ALAMOSA — Tom Hirt’s dream of preserving an age-old method of making felt hats by hand is coming true – one hat at a time, one step at a time, at Trinidad State Junior College.
Nationally known for his fine beaver felt hats, Hirt even made two hats for President Reagan and many more for movie props and other celebrities. Four years ago, Hirt taught his first week-long beaver-felt hatmaking workshop in Trinidad at Trinidad State Junior College. In July it was offered at the Trinidad State Valley Campus in Alamosa for the second year.
“I would never be good if I had to stand up in front of a class and teach,” said Hirt. “When the students walk in to the class, they begin work on a hat. When they walk out a week later, they walk out with a hat that they made.”
To provide quality personalized instruction, Hirt’s workshops are limited to eight participants. Nearly all hats found in stores are factory made using machinery and automated processes, but Hirt likes to work with his hands. He wants to touch the beaver fur and create his hats one by one. His motto: ‘Your imagination is my limitation.’
Shari Clark, a participant from Pueblo gave her take on it. “I was super excited. I’m a jewelry artist and I love to do things with my hands. I thought it would be really interesting to make a hand-made hat, not a factory-made hat. I love it when people have touched things. I think it holds their aura and I think you inherit that. I think it’s really special,” said Clark who learned about the workshop from a newspaper article.
When fun-spirited Clark re-entered the classroom after a break, she whispered, “This has been the best, THE BEST, but don’t tell him or he’ll need a bigger hat!” When prodded for a little more information she said, “While he’s standing right here, it’s going to be a little hard to be honest.” Then she sheepishly looked at Hirt, laughed and said, “I’m on a roll. One a day!”
“That was good,” he said as he looked over at her and quipped, “I want to see your parents in the morning!”
This friendly banter continued as Hirt demonstrated steps in the hat making process. Hirt is known for telling stories as he works. “My friend Jake and I were riding horseback in the mountains looking for some cows and we came upon an outhouse. ‘Hold my horse. I’ve got to use the facility,’ Jake said. About 15 min. later I asked, ‘Jake, are you ok?’ ‘Yeah,’ he answered as though he was exerting some effort. I waited another 15 minutes and decided to ride up to the outhouse and look in through the crack at the top of the door. Jake was standing there with a stick stirring around in the hole. ‘Jake, what are you doing?’ I asked. Jake answered, ‘When I got in here, I took my jacket off and hung it on the hook. When I closed the door, it fell in the hole.’ I said to him, ‘Jake, you’re not going to wear that jacket!’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘but our lunch is in the pocket!’”
“He’s a hat maker/story teller. “He’s been telling us tall tales this whole time!” said Clark to which Hirt answered, “Don’t egg me on. I’ve got other ones!”
The workshop is relaxed, fun and informative. Each participant made two hats. Ashley Beard, from North Dakota, was making one for her husband. “He was in this morning to try it on,” she said. “It fits!” She said it was a perfect opportunity to leave the kids with grandma and make a trip of it. “We’re going to the Sand Dunes tonight,” she said. They live in Lincoln and board four horses. “I just wanted to learn how to make hats. There’s no one that does it in our area and it’s something I’ve always been interested in,” said Beard.
She attributes that interest to growing up around rodeo. She was a rodeo queen. “I roped, barrel raced, goat tied and all that stuff,” said Beard who would eventually like to start her own felt hat making business.
Like Beard, Heather Marshall is also considering the possibility of starting her own business. Heather came to the workshop from Corpus Christi, Texas. “I’m really excited about it. I have a lot more confidence coming here and learning from someone like Tom. He’s been a really good teacher. Hands-on is definitely my style of learning.” Hirt heard this remark and hollered from across the room, “They’ve got to put up with my stories!” Marshall responded, “We’re learning a trade and attending a comedy show!”
Traveling from Virginia, where she lives just south of Washington D.C., Katherine Woltz researched online and found Hirt. She had seen a cowgirl hat she liked and wondered what it would take to make her own. “We’ve been talking for months,” Hirt said. Woltz added, “There’s not a lot of options when it comes to learning how to do this.” She registered for the workshop and soon found her way to Alamosa.
Last year an article about the hat making workshop in the Valley Courier drew Matt’s attention. But he was in the process of finishing his parents’ cabin at Sangre de Cristo Ranches near Fort Garland and the timing was not good. This year he feels lucky to have a cabin. He saw the first plume of smoke go up in the Spring Fire about four to six miles from the cabin. He called 911 but said someone had called before him. “It kept circling around us. The Red Cross was great and kept us well informed while we were evacuated,” said Matt. The cabin survived. He thought the workshop “would be a nice change from plaster and stuff.”
“We all had such a great time learning the trade and enjoying the fellowship of others interested in the same art. Stories and jokes flowed freely as we worked, was good company for sure!” said Marshall.
Hirt plans to be back next summer to teach more folks how to make hats.
The class gathers around to watch Hirt press a hat brim with a regular household iron, one of the tools of his trade. The hat is flipped upside down and dropped into a hole in the center of a wooden form, covered with a damp cloth and then ironed. From left are Heather Marshall, JT Shue, Shari Clark, Tom Hirt and Ashley Beard. Sitting is Katherine Woltz.