Hats Off to the Hudson Valley’s Milliners

Local hat makers design new headwear and restore vintage pieces to keep the artisanal tradition alive in the region.


Have you ever thought about how your old baseball cap or beanie got its start? We’re not talking about its production in a factory, but rather its origins in time. From the colonial era to the 1920s to present day, hats have helped to define the times, not just as fashion symbols, but as functional headgear as well.

According to historic group Colonial Williamsburg, milliners, otherwise known as hat makers, in the 18th century were mainly women who owned shops and made items like caps, hoods, hats, aprons, and ruffles. As far as the earliest hats go, bonnets date back to early America and were the talk of the town among colonial women, who requested handmade silk and cotton bonnets from local milliners. According to the Museum of Early Trades & Crafts, however, it wasn’t until the “ready to wear revolution” of 1880 to 1960 that the popularity of millinery took hold.

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Nowadays, milliners continue to quietly make their mark in the Hudson Valley. While few in number, local hat makers and designers produce original pieces, decorate and embellish custom designs, and create sartorial masterpieces. Scroll below to see a few of our favorite hat makers in the region, then bookmark this page for your next Derby Day party, summer fest, or just-because occasion.



Blue-Byrds Haberdashery & Music

320 Wall St, Kingston

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Owners of Blue-Byrds Haberdashery & Music John Blue and Maureen Byrd have been in business for 27 years. At the shop, they sell hats and purchase vintage creations to restore and repurpose in order to make them wearable. Blue and Byrd sell hats from all over the world, and are in contact with milliners from Texas, Poland, and Ecuador. Blue-Bryds also has blues music, CDs, vinyl, ties, posters, and gifts in the shop.


Hudson Valley Magazine: Why do you enjoy restoring hats?

Blue: [I enjoy] the idea of knowing what the hat once looked like, how it was originally intended to appear, and why people liked them so much. Once that hat has had a lifespan of a certain period of time, I can bring that hat back from wear and tear as close as I can to its original shape. So, it’s like refurbishing an old building that once was manufactured to do something and now it’s being restored. It’s like restoring an old car, but a little less expensive. It’s repurposing something.

There are things I take from an older hat to make it more authentic. I enjoy the idea of someone inheriting a hat that their grandfather or father once wore [and] the idea that a hat was well made and can be restored and can be passed on from generation to generation, much like an heirloom. The hatboxes are just as decorative. You can kind of see what went into a particular product.

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HVM: How long does it take to restore a hat?

Blue: It’s a process sometimes, so depending on the restoration, it could probably be done in a couple hours. On other occasions it could be several days, because you may have to cut a pattern, wait and let certain portions of it dry, steam it, let it cure to the shape you want, and put the band on. [It] depend[s] on how extensive the damage is and the quality of the hat. If the hat is made out of good fur, it is easier to do. It’s like metal — once you bend it you can’t get it back to the original shape, but you can get close.


HVM: What do people need to know before ordering a hat?

Blue: Now people are doing more purchases online. Very often people come to me and want me to size them, with no intention of buying a hat from me. My [statement] to them is, “I can size you but there is no guarantee that the size I give you will accommodate the style of hat you’re buying or the manufacturer and the design of the hat.” Hats that are made in certain parts of Europe are in centimeters and tend to be a little smaller, depending on where you are. If you get a hat made in Poland, Germany, or Italy — the size variations may be regionally and culturally different. If you get a hat made in the USA, Americans have bigger heads, so it is going to much bigger in terms of how they make it. A large in an American hat may be different from a Chinese company. I recommend that you know the company that you’re buying from and get an idea of their size breakdowns. There is no such thing as a standard size anymore. 


Photo courtesy Carol Amper  / Toucan Hats


Carol Amper / Toucan Hats

309 Fair St, Kingston

The hats at Carol Amper / Toucan Hats are made in-house with a 100-year-old machine that presses them. Toucan Hats is not a retail shop, as it sells to other shops. However, it opens its doors to the public at the end of the season during Thanksgiving and Christmas and guests can make an appointment. Carol Amper designs and embellishes the hats and her husband Alberto Flores works in the office management side of the business at Carol Amper / Toucan Hats.


HVM: What is your favorite thing about millinery?

Carol Amper: I like combining textures, different fibers and textures. A lot of the hats I make are rough and smooth, smooth silk bands with straw hats. Or I make felt hats that have silk hand-dyed flowers, which is one of our best-selling hats. I didn’t come into hats in an apparel avenue from making clothes. I more came into it as a three-dimensional design major in school. I like three-dimensional design things. I like working with different fabrics, and we put them all together and make beautiful hats. We make a lot of packable straw hats this time of year and fancy hats for the Kentucky Derby.


HVM: How long does it take to make a hat?

Amper: We sort of have a mini-production way of working. It takes us about 20 minutes to a half hour. On the casual hats, we make them quicker.

Alberto Flores: We make mostly wholesale and we put out basically two collections every year: a spring/summer and a fall/winter. Our collections are made up by hats that we made in-house pretty much from scratch, as much as that’s possible. We don’t create the raw material, but we press and finish and shape a hat and then we decorate it. There are different processes to start from the beginning to the end. For those hats, if I were to start from scratch to finish, it would take a half hour. It depends on how much material goes into it, so you want to give it a few minutes to press. You may need to finish the edge. Once it’s finished, it could take a little ribbon or flowers.


HVM: What do people need to know before ordering a hat?

Flores: I think the most important thing is you need to know your head size. We mostly sell hats for women or make hats for women, but we also carry a collection for men. The hat industry over the years has been a man’s world. For women, I don’t know if more women have a more standard head size. It is basically one size that is usually offered. It is very important that you have an idea of your head size, because the head size most women have is a medium size which is 57 centimeters. It’s an experience, the purchasing of hats.



Photos by Roy Volkmann


Tracy Young, Millinery Treasures

739 Warren St, Hudson

Tracy Young fell into millinery by chance when she came across a Fashion Institute of Technology catalog on the subject. She signed up for her first course in hat-making and has advanced to specialize in vintage-style hats. Young learned from skills and tricks during an apprenticeship under Anya Caliendo.


HVM: What is your favorite thing about millinery?

Young: I adore being able to capture a person’s personality in a hat. Gone are the days when people wore hats to conform. Today, it’s much more of a statement. People notice you when you’re wearing a hat. As a milliner, I work with clients to understand the statement that they want to make and create a product that captures that essence. Ideally, the wearer almost forgets that they are wearing something on their head.  


HVM: About how long does it take to make a hat?

Young: It can take anywhere from a few hours for a simple fascinator to several weeks for an editorial-style creation. When I’m working on a collection, there can be a lot of research that needs to happen before I can even start making a hat. For the Cherry Collection, I looked to jewelry pieces for inspiration. One hat required me to affix 274 red crystals to each cherry. The hat had at least five cherries. It was slow work but worth it once it came together.

I don’t always know where inspiration will take me. I may start out with one idea and finish in a different place. Sometimes I need to learn a new technique before I can create the hat as I see it in my mind. It’s all about patience and being open to creativity.   



HVM:  What do people need to know about ordering a hat?

Young: The most important thing is to give yourself plenty of time. If you are thinking about ordering a hat for a special occasion, plan on four to five weeks before the event. It can take me three to four weeks to sew the hat and one week to ship it. I do have some hats available for immediate purchase, but it’s so much better to have one made that is exactly what you want. After all, that’s the beauty of a bespoke piece. 

Related: Where to Donate Gently Used Clothing for the Hudson Valley Community

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