Wayne Wichern Volume 40.1

PAGLINA STRAW BRAID SKEINS, imported from Switzerland,   and parisisal straw cartwheels ,  imported from China.

PAGLINA STRAW BRAID SKEINS, imported from Switzerland, and parisisal straw cartwheels, imported from China.

Wayne Wichern has a lot of heads. He does not know the exact number, but it is more than a thousand, he estimates, divided between three studios. The cozy tribe greeting visitors to his suburban Seattle studio is comprised of four to five hundred of the sleek wooden forms, all about the size of a human head and all suggesting anthropomorphic sculptures, as though Constantin Brancusi decided to carve a village of people, leaving the details of bodies and faces to your imagination.

WICHERN using the Singer cylinder arm sewing machine to sew a head-size ribbon into the hat. Photograph by Jason Wells.

      Wichern is a hatmaker and the heads are hat blocks, the essential building units of traditional hatmaking. To make classic shapes, such as fedoras, using couture quality hat materials, like wool felt or parisisal straw, you need hat blocks. Wichern has spent thirty-two years collecting the blocks and they have been his constant companions as he has built a career as an artisanal hatmaker. A former ballet dancer whose interest in costuming led him to hatmaking for theater before leaping into couture millinery, he is happy to report that today hats are very much in style.

“The interest in hats has grown,” says Wichern. “There have been very interesting and popular costume shows, like the big fashion shows at The Met. And then there was Downton Abbey and other TV shows like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, where everyone wears hats. And there are the young royals,” he adds, referring to Queen Elizabeth’s grandsons and their photogenic wives, often photographed wearing eye-catching chapeaux. “I think one thing the young royals have done is to give young people permission to wear hats. It’s not just something that your grandmother did.” Hat shops carrying commercially manufactured hats are doing well, especially with young customers, Wichern notes, and the broader vogue for hats is reflected in his own business. “For the boutique milliner, working in a smaller, artisanal way, it’s never been better.” 

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      Wichern makes individual hats, by which he means handmade hats that are an elegant mix of traditional craftsmanship and contemporary attitude, often made for a specific customer. He makes such classic shapes as cloches, which are bell-shaped and suggest the 1920s or 1930s, and skimmers, which have crisp, flat-topped crowns and flat brims. He makes toques, turbans, fedoras, toppers, and hats whose large, outrageously swirling brims resemble crashing waves. He makes evening hats with names such as Wicked, Dahlia and Evening Rose. Any one of his black evening hats would transform the shyest wallflower into a femme fatale. Not long ago he created a skull-hugging black velvet cloche trimmed with fringes of dangling beadwork for a client with a taste for dramatic fashion. More beadwork rises like an opened fan at the front. Cleopatra could have worn such a headpiece to seduce any of her Roman paramours.

ANASTASIA of sage parisisal straw, dupioni silk, silk and velvet magnolia, and vintage silk veiling, 2010.

      Wichern makes hats on a speculative basis, hoping someone who drops by his Burlingame, California, studio will find one they like. He also holds trunk shows and participates in millinery and craft shows. Early in his career he made hats on a wholesale basis for small manufacturers, and he has made hats for millinery boutiques. But his favorite projects come from regular customers, some of whom commission him on a seasonal basis and for special events. “I have clients I just love. One is prone to bringing me bags of goodies. It could be a bit of fabric salvaged from the hem of a favorite dress. She wants to collaborate. It’s great. She presented me with a particular challenge when she brought me some beadwork that was white with a gold border, two pieces about eight inches each in length and triangular. They had been a neckpiece on something, and she wanted me to use them in a hat. She’s very much about telling me to do what I need to do. I thought and thought, couldn’t come up with anything, and was going to give the beaded pieces back. But then I started playing around with them, and sometimes something magical does happen.” The resulting chapeau is a cream wool felt cloche nearly hidden by the two beaded collars, which Wichern draped over the felt to make a turban shape. As a final touch he added a six-inch gold tassel from his vast trim collection. 

“My customers are people who have a sense of style,” Wichern says. “They are mature enough to know what to wear. People who buy my hats are people with experience. Most people who come to me are dedicated to hats, whether it’s for a special occasion or just to wear.” People who buy his hats are also women. The men’s hat market is entirely different, Wichern says, and would require different hat blocks and different types of felts. “When a man asks me if I would make a man’s hat, I usually tell him that if there’s something you really can’t buy commercially, maybe a bicorne, I’d be happy to work with you. But men’s hats are different, and you can’t be everything to everyone.” Wichern himself wears what he calls “low-key men’s shapes and berets,” none of which he makes.

Wichern creates hats the way professional milliners always have. He buys felt or straw basic hat shapes, called “cartwheels”, from commercial millinery suppliers, then molds them over hat blocks into an infinite number of sizes and styles. Because the brims and crowns of the blocks separate, he can create unique silhouettes by mixing and matching crowns and brims. The felt is wool or rabbit. The parisisal straw is from the sisal plant, and is the standard material for couture straw hats because it is finer than other straws and can be molded into more complicated shapes. 

WICHERN blocking a felt body over a wood hat block; the final task is using the compress tool to press the felt into the recess detail carved into the block.

      Making a hat is surprisingly physical. Millinery ateliers conjure images of artisans adjusting silk flowers on romantic, feminine styles. But hatmaking requires physical strength and an ability to work with high heat. To mold either felt or straw Wichern applies moisture to the material. For felt, he also needs the extreme heat produced by an industrial steamer. The moist hat forms then are tied down tautly with cord at the crown and the brim to create the basic silhouette. When Wichern demonstrates this he throws his shoulders, arms and hands into knotting the cord. Depending on the style, the hats also must be sculpted by hand, in the manner of a ceramist shaping a hunk of clay. If styles have areas that curve in and out on the crown, creating those shapes requires pressing removable parts of the block back into the felt, and tying or tacking that down as well. By happy coincidence, Wichern’s youth as a Wyoming farm boy followed by years of ballet training appear to have prepared him for the physical rigors of hatmaking.

When the hats are dry the next day, they are removed from the blocks, a process that can require a little wrestling. Wichern cuts excess straw or felt from the brim, finishes the brim edge on one of his several sewing machines, and sews a sizing ribbon into the inside crown. He then trims the hat, which could mean anything from sewing silk flowers to the brim to creating leaves and feathers out of salvaged bits of trimmed felt or straw. He saves every scrap of excess material to be repurposed into trim. He also collects beads, feathers, braid, ribbons, scraps of luxe fabric, silk flowers, bits of costume jewelry, and just about anything that might someday be useful as trim. In his Seattle studio he has turned a small bathroom into his trim room, and even the shower stall is stuffed floor to ceiling with plastic storage boxes filled with trims—an Ali Baba’s cave of adornments.

Wichern has always been motivated by aesthetics and artistry. After high school in Cody, Wyoming, he moved to Seattle to study floral design at a community college known for horticultural programs. His degree landed him a job at a floral shop in Bellingham, north of Seattle, where he worked happily for several years. “Then I discovered dance in about ‘78 or ‘79. Movies like The Turning Point and Chorus Line really made an impression on me, and though I was old to be taking up dance, I enrolled in ballet school in Bellingham. After a while my teacher told me I should move to New York to keep studying, so I did. Eventually I was in some regional companies. At those companies I would put in extra time in the costume shop. I had great hands, thanks to my work at the floral shop, and I enjoyed it. In retrospect, I think the extreme aesthetic of ballet comes through in my millinery; the attention to line and gesture that goes into hatmaking is related to ballet.”  

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      By 1985 the life of a professional dancer with its constant travel had lost its allure, and he moved back to Seattle, where he made hats for professional theater companies and worked in visual merchandising for what was then Seattle’s most prestigious department store. He found studio space and decided to learn all he could about couture millinery. He began taking classes from John Eaton, a milliner who had been one of Seattle’s most successful hatmakers in the mid-twentieth century, a time when no well-dressed man or woman attended a formal event without a hat. “John was retired by then and was giving classes casually in his basement. Then, at the point where he could no longer teach, he suggested I buy his stuff, so I did, and dragged it all over to my studio.” Eaton’s blocks were the beginning of Wichern’s collection, though he has added many hundreds since then via eBay and other internet sales sites. “Blocks have a way of finding me. People will be cleaning out grandma’s attic and find a few, and they find me on eBay. Over the years I’ve also purchased hundreds at a time when hat factories close or go offshore. I’ve sold off a lot, since I end up with duplicates.” His oldest blocks are from the 1930s, though many are newer. They have all become more precious as hat block production in the United States has nearly vanished. Most hat blocks today are manufactured in England or Australia.  


WICHERN Studio and classroom in Burlingame, California, Museum Studios, Peninsula Museum of Art.


      When his husband’s career took the couple from Seattle to the Bay Area in 2001, Wichern found a studio near San Francisco Airport. The location is ideal for the frequent workshops he teaches, which attract students from around the country. He also teaches at a shared studio he maintains in metropolitan Seattle, and at craft schools, including the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. “I enjoy teaching, and I think it’s partly because I didn’t have an official academic base myself when I started out. And teaching always helps me learn.” He notes that there are very few full-time programs in the U.S. where students can learn couture millinery, so he likes the idea that his teaching passes on the legacy of millinery craftsmanship. He also tries to give his students tips about the business side of boutique millinery. “When students ask me about pricing, it’s always a little awkward, but I understand the question. You can go with time and material, but that doesn’t always work. I tell them I’ve created a range of work for a range of prices. When people duck into my Burlingame studio and ask how much my hats are, I always smile and say they are one hundred twenty-five to four hundred eighty-five dollars, but that I can certainly make a more expensive hat if they like. That usually breaks the ice and if they like hats, they come in.”

LOREDANA SWIRL STRAW of raspberry parisisal straw, silk and rayon brocade fabric, 2006.

      For now Wichern’s career is at full throttle. But he is in his sixties, and looking ahead to what might eventually become of his block collection and his antique tools, such as his very old Willcox & Gibbs machine for sewing hemp straw braid into spirals for certain types of straw hats. His hats are included in the collections at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and in the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.

“I’ve worked long and hard to create something. I rounded up the equipment, created an artisanal market, been successful, and enjoyed it all these years. I don’t want it go poof someday and be gone.” And because he is always surrounded by his old friends the hat blocks, he finds himself thinking of their future. “I often find inspiration from the blocks. I just love them, even though I haven’t had the occasion to use all of them. But it is time to start thinking about where they will all go. Maybe they can go to several people, or a museum. The legacy doesn’t have to be personal, but I do want it to be about the craft.”


      Get Inspired!



Robin Updike is an independent, Seattle-based writer. She has been following Wayne Wichern’s remarkable career as a custom hatmaker for more than twenty years. In those days she covered fashion and style for The Seattle Times and Wichern was part of a robust artisanal Seattle hatmaking community. “I remember Wayne as one of the highlights of a show of independent fashion being held in a cavernous former railroad station in front of a very large crowd. Theatrically dressed and wearing some of his own more dramatic hats, he kept the show entertained by swiftly fitting hats onto the models as they stalked down the runway. He has always had great flair.”

Sara Owens Volume 38.1 Preview

Sara Owens: Inspiring Wonder

PROTEUS SERIES BROOCH/SCULPTURE CONVERTIBLES of bone, brass, coffee filters, formed, fabricated, papier-mâché, largest: 12.7 centimeters, 2008-2011. ADAPTATION #5 RING of sterling silver, wool, formed, fabricated, needle felted, 10.2 centimeters, 2014. ADAPTATION #3 BROOCH of sterling silver, wool, formed, fabricated, needle felted, 10.2 centimeters, 2014.

At first glance, Sara Owens’s island studio appears to be the private study of a naturalist with a taste for the mysterious. A large vitrine displays half a dozen objects that seem to come from the natural world, though not a world most of us have seen. Some of the palm-sized objects are bulbous, metallic forms attached at odd angles to bits of bone. Others look like tiny meteorites mated to decaying seedpods. Nearby a wooly brown lifeform of some kind—moss? bacteria?—has settled comfortably into the center of a metal mesh saucer.

If the objects make you think about what they might be and how they came to look the way they do, Owens, who made them all, would be pleased. Above all, she says, “I want my work to inspire wonder.” Owens is a jewelrymaker and every one of the objects is a brooch. The pieces represent her fascination with the idea that in the natural world, design follows function. They are also testament to her enthusiastic exploration of materials, particularly nontraditional materials. One of the hallmarks of her work is an ability to coax evocative texture and shape out of materials as mundane as paper coffee filters and hardware-store sink drains.


Joan Tenenbaum Volume 37.5

Joan Tenenbaum’s cuff bracelet called Salmon in the Trees is a striking piece of jewelry. It is also an artful reminder that the ecology of our natural world hangs in easily disrupted balance. The sterling silver cuff is cut and engraved to show a dense Northwest forest inhabited, delightfully, by glistening copper-colored salmon that seem to be swimming through the trees. In the notes she wrote to accompany this 2011 piece, Tenenbaum explained that in the rainforests of Southwest Alaska salmon return to the streams where they were born and along the way many become food for eagles, bears and other predators. The predators digest the salmon and their droppings fertilize the lush streamside foliage and the forest trees. Salmon, the kings of the sea, and old-growth forests may seem worlds apart, but they are in fact dependent on each other for survival.

“Perhaps more than any other species salmon connect the oceans with the land,” Tenenbaum says. Salmon need the cool, shaded nesting spots to breed, and the bears, for instance, need to fatten up on the salmon in the late summer to survive winter hibernation. “The tightness of this web of interconnections is so vital and so fragile—paralleling the fragility of our indigenous languages and cultures—this kind of poignancy moves me to make pieces with these deep layers of meaning.”

Jewelry infused with environmental and cultural content is Tenenbaum’s signature as an artist. Virtually every brooch, neckpiece, bracelet, or ring she has made in the last thirty-five years is grounded not only in precise craftsmanship but also in her deep love of Alaska, its native cultures and its awe-inspiring natural beauty. Tenenbaum has created brooches that are abstracted aerial views of Alaska deltas, tidelands and mountain peaks. She has taken inspiration from traditional Yup’ik ceremonial masks. And she has made a series of “ulu knife” brooches that incisively symbolize the traditionally close relationship between Native cultures and the environment. An ulu knife is an all-purpose cutting knife shaped like a wide slice of pie that, in traditional culture, is an Eskimo woman’s tool for preparing food, cleaning meat and all manner of other domestic tasks necessary for survival. Tenenbaum also made real ulu knives, uses one in her kitchen and has given them as wedding gifts.

“I saw early on that ulu knives in the tourist shops in Alaska were worthless as useful knives, and I had seen how people in the villages made their ulus which they use every day. So I decided to learn how to make them. Considering that the development of the design of the ulu over the centuries was based on the work that needed to be done with it, it really does connect the culture to the land.”

WOLF IN BLACK SPRUCE IV: OUR LAND, OUR ANCESTORS brooch/pendant of sterling silver, copper, eighteen karat gold, 5.87 x 6.19 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011.

WOLF IN BLACK SPRUCE IV: OUR LAND, OUR ANCESTORS brooch/pendant of sterling silver, copper, eighteen karat gold, 5.87 x 6.19 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011.

Trained as a linguist and an anthropologist, Tenenbaum did field work in Alaska in her late twenties while working on her doctoral thesis. She lived in a remote village and wrote a grammar and a dictionary for the Dena’ina language, which was the language then still spoken by the villagers. After her first years of field research she lived in other native villages and worked to help young native Alaskan adults become teachers. Tenenbaum earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University in anthropology and linguistics in 1978, but it is fair to say that since she first set foot in Alaska as a young researcher, she has never really left. Physically and spiritually, Alaska has been Tenenbaum’s touchstone for nearly forty years.

Tenenbaum’s life as a jewelrymaker, however, started well before her introduction to Alaska. The arc of her career is an unusual dual path of art and academia that, some decades ago, serendipitously merged into an art career fueled by her academic experiences. As an adolescent growing up in the suburbs of Detroit her parents stressed academics. Yet despite a full schedule of college preparatory classes, in the ninth grade Tenenbaum found a class period open for an elective. “So I signed up for something called craft. I liked to do things with my hands and it sounded interesting. For a year we did block printing, some silversmithing, enameling. I loved it.” She was particularly fascinated by jewelry, and for the next four years she took classes from a well-trained teacher who taught her the fundamentals. Before she left high school in 1963 Tenenbaum had won awards for her work.

RAVEN AND CARIBOU: A DENA’INA STORY pendant of sterling silver, fourteen karat gold and garnets, 6.03 x 8.26 x 0.64 centimeters, 2007.

RAVEN AND CARIBOU: A DENA’INA STORY pendant of sterling silver, fourteen karat gold and garnets, 6.03 x 8.26 x 0.64 centimeters, 2007.

Looking back on her early love of jewelry, Tenenbaum says it was odd that no one suggested she attend an art school after high school graduation. Then again, her father was a chemical engineer, a metallurgist to be exact, and her mother was a teacher. They expected her to be a teacher, or perhaps a translator at the United Nations. Scholarship and academics were very important to her parents. She laughs when she notes that the only artist in the family when she was young was a relative called “crazy Esther.” A life in art was obviously not something to aspire to. “So my plan was to be a Spanish teacher. I was good with languages and was always friends with the foreign exchange students.” As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan Tenenbaum studied romance languages and literature before switching to anthropology. After class and during summer breaks she continued to make jewelry and take workshops to learn new skills. Art was strictly extracurricular.

Later there were occasions when the road ahead forked into very different directions. That happened in the late 1960s in New York, where she was employed as a caseworker for the city welfare department and taking classes in silversmithing at the Craft Students League.

Her teacher was William Seitz, a master silversmith who wrote one of the definitive books on silversmithing. She had applied to graduate school at Columbia University, but was also making jewelry. “I had been accepted to graduate school, and had decided to put my tools away for a while when I got a call from a gallery on Fifth Avenue that wanted to show my jewelry. Someone there had seen it at the Craft Students League. I said no. I was determined to get my Ph.D. But it wasn’t an easy decision.”

FEASTS OF TRADITION brooch/pendant of sterling silver, fourteen karat yellow, pink and palladium white gold, eighteen karat green gold, keum-boo, champagne diamond, red, blue, orange, and green sapphires, 6.99 x 6.03 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011.

FEASTS OF TRADITION brooch/pendant of sterling silver, fourteen karat yellow, pink and palladium white gold, eighteen karat green gold, keum-boo, champagne diamond, red, blue, orange, and green sapphires, 6.99 x 6.03 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011.

Within a few years she was living in Alaska with Athabaskan Indians and researching the Dena’ina language. She worked in a village for two years and it was the only time when she did not have her jewelry tools with her. When she moved to Fairbanks to finish her dissertation she asked her dad to send her tools from Detroit and she enrolled in jewelry courses at the University of Alaska. “In Fairbanks I was tortured by my burning desire to make jewelry. I felt I was in a cage and the door was the dissertation. Once I got the dissertation done, I could make jewelry.” Tenenbaum finished her dissertation, which she knew would be helpful in preserving the Dena’ina language, or at least in preserving its grammar and vocabulary. She also recorded, translated and edited twenty-four traditional native stories translated into an English language volume. Tenenbaum says it was a way “to give back to the people in the village.” The book was published by the Alaskan Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, and it is now in its third printing. All royalties go to the Language Center.

RAVEN IN FLIGHT: THE SEEN AND UNSEEN necklace of sterling silver, 19.69 x 16.51 x 0.64 x 45.72 centimeters, 2009.

RAVEN IN FLIGHT: THE SEEN AND UNSEEN necklace of sterling silver, 19.69 x 16.51 x 0.64 x 45.72 centimeters, 2009.

After a trip to New York to defend her thesis, Tenenbaum was back in Alaska. She got a job distance teaching for the University of Alaska, which meant living in Eskimo villages. She needed the money from teaching and she wanted to help train native teachers, but the work was challenging. “Many of my students lived in villages with no electricity or running water. They were working as teachers’ aides, but it was difficult for them to keep studying. Not everyone made it through.” Despite her own demanding teaching schedule, Tenenbaum continued to make jewelry. “And all of a sudden mountains started appearing in my work. It was exciting. I decided to resign at the end of the year. I had to be a jeweler.”

In the early 1980s she married a lawyer and moved to Anchorage with him to pursue jewelry full time. Because his family was from Portland, Oregon, she often visited Portland, where she met a skilled jeweler named Stewart Jones. He agreed to give her private tutorials on a periodic basis and Tenenbaum describes Jones “as my mentor since 1985. He’s one of the reasons I can do the things I do in my jewelry.” One of the hallmarks of Tenenbaum’s career has been her relentless study of techniques and her desire to continually learn and grow as a maker. To this day she continues to take courses from master jewelers including many of the Northwest’s most acclaimed craftspeople.

Her techniques include cloisonné enameling, engraving, chasing, repoussé, forging, roller texturing, foldforming, mokume gane, stone-setting, silver and goldsmithing. Although Tenenbaum never had the opportunity to study art or jewelry as a college student, it is obvious she loves learning. “I’ve always wanted to expand my techniques, because then I can tell more stories.”

When her marriage broke up in 1990 Tenenbaum moved to Washington State, where she owned property. Today she lives in Gig Harbor, a picturesque town about an hour southwest of Seattle that, with its harbor surrounded by towering evergreens and mountain peaks, could easily be a small city in Alaska. In her house on a quiet cul-de-sac she has turned her yard into a lush vegetable garden and her dining room into a large, sunfilled work studio. It is here that she keeps the extraordinary archives of her work, including hardbound notebooks detailing the creation of every piece of jewelry she has ever made, complete with the amount of metal needed for each piece and preparatory sketches. As a linguist she learned to keep excellent records and cross references, and as artist she has applied the same systematic cataloguing and note-taking to her work archives.

Tenenbaum dates her professional career from 1985, when she was in a group show at Stonington Gallery in Anchorage. At about the same time she used her engraving skills to start adding images of animals to her jewelry. “So then I started to bring my Alaskan anthropology experience and my jewelry together. I could add caribou, migrating birds, fish. It brought more environmentalism to my work.”

Her first solo exhibition was also at Stonington, in 1990. Since then she has had ten solo exhibitions at Stonington’s Seattle gallery, which specializes in indigenous art. Given the themes of her work, it is perhaps no surprise that several pieces of her jewelry have been added to the permanent collection of the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.

The names of her solo exhibits are telling. In 2004 she called her Stonington exhibition “The Yup’ik Family: Spirit and Connection.” In 2008 the show theme was “Connecting Culture with Landscape.” In 2001 it was “A Sense of Place—The Ways we Connect to Our Earth.” In 2013 after she took a workshop in cloisonné, she added color to her work. A bracelet called Tundra Patterns I is a Google Earth view of the patch of Southwestern Alaskan tundra, reimagined in shimmering green and red enamel.

HERON IN WETLANDS brooch of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, mokume gane, Australian greenstone, green sapphire, 6.35 x 4.45 x 0.79 centimeters, 2009.

HERON IN WETLANDS brooch of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, mokume gane, Australian greenstone, green sapphire, 6.35 x 4.45 x 0.79 centimeters, 2009.

Her Bunchberry Necklace has an almost Victorian look. It is a medallion of vibrant green, white and red cloisonné bunchberries surrounded by smaller, colorful beads. Bunchberries, which are part of the cornus family, are low growing, common shrubs in parts of southern Alaska and their berries are important food for deer and other animals. This year Tenenbaum’s Stonington exhibition, “Fifty Playful Things,” was about challenges in creating line through folding, hammering, annealing, and other metal techniques.

Her connection to Alaska, its people and environment is so plainly interpreted in her work, that it is hard to imagine what Tenenbaum’s jewelry might have looked like if, nearly fifty years ago, she had entered a university art program instead of anthropology. “I may have felt extremely frustrated for many years, but in no way do I regret either my education or the amazing experience of living in Native Alaskan communities and being accepted and loved by them. It has enriched my life beyond words. I can’t imagine what my work might look like had I not gone to Alaska, or what my life might look like either.”

OWL MASK SPIRIT HELPER bracelet of sterling silver, fourteen and eighteen karat gold, mokume gane, 4.13 x 6.99 x 6.67 centimeters, 2008.

OWL MASK SPIRIT HELPER bracelet of sterling silver, fourteen and eighteen karat gold, mokume gane, 4.13 x 6.99 x 6.67 centimeters, 2008.