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March 20, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Ruth Walker can turn a ball, some wool, silk and a pair of pantyhose into a festive chapeau. Or, you know, the perfect accessory to hide a bad hair day, her hand-felted brim hats are ideal for any social gathering.
At nearly $300 a pop, each brim hat takes Walker a day or two to make. “It’s not brain surgery, but it requires physical exertion and a sort of appreciation of what you’re doing,” Walker says.
She starts with a plastic ball and piles of loose wool that has been washed, carded to separate the fibers into a loose, fluffy mass and dyed. The wool comes from sheep farmer Andy McMurry, who lives near Franklin, Mo.
Walker secures the wool to the ball using pantyhose, which helps structure the hat during the felting process. She wets the wool under the pressure of the pantyhose so that each fiber swells up and tangles together as she works her hands across it to create the felt.
Once the material is felted together, Walker removes it from the ball and kneads it for another 45 minutes. The hat is rinsed before going into the microwave so she can steam and shape it.
Walker learned how to spin wool while she was living in Australia in the ’80s and started making hats in 1995. Initially, she says, she traveled to shows around the country, but now she sells her wares primarily at Bluestem Missouri Crafts, where she is a partner.
Bonnie Ahrens, a Bluestem artist, took a class where Walker discussed her hat-making process. Ahrens says it’s not easy to learn, but Walker has mastered making one-of-a-kind hats.
Walker says she honors this advice from her father, Ralph Wiedenhoeft, a brick-and-stone mason, with every hand-felted brim hat.
“You can make something that’s very beautiful, but it also has to function.”