Jimmy Harrison is Montana's custom hat maker
By Brian D’Ambrosio
Jimmy “The Hat Man” Harrison is wearing a trim black Stetson, the pre-eminent symbol of true Western living as he puts the finishing touches on another Double H Custom Hat Company original.
Harrison, one of fewer than 50 custom-hatters in the country, molds a 10-gallon hat into its proper shape, forming its creases by steaming it with a 100 year-old iron, then heats its canvas with a blow torch, part of the glueing process.
From a splendid little building in Darby he arranged so the public can stand on a mezzanine and watch the actual hat-making process in unbroken sequence, Harrison imparts the kind of proficiency and dexterity only acquired or developed through years of training and experience.
Since his youth, wondrously wrought Western head coverings so fascinated him that he wanted to create them on his own – and this ambition has been unflaggingly fulfilled.
A former ranch worker and amateur bull rider, Harrison learned the subtle trade of making hats 12 years ago, and then opened his own shop in Darby two years later. Today, Harrison, with eager facility, delivers his fine finished products to customers around the world.
Jimmy Harrison with Miss Montana
From the South Pole Station to the Whitehouse, where he sent a tailor-made hat to George W. Bush as a special Fourth of July gift in 2003, “The Hat Man’s” chimney pieces have journeyed from his Bitterroot business to the noteworthy noggins of some pretty distinguished individuals.
The autographed photos on the wall testify to Harrison’s workmanship: country music giants Emmylou Harris and Garth Brooks, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, retired football immortal Dick Butkus, along with eclectic ambassadors and dignitaries from exotic countries around the globe.
“I usually make lots of hats for people in European countries and for people in Africa,” said Harrison, adding that he has custom-built and shipped hats to nearly every country in the world that holds equestrian events or where people are farming and raising livestock.
Behind Harrison’s mild manner, limpid eyes and sandy complexion lays a simple, industrious man with certain admirable qualities. While his hat-making for famous folks causes a jovial commotion in newspapers and magazines, Harrison is much more impressed and excited after creating a hat for somebody local: “Generally, the locals seem to be much more appreciative, and it’s nice to make them happy,” he said.
With customers from a diverse list of countries, Harrison needs to deliver a product that satisfies their shared common interest: to capture the Western experience by wearing a cowboy hat.
While nothing communicates a sense of living the Western existence like a cowboy hat, nothing can be more difficult, said Harrison, than trying to create a hat “that not everybody else is wearing.”
“Many people who order from me have never even worn a hat before. So, that’s why I need to know certain things about the client before I make the hat, like what that person plans on wearing it with, and what colors suit their complexion,” he says.
Harrison has been in the hat business long enough to know what compliments a person’s face and what looks unique. Whether it is an authentic Western hat such as a Stetson or a 10-gallon hat made for the true country-and-western cowpoke or a less traditional hat made for the city slicker putting it on to go fishing for the weekend, the results are bound to be flattering and comfortable. “The finished product becomes part of your personality,” said Harrison, pouncing a hat on a crown spinner (pouncing is a hatter’s expression for mildly sanding). “And I make sure people get exactly what they want.”
Hat-making requires an immense amount of time and labor, and promotes all around efficiency.
Jimmy “The Hat Man” originals generally start with full-fledged, flawless beaver felting ordered from a Tennessee factory, which converts the raw beaver or rabbit fur into felt. (Felting is the process of heating individual hairs of matted, compressed animal fibers). In addition to specializing in making 100 percent beaver hats, Harrison makes a 50 percent beaver and rabbit hat blend, and works with Guatemalan fine palm leaves to create the only straw hat in his repertoire. As a self-described stickler for quality, he stands behind the character and individuality of his products and strives to “somehow make each hat better than the one before it.” Recently, Harrison had a gentleman from Africa return his hat because it needed to be loosened up in the forehead, and after immediately fixing the problem, he shipped it back to Nigeria the following day.
Harrison gained the boldness and confidence to start in the hat business after apprenticing for a year and a half under a lady hat maker from Dillon, who taught him the brass tacks of the trade. After joining the professional rodeo circuit as a team roper and bareback rider, and working for 12 years in the insurance business with his father, the opportunity to apply his life-long interest in hat-making finally presented itself: “I was pretty unhappy working with my dad, so when a local business came up for sale, I bought it, starting Double H Custom Hat Company.”
Practicing the same painstaking techniques hat makers used 150 years ago, hand-building, hand-sanding and hand-finishing each custom hat, Harrison takes a week to build most hats from a raw body to the finished product.
“I’ve been picking up techniques since I apprenticed,” said Harrison, as Jimmy Buffett plays in the background. “And I’m still learning something new every single day, hopefully.”
Believing there is no friendlier trade than the hat-making business, Harrison said three individual qualities make an exceptional hatter: having a firm interest in the product, being dexterous with your hands, and maintaining meaningful and enduring relationships with people. “If you don’t like working for people, then you won’t last.”
Harrison, who also repairs and refurbishes hats, has a backlog consisting of around 50 hats that are in need of being built, something that Darby’s world-famous custom-hatter, who makes between 300 and 400 hats a year, doesn’t find intimidating: “Eventually,” he says, “I’ll get them all done and I guarantee that each one will fit properly and look good.”
This article appeared in the summer 2006 issue of Montana Living magazine