By Bill Ward Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
It took a long time before Angie Hall Sandifer heeded her own words.
"I used to work a lot with kids, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Girl Scout troops, as a volunteer probation officer," said the 50-something St. Paul, Minn., woman, "and one of the things I would tell them is 'All you need to do is find your passion and follow it.'"
A decade ago, she finally did just that.
For most of her life, Sandifer wore many hats, figuratively speaking.
Now she makes hats.
Big floppy hats. Pert, stylish hats. Hats with feathers, flowers, ribbons, beads. Hats like her mother and grandmother used to wear to church in Gainesville, Fla.
Hats that her clients wear to Kentucky Derby parties, or even the actual derby.
Today, her company of one, Angie's Hats, produces scores of handmade hats that are sold at Artists Mercantile in St. Paul as well as at a New Orleans boutique.
She also makes custom hats in her Northern Warehouse Artists Co-op studio in St. Paul's Lowertown.
"I definitely, absolutely have found my passion," she said, cornrows framing her Mona Lisa smile.
Her passion is no simple procedure.
The materials, from felt or straw base to flourishes such as feathers, flowers, ribbons and rims, have to be top-notch.
"You don't go to Michael's to get a flower for a hat," she said.
The hats are handmade, except for occasional tasks on a sewing machine.
Over two days, materials are steamed, heated, shaped, molded and blocked on a mannequin head.
And the preparation for fulfilling clients' requests is as hands-on as the production.
"I measure their head and then we talk about the style, the fabric, the feather, the flowers, the ribbon, what have you, if they want it wired or floppy," Sandifer said. "And then they come back for a fitting, and then if adjustments need to be made, we do that."
Many of them come back for more.
Amye Scharlau, a St. Paul hypnotherapist and performing hypnotist, has bought about a dozen Sandifer hats since spotting a couple of them five years ago at a St. Paul Art Crawl.
"I wanted to combine the decor in one hat and the shape in another," Scharlau said, "and she said, 'Sure, I can do that.'
She wants to really make sure you get what you want."
After buying some waltzing-around-town hats, Scharlau asked Sandifer to make some for her performances as a hypnotist.
"She made three miniature top hats, and on one of them the rim was made out of vintage neckties because the shows have a retro feel."
What makes the hats special, Scharlau said, is "a luxurious quality. I'll see people wearing one, and I'll recognize it and go talk to them. People have done the same thing to me.
"And her bridal hats are off the hook. If I ever get married, I'm totally, totally getting one."
For her part, Sandifer would like to see women wear hats on a lot more than just special occasions.
"When people put hats on, their whole attitude changes, their whole persona," she said. "When you dress up, you feel better about yourself. We're pretty frumpy nowadays. We act different when we dress up, a lot classier, more respectful. We stand a little taller, speak a little clearer."
Q: How did you end up in this profession?
A: I was working for Qwest, and they downsized in 2003. They gave us retraining dollars. I was taking a desktop computer class and started a project (an imaginary hat company), building a website, brochures, fliers. And it took on a life of its own. I went to different websites and found these beautiful hats. I loved hats, so I bought a line of hats to sell, but then I decided, "I don't want to sell hats. I want to make hats."
Q: How did you train?
A: I found a master milliner teacher in Wilmington, N.C. I went to her house from 7 to 3 every day and then came back to my hotel and tried to duplicate what she had shown me. It was tough. I was clueless, but I was tenacious. I kept trying and trying and working at it, and then one day some real hats showed up.
Q: Does it take special skills?
A: Attention to detail, knowing your customer, what shape fits them. Really just listening to the customer. A lot of time you might have an idea for them, but you go with what they say. ... I've always been very organized, very disciplined, very methodical about how to do things. The balance (of elements in the hat) has to be there, the proportion. I have to like it.
Q: Are there sacrifices?
A: Since I started this, I have felt driven, truly inspired, and it was like nothing or nobody was going to get in my way. I was dating someone at the time, and I would say, "No, I need to do one more thing; I need to get this right." And it was like I didn't have time for him. I was thinking, "Men will come and go, but I've got to get this right."
Q: What's the best part?
A: When the customer is thrilled. When they put that hat on and then there's a big smile.
Q: The worst part?
A: I do get burned. I get steamed. Some of the straw, it scratches me. The wire, I almost get poked in the eye.
Q: What's your most popular hat?
A: Definitely the cloche, that Roaring '20s thing.
Q: Do you make hats only for women?
A: I do a fedora that works for both genders, but my prime customer base is professional Caucasian women, 40 to 60.
Q: How has mastering hat-making helped you in other parts of your life?
A: I never really thought I was a people person, but I truly, truly enjoy working with my customers. I tell them to come in, play with stuff, try something on. We have a really good time doing this.
Q: You work in an artists' co-op. Do you consider hat-making an art?
A: I think a lot of people do have a hard time accepting it as an art. I had a hard time seeing it myself, but as I move more toward the creative side, I get it.