For some reason, when I hear the word “millinery” I still think of the hat shop in the 1969 film version of “Hello Dolly” starring Barbara Streisand that I used to watch all the time as a kid. Check out the hats in this scene (hats first appear ~1:05):
In New York last month, I got a peek into a real millinery when Tracy Watts showed me around the Brooklyn studio in which she designs and manufactures her fabulous hats.
Tracy’s is a classic [North] American success story (she’s Canadian). A painter from Toronto, Tracy first moved to New York City to do independent study for her art school program. Recognizing the challenges of entering the art world, she enrolled in FIT’s millinery program where she discovered her passion for hat making. She began
cutting and sewing hats at home, and on weekends took them down to Soho and sold them on the street. Local stores soon picked up her work, and eventually Barney’s bought a line of her hats. All of that happened within a year and a half, and now, almost two decades later, she is an established milliner selling hats all over the world.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been challenges along the way. The US hat industry has been on the decline since the 1960s when women stopped wearing matching hats with every outfit (their hair got too big). In the 70s, the industry was dealt another blow when the majority of production moved to China. At that time, millinery machines from around New York City were dumped in the alleys and landfills. Luckily, some were salvaged, because the machines Tracy Watts uses are no longer manufactured anywhere in the world.
Tracy has never had any interest in manufacturing overseas. When she wanted to move from her small studio in Chelsea to one where she could bring production in-house, the NYC Garment Center turned her down. Her machines were too heavy, they told her. And it’s true, her machines, some of them 100 years old, are quite heavy. But the garment center is a zoned area just south of Times Square that is meant to be used by companies like Tracy Watts, inc. To learn more about issues facing New York City’s garment industry, visit the website of Save The Garment Center.
Eventually, Tracy moved production to her current studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Each hat is made with the highest quality materials by her team there: designed, sewn, pulled and shaped by hand. The parts of production that can’t be done in the studio, such as blocking (the process by which the hat is shaped with steam), are done in factories in Long Island City and the Bronx. By keeping all the production within the five boroughs, Tracy reduces her carbon footprint and is able to ensure that all her hats are produced in good working conditions and everyone who has a hand in production is paid a fair wage.