Spotlight: Milliner Katie Whaley

By AML Publisher
Photography by Heather Berkenstock

Hats by Katie's most famous hat is the Mini-Topper (tm). This style has been worn by Lisa Singer, Suzy Stafford, Sharon Chesson and Lana Wright in all the many combined driving World Championships they competed in, both here and overseas.

Hats by Katie's most famous hat is the Mini-Topper (tm). This style has been worn by Lisa Singer, Suzy Stafford, Sharon Chesson and Lana Wright in all the many combined driving World Championships they competed in, both here and overseas.

Twenty years ago, having a difficult time finding hats that were attractive and that fit well, Katie Whaley started making hats as a sideline. As her carriage driving career developed, so did the variety of hats she made for family and friends. Eventually the Long Island native, who grew up in Sugarloaf, New York, evolved the interest into a full-time occupation. Hats by Katie launched in 1990 with Whaley utilizing her arts minor from Boston’s Regis College as the basis for beginning a millinery business that is now world-renowned. That success has evolved, most recently, into an appointment-only shop in nearby Paris, Kentucky. “The main reason I started making the hats is because I have a big head and a lot of hair. I could not find any hats that fit me or that I particularly liked,” explained Whaley. A recent highlight of her career was winning the “Best Booth” award at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, Windsor, England.

Katie has been driving for 30 years. She has been pinned Grand Champion at Devon and at Walnut Hill, she represented the US at the 2003 and 2005 Pony World Championships, and she has been both national four-in-hand champion and national single horse champion-so she is well aware of what hats work for the driving community, for both pleasure drivers and combined drivers. As for Devon, Whaley has been a beloved boutique and popular shopping destination for Main Line ladies for over a decade. Her works of art have been worn at the world’s most prestigious equestrian events including the Horse Show, Kentucky Derby, Royal Ascot (one of the world’s most famous race meetings dating back to 1711 and attended by the Queen of England), the Walnut Hill Farm driving show in Pittsford, New York-among others. Hats by Katie has been featured in Southern Living Magazine and O Magazine—in which, in 2006, she outfiitted Oprah and a group of Winfrey’s dearest girlfriends with hats for a garden party shoot, including Oprah’s lifelong friend Maria Shriver.

Hats by Katie’s Katie Whaley at her Devon Horse Show booth beautifully modeling a one-of-a-kind creation.

Hats by Katie’s Katie Whaley at her Devon Horse Show booth beautifully modeling a one-of-a-kind creation.

AroundMainLine.com: How do you make your hats?

Katie Whaley: A hat starts very much like a dress pattern.
We have ‘blocks’ as they are called and there is a special block for the brim, a special block for the crown. And, then you sew them together. A well made hat, if you turn it upside down and look underneath the sweatband, will be sewn in two pieces. A cheaper hat is sewn in one piece.

There is a whole process to it. You take the straw or the felt or Sinamay and start working with the design. (Sinamay is a very popular material in hat making and is a natural fiber produced from the banana plant.) Sinamay comes in bolts, very much like fabric, and you mold it over the block, you pin it down, and you place it in an oven with sizing on it so it molds itself around the form.

AML: Like an actual oven?

KW: Yep, an ‘oven’ oven. You repeat the process with the brim, you sew them together and then you start doing your trim work.

AML: Ok, interesting. How long does it take to create one of our gorgeous hats?

KW: One of my dressier ones can take six hours to a couple of days—it’s really an assembly line process.

AML: Each of your designs is so unique. Where does your inspiration come from?

KW: Usually Europeans are a bit ahead of us as far as colors and trends, especially England. So, I will get the color patterns from England. A lot of time I will take a blank hat and decide what I want to do with it—I’ll see a flower in my trim bin or a grouping of feathers. Other times I have an idea in my head where I am headed and begin the creative process from there.

AML: Are there trends in hat as there are trends in fashion?

KW: Sure! And, depending on what event I am designing for designates the style too. (Kentucky) Derby ladies are always big hats, no matter what is in style. If its carriage driving, a medium brim is appropriate. The coaching people like the big brims. Steeplechase people like feathers, felt and more fall-inspired hats. It’s very much a time and place kind of thing.

“The whole trick of the hat is that the hat does not wear you, you wear the hat. If you live by that phrase, you will be fine,” explained Whelan.

“The whole trick of the hat is that the hat does not wear you, you wear the hat. If you live by that phrase, you will be fine,” explained Whaley.

AML: Your hats are worn around the world at all the major equestrian events. That is amazing!

KW: I do a lot to Ascot. Now that I have started showing in Europe with my ponies, I sold one of my feather hats right off my head. When I traveled back and forth recently to Europe, I delivered two more.

AML: So, how does it work with an event such as Ascot? Or, for that matter a customer who wants a hat designed by you but is on the other side of the country or world? Since, obviously, everyone cannot meet with you one-on-one for a fitting.

KW: The Americans will come to me with an outfit and they will just take the hat over. Or some of the English people will email me, because I used to do the Royal Windsor show with my hats, and they let me know what they are thinking. They email me a picture of their outfit, head size and what they look like is important. If a customer is petite, I don’t want to do a hat so enormous in proportion to their body, it does not look right.

AML: Can any woman wear a hat?

KW: Yes, you just have to find the right one. That’s kind of a misnomer-they come in here during the Horse Show and say ‘Oh, I look terrible in hats.’ Well, first of all they are not wearing them correctly. The brim should be parallel to the ground. And the hat should be in proportion to your body. The whole trick of the hat is that the hat does not wear you, you wear the hat. If you live by that phrase, you will be fine.

Hats by Katie will be at the Horse Show through Sunday June 6th. Ms. Whaley has an appointment only shop in Paris, Kentucky. Kindly visit her website hatsbykatie.com, call 859-707-0818 or email: hatsbykatie@pinehurst.net

The Devon Horse Show and Country Fair is one of the largest and most prestigious outdoor equestrian events in the country. The Country Fair offers boutique shopping, great food and fun for the whole family. Proceeds of the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair benefit Bryn Mawr Hospital. For information please call 610-688-2554 or visit www.devonhorseshow.org. Join the Devon Horse Show Facebook page for daily updates.

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