A Uniquely Wonderful Place In Merritt, BC
I’m always surprised by Merritt’s ability to remain the last remaining outpost of cowboy culture so close to the utterly trendy borders of the Lower Mainland. I stayed on a working cattle ranch near Merritt as my second overnight stop. There’s a cowboy hat shop at the ranch, called The Hat Doctor, where the best cowboy hats in the world are custom crafted. To tell you the truth, I was more fascinated by the hats than the horses. And by the fact that my hostess. a dark-haired cowgirl, Carol makes these famous cowboy and cowgirl hats for the real cowboys and cowgirls all over North America. Carol’s customers frequently have 5 or 6 of her hats. That’s because each hat has a specific purpose. Carol points out that her customers don’t wear a work hat for dress-up social occasions. And they need a nice hat for church too.
The Hat Doctor- Bringing An Old World Craft To Life
I was really interested in the process of making these stunningly beautiful hats. I was lucky enough to get a tour of her little shop. When I walked in the door, display shelves with perhaps 20 hats showed off just some of Carol’s crafts. The hats made a really eye-catching display. Each one was a unique crown shape and brim style. I was surprised at their range of earth-toned colors. There was every shade of white, beige and brown, slate blues and of course the inevitable black. All of these hats were Carol and her rancher husband, Greg’s personal collection. However, they serve as great inspiration for customers. I should note that Hat Doctor hats are sought out by cowboys and cowgirls from all over North America.
Carol points out that when she and Greg go into town people sometimes tell them they look like they’re dressed up for the Calgary Stampede. The easy reply to this rudeness is always “No, you get dressed up for the Stampede. We don’t have to dress up because it’s the way we live!” Cowboy clothes serve a purpose. As practical and defining elements of cowboy culture, they’ve evolved very little over the years. That being said, they are already good for everything to do with raising and herding cattle, and looking good while doing it. And how can you improve on that?
The Beginnings Of Great Cowboy Hats
I look down the right side of the shop walls. Shelves on the right side of the shop are piled with neat stacks of blank hat molds in various colors. These beaver felt hat molds are the canvas upon which Carol’s unique and practical art begins. Beaver felt is a choice material for hats that will be worn in all kinds of weather conditions. It’s durable, waterproof, and breathable. Beaver felt holds its shape when it rains, keeps you warm when it’s cold, and keeps you cool when it’s hot out.
How The Hat Doctor Creates Cowboy Hats
After a customer has chosen a style they like, Carol measures their head. To get a good fit, she not only takes into account head circumference but the shape of the customer’s head. It turns out that while the majority of people’s heads are definitely oval-shaped, there are always a few that have round-shaped heads.
Carol then chooses a head form from shelves that hold 48 different hardwood head forms. Each is a unique size and shape, and there are enough molds to help Carol create a perfect hat for every cowboy or cowgirl. No rancher wants a hat that’s too tight. And a hat that’s too loose can flop over your eyes when you’re working. Carol’s cowboy hats are renowned for fit and function.
“By the way”, she says, “All the head forms themselves are handcrafted by a manufacturer in Utah. There’s a specialized lathe that is used to shape each form to perfection.” They are each, indeed a work of art in themselves. The head forms are made to attach to a crown iron. A blank hat mould is put on the head form. And then the magic begins as the hat iron spins the head form, stretching and shaping the crown to whatever shape Carol wants.
The next step is cutting and shaping the brim to the classic cowboy-hat shape. There are perhaps 15 different brim molds hanging on a wall above the hat iron. The last step is to hand-sew a breathable synthetic silk liner, and sweatband into the hat. It’s been a fun tour, all done while Greg is out with a horse that’s standing patiently while a farrier trims his hooves in preparation for the Calgary stampede next week.
I stopped for groceries in Merritt and as I was driving out, a group of young girls cheered and pumped their arms as I drove past. I had to assume it’s because they don’t see that many women driving the Class A RVs that cruise through their town. Especially with a pointer navigating…haha