Gene Baldwin has an attention to detail.
Like playing a finely tuned instrument, the Sisters resident turns out custom-made brimmed hats from his cozy studio barn. Baldwin had started life as a clinical lab technician, worked as a funeral director and owner for 30 years in Portland and then switched to making custom hats when he moved to Central Oregon.
Baldwin’s hat studio has been in business since 2003, making custom hats that have earned accolades at the annual Art of the Cowboy Makers contest, are on the heads of cowboys in the Czech Republic, singers in bluegrass bands like Nate Hilts, a member of The Dead South, and members of The Wayward Souls band. He’s incorporated a Celtic hat badge and special silver pieces into hat bands and restored a World War II veteran’s cap.
“I can make anything that has a brim on it,” said Baldwin, 76. “I’ve incorporated things that are personal to people into their hats. A lot of people feel if it looks hard, they don’t want to do things. It only makes me a better hatter.”
He started in the hat business because he was searching for a specific hat to wear and started selling Serratelli Hat Co. hats. A friend challenged him to make his own. After bit of research and a day spent with a hat maker, Baldwin was off.
Baldwin talked to The Bulletin about the making of cowboy hats. His responses have been edited for length and content.
Q: What makes your hats custom?
A: It’s everything. They’re 8 ounces of fur. The commercial hat makers are selling them at 6 ounces. So there’s 20 percent more fur. They’re European hare, they’re beaver felt. I use European hare; 50-50 hare and beaver or 100 percent beaver. It just depends on how much money you want to spend. There are a lot of custom hat makers, but very few who make sure a hat conforms to an individual’s head and their head only. A lot of hat shops are hat shops. They sell multiple hat sizes. When you come in, I’ll measure your head shape and size. No one’s head is completely symmetrical.
But sometimes it’s hard to turn the hat over to a client because I keep seeing things that need to be changed.
Q: How many hats do you sell a year and what do they cost?
A: I don’t know. I don’t, honestly. When I was in the funeral business and you’re pushing debt, you know how much you’re making daily. But here it’s kind of freeing because I have no debt to push. I have a whole four-drawer file cabinet of receipts of sold hats. My hats begin at $363 to $675. And if they get any beading, they can go up to $1,200.
Q: When you look at someone, do you know what kind of hat they should wear?
A: No; everyone thinks we should, but I don’t. I’ve had people who have come in here who wore nothing but ball caps. The manager of a large San Francisco construction company who sat next to someone wearing a cowboy hat in Bend recently decided he wanted one. He came in and didn’t know what he wanted. People know what they want, but they haven’t seen it. When they see what they like when they leave, it looks like it was made for them, which it was. It’s amazing.
Q: How do customers find you?
A: Well, everything you do is an advertisement. If I wear a hat to the post office, that’s an advertisement. Some people find me from the web and others from the Art of the Cowboy maker contest. And others find me from previous customers. I make hats for men and women. I only advertised in one magazine, True West.
Q: How long does it take to make a hat?
A: Usually I can make one in three days. I like to take my time and let them dry in between. I don’t try to push them out the door. I’d never want for people to return a hat. There’s about 35 to 40 custom hatters who make a hat to fit your head. My job doesn’t end until I hear from the customer that everything is OK.
— Reporter: 541-633-2117, email@example.com