V ery few people these days set out to be milliners, and, although she owns a store where she makes and sells hats, Susan Abelson is no exception. As a young woman in the 1970s, she was a merely a connoisseur and collector. She preferred 1940s styles, with veils. "I was young," she says. "I could pull it off." But then her entire collection was stolen from the storage space of the Minneapolis loft where she was living at the time. All that remained was a book filled with illustrations of hats throughout history.
Even though she was primarily a painter, Abelson was always looking at hats. "I was thinking about hats, sketching hats, dreaming of hats. I don't know why." Then one day in 2010 she took an old, shrunken sweater, amputated the neck, cut another circle from the body, sewed the two pieces together, and voila! an instant tam. She began to make hats in her dining room, using more old sweaters and upholstery fabric and whatever scraps she could find. Over time, she expanded into rescuing old hats that her friends found for her at estate sales, sewing on extra trimmings or "drawing" on them with thread. She began selling the hats, which she calls Susan Hats, at craft fairs and online, and taking commissions, most notably for a vagina dentata hat for the first Women's March.
Susan Hats have very little in common with one another, except for a general sense of whimsy. They range from relatively conservative tams, hoods, and cloches to tall, brightly colored statement pieces that cause people on the el to look twice and take another seat. "You have to have balls to wear my hats!" she says.
- Kristan Lieb
Abelson works only from recycled materials and, although she owns a few old hat blocks and two antique hat sizers, she doesn't like to use patterns, so no two pieces are the same. "I make it up as I go along," she says. "I thought about taking classes to learn the proper way of doing things, but I was afraid it would squash my originality and looseness. It takes an hour to make some hats. Others I piece together over hours and hours. I have to sit with them. Real millinery is intimidating. It can be tedious. It's more repetitive. I call myself 'a milliner of sorts.'"
When Abelson moved to Rogers Park two years ago—she wanted to live near the lake—she noticed a small storefront on the ground floor of an apartment building on Sheridan Road, right next to Leone Beach Park. At the time, it was occupied by the Rogers Park Chamber of Commerce, but Abelson decided that if it ever became vacant, it would be the perfect spot to open a hat store. One day this past fall, she saw that it was empty and decided it was meant to be. She spent the winter refinishing the floors, and opened for business in March. She set up her sewing machine in the front showroom so customers could see her at work. "I want to be visible to the neighborhood," she says. She has a few regular visitors, including a retired couple who check up on her and a burly guy who tells her she's bringing class to the neighborhood.
- Kristan Lieb
Abelson is her own best advertisement. She has the sort of face that looks good in all sorts of hats, no matter the shape or style, and she takes a certain glee in bustling around her showroom and popping her creations onto her head, as though she's a human hat stand. She encourages customers to try on as many hats as they'd like, and she's not shy about making suggestions. Matching a person and a hat is a delicate process. "It's sad when someone puts on a hat and it doesn't fit," she says. "If they're really in love with it, I try to alter it." That's where the hat stretchers come in handy. She's also been experimenting with using elastic to make her hats fit different-size heads.
Now that the weather's getting warmer and more people are headed toward the beach, Abelson hopes that she'll get more foot traffic. Her lease is up in July, and she hopes to renew it. But she's running her business in the same improvisational spirit in which she makes her hats. One thing she is certain about is keeping the price of her hats below $60. (Couture milliners can charge hundreds of dollars.) "I do grapple with the price," she says. "Am I undervaluing me? Am I undervaluing my art? Or am I making things affordable to people? It's insulting to open up a shop in Rogers Park and be out of reach for the people who live here.
"My neighbor here is a therapist," she continues. "I tell her that after a good session, her patients can get a hat. Or after a bad session, a hat will make things better." v
- Kristan Lieb