Thursday, October 7, 2010

Real Cowboy Hats

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1995. All rights reserved.

Real cowboy hats don't have feather bands, nor do they come in mink fur or shades of mauve. The real thing, like the Stetsons and Resistols of old, is 100 percent fur felt. It's sturdy enough to weather gully-washers and to withstand horse's hooves, and it comes only in basic colors: good-guy white, bad-guy black and wrangler tan.

It used to be, a hundred or so years ago, you could tell where a cowpoke hailed from by the style of his hat. High Plains horsemen wore hats with wide brims to shade them from the glaring sun. Backcountry packers and riders in wooded areas favored hats that were narrower, to avoid tree limbs, and more bowed, to keep rain off their necks.

Nowadays mass production of cowboy hats has messed things up, but there are still some distinctions among real-life working cowboys. Your Texas cattleman, for instance, still wears a conservative rancher-style hat with a crease down the center of a six-inch crown and a dent along each side.

Most Nevada buckaroos, on the other hand, seek out the scruffiest, most old-fashioned hat imaginable and wear it with great pride.

And only bankers and other city dudes wear those black, short-brimmed bowlers.

The earliest cowboy hats were self-made fashion statements the likes of which won't be found in any store. Hat-makers started off by digging a hole in the ground the size of a man's head. Then a piece of wet rawhide was stretched over the hole and nailed down.

Into the middle of the wet skin the cowboy would stuff several handfuls of grass and shape the crown from the inside with his fingers. The brim was tamped down and cut to whatever width the maker desired.

Once the rawhide dried, it was smoked and heated over a campfire for waterproofing.

Such hats, which date back to the early 1800s, did not last long. Their brims wore like corrugated cardboard, according to historical accounts, and broke apart in chunks after a few months.

Not many cowboys make their own hats these days unless they are professional haber-dashers like Tom Hirt in Colorado. Hirt uses early-century techniques to custom-craft hats from a dense Beaver fut felt. He cuts and shapes the hat by hand, but instead of using a hole in the ground he forms the crown using antique wooden blocks, or "lasts," to get the head shape he wants.

Hirt then works the brim on a heat press to create the sloping dip of a Wyoming cowhand's hat or the "pencil-roll" lip of a riverboat gambler's. After sanding and oiling the fabric to a smooth finish, he ties a simple leather cord or a colored ribbon around the brim.

No feathers, no buckles, no flags on these hats. Real cowboys, their character molded by austere landscapes and a frugal lifestyle, disdain such adornments. The only concession to vanity may be found in gold lettering along the two-inch-wide leather sweatband inside the crown: the cowboy's name.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Real Cowboy Hats