Across the country, artists are reviving forgotten trades and picking up tools from days gone by as a way of celebrating American craftsmanship while creating the ultimate form-meets-function pieces. From hats to brooms, pottery, and paintings, their sources of inspiration span history, the rich legacy of traditional folk art, and the country’s unique landscape. Below, a conversation with Wyoming-based craftswoman Sarah Kjorstad, a longtime Ralph Lauren fan who uses 100-year-old equipment to handcraft one-of-a-kind hats that are an art form all their own.
Take me through the process of creating a custom hat from concept to completion. I know you probably don’t have a typical day, but as much as there is one, what does a day in your workshop look like?
A hat is rarely completed in one day, so a typical day involves hats in many stages. Each hat is made with equipment that is around 100 years old, traditional millinery techniques, a lot of heat, steam, and love. To start, I choose a “felt” and “block” it to size on a wooden hat block using steam and good old-fashioned muscle. Then, the crown is hand-sanded and fired to get rid of the long “guard hairs” and create a smooth finish. From there, the hat is “plated” to flatten the brim and cut to size, then sanded like the crown. I sew in a sweatband and shape each hat by hand using steam. Then, I sew in my mountain logo and glue in a liner. After the hat is finished, I add design components to give it a more personal look. It can be a simple leather or ribbon band, a bandanna with bone accents, or a beautiful beaded band.
Tell me a bit more about those details—the beaded bands, feathers, and the custom embroidery?
Making hats is essentially all the same until you get to the details. I try to stay true to sustainable use of materials foraged by traditional means. My husband is a bird hunter and collects feathers for me. He is also an elk hunter so I try to use elk leather for my bands and band ties. I make my own beaded band designs and work with local women to help me handloom each piece. I then finish each hat with a hand-stitched design, which is usually a silhouette of the Teton mountain range.
Living in Jackson Hole, it’s hard not to find inspiration all around you. How would you describe your main sources?
My sources of inspiration are, first and foremost, a connection to my home in Jackson Hole and the simple beauty of the land, the ruggedness of the mountains, and the grit of the people. I love juxtaposition— hard, edgy layers with softer textures—so I try to achieve a level of these elements in my work. I’m also inspired by a range of designers—top among them Ralph Lauren!
For someone who has never been to Wyoming—what would you say makes it such a special place? How has it come to shape you as an American craftswoman?
My mom’s side of the family were homesteaders here in Wyoming. I grew up on a ranch where you learn to work the land, care for animals, and appreciate what they give back to you. The heritage of a Western way of life can be very romantic and nostalgic, so I draw from those ideals, however Wyoming can also be a harsh and rugged place. That aspect of my upbringing here taught me to be hardworking, self-sufficient, and gritty. Making hats is a challenging trade to learn, as the equipment can be very old, heavy, and hard to work with, so being brought up here where everyone learns and helps out has been very helpful. As for why Wyoming is so special, the natural beauty in Jackson Hole especially is unparalleled. The Teton mountain range is rugged and spectacular, the open prairies are limitless, the rivers and lakes are calming, and the energy of all these things combined is just pure bliss for the soul.
What is it about making things with your hands that you love and find valuable, especially in this day and age?
I can’t imagine anything better than what I am doing now. Being able to create with my hands, work hard, and carry on a traditional trade is so meaningful and satisfies the work ethic that I was taught growing up. The design aspect of my craft allows me to express the individualism that I felt as a little girl growing up on a ranch, but knowing I was meant to make the journey to city life. I am especially proud to be a woman carrying on a trade that was so commonly male-driven and make my mark.
Any tips on finding the best fit and style for a first-time hat wearer?
I always tell people that there is a bit of science and a lot of emotion involved in finding the right hat. Of course, it needs to fit your face, your style, and your environment, but the perfect hat will be a feeling when you put it on.