JW Bennett breathes life into an old trade, handcrafting mountain contemporary hats

PARK CITY, Utah — Hats weren’t simply accessories for JW Bennett hatmaker Sarah Kjorstad’s family. Hats are a key functional item in a rancher’s workwear.

“I grew up on a ranch; my family is a multigenerational Wyoming ranching family, and we wore these hats,” she said. “It’s part of the culture of the West, and these hats are made to be worn in the elements. They’re supposed to stand up to the outdoors, to working and recreating, and so we won’t work in lower quality hat materials.”

This is why all of the hats from JW Bennett are handmade by Kjorstad and come from high-quality beaver fur and beaver-rabbit blends. Beaver is soft, resilient, water-resistant, and moldable to many hat shapes.

As a creative born and raised in the ranching world, when Kjorstad created JW Bennett, the quality-over-quantity approach was a given.

“People who really work on a ranch wear cowboy hats authentically. Tourists would buy these hats and look kind of silly here and then look silly going back home. I wanted to create something more contemporary that you could wear and feel comfortable with on all your adventures in the Mountain West but also take back to the city and feel like you could wear it there as well. There was amissing piece in the market.”

JW Bennett partner Lara Azria-Reucassel teamed up with Kjorstad to expand from Jackson, Wyoming, to Utah.

“Just from being in the fashion industry and being part of design teams, products are designed in-house, but you rarely get to see the production process because it’s often in some other part of the world. JW Bennett is quite unique as customers in Jackson have the opportunity to go upstairs and visit the workshop and see a little bit of how it’s done,” Azria-Reucassel said.

The women ensure that each hat is made by hand; nothing comes to JW Bennett pre-made.

First, Kjorstad takes the raw material and sizes it on vintage hat blocks with steam, “girl power and muscle power.”

Then, a spinner is used to sand the material, taking off the fur’s guard hairs and refining the look of the hat. Next, irons and plates are used to flatten the brims. Once the brim is even, it is cut to size. The final touches are shaping and molding the crown with steam, hand-sewing the sweatband in, and inserting a liner.

Before JW Bennett became what it is now, Kjorstad had to learn these techniques and acquire equipment.

“I found a very generous man in Tennessee who teaches a weekend class that gives you just enough information, so you have the gist of how to make hats,” Kjorstad said, “I found it’s hard to find people that will teach you how to make hats. These are very closely guarded secrets and a very male-dominated industry as well.”

So, after a weekend in Tennessee, Kjorstad had the general knowledge of hatting but was left to her own devices to perfect this newfound craft.

“It was really nerve-wracking to start because you’re an island. It’s a lot of trial and error and trusting your gut. I really wanted to create my own unique look and style for the hats and my business. I wanted to make all the bands, to make sure that I made it all by hand myself, and not outsource anything.”

In Kjorstad’s words, “you can’t just Google hat-making equipment and buy it.” Luckily, a mutual friend owned and operated a hatting store in Idaho Falls for around 30 years and had vintage equipment going to waste. He basically gave the equipment away for the pure joy of knowing it was going to be used and used well.Although the equipment is vintage, not much has advanced in hat-making since the 19th and 20th centuries in the craft.

Azria-Reucassel and Kjorstad keep both stores fully loaded with ready-to-wear collections of crown styles, colors, hat bands, and accessories so visitors can find something unique, handcrafted, and timeless to wear during their trip and back home. JW Bennett also fills fully custom orders that take 6-10 weeks to deliver, unlike other hatters that can take four months.

JW Bennett has two storefronts: the flagship store and workshop in Jackson, Wyoming, and 364 Main Street, #2 in Park City. The Park City store is now open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on Sundays, beginning December 1.

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