Neal Shudde, Hatter
Shudde, a fourth-generation hatter, was born and raised in Houston. He runs Shudde Bros. Hatters, near Brookshire, which has been making hats since 1907.
To be a good hatter, you have to listen to the customer. Be patient and let him or her tell you what they need to tell you. Sometimes they’ll give you a lot of information that’s irrelevant, like, “I was in my house sweeping and my hat fell off my head and into the ketchup and the cat ran out the door and . . .” Just listen and keep asking questions.
Often men will come in and know exactly what they want. They’ll have a picture of Wyatt Earp from a movie, that type of thing. In the old days they would come in with a newspaper or a book, and we’d get a hat with no creases and mock-shape the felt and ask, “Like this?” We have a customer right now who wants an Abbott and Costello hat for a comedy routine, and thanks to the Internet you can get a photo of just about any look. But we’ll work from existing hats too. We had a customer named Grits Gresham, an outdoors writer for some national magazines, who had a very complicated hat he wanted replicated. He had been wearing this hat for years, and the crease design—you can’t describe it. Certainly couldn’t write it down. It was like a combination of three creases all mixed together. We had to get an old hat and crease it as a model.
If a man says, “I just need a hat, but I don’t know what to get,” we ask him a few questions: What do you need it for? Are you going to wear it in the winter? In the summer? In the rain? Are you going down the Rio Grande? Traveling to Africa? He may say, “I want a large brim because my dermatologist doesn’t want me to be in the sun” or “I’m a skeet shooter and can’t have a wide brim.” And then I’ll ask, “Do you want to stand out or go unnoticed?” Most guys want to go unnoticed. But there’s that one guy in a hundred who will say, “I want to stand out.” And we have a hat for that man. We call it the chili champ.
The chili champ is big, with a six-inch brim. In the hat world, three inches is little, six inches is huge. So the chili champ has got this six-inch brim and a tall crown and a fancy band on the outside, like leather and imitation bone—like an Indian band. We sell quite a few chili champs. We can usually spot the customers who will request them, but sometimes you’ll be surprised. We had this little grandmother come in who was five feet tall, and she said, “That’s my hat!”
I’m a fourth-generation hatter. My family has hats on all continents. Well, except for maybe Antarctica. My grandfather’s family moved to Houston when he was young, and after he made it through the eighth grade, he had to go to work. His family background was German, so he got a job with a German hatter, since that was the custom back then. In 1907 this hatter he worked for was tired of the New World and went back to Europe, so my grandfather started his own little company downtown near the courthouse. Eventually my grandfather took on his father and five brothers and a brother-in-law as partners. The family worked real hard to make the best-quality hats they could. My grandfather passed the business along to my father, and when my father died, in 1996, I took over. We moved the business to Brookshire in 2007.
We don’t make the hats from scratch. What we do is customize them. When we get the hat—usually a Stetson or a Resistol—it is roughly shaped; it’s not flat like a pancake. It has a brim and a crown. It’s also dyed a color, like black, gray, or silver belly. After the customer chooses a style, we write up a work order and block the crown if he wants it changed. Then we flange it, putting the brim over a wooden form. Each time we’re forming it, we use a lot of steam to soften it, and then we let it dry. Now, we’ve got a customer named Dr. James H. “Red” Duke who insists on doing his own creases. He has a trademark hat: He creases it down low and breaks it in. But he’s not the only one who likes to do his own; we have a number of customers who do. After the creasing process, the shape isn’t bulletproof, but it will stay with normal wear and tear. Then we’ll add hatbands on the outside, like a rattlesnake band. Those look good with every color.
Styles have changed over the years. In my grandfather’s day, all men wore hats. We had every possible request. Now a cowboy hat with a four-inch rim is the standard, and a medium crown is the popular thing. The Western fashion is led by the rodeo circles. Some of the rodeo stars are changing the crowns a little bit, making them more boxy. The style of the brim changes gradually over the years, so you don’t have the same look twenty years running. Black is still huge with the younger crowd, those in their twenties, thirties, and forties. Older gentlemen like the lighter colors.
We’ve kept a lot of regulars, and over the years we’ve been blessed to work on hats for some celebrities: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, Ernest Tubb. John Wayne got two hats from us for the movie Hellfighters, which was filmed in downtown Houston and the Baytown area in the sixties. He bought two hats that were similar; they were called the Dobbs 100. Their color was silver belly. George Foreman was in not too long ago in our downtown Houston store, before we moved out here to Brookshire. He was wearing a white suit, and he looked like a giant! He liked a special shape that was overly pinched in front. He ordered some Borsalino hats that are made in Italy, and we customized them all with that pinched look. We also renovated Sam Houston’s hat for the centennial. The historical foundation brought it by, and the factory foreman who had worked here his whole life said, “I’m going to work on it all myself and run it from A through Z without stopping.” People were just reverent. Gosh. Sam Houston is the reason we’re all here in Texas.
I’ve got a forty-year-old hat that I don’t wear every day, but it’s got a wide brim and a low crown—real streamlined. I’ve got my own customized crease. I even have a tornado strap on it for windy conditions; I don’t want to go chasing it down the side of a mountain. It’s beat-up and dirty and broken in. That’s my favorite hat.