Words: Kent Mundle / Photos: Janine Kropla
Nathan Dueck shares a similar migration story to other Winnipeg makers. His skills learned as a rural boy are not so commonplace in the city. They become marks of diversity and personality. He won't deny that his ability to sew might have contributed to the earning of his first job as an engineer.
Nathan Dueck makes hats. They are beautifully sewn, using only a few simple tools. Everything is done by hand. Until recently, he has sold the hats exclusively in person at a Winnipeg Folk Fest booth. Despite making hats for nine years now, Nathan is not quite ready to call himself an 'artisan'; there's something about calling his workshop a 'studio', that just doesn't feel right.
Nathan has recently taken a big step with the Oldhat business. He quit his job as an engineer, upgraded his tools, and established an online store. Following our interview, Nathan headed east to sell hats at a Toronto makers festival - the first major event for Oldhat outside of Manitoba.
Despit the excitement of this growth, it raises some questions for Nathan and Oldhat. What does it mean for his craft to become a day job? For how long can he maintain a face-to-face relationship with his customers? Is the one-man show sustainable?
For now, Nathan's just looking toward his busy summer season. And that means making as many hats as he can.
Muddy Water: What's the Oldhat origin story? Did you come from a formal textile education?
Nathan Dueck: No, actually. My first hat was a Castro communist looking thing that a friend gave me. It didn't fit, so I just decided to go for it. Coming from a small town, [taking] home economics was necessary once a week. I think I made a duffel bag, or something. So, I knew that little bit of sewing, but otherwise not really. I asked my aunt for help in the beginning. Now, Brendon from Wilder Goods teaches me on the more industrial machines.
MW: So you've recently taken a big step with the business this January. What has changed?
ND: Since I've gone full time I finally have the appropriate room set up. I was crammed into a corner of the previous apartment. I was later in the basement of this house. If ever I needed more light, I'd have to come up and work in the kitchen. I just started using this Serger [sewing machine] off of Kjiji from this guy making heavy-duty boat covers in Transcona. It allows me to make cleaner edges and intricate stitches. It was pretty much manual to finish an edge on the old machine. I've also started using an industrial cobbler press to make the visors. I design the profile of a sort of a cookie cutter that fits under the press, and it stamps them out. I can do a year's worth of visors in a morning now. I make them out of ice cream pails; it was just one night that I was falling asleep and thought, "ice cream pails..."
MW: So then, what were you doing before going full time with Oldhat?
ND: Until January I was working as an engineer during the day. Everything about it was fine, I guess. It was a great job, but it wasn't fun. I wasn't pumped to go every day. Doing this has been the best months of my life. Especially during the winter, which is usually the time that I am least happy about work. Now, I get to stay cosy in my house and make hats. I love it. The only challenge is not working too much. It can be consuming.
MW: Have you officially accepted the title change from engineer to 'artisan'?
ND: [laughs] Yeah, something about it still doesn't feel right. Even calling my room a 'studio' feels weird. I think 'workspace' is good for now. I like 'workspace'.
MW: How did the engineer community respond to you leaving to make hats?
ND: I was actually making hats first, while in school. So I was making hats before officially working as an engineer. All the friends I had made in that community were fringe engineers anyway. They were accepting. I had actually met my boss at Folk Fest before getting the job. During my interview, he suddenly said, "Wait a minute - you make hats? I once bought a hat from a kid at Folk Fest!"
MW: That must be a really great element of selling your hats in person - that you can take part in the stories that those hats might represent for people. For example, they an become representative of an entire weekend. Does that make selling at a place like Folk Fest especially significant?
ND: Yeah. People will stop me in Wolseley to say how they saw me at the booth. Or how they lost their favourite hat on a boat off the coast of Australia last summer. That's definitely cool to be a part of. Half of my sales are repeat customers who come to the booth every year. Folk Fest was really the perfect fit in the beginning, which allowed me to get into it. The first summer was hot and sunny, so people need hats. I was excited to see other people equally excited about it. Folk Fest will always be important because now I've made long-term friendships with the other sellers as well.
MW: The human quality of the brand falls in line with the other notions of sustainability, handcraft, and local production. Are these all things that you curated into the brand? Or, has it evolved more organically?
ND: It’s all a coincidence, really. Once, I had just made cut-offs from a friend’s pair of pants, and then experimented with what was left to make a hat. After doing that, buying from fabric stores just didn’t make sense. Over time, my awareness towards environmental issues has also developed, so it was sort of simultaneous. One of the great things about buying the fabric from thrift stores now is that all of my own clothes come from thrift stores. Usually it takes way too much time to sift through everything but I’m doing it already anyways! [Nathan proceeded to tell us about his great jackpot of a thrifting spot - yet the specifics had to be left off the record - sorry everyone!]
MW: Do you foresee a need to ever add another person to help with production?
ND: I think a critical part of the brand right now is that it’s a one-man show. When people know that, they often look forward to meeting me at the booth. So, if I send someone else, it’s not the same experience for the customer… or even [for] myself, for that matter. That’s one thing I fear with the online sales, is that I’d miss that interaction. But I’ll worry about that once I actually have online sales [laughs]. My dream will never be to hire a bunch of minions to sew hats. I already know that if I sell the amount of hats that I could make in a year, then that would be pretty awesome; I don’t have any desire for it to be bigger. I’d love for it to be just that.
You can find Nathan and his online store at oldhat.ca, otherwise look out for his booth at Folk Fest in July.