Walking into Wellema Hat Co. in downtown Santa Barbara, California is like going back in time. Part speakeasy, part old-world workshop, the feeling of the place couldn’t be any further from the palm trees, beaches and Spanish Colonial style that surrounds it. Pre-war blues plays quietly from a record player in the corner and there at the work bench is owner and hat maker Cody Wellema, deliberately crafting another custom hat in the traditional style. Beautiful hats in striking color combinations hang from the walls and it’s hard to believe they were made by someone who is almost completely self taught. But Cody is a throwback in every sense of the word and as you get to know him you begin to understand how passionate he is about hats.
How did you get your start?
My interest in hatmaking developed out of wanting to work with my hands and really loving what hats symbolized, kind of a bygone era. And I really wanted to put those two together, so I really researched how hats were made at the turn of the century, the early 1900s and mid-twentieth century and just got started.
Did you have an mentors along the way, or are you completely self taught?
I’m not completely self taught, but pretty close.There were a couple guys along the way that helped me out, that have been at it for 20, 30, 40 years, that gave me a few tips here and there. I found that a lot of people that I reached out to when I was first researching and trying to figure this out– they were shut off about it, and did not want to tell me anything. It was kind of a “super secret society”, I don’t know what it was… but I understand where they were coming from now.They put so much effort into learning it themselves, it was kind of like their baby. They were worried about who they were giving the information to. Is this just some kid off the street or someone who is really passionate about it? So once I earned some respect I did get helped out. Specifically, my friend Linda Kerr who I met as a seamstress working for some master hatmakers in New Mexico. She taught me everything I know about sewing–period. Specifically when it comes to sewing by hand for hats, the sweatbands, the liners, the trim, all that fun stuff. She has a lot of knowledge and we found each other at the right time and we have a great relationship.
Who were your role models when you were younger?
My parents in ways, growing up in split houses and how they raised us in their own ways. My grandparents and even more so my great grandfather. I don’t remember much about him, but I do remember going to his house, and just the real genuine gentleman quality of him, a family man, someone that was always happy, just talking and telling stories about the wars. It was always comfortable there. There was something that was different, that really stood out to me, and still does from what I remember of him.
Do you think of yourself as a “process” or “results” oriented person?
This might be a cheesy answer, but a little of both. I absolutely love the process of things, working through it, learning what I’m doing… but I also love to see the end result. For example with my hats– I love making them, but then seeing the reaction and the person being so satisfied and happy with the final product. It’s finally on their head, and was made specifically for them.
You make hats start to finish, how important is doing every step?
It’s vital, it’s everything that I stand for with my hats. From sourcing materials, to talking to the customer, I want to make sure that each and every part of the process is cared for. Through the most intricate details of the hat making process–with my hands being on it and my eyes being on it– I am making sure it gets done properly and to the highest quality.
What does the word quality mean to you?
Quality, to me, means something that really withstands the test of time. Something that can not only be worn as a fashion or leisure item, but something that can be worn in the elements, traveling, through different seasons: snow, wind, rain or shine– that it can hold up to all that. And the quality of an object like that can have stories to tell. You can have a wallet, or a shirt that somebody made, or a pair of boots, or a hat and you can tell you grandkids about the time you traveled the world with that item, or the time you got caught in a snowstorm in a particular jacket was made for you– and it becomes very sentimental. So I believe the quality of those items have the ability to eventually tell stories, and that’s important to me.
Can you talk about sourcing and working with quality materials?
Sourcing to me is very important. I do my very best to get 100% of my materials here in the States, because I know that they’re the best quality and they’ve been cared for. When I work with these people, I try to go through mom-and-pop shops. I work very personally with them and make sure I’m getting the right material for the right person. The materials that I use come from some of the only fur felt factories in America, and the world, for that matter. Fur felt is something you don’t see much anymore. You see a lot of wool in hats, a lot of random materials– but fur felts are how hats used to be made, and in my opinion, should be made, because fur felts, depending on the type of fur, can withstand the elements. Pure beaver is the finest quality a hat can be made from. Rain, snow– it can hold up. It’s not a replacement for an umbrella, but it can definitely stand up. As far as ribbons and trims– vintage trims from the early nineteen hundreds, from the teens– a lot of my stuff is from the 30’s through the 50’s. They just don’t make quality ribbon like they did back then. The blends of the cotton and rayon, or just rayon, you just can’t find it anymore in a modern shop. Although I did find one mill that is fantastic and I do use them now to get some modern ribbon. But when I can, I try to source vintage ribbon because the quality was so much higher back then.
When you look at old photos— you see a lot more people in hats. Why do you think that is?
There are two reasons that I’ve seen when I’ve researched this. One is the invention of the automobile. When you’re sitting in a car and you’ve got a brim on your hat, like a fedora, it gets annoying with the headrest. So people stopped wearing hats, or that’s when people started wearing the Flat Caps, the “Gatsby’s” or “Newsies”, because there was no brim in the back. The second thing a lot of people talk about is JFK’s Presidential Inauguration. Up until JFK, every single president wore a hat at the inauguration, but he did not. People say that he didn’t wear one at all, but he actually wore one all day, in the limo, etc. then took it off for the actual speech. So people say that JFK killed the hat, I don’t know if I believe that.
You talk about being inspired by old films and music, what is it about those art forms that inspires or informs your craft?
I think it just goes back to the previous question, when you look at old photos you see hats everywhere, ball games, cities, family photos. The music that I love to listen to, a lot these musicians came from a place of struggle and poverty, a lot of pre-war blues, even jazz in the early 20’s on the East Coast in Harlem– Fats Waller was great, Blind Boy Fuller, Ma Rainey– when you see old photos of them, or you look at the album covers, you always see hats. That type of music and the lifestyle that they came from– the hats really became symbolic of that time to me.
What inspires your personal style? Do you feel it is a reflection of your craft?
Again, and I probably sound like a broken record, the early 20th century really inspires who I am– not just with style but just in general. I feel like there was a very different way of living back then: you had to work for everything you got. But there was a very beautiful simplistic lifestyle that they lived, and it was just kind of the norm. All the guys wore suits and hats, ladies wore dresses- and a hat as well from time to time– but there is something about those suits, and the guys working the yards with their hats, that really inspires me to always be dressed for the occasion I guess.I love dressing my own way, from early 1900’s work wear to suits–I think a hat fits it all.
If you had to wear one hat for the rest of your life what would it be?
No doubt it would be pure beaver because I know it would last me forever. It would be some sort of of fedora…2.5” brim, with a teardrop crown.
What is your favorite style hat to make?
I really enjoy being able to communicate with the customer, being able to make it specifically to their desire and their personality. If I had to pick, I really like making a very traditional 30’s fedora, a little taller crown, decent size brim, maybe a teardrop or a three point crown. Something that would really stand out, but in a very simple way. Maybe black on black, or black with grey, something classy but that you wouldn’t see as often.
If you weren’t making hats, what do you think you’d be doing?
At this point I really don’t know. I’d want to be doing something with my hands, maybe I’d be working for Red Wing, working in their factory (laughs). Before this I was working as a pastor, so maybe I’d be doing that. Doing something I enjoy– I know that. I really can’t see myself doing anything else.
Red Wing boots in three words?
Superior Quality, Heritage (strong family-rooted heritage) and Passion. I think those guys have a passion for what they’re doing.