Madison’s resident hat maker founded Hats-O-Fancy in 1993

For more than 30 years, Renée Roeder Earley has designed handmade hats for Madison residents and beyond.

Hat making wasn’t something many teenagers in the 1970s may have taken up in their free time — but Renée Roeder Earley did.

For as long as she can remember, sewing and designing hats has been a lifelong passion. As a teen she would peruse resale shops to check out the funky, fun hats on display. 

“I always liked to wear them, even when it wasn’t really a thing for kids to wear. It wasn’t fashionable for anybody at that point,” Roeder Earley says. 

But she stuck with it, turning her hobby into a craft and eventually a business. Madison-based Roeder Earley, 62, founded Hats-O-Fancy in 1993 and has been designing, patterning, sewing, embellishing and selling handmade hats and accessories to people near and far in Wisconsin since.

She got her start at an art fair that year, what she credits as a defining moment. After studying at Viterbo College in La Crosse, the Appleton-born Roeder Earley headed to the East Coast to hone her professional hat-making skills at the New York Studio School.

She still remembers the first hat she made with recycled denim. 

“I thought, ‘I can make anything!’”

To date, she has made nearly 8,000 hats. In a single day, she can make at least 10 baby hats. After a stint in the fashion industry selling and making hats in New York, she returned to Wisconsin and has since expanded her business to sell backpacks as well as pins that can be attached to a hat or worn on their own.

Roeder Earley says she rarely conforms to trends. Her hats are considered a form of fine art — something the Smithsonian also recognized when she exhibited her work at its annual craft show in 2013.

“I try not to be a trend-follower because the competition is much cheaper. I just try to make [the hats] a little bit nice and a little bit whimsical,” she says, adding that while they stray far from the “wacky” side, they offer some novelty. Roeder Earley’s hats are made using fabrics that are 100% wool or linen.

When Roeder Earley gets to sewing, she sifts through her notebook, first sketching out her vision to spark ideas. Any material, piece of trim or an embroidered flower might inspire her. 

She often draws inspiration from 1940s fashion. Roeder Earley finds the era — bookended by war, tragedy and loss — to be intriguing, a testament to both the strengths and vulnerabilities people faced at the time. Many fashion materials were unavailable, so people made do with what they had. 

“Speaking of [eras], there were a few years when people here in America were interested in more of a statement — usually following a royal wedding year,” she says with a laugh. Duchess Kate Middleton and Prince William’s marriage in 2011 marked the biggest bump in little hat-wearing she had ever seen.  

When the pandemic caused the cancelation of art fairs, Roeder Earley pivoted. She became a “mask factory,” which motivated her and gave her a new medium. 

Some art fairs came back this past year, such as Art Fair on the Square, but Roeder Earley put hat-making on hold. She’s still undecided about the direction she’ll take with her next line of hats, which she says she won’t start working on until February or March to be launched sometime this summer.

“There’s just so much that you have to consider. It’s not even just your own time, but costs of doing business and paying rent and credit card fees and, oh my goodness, so much stuff,” she says. She prices pins at $35, backpacks at $75, and the average hat ranges from $55 to $125. Fascinators — small, formal headpieces — can range from $125 to $400. “I kind of turned my creative energies toward other things during the pandemic, because there was no reason for me to be making hats.” 

Roeder Earley took up painting and drawing animations to clear her mind. Despite some setbacks, she is confident hats will always be around. “I don’t know that it will ever become an important part of fashion,” Roeder Earley says, though she sees more and more people in Madison wearing brimmed hats over the summer. 

She has made pins for prominent women as well, including Sen. Tammy Baldwin. In 2012, she sent then-First Lady Michelle Obama a pin, receiving a signed thank you note later. 

But Roeder Earley loves seeing every day people wearing her handmade creations.

“I always get a little throw when I see somebody walking down the street wearing one of my hats. I’m proud that I have had my business for so long and people just keep coming back,” she says. “I think there will always be a place for hat makers.”

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