Restoring and making hats provides Gibson with rare knowledge of historic trade

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For McGregor-based hatter David Gibson, 18 years restoring old hats and crafting new ones has given him insight into the unique qualities of hats and those who wear them. By doing so, he’s also gained rare knowledge of an historic trade. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Gibson often uses felt to make hats. The felt comes to him in an un-sized bell shape and has to be blocked into a size and shape using moisture and steam. The hat making process also includes ironing, stiffening, sanding and cutting. It takes a combined eight hours over a roughly one-week period.

Many of the blocks Gibson uses today are rare, dating back to the 1800s or early 1900s. The ribbon he utilizes to finish hats is equally rare.

Gibson shows off this boater hat from the 1860s, one of the older hats currently at his workshop. To date, he's restored thousands of hats, but these days, 90 percent of his work is making new ones.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


“It’s amazing how personal a hat is. You have to understand physiology, personality­—a lot of psychology goes into this.”


For McGregor-based hatter David Gibson, 18 years restoring old hats and crafting new ones has given him insight into the unique qualities of hats and those who wear them. By doing so, he’s also gained rare knowledge of an historic trade.


Gibson came upon hat making by accident.


“I wore vintage hats, and they needed repair,” he said.


Living in Oregon at that time, Gibson stumbled on a custom hat maker’s shop. The man no longer did many repairs, but welcomed Gibson to use his equipment under his direction.


“After I repaired my hats, he said, ‘Well, this guy wants this hat repaired,’” Gibson recalled. He was working as a contractor then, remodeling and building homes, but stopped by the shop when he had time. “Then, with my back, I could no longer work on houses, so I just kept going. I didn’t intend it to be a full-time job, but it turned into that.”


Gibson has dedicated the past eight years to hat making full time. Several years ago, he took over the business, VS Custom Hats, shortened from Vintage Silhouettes.


Gibson didn’t realize early on that owner Art Fawcett was one of the world’s most known custom hatters—and a wealth of history.


“He did men’s dress hats. That was his specialty,” Gibson said. “He was able to train me in what he knew and I took it from there.”


Gibson also honed his craft by apprenticing with a western hatter and training with a milliner.


Traditionally, hatters and milliners joined cappers as the three trades listed on union stamps inside hats. Hatters focus on men’s hats, milliners on women’s hats and cappers make sewn caps. Each is blocked, or shaped, in its own way.


The first-hand knowledge Gibson has accumulated over nearly two decades has been vital. There’s little to no resources or information available about hat making. The literature most hatters refer to was published in 1905, according to Gibson.


“I have probably 20, 30 books most people don’t know exist. Some from the 1800s and a few up to the 1940s,” he added. “It’s a very secretive business. Even now. I get requests weekly from people wanting to come apprentice because there’s so little information.”


Gibson is presently one of only a handful of true bespoke hatters, or one who makes hats specifically for a person and the shape of their head. He works out of a shop at 238 Main St., behind Cabin Fever Soaps. 


Finding adequate work space was hard to come by when his family moved to McGregor—another moment Gibson described as accidental. Lifestyle changes, paired with hot, dry conditions and an increasing numbers of wildfires in Oregon, prompted the Gibsons to seek small-town living in the Midwest. A friend suggested the Driftless Region. 


“The house came up on a Sunday, and we did a walking tour on Google and put in an offer,” he said. “I liked that [McGregor] is near water, has a bit of terrain, is quaint and quiet.” 


The community also fit his style and that of VS Custom Hats. 


“We specialize in classic style,” Gibson said. “McGregor is a very classic, small, Mississippi town—classic design and layout, classic lifestyle. Very much in line with what we do.”


Gibson’s current workshop space is temporary. By next summer, he hopes to have his garage converted into a hat shop where he can work and also sell hats. It will be located about a block and a half off Main Street, a destination for locals and visitors alike.


The VS Custom Hats clientele is broad, stretching across the country—and even around the world. Gibson has restored and made hats for people who live in their vehicle, as well as famous performers and those “who you could say have their own countries,” and everyone in between.


When he started, Gibson estimated about 80 percent of his work included restoring hats. To date, he’s restored thousands. That’s actually harder than starting from scratch, he said.


“That’s where a good hatter starts, is learning how to restore old ones because you have to learn the qualities of the hat. Taking them apart and putting them back together, you’re learning the restoration process,” Gibson said. “I just did a Panama hat not too long ago. Holes all over it, and it needed to be replaced. But he was adamant it needed restored. I reblocked it very carefully, took it apart and put it back together. There were visible holes I had to put linen material behind. I sent it to him for the Cannes Film Festival because he’s a movie producer. That was how personal the hat was for him.” 


Pointing to a rack in his workshop, Gibson added, “A lot of the hats on that rack were somebody’s grandfather’s hat, and when he passed, somebody’s father had it and he didn’t wear it very often. Then the grandson ended up with it and it was sent to me to be restored. The bottom middle is a bowler hat—we call it derby here—and I’ve renovated several of those. The felt itself doesn’t wear out, it’s the leather and other materials.”


Another hat on the rack is a hand-braided boater from the 1860s.


“The cotton has rotted, so I have to hand sew this back together,” Gibson shared. 


These days, though, roughly 90 percent of the hatter’s work is making new hats.


When a client comes to him, Gibson recommends a brim size based on each individual’s body and face structure. He also suggests a specific crown and colors.


“I talk about their lifestyle and how they’re going to wear it,” Gibson continued. “If you have the right hat that fits you, you’re going to wear it.”


Many of Gibson’s clients don’t meet with him in person. Instead, he sends them a package to help them record their head measurements and shape.


From there, blocking is the first step in making a hat. Hats are largely made from two different materials, straw and felt. Wool is sometimes used, but higher grade furs are preferred, according to Gibson.


Beaver is the dominant in the custom trade, in addition to rabbit and mink. Beaver felt is dense and doesn’t deteriorate like other materials. In fact, many hats created hundreds of years ago using beaver felt, much of it harvested from the Midwest, still exist today, mostly in museums.


Now, beaver are farm raised and not trapped. Gibson purchases fur from only a few companies in the U.S., Portugal and the Czech Republic. Portuguese felts are considered the best in the world.


The felt comes to him in an un-sized bell shape. It has to be blocked into a size and general shape using moisture and steam. Gibson has dozens of wooden blocks to help with this process. 


“That’s why there’s so many of them, because each block design has to have at least five sizes—five to nine or more. My sizes vary from 6.5, which is very small—kids—all the way up to my largest is an 8.5,” he explained.


While some blocks were made recently, most date back to the 1800s or early 1900s.


“Some I purchased individually, and then I bought out a hat shop in St. Louis and had it shipped to Oregon. They get passed from hatter to hatter,” Gibson said. “Unfortunately, a lot of hat blocks were burned over the years. So they’re quite rare. Vintage shaped blocks for straw hats are incredibly rare.”


Creating a bespoke hat from start to finish is about eight hours, but not all at one time.


“It’s usually over a week because I let the felt settle in between. Felt is a dynamic fabric and those fibers are always moving every time you steam it and heat it. There’s ironing, stiffening and sanding and cutting.” He continued, “The blocking process is the first part, and you let it sit on the block a bit to form. Then you iron it to that block so it activates the inner structure. You put shellac in and it hardens when you iron it. That helps with water proofness. Then we take it off and sand it. So sanding and sizing, then I have to trim the brim down, and that happens with another 150-year-old device.” 


The finishing process involves putting leather—often sheep, goat or calf skin—inside the hat. Then, it is shaped and finished out around the crown with a ribbon. 


Like other materials in Gibson’s shop, the ribbon is older—and rare. Some is from the 1920s. Two rolls are from World War II, and were military ribbon for officers’ hats. 


According to Gibson, ribbon has to be a certain structure because, when it’s steamed, it must form a rainbow shape. 


“Not all ribbon does that,” he said. “It’s actually harder to get the ribbon than the blocks. In World War I, we stopped using silk and found an alternative, which was modal rayon and cotton, and that’s what most of this is, copying the qualities of silk. We’ll eventually have to have another alternative, another way of finishing the crown. But a classic men’s hat uses ribbon, even today.”


Depending on the facility, Gibson works on a half dozen to a dozen hats at once. He’ll block one hat, finish out another, then work on multiple renovations in between.


Gibson likes to get hats to their owners in three to four months, but the waiting list is currently lengthier. It doesn’t help that the turnaround time for materials has stretched from a few weeks to now months.


“Sometimes, it’s overwhelming because you’re trying to keep up with the demand,” he admitted. “There’s only one of me, and you can only go so far. This isn’t something you can just teach everyone, not as a bespoke hatter. And I’m the only one I know who is classically trained in three disciplines: milliner, western and dress.”


Gibson’s 10-year-old daughter is currently apprenticing with him. He pointed to one hat in the workshop that she’s cleaning and repairing.


“She has the talent and eye for it,” he quipped.


Gibson is excited to share this passion with her. To bring out the history and personality of each hat and its owner. 


“People ask me, ‘What’s the best hat you can make?’ It depends on who I make it for,” he said. “I’m not a hatter who creates something that’s fantastic and then somebody has to figure out how to wear it. Those are fun, but they’re meant to be displayed and not worn. A talented hatter would make a hat that truly fits the person and looks as if they always owned it. That’s the artistry.”


For those seeking more information, Gibson is available by appointment only. Visit or call (541) 778-6081.

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