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The Last Milliner of New York




by Saida

My love for hats is probably not even worth mentioning, you’ve seen many posts in which I am excited about one hat or another, and you’ve seen me in various headwear in pictures – from hats to headpieces. It was this slight obsession that brought me to the studio of one of New York’s last traditional milliners.

David Steele tells me about his work

Progress, as we all know, is a double-edged sword whose eventual result has been that about 95% of stuff sold in the US is made in China. A century ago that number was closer to 5%. This, of course, affects both the quality of the goods and the effect of their production on the environment. We now throw away more things, producing more trash, than ever in the history of humanity. In the world of fashion in particular this has its own set of reasons. Trends now change at a much more rapid pace than ever, to satisfy consumers’ smaller attention spans and producers’ growing appetite for profits. An entire industry of Budget Brands has emerged in recent years and has led to the new concept of “disposable fashion”. This has made it possible for consumers to stay on-trend and satisfied their need for frequent consumption, but it has, predictably, had an unfortunate effect on small businesses. A small business cannot outsource production to a factory abroad because this requires a very large volume. As a result, the number of small businesses has dwindled significantly.

There’s a lot more consumer awareness these days than they used to be, thanks to the internet, but this doesn’t seem to have translated into a day-to-day desire to think about where and how one’s clothes are produced or what the consequences are. 80% of the factory workers in China are female and underpaid. That’s what makes it possible for your latest impulse purchase to cost as low as $5. Doesn’t sound so appealing once you consider the big picture does it?

Some brands, such as Kate Spade and DVF, decided that this picture doesn’t appeal to them and have gradually moved production back to the US, but these brands can afford it. Most brands continue to use China’s crowded and inhumane factories. And they continue to do it for a simple reason – consumer demand. So long as we as a society value the latest trend more than we value our moral standing, our ego will drive us to consume more and undiscriminatingly. For all these reasons David Steele’s NY atelier is both rare and of utmost importance.

David’s studio is located in the heart of the big apple on 39th street, which up until about two decades ago was considered to be the milliners’ district. In those days you would come here to purchase or custom-order a fashionable hat or additional accoutrements – felt, ribbons, feathers, or handmade flowers. There are still a few storefronts to enjoy but most have closed their doors or became showrooms for order-placing only.



“A finishing machine stands by the other wall, along with samples of fancy hats for wearing to Sunday church services. As David tells me, these are still big business in the US.”







David inherited the business from his aunt who, he tells me, started it when she was just a 16-year-old girl. She passed away several years ago, leaving David full control of the company. Now, as before, the company’s entire production is carried out on the fourth floor of the historic building in which it all began.

The small office with large windows is quite modest: two desk spaces, a wall display with samples, an ancient painting of a bird feathers and hat, with an inscription of the company’s name

The rest is pretty simple too. An employee is working in the second room. Various boxes containing vintage flowers and other hat decorations stand against one of the walls, filling it from floor to ceiling. A finishing machine stands by the other wall, along with samples of fancy hats for wearing to Sunday church services. As David tells me, these are still big business in the US. Some of these hats are of such proportions that I’d hate to find myself standing behind the person wearing them: they’d totally obstruct my view!




“Every form is different from the last, many were made way back at the start of the last century…”


Old hat forms from the early 20th century


The last room is a museum of sorts. Its shelves along the wall, and even the floor, are all filled with ancient hat forms of every imaginable kind. This is what’s used to make each hat – by fitting the felt on the form and treating it with a specified chemical process.

Every form is different from the last, many were made way back at the start of the last century, some have deep cracks. Here you’ll find cone-shaped forms, and more traditional ones, such as the Stetson, and twisting forms that remind me of soft-serve ice-cream, and turbans. My imagination begins to run wild as I dream up stories about the clients behind these hat orders….





“Do you often think about where and how the things you purchase are made? “


Forms for the tops and for the brims of classic men’s hats. They are stretched separately, then combined.

At the end of the storeroom, there’s a hat-stretching stand. Several hat models, a client’s order, patiently await their turn.


History is good and well, but what about here and now?! I suddenly remembered that I absolutely must have a perfect hat (or two) of my own! David and I made a quick run next door to where felt and other materials are sold and bought everything necessary for the making of my dream hat.

It was hardly a cornucopia of options, and yet I quickly found exactly what I was looking for, which was kind of uncanny. The prices were very reasonable too – about $30 for the felt.


How about you? Do you often thing about what you buy – how it’s made and where?
Would you be willing to spend a bit more if you knew that you were benefiting the planet you live on?
Do tell!

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