Jim Whittington has made some 13,000 custom fur hats.
Even before Jim Whittington gets off a gravelly “G’mornin’, how you doin’ ?” visitors to J.W. Hats in West Valley City, Utah, are struck by the scene: old photos, Western posters, a smattering of antiques—horse-head hitching posts, a barberchair where Billy the Kid got his ears lowered—and a hiss of steam, the sound of a hat taking shape. (801) 977-0676, jwhats.com.
Q Why this business?
A It just jumped up and bit me. My shop was started by Brigham Young and his British hatter, Mr. Tatton, in 1853. This whole place is full of history.
Q Why do so few people wear hats?
A The industry took a dive after World War II, when people were tired of wearing helmets and didn’t want anything on their heads anymore. That, and in 1949 Ford lowered the roof of cars, and Chrysler-Plymouth followed suit, so you couldn’t wear your hat in the car.
Q How many hats have you made?
A Since 1986, I’ve made 13,000 custom fur hats—that’s more than any other shop in the country.
Q You start with fur?
A Using rabbit or beaver pelts, or a combination, I use the process of felting to make the hairs align and hook together.
Q Some special tools?
A This funny-looking thing is a conformer used in France in the 1820s to take a pattern of a head, not only for hat size but to keep track of criminals. There wasn’t any way to take fingerprints back then, and no two heads are alike.
Q Your most memorable customer?
A John Denver, the singer, and I were working on a line of hats when he died.
Q Who needs a custom-made hat?
A Anyone who wears a hat. Go ahead, just try one on.
Photography by Nicole Morgenthau
This article was first published in May 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.