Hat making 101: steam it, press it, burn it

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SALMON — With just a steamer, Roy Jackson moved back to Salmon and set up shop in a garage. That little shop evolved into an international company.

Jackson moved out of Salmon in 1994. After a while, he decided he wanted to move back but didn’t have a job, so he went to work for a college friend as an apprentice hatter. As an apprentice, he mastered the craft of building felt hats.

“Three months and $6,000 later, I showed back up in Salmon with a steamer and nothing else,” Jackson said.

He said the steamer he had with him is what makes it possible to build felt hats.

“Steam makes up about 80 percent of hat making. You can’t make a hat without it. And you sure can’t do it with one of those little jiffy tabletop steamers. It takes heavy steam,” Jackson said.

In 1997, Jackson came back to Salmon and a year later opened Jaxonbilt Hat Company in a vacant garage. To sell his hats, he’d spend a lot of his time on the road, going to more than 20 hat shows a year. The customers he found fell in love with his hats and kept coming back whenever they needed a new hat or an old hat repaired.

Then in 2008, Jackson brought on an Australian apprentice.

Roy Jackson and Bernice McNeven | Mike Price, EastIdahoNews.com

“After that apprenticeship, I knew that Ben was going to be a rising star in the hat-making business,” Jackson said.

Bernice “Ben” McNeven came to the United States when she was 21. While at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, she walked into a hat maker’s booth and had her first-ever custom hat built.

“Moving back to Australia, there wasn’t any off-the-shelf hats with a wider brim. Where I’m from originally is the skin cancer capital of the world. So the bigger brim is definitely what I was chasing,” McNeven said.

She kept ordering her hats from the U.S. and eventually decided to try to become an apprentice hatter.

“I was able to write to the 48 master hatters that I could find on the computer — good old Google — and Roy was one of the two that would accept an apprentice,” McNeven said.

She flew back and forth between Australia and the U.S. for several years to complete her apprenticeship and become a master hatter. Eventually, she brought Jaxonbilt Hat Company back to Australia with her.

Can I lift this hatter’s iron? | Mike Price, EastIdahoNews.com

“We have a shop in Queensland, Australia … that Ben originally started. It’s now run by her sister,” Jackson said.

Jackson said he wanted to team up with McNeven after her apprenticeship. She came on as a co-owner of Jaxonbilt Hat Company in 2013.

With the two of them working together and their customer base continuing to grow, they outgrew their previous shop and moved into their current one in 2014.

“It’s been a whirlwind ever since,” Jackson said.

Jackson said their shop has become a tourist destination in Salmon, with some people visiting Salmon solely to visit the Jaxonbilt Hat company.

“In the summertime, we get folks in from Spain, from France, from Portugal, from Belgium, Italy. They come in from all over the world. Sometimes they hear about us, and they come here as a point of destination. They’re coming to see the shop.” Jackson said.

Since McNeven has joined him and the business has grown, Jackson doesn’t have to do go to 20 shows a year to sell his hats. It’s to the point they have a four-month backlog of hats.

“Personally, we feel a lot of great accomplishment in a lot of the things we do because we really push the envelope. We always say that there is nothing we can’t do with a hat,” McNeven said.

Watch the video at the top to see the hat-making process, which includes lighting the hat on fire.

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