Interview with MJ Patterson-West Coast Hatters

by Monika Blichar

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1-When did you know you wanted to be a designer?

I never knew I wanted to be a designer, I always thought I wasn’t very creative until the passion for millinery entered my life. When I came to Vancouver from the UK eight years ago I started working for the hat store on Granville Island and felt shy selling hats as it was my first retail job. So I started cleaning and repairing hats as a way to keep in the background and fell in love with classic men’s hats, they are definitely my biggest passion. The lines, shapes and history sparked my interest and I undertook a short course to learn how to block hats traditionally.

2-What inspired you to become a hat designer?

After the millinery intro course I started looking at different styles and moved into free form hat making, this is more organic than blocking because its just me manipulating the felt or straw to create shapes, it’s like there is a hat inside the material waiting to come out. From here I started doing custom work and mixing free hand and traditional blocking techniques, I always custom free hand the crowns of the men’s hats I make. I also restore hats for people who have a well loved piece that needs cleaning and fixing up, I like the thought that I’m keeping a piece of history alive. I enjoy experimenting with new materials and pushing the boundaries of what is traditionally made using them. The feeling of completing a free-form crown that could never be made on a traditional block or draping fabrics to create organic headpieces that no-one else is making, that’s when I feel the buzz of actually creating something new. As an artisinal craft, millinery is little known and I love the idea that I am keeping a tradition alive.

3-What is your favourite material to work with?

Most definitely Abaca silk as its amazing to sculpt with, it’s a blend of silk and abaca fibre, which is banana palm fibre, you’ll see some pieces in my show.  I enjoy all of the mediums I work with and I like to try out new things (I knitted a top hat out of copper wire for a show a couple of years ago, I remember someone saying you couldn’t so I decided I would go ahead and give it a go!)

4-You have done quite a few shows and made hats and fascinators for events and galas. What would you tell an up and coming designer about the fashion industry and how to get noticed?

This is still quite new for me and I’m still working on trying to make people take notice, there’s always a lot of people who want something for nothing so you need to filter out what you want your business stance to be. Always wear a piece of your own work, I’m always wearing one of my hats, actually my husband is generally wearing one too! Its a hard industry to be noticed in, small designers generally don’t have a huge budget for marketing and events so it really is about getting out and being seen putting yourself out there. And don’t give up, your passion should always drive you, eventually if you shout loud enough people will hear.

5-Where do you see yourself in 5 years.

I want to have a store/ design studio in which people can have a hat made while they wait, it will also be a space to teach more people the craft. Eventually I want to have my hats sold all over Canada and America and have a reputation for excellence and innovation. I want to do more shows and become known as a Vancouver hat maker that makes amazing men’s hats and cool fascinators for hat connoisseurs.

6-This year, you are doing a hat show at the annual Art World Expo and you have been making pieces especially for this event. Can you describe a little of what guests can expect this year?

Expect to see a mixture of traditional pieces and free form sculptural head wear, some bold statement pieces and some more classic hats. You’ll have wait to see what the material wants to be.

About MJ

MJ immigrated from England nearly 8 years ago and found herself working in a hat store on Granville Island. She had no idea how to sell, so started watching how hats were cleaned and repaired. She caught the bug and started to research the whole process at home learning traditional techniques. She started making hats about 5 years ago again using traditional techniques. Her business has grown from there! She now has a studio on Commercial Drive and makes custom hats on original wooden blocks and also repairs vintage hats. She feels lucky enough to be one of those people who love their jobs! Visit her Facebook or Website

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