Finding happiness in an age-old art

By Emily Scarvie

It’s a typical early morning at The Northwest Hat Company and owner Mike Miller is getting all of his noisiest work out of the way. Making custom hats is a messy process, and Miller has lots more to do today. He fires up the steamer, and as he waits for it to heat up, he begins to shape the hats he set out for himself the night before, molding the soft felt around the wood form. The small metal steamer begins to whir and slowly release steam. A one-man team, Miller not only creates all of the custom hats but also tends to bookkeeping and other administrative tasks. 

Miller, 40, opened the shop in Eugene, Oregon, five years ago after he had been making and reconstructing hats on the side of his previous automotive job for more than a decade.

“The business I was in before, not everyone was happy to be there,” Miller says. “People coming to buy hats are usually pretty happy about it, and that’s nice because I like dealing with people. That’s the fun part of the job too: helping them find their perfect hat.”

It all started when Miller was given an old, worn out cowboy hat by a friend. Wanting to make a nice hat for himself, he began reconstructing it and realized how much he loved the process of designing and crafting quality material.

“That was falling into the rabbit hole, and 16 years later you’re out on the other end like, ‘how’d I get here?’”

At the time he couldn’t afford the premium quality hats he desired, so he began to look elsewhere. This led him to vintage hats. They were a cheaper alternative that allowed him to grow his collection, and often served as a model for the hats he began to make from scratch. 

“I got my hands on a vintage hat, made of fur felt rather than wool felt, and it’s wildly different, as far as quality, fit, finish, and just the aesthetics of the hat,” he said. “I was like ‘wow, I want more of these; I want a collection of these.’”

Today, Miller has amassed a sizable collection and creates just about any style of hat, from western to fedoras. Learning how to make each hat is something that’s taken him almost two decades. Some of the necessary materials aren’t available anymore, so he has to buy vintage. He prides himself on the quality of material and craftsmanship that goes into every hat, something that he thinks is lost among many modern hat makers. 

According to Miller, there are a few hat makers that still produce premium quality hats, but they come at a high price. Miller’s hats begin at $185, while some hat makers charge into the thousands for the equivalent. 

“For me, to charge something just because you can, I don’t know if I like that,” he said. “I like to see average people running around the streets of Eugene wearing my hats because it was attainable for them, because a $1,000 hat isn’t attainable for everyone.” 

Collectors from all over the U.S. order Miller’s hats and often come back for a second, or even third hat. While he’s had success selling to collectors all over, and in Eugene, what really keeps him going is the ability to create something that makes someone happy. 

“Anytime you can make somebody happy just by making them something, and they’re super psyched for it, that keeps me going; to make people happy, and to make myself happy.”

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