Hat making might not have been something many 1970s teenagers took up in their spare time – but Renée Roeder Earley did.
For as long as she can remember, sewing and designing hats has been a lifelong passion. As a teenager, she scoured resale stores to check out the funky and fun hats on display.
“I’ve always loved wearing them, even when it wasn’t really a thing for kids to wear. It wasn’t fashionable for anyone at the time,” says Roeder Earley.
But she persevered, turning her hobby into a craft and eventually a business. Madison-based Roeder Earley, 62, founded Hats-O-Fancy in 1993 and has designed, patterned, sewn, embellished and sold handmade hats and accessories to people near and far in Wisconsin ever since.
She made her debut at an art fair that year, which she considers a defining moment. After studying at Viterbo College in La Crosse, Appleton-born Roeder Earley traveled to the East Coast to hone her professional hat-making skills at the New York Studio School.
She still remembers the first hat she made with recycled denim.
“I was like, ‘I can do anything!'”
To date, she has made nearly 8,000 hats. In a single day, she can make at least 10 baby hats. After a stint in the fashion industry selling and making hats in New York, she returned to Wisconsin and has since expanded her business to sell backpacks as well as pins that can be attached to a hat or worn. alone.
Roeder Earley says she rarely conforms to trends. Her hats are considered an art form – which the Smithsonian also recognized when she exhibited her work at its annual craft fair in 2013.
“I try not to be a trend follower because the competition is much cheaper. I just try to make [the hats] kinda sweet and kinda whimsical,” she says, adding that while they stray from the “wacky” side, they do offer a certain novelty. Roeder Earley hats are made from 100% wool or linen fabrics.
When Roeder Earley takes to sewing, she sifts through her notebook, first sketching out her vision to spark ideas. Any material, piece of trim or embroidered flower could inspire her.
She often draws inspiration from 1940s fashion. Roeder Earley finds the era – marked by war, tragedy and loss – intriguing, a testament to both the strengths and vulnerabilities people faced in the era. Many fashion materials were not available, so people were content with what they had.
“Speaking of [eras], there were a few years when people here in America were more interested in a statement — usually after a year of royal marriage,” she laughs. The wedding of Duchess Kate Middleton and Prince William in 2011 marked the biggest tip of the hat she had ever seen.
When the pandemic caused art fairs to be canceled, Roeder Earley pivoted. She became a “mask factory”, which motivated her and gave her a new medium.
Some art fairs returned last year, such as Art Fair on the Square, but Roeder Earley suspended hat making. She’s still undecided about where she’ll go with her next line of hats, which she says she won’t start work on until February or March to launch this summer.
“There are so many things you have to consider. It’s not even just your own time, but the costs of doing business and paying rent and credit card fees and, oh my God, so many things,” she says. She prices pins at $35, backpacks at $75, and the average hat ranges from $55 to $125. Fascinators — small, formal headwear — can range from $125 to $400. “I kind of turned my creative energies to other things during the pandemic because there was no reason for me to make hats.”
Roeder Earley started painting and drawing animations to clear his mind. Despite some setbacks, she is confident that the hats will always be there. “I don’t know if it will ever become a big part of fashion,” Roeder Earley says, though she sees more and more people in Madison wearing brimmed hats during the summer.
She also made lapel pins for prominent women, including Senator Tammy Baldwin. In 2012, she sent a pin to First Lady Michelle Obama, later receiving a signed thank you note.
But Roeder Earley enjoys seeing people wearing his handmade designs every day.
“I always get a little kick when I see someone walking down the street wearing one of my hats. I’m proud to have had my business for so long and people keep coming back,” she says. ‘there will always be a place for hatters.
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