Interview: Sam Toney, Ramblin' Rose Hat Co. of Santa Fe, NM

Continuing my series of interviews with working professionals in costume production and related fields, today we're focusing on Sam Kate Toney, sole proprietor of the custom hat company, Ramblin' Rose of Santa Fe, NM! Sam Kate worked at PlayMakers Repertory Company for a couple of seasons and took several of my graduate level crafts courses before heading off to parts west.

 Sam Kate in her studio in Santa Fe

Here's our interview:

How long have you been making hats and how did you get your start?

I’ve been making hats on and off since 2010. I was fortunate enough to be offered a class in millinery in my undergrad at UNC-Greensboro. When I graduated in 2012, I was taking any job in costuming that I could get and a lot of times I ended up doing millinery work just because no one else had experience. As my career in costuming grew, I started to work at larger theatres that could hire specialized positions such as milliners and I was able to start building my resume in this very specific field.

You have worked in a range of hat-making materials—do you have a favorite, and why?

Definitely. Fur felt. It’s why I’ve moved my focus to traditional hat-making. I love the physical strength that goes into blocking a fur felt hat and making an end product that is not necessarily in it’s final form. A good fur felt hat will last you a lifetime with proper maintenance and can be re-blocked into different styles time and time again. As far as materials go, it’s one of the most resilient, but also extremely simple in comparison to other hat-making materials.

What are some of your influences in hat design when it comes to Ramblin’ Rose hats?

I am heavily influenced by classic western styles - they serve a purpose and they allow the wearer to express themselves through fashion.

You have also worked for a number of well-known regional theatres, summer operas, and so forth. Could you talk a bit about the similarities and differences between working for yourself as an independent hatter and working for a place like Santa Fe Opera or Utah Shakes?

Well, first of all, I’d like to say that I find myself using most every skill I ever learned during my theatre days. As I mentioned before, I took every costuming job I could right out of college - I was a stitcher, a craftsperson, a costume shop manager for a summer stock, a wardrobe supervisor, a wig apprentice, and a designer - just to name a few. Every position taught me something different about the costume business and gave me a greater understanding of achieving a cohesive end product.

Being a small business owner is all about having the ability to wear multiple hats (I couldn’t help it). You’re every position rolled into one. I am so thankful for all of the time that I spent in fittings with actors because I use those same conversation techniques with my customer’s today. In theatrical costuming environments, you’re often working on a team or with multiple teams -as an independent hatter, my clients become my teammates. Working in theatre is also all about having a budget and a deadline and as a business owner, these are extremely important aspects of running a successful business.

The major difference is that you are solely responsible for the end product. When I make a hat that is loved by the owner, I alone get all the glory of building it and vice versa. I’m just getting started, of course, but to be honest - I find working for myself so much less stressful than working in a costume shop. Being your own boss comes with its own challenges and certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve never been happier to be on my own.

What is your favorite tool or piece of shop equipment?

I make hats the same way that they have been making hats for over a hundred years and some of my tools have indeed been working that long. My favorite tool in the shop is called a conformateur. The one I have is about 160 years old and allows me to get a template of my client’s head. It came with a sister tool called an informateur, which translates the template into a piece that will fit inside of the hat as a direct representation of the head allowing the exact head shape to be baked into the material. Everyone’s head shape is different, and these tools allow me to deliver a truly custom fit.
Can you tell us about a recent project you worked on, perhaps share a pic?

The very first hat I built under my own brand was a custom hat for a horse guide at Ghost Ranch. Ghost Ranch may not ring a bell for some people, but it’s famous for being the home of Georgia O’Keefe. Red rock, blue skies - all the New Mexico landscape drama that you see in paintings. The hat was a very classic western style, typically referred to as a Gus, but the best part about it was that it was hand-dyed using sage that was picked straight from the land by the owner. I got to learn a little bit about natural dyeing during this process and use my knowledge of leather to create a one-of-a-kind hat band. There’s no other hat just like it in the entire world and the custom fit allowed my client to ride at full-speed on horseback without her hat flying off - she sent me a video! - and I couldn’t help but think that in theatre the script could always put special demands on costume pieces. We had to rig clothes and accessories to do things that they weren’t meant to all the time. As costume artisans, we’re trained to be problem solvers and I cherish that training most of all.

The sage-dyed hat

Sam and her client (left) in Ramblin' Rose hats


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