There is nothing custom about a small, medium, or large hat size. Those are standard sizing measurements. Those are NOT what custom hats are all about.
A true custom hat is measured for your exact head size – and SHAPE. If you’re ordering without the benefit of sitting in the hatter’s studio or shop, the hat creator will probably bombard you with questions to make sure you get what you want and deserve. They may set up a ZOOM meeting so that you can talk “in person.” They may also send you photos via text or email of examples, colors, trimming options, etc.
If you are unable to go to the hatter to be properly fitted, they will probably have you use a string or a soft tape measure to get an accurate head size measurement. In inches is fine; centimeters is better. They’ll have you measure two times – or more – making sure that your hat will fit perfectly for the way you like to wear it, whether low and over the brow, on the back of your head, cocked to one side, etc.
But, if you are able to get to a real hat shop and sit in the hatter’s chair, you may actually get sized with a device from a bygone era. A conformeature from 19th century France is considered the go-to for accurate hat sizing and shaping.
Quality, high-end custom hat makers often use pieces of antique or vintage equipment designed specifically for the hat industry. And just in case you don’t know the difference: a hatter makes hats for men and works in a hattery, while a milliner is a hat maker who specializes in ladies’ headwear and works at a millinery shop.
The first step in the hat-making process is sizing. For this, the steampunk-ish, top hat-looking conformeatuer is used to measure both the circumference of the head in centimeters and take an imprint of the head’s actual bumps and divets. Then that imprint is cut out and placed in a wooden formillion. This gadget has adjustable “fingers” to produce the exact head shape that will be steamed into the new hat body.
“I was lucky enough to find my conformeatuer online in an antique store in Sweden. It was a game-changer. Since I have owned it, I have never had a client that didn’t say something like, “It fits perfect! It’s like it was made for me!” That always makes me laugh because, of course, it WAS made exactly for them!” says Deb Culig, custom hatter and owner of PacaHat in Tabernash, Colorado. PacaHat is a niche hatter specializing in cruelty-free, sustainable, custom, and handmade alpaca western hats.
“It’s quite a show. Clients seem to love the stories, the process, and the history!”
A centimeter may not seem like a lot, but in a hat, it can make a big difference in fit. That’s why many hatters are willing to do just about anything that helps obtain a better fitting hat. “I’m thinking of trying a digital, laser system to see if it can map a head better than the equipment I have; just to see if it can be done. Newer may not be better…what has been used for the past 100 plus years still works great today!”
Along with the right equipment, there is a steep learning curve. But, as in most professions, experience is the best teacher. Culig is mostly self-taught since she utilizes a specialty fiber that is not traditional in the hatting industry. She learned what was needed in the beginning from books, videos and mentors then adjusted that information to suit her processes and honed her skills over time. Many hatters today started out as apprentices, gaining valuable hands-on training from those that learned from others who have gone before them.
Other “need-to-know” tips come from a mixture of a “just do it” attitude and the awareness gained through detailed observation. Trying and failing seems to be part of the hatter’s game plan.
Common sense seems to go a long way, as well. To prove this point Culig mentioned, that most people assume that a hat will get looser with wear. “I thought the same thing when I first started out! But I’ve found that the opposite is true; they tend to get tighter. Hats tend to shrink up when they have had moisture – like sweat or rain – introduced to the internal leather sweatband. That was another “aha!” moment for me. Think about leather shoes – when they get wet; they get deformed and shrink. That’s why we put wooden “stays” in them to absorb moisture and keep them in shape. The same should be done with a fine hat. In my industry, those “stays” are called hat stretchers. If you want to keep your hat pristine for generations to come, use a hat stretcher set to your size each time you store your hat.”
So what do you do if you want a custom hat and there’s not a hatter around (they are never there when you need them!) and you don’t know your hat size?
“Of course, we all do online orders and can advise you on how to measure for your hat at home. If you have a beloved hat that fits exactly how you like, we can use that, as well. I’ve even had people go to a real store and try on hats then call with the sizing that fit them best. We will “git r done”, one way or the other!“
“Everyone knows their shoe size but very few actually know their hat size! The goal is for every custom hat client to say, “It fits like a glove”… or a custom hat, to be more exact!