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Building the best cowboy hat

Slideshow: Greeley Hat Works uses century-old techniques to build hats for ranchers, presidents and celebrities alike. And its most-recent customers? The cast of “Yellowstone.”

Betty Haynes

March 10, 2023

10 Slides
Trent Johnson of Greeley Hat Works shown shaping a custom hat at the 2023 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Trade Show

The hat makers at Greeley Hat Works in Greeley, Colo., take an old saying to heart: “If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.”

Trent Johnson says he’s still making hats the old-fashioned way in Greeley — 100% handmade, the way he learned — with techniques that date back to the mid-1880s. Johnson is a creative mastermind and fourth hat maker to own Greeley Hat Works. And although he didn’t grow up making hats, he’s been enamored with the trade since he was a child, declaring that he didn’t choose the hat life, it chose him.

Johnson says his affection for hats dates back to the 1970s, when he’d admire his grandfather’s hats. He fondly recalls saving his vacation money the year Epcot opened to purchase hats from every country.

“I bought a fez hat in Morocco, a pith helmet in Africa and a beret in France. No normal person does that,” Johnson says, laughing.

Fast-forward to Johnson’s college years at the University of Northern Colorado, and he worked as a ranch hand and apprentice for the family who owned what was then Greeley Hat Shop. At the time, the hat shop was located in the barn of the owner’s ranch.

“They hired me to live and work on the ranch,” Johnson explains. “In late winter and early spring, I would be pulling first-calf heifers, then washing up to go to my college classes and coming back in the evenings to learn the hat trade.”

Related:All hat, all cattle

He worked as an apprentice for three and a half years and bought the shop in 1996. Johnson reveals that his final year as an apprentice, Greeley built 60 hats, while today that number is up to 10,000 per year. And although the business has grown, every customer still gets the Greeley experience. He says customers like buying cowboy hats from a business that emphasizes both quality and service.

“Every hat is a collaboration,” Johnson says. “The most important part about designing — whether it’s for an individual, movie or big company — is actually listening. I want the customer to leave feeling like we really heard what they want and took care of them.”

Johnson says he’s been able to take the Greeley experience around the world to spread what he calls “the gospel of the American West.”

“When I get to talk about the American West, it’s really important that it’s not about Trent and Greeley Hat Works as much as it is about what the West means,” he explains. “You don’t have to be a cowboy to have a Western heart. It goes back to how you treat people — saying ma’am, opening doors for ladies or taking your hat off when you eat.”

And the gospel of the American West goes far beyond fashion.

“Fashion ebbs and flows,” he says. “Whether it’s boots, jeans, shirts, hats, belts or buckles, everything was practical and had a purpose in the American West.”

From ranch to big screen

Johnson first met Taylor Sheridan in 2007 at a reining horse show, and Johnson built Sheridan a hat. When Sheridan’s movie “Wind River” came out, Johnson was asked to build the hats for the cast.

Ten years later in May 2017, Sheridan sent Johnson a script for Season One, Episode One of his new series, “Yellowstone.” Johnson spent two weeks with the cast — hanging out, eating dinner, going out and riding horses to learn each actor’s mannerisms.

“It was important because even though it’s Hollywood, you still want authenticity,” he explains. “If you watch how they grab their hat, pretty soon you have an idea of how to distress it to look old, because it’s where they would’ve grabbed it if they wore it for 20 years.”

The cast took a genuine interest in the hat-making process, and Cole Houser, who plays Rip Wheeler, specifically asked Johnson to send him photos of his hat being made.

Greeley Hat Works has also made custom hats for celebrities, musicians, professional athletes and even presidents, touting clients like Peyton Manning, Jimmy Fallon, Miranda Lambert and Aerosmith, to name a few.

“It was a tremendous honor to build President George W. Bush’s hat and get to meet him in the Oval Office,” Johnson recalls. “Last April, we built him his eighth hat, and he still refers people our way.”

Plus, Greeley Hat Works has been building custom hats for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association presidents since 1998. Greeley also provides custom hats for the CattleFax president, Collegiate Beef Advocates of the American National Cattlewomen, and King Ranch Institute of Ranch Management participants — showing the company’s unwavering support of the beef industry.

Still, Johnson says he doesn’t have a favorite hat he’s made. And making hats for farmers and ranchers is just as important to him as making hats for dignitaries.

“The cowboys and ranchers are the ones feeding the world,” he says. “Ranchers are the original environmentalists and the original animal welfare advocates. They are really the best people in the world.”

Custom hat making: One size does not fit all

Getting a custom hat made at Greeley Hat Works is a complex process.

First, the conformateur is placed on the customer’s head. Conformateurs were invented in Europe in 1843, and the one used at Greeley Hat Works today was built in the early 1900s. The conformateur is a round, top hat-looking device. Pins within that shape conform to the size and shape of the customer’s head. A one-sixth-size scale of the customer’s head is then punched out on paper for measurement.

Next, the small paper head pattern is placed in the formillion. The formillion takes the pattern and makes it life-size, creating a cedar cutout of the customer’s head shape. The cedar cutout will later be given to the customer to place inside their hat when it’s not being worn to keep it from shrinking over time.

Once the customer’s head pattern is created, the real fun begins. The hat maker and customer collaborate on crown shape, brim style, color and material to match the hat to its purpose. Is the hat for fashion, for function, or both? The hat maker also gets to know the customer, their style and what fits would complement their face shape best.

Custom hat pricing starts at $689 and increases depending on material. Greeley Hat Works has relationships with the world’s top felt makers to achieve hat felt blends and weights sold exclusively in Greeley. All hats are made of fur from either European hare, beaver belly or a combination of the two. The higher percentage of beaver used in the hat, the more durable, waterproof and higher-priced the hat is.

Next, the final touches are added to the custom order. The color of the hat lining plus the color and material of the sweatband are chosen, with the option of printing the customer’s name and title in the sweatband. The hatband is also 100% customizable, with options to add details such as feathers, ribbons or conchos.

Once the hat is designed, the order goes into production in Greeley. The end result is a 100% custom, one-of-a-kind hat that fits the customer perfectly.

About the Author(s)

Betty Haynes

Betty Haynes is the associate editor of Prairie Farmer. She grew up on a Menard County, Ill., farm and graduated from the University of Missouri. Most recently, Betty worked for the Illinois Beef Association, entirely managing and editing its publication.

She and her husband, Dan, raise corn, soybeans and cattle with her family near Petersburg, Ill., and are parents to Clare.

Betty recently won the Emerging Photographer Award from the Ag Communicators Network during the 2022 Ag Media Summit and placed in the Emerging Writer category as well.

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