Susan Abelson models one of her Susan Hats. Credit: Kristan Lieb

ery few people these days set out to be milliners, and, although she owns a
store where she makes and sells hats, Susan Abelson is no exception. As a
young woman in the 1970s, she was a merely a connoisseur and collector. She
preferred 1940s styles, with veils. “I was young,” she says. “I could pull
it off.” But then her entire collection was stolen from the storage space
of the Minneapolis loft where she was living at the time. All that
remained was a book filled with illustrations of hats throughout history.

Even though she was primarily a painter, Abelson was always looking at
hats. “I was thinking about hats, sketching hats, dreaming of hats. I don’t
know why.” Then one day in 2010 she took an old, shrunken sweater,
amputated the neck, cut another circle from the body, sewed the two pieces
together, and voila! an instant tam. She began to make hats in her dining
room, using more old sweaters and upholstery fabric and whatever scraps she
could find. Over time, she expanded into rescuing old hats that her friends
found for her at estate sales, sewing on extra trimmings or “drawing” on
them with thread. She began selling the hats, which she calls Susan Hats,
at craft fairs and online, and taking commissions, most notably for a
vagina dentata hat for the first Women’s March.

Susan Hats have very little in common with one another, except for a
general sense of whimsy. They range from relatively conservative tams,
hoods, and cloches to tall, brightly colored statement pieces that cause
people on the el to look twice and take another seat. “You have to have
balls to wear my hats!” she says.

Credit: Kristan Lieb

Abelson works only from recycled materials and, although she owns a few old
hat blocks and two antique hat sizers, she doesn’t like to use patterns, so
no two pieces are the same. “I make it up as I go along,” she says. “I
thought about taking classes to learn the proper way of doing things, but I
was afraid it would squash my originality and looseness. It takes an hour
to make some hats. Others I piece together over hours and hours. I have to
sit with them. Real millinery is intimidating. It can be tedious. It’s more
repetitive. I call myself ‘a milliner of sorts.'”

When Abelson moved to Rogers Park two years ago—she wanted to live near the
lake—she noticed a small storefront on the ground floor of an apartment
building on Sheridan Road, right next to Leone Beach Park. At the time, it
was occupied by the Rogers Park Chamber of Commerce, but Abelson decided
that if it ever became vacant, it would be the perfect spot to open a hat
store. One day this past fall, she saw that it was empty and decided it was
meant to be. She spent the winter refinishing the floors, and opened for
business in March. She set up her sewing machine in the front showroom so
customers could see her at work. “I want to be visible to the
neighborhood,” she says. She has a few regular visitors, including a
retired couple who check up on her and a burly guy who tells her she’s
bringing class to the neighborhood.

Credit: Kristan Lieb

Abelson is her own best advertisement. She has the sort of face that looks
good in all sorts of hats, no matter the shape or style, and she takes a
certain glee in bustling around her showroom and popping her creations onto
her head, as though she’s a human hat stand. She encourages customers to
try on as many hats as they’d like, and she’s not shy about making
suggestions. Matching a person and a hat is a delicate process. “It’s sad
when someone puts on a hat and it doesn’t fit,” she says. “If they’re
really in love with it, I try to alter it.” That’s where the hat stretchers
come in handy. She’s also been experimenting with using elastic to make her
hats fit different-size heads.

Now that the weather’s getting warmer and more people are headed toward the
beach, Abelson hopes that she’ll get more foot traffic. Her lease is up in
July, and she hopes to renew it. But she’s running her business in the same
improvisational spirit in which she makes her hats. One thing she is
certain about is keeping the price of her hats below $60. (Couture
milliners can charge hundreds of dollars.) “I do grapple with the price,”
she says. “Am I undervaluing me? Am I undervaluing my art? Or am I making
things affordable to people? It’s insulting to open up a shop in Rogers
Park and be out of reach for the people who live here.

“My neighbor here is a therapist,” she continues. “I tell her that after a
good session, her patients can get a hat. Or after a bad session, a hat
will make things better.”   v

Credit: Kristan Lieb