Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hats with Soul

It's hard to believe the funky and feminine, 1920s-style cloche hats Christine Svensson makes were inspired by her pipefitter husband's welding cap.

The close-fitting flannel hat worn beneath the welder's helmet was, in fact, the prototype for the many hundreds of hats and caps Svensson has crafted over the past two-and-a-half years.

Svensson was an elementary schoolteacher living in Fort McMurray with her then boyfriend, when he complained his welding hats were bunching up uncomfortably under his helmet. Svensson was well-acquainted with the odd, ill-fitting little hats because her father was a welder. "They look like a tea cosy," she says.

She had always been handy with a needle and thread, so she modified the cap to make it more comfortable. She tried it on herself, and turned it around so the protective brim that covers the back of the welder's neck was in the front. "I said, 'This hat might be OK for me.' I made the panels wider, added a band and played around with it."

She made her own version in brown corduroy and wore it to school that winter. "It was a big hit," she recalls.

With limited shopping options available in Fort McMurray, all her teacher friends began asking her to make them stylish hats. She set up a table at a craft show in a local high school that spring.

Then, on a whim, she applied to be a vendor at the Edmonton Folk Festival in the summer of 2007 and got in. "It made me think maybe I could do this as a part-time job," she recalls, and her business, Sugar Soul Studio, was born. She borrowed the name from a pop band called Sugarsoul in Japan, where she lived and taught for three years.

When she moved to Edmonton last summer, Svensson applied for a booth at the city market and began selling hats full time.

In the winter, she sold at the Old Strathcona market. This summer, she's been at the downtown market Saturdays-- with a break to get married earlier this month--and at the Sherwood Park market Wednesday evenings. She's done several shows in Calgary and will be at the One of A Kind craft show in Vancouver this fall. Before a big show, she'll spend between 70 and 80 hours a week sewing, she says.

Many of her hats are variations of the clochestyle: close-fitting, with small, angled-down brims, often made out of corduroy or tweed. She also makes a more boxy, cadet-style hat, a newsboy cap and one shaped like a modified baseball cap. Last winter, she made fake-fur-lined caps with ear flaps, ties and pompoms.

Her hats come in sizes for kids and adults, with prices ranging from about $20 to $65, depending on the size and detail.

Often, her hats have a signature row of buttons at the band. Some have cut-out patterns, tiny pockets, interesting pleats or small embellishments like embroidery--creative touches that keep the work fun for Svensson.

Much of her fabric is "re-purposed" or "upcycled" from thrift stores. Svensson loves to search out old tweed blazers, velvet drapes, brocade tablecloths--anything with interesting fabric that would make a cool hat.

Alongside her shelves of fabric, neatly stacked and arranged by colour, sit piles of folded clothes that will find new life as hats. Svensson excitedly shows a couple of knee-length, wool kilts, one red, the other in earth tones, that she found at Value Village. "The long kilt is not coming back, so I don't feel bad about destroying it," she laughs.

Unique features of the repurposed clothing are often incorporated into the hat. With the kilts, Svensson says she may sew down the pleats, or fold them back and tack them, to create a ruffled texture. With old blazers or pants, she'll try to salvage small pockets and work them in to her new creations.

While she does make stylish, simple hats out of cloth and corduroy in neutral colours, it is these weird, wonderful, one-of-a-kind hats that feed her creative juices. "I've got lots of ideas; just not the time to do everything."

The sentiment is echoed by a wooden plaque given to her by a friend, which hangs above the big table in the basement workroom of her house. "My soul is fed by needle and thread," it reads.

She fondly recalls details of the unique hats she's made, and sold, these past months. Her fur-lined ear-flap hats were so popular, she doesn't have one left for herself, she says, wistfully, though she plans to make more for this winter. "I wish I had taken photos of everyone's hat," she adds.

Strangely, Svensson was never much of a hat person until she started making them. She'd put on the occasional baseball cap or tuque, and would look for other hats at department stores, "but I'd always leave frustrated and dejected."

Still, she's convinced anyone can wear a hat. "You've just got to find the right hat and the right colour."

Many people are reluctant to try on hats, or slip them on quickly and without conviction, says Svensson. "If you're going to try one on, just commit. It's free to try on, and no one's going to laugh at you."

You don't need confidence and swagger to successfully wear a hat, she adds. "I think the hat gives you the attitude. People change when they put it on." Sugar Soul Studio hats are available at Sabrina Butterfly Designs, Headcase Hats, the downtown city market, the Sherwood Park Wednesday market or online through For a complete list of where to find her hats or for more information, go to Svensson's blog at sugarsoulstudio.