nine years. Today I had the pleasure of interviewing her in person at Farley’s East cafe in Oakland. I first met Elwyn at a street fair about five or so years ago in Rockridge, an Oakland neighborhood, where she was selling her hats. I remember admiring her creations back then and recently got back in touch when we found each other on Twitter (her handle is @oloverhats, mine @csewsalot).
I decided to interview her when I learned that she was in the middle of an ambitious Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, “O’Lover Hats: Think Global – Hat Local,” to expand her business and start an apprenticeship program. (Full disclosure – I made a modest donation to her campaign because I love to support local artists and crafters.)
This is Part 1 of our interview. I typed as she spoke so any errors and omissions are the result of my slow fingers! The transcript has been edited and condensed. On Monday, I’ll post Part 2, which will include Elwyn’s comments on her campaign. All the hats in the photos below are original designs by Elwyn. The felt hats are truly works of art. I need to start saving for a handcrafted hat! They are gorgeous.
How did you get started making hats?
I got started by going to flea markets, getting vintage hats, and taking them apart and putting them back together again.
Describe the first hat you made.
The first hat that I made was a cranberry wool felt that I got at the Alemany Flea Market in San Francisco. I had been steaming and cleaning hats and beginning to work with this hat. Every hat that I worked on I wanted to change and make my own. The relationship I wanted to have with them was giving them a new life – make them fresh and new. So I cut the brim and reshaped the crown and put some trim on. It was easy because I wasn’t working on any blocks. I was just doing hand sewing.
It was just something I wanted to wear at my cousin’s wedding. I was still sewing it in the car as my brother was driving. I got a lot of compliments on it at the wedding. I got to say, “I made it!”
Were you scared about cutting up a vintage hat? Or were you just fearless?
I felt fearless – I wasn’t thinking about selling them at all.
When did you start making hats to sell?
I started selling my hats less than a year after I started playing with them. The first time I sold them was at end of 2005 – at Chillin, an annual design event in San Francisco. I sold two hats – they had a very strong vintage look at that time. I sold at Chillin for first five years of my business. [Chillin, organized by Irene Hernandez, celebrates its 15 anniversary tomorrow! There will be 200 artists and 80 fashion designers this year, along with plenty of live music. Tickets are $15 at the door – 444 Jessie St. in SF.]
I was doing reclaimed vintage with increasingly daring designs. They were like a mashup, a combination of elements of different hats. I worked as a DJ for a while so it made sense. putting together different hats together.
How did your work change?
I met a milliner Jasmin Zorlu, who told me I should put hat size in my hats. I didn’t know how to do that and she said she would teach a workshop. She invited me to her apartment for a private workshop – and it went from there. She taught me hand blocking and a new obsession was born. You block it, you steam it, and you can just play. I thought wow, I can do anything and make a hat.
As an artist that felt really liberating. I thought, I’m going to start a business doing this. I was doing assemblage. I love to do things in three dimensions. I was quickly obsessed – blocking everyday. There was so much freedom.
How did you make a living?
I waitressed at first and I worked at the farmer’s market. I tapered off waitressing after a couple of years and just did the farmer’s markets. Then two years ago I made the leap and went into doing my work full-time. I was busy all the time. I went through The Women’s Initiative program and graduated with a business plan.
I wouldn’t advise someone to do it the way I did it. It was more of an intuitive process. I that first year, I still did some odd jobs I’d pick up here and there – gardening, catering jobs. Then those became less and less. That was when it became really important to have a business plan – to really beginning to moving from part-time to full-time and know how much you need for your rent and materials.
In the last several years it’s been more about learning to create a stronger business and how I can have wonderful creativity and go in new directions, how can I do things that are reproducible.
Are your clients people who wear hats a lot or people who are looking for a one-of-a-kind hat for a special occasion?
My clients fall into a couple of categories. My clients are people who love to wear hats. The love to know the artist and participate in the creation process. It’s customized and they don’t have to worry about where it came from and they can feel good about it.
My clients are also people who have really small or large heads. They have already been looking for hats for a while so when they find me they are like, “Ding!”
Are your clients in any particular age range?
They tend to be in the mid-30s to 50s, people who are established in their style. They know who they are and what they like. They also have a predictable income.
What should people know about handmade hats?
To embrace a handmade hat is an investment. If somebody is not really sure about getting a handmade hat and they are just curious, I will tell them to explore elsewhere first.
I used to try to take any client who showed an interest, but now I know that can be a very hard job for me to create a hat for that person. The pressure’s too much. I don’t want there to be a “Oh, I might wear it” response. I want to feel like I’m doing a service.
How much time do you spend with a client to determine what’s the right style and color?
It really depends on the style of the hat. I have at least two meetings with clients. The first meeting usually lasts 45 minutes. I do a style consultation. I learn about their intentions and hopes for the hat. I present materials, do a color and style analysis, and take into consideration their build and shape.
I build the mock-up of the hat that we’re doing. Then we have a fitting and we see what type of modifications have to be made. I finalize the trim and then there’s a final fitting.
Sometimes there will be a special feature, such as buttons or a family heirloom. We’ll put that on and maybe make a couple nips and further fitting. Custom hats take four to eight weeks to create depending on how much I have in tow at the time.
The average time to make a hat is about six hours, sometimes a bit more or less. With hats, it’s gotta fit right. If it’s too loose it won’t look right. If it’s too tight, you’re going t o get a headache.
The head is made out of bone so hats are very customized to fit.
What you do is very similar to what a custom dressmaker would do – with the measuring and fittings. How much does an O’Lover Hat cost?
Custom hats start at $250. I have headbands and bows for $55. My fascinators start at $100.
I really want to develop the under $100 product line. They still take time to produce though. The hats have kept me busy.
What inspires you?
Nature. The oceans and all the life in it. Growing patterns of plants. Spirals. Symmetry. I really get inspired by material: how each material has a personality and feel to it, my relationship to the material as an artist and how it relates to other things.
I’m inspired by people, personalities. I’m inspired by Oakland now, the challenges it faces as city with a really vibrant culture.
In Part 2 of the interview, which I’ll post on Monday, we discuss the expansion of her business and her Indiegogo campaign “O’Lover Hats: Think global – hat local” and more about her hat-making endeavors, including where she sources some of her raw materials.