For This Second Generation Hatter, the Details Matter

Spring 2020 Issue by Brian D'Ambrosio photos by Stu Hoefle

Ericka Kirkpatrick Makes Cowboy Hats in Twin Bridges 

As a kid Ericka Kirkpatrick sewed sweatbands inside of cowboy hats and cleaned them with excited alacrity. Traipsing throughout her mother’s millinery shop, she would find bags of multicolored feathers intended to be used as inseam and fling them in the air. It wasn’t all mischievous; there was also work to be done on the tall sanding machine where she would patiently hand-sand cowboy hats.

Rubbing the gritty paper against the brims wasn’t exactly typical child’s play, though it kept her smiling and occupied, and it was safe and gradual enough that she couldn’t do all that much harm (to either the hat or herself). Even today, the tactility of turning hats – the repetitive feel of how the fibers soften the more you roll them – provides comfort to Ericka, who is now a full-time milliner.

“Sanding hats is a good childhood memory, like having a blanket,” said Ericka, the owner of Montana Mad Hatters in Twin Bridges. “It’s been my favorite part as an adult hatmaker.”

Growing up in landlocked Montana, one of Ericka’s earliest childhood ambitions was to work as a marine biologist. That yearning passed, and when she enrolled in a number of communications classes at college, it was in hopes of becoming a news anchor. But she realized quickly that the nervousness she experienced while standing in front of a camera wasn’t something she could conquer – and that craving too passed.

Ericka eventually returned to hats, first working under mother, Sheila Kirkpatrick-Massar, a notable hatmaker, who up until a couple of years ago based her business in Twin Bridges. Ericka’s plan was to start her own operation where she lived in Wisdom. For a brief time, mother and daughter worked in two separate locations: Ericka started the hatmaking process and Sheila completed it and fitted all the customers. But after Sheila closed her shop, a series of events yanked Ericka out of Wisdom and pulled her back to Twin Bridges. 

At 33, Ericka is combating preconceptions that are both gender-based and generational, finding that most men, especially seniors, have a hard time deferring to a woman, especially to one who appears to be even younger than her age.

“I’m lucky because my mom paved the way,” said Ericka. “You prove yourself and prove that you know what you are talking about. I’ve learned to stand my ground a little more and to be persuasive. “

Perhaps her mother understands the importance of the role of the hat in the cowboy way of life more than most. In fact, she built her first one more than 40 years ago. Her daughter’s involvement in the craft wasn’t something she had predicted.  

“My whole goal as a single parent, raising Ericka, was to buy this building and sell the business with it for retirement, and I never thought that any of the kids wanted to take it over,” Sheila said.

In the fall of 2017, Ericka returned to the same building that her mother had shuttered. She hauled in the boxes of old hat fitting blocks and plugged the equipment back in. Her learning curve was admittedly steep.

Ericka felt intimidated by the prospect of having to fill such large boots. After all, Sheila, who was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1992, had built hats for celebrities and a number of current male hatmakers have learned the fine points of their profession from her. From the start, however, Ericka has been determined to prove that she’s not just riding on her mom’s coattails. Like that little girl who pitched the feathers in the air, she’s parked in her mother’s footsteps; yet, she has her own personality and passion.

“I want to make my own mark, my own way, and prove that I can make a good hat. This was not just inherited, but to make it my own.”

Business is a challenging world andSheila is constantly learning on the job. But no matter what is asked of her, there is little at this point that Ericka can’t either figure out or improvise, and if she gets into a jam, Sheila lives less than 15 minutes away. Hatmaking is the kind of love that needs testing – and Ericka knows that it is real.

“I’ve gotten a little more backbone for it than I did before. I don’t get quite as intimidated when people come and pick up their hats.”

As a matter of fact, Ericka’s backbone holds firm enough to ensure the completion of each new task, her overall knowledge of the trade seemingly satisfactory to both client and kin.

“I just had a guy message me the other day,” Sheila said. “He said to tell Ericka that he got his hat. He said, ‘I love it.’ He said, ‘it’s perfect.’ That he tried it out at a wedding. It’s awesome. I shared that message with her, and that gives me great pride.”

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