A COVID-interrupted music career led Cat Leahy into making hats – for musicians.

Story Sue Wallace  Photo Richard Iskon - Open Door Studios

Surrounded by vintage hat blocks, boxes of feathers, reels of threads and coils of colourful braids, Yackandandah hatter and musician Cat Leahy is busy creating a special hat for a well-known musician in her tiny century-old shop, Feather & Drum, that once stocked spare parts for the old mechanics’ garage next door.

Messy, a black border collie and poodle cross, sits at Cat’s feet watching every move as she works on her custom “hand-built” hats using traditional methods and vintage wooden equipment that shine with a honey-coloured patina from use.

“This is all about slow fashion and nothing is done by machine,” says Cat, who orders rabbit fur felt hat blanks from an ethically sourced supplier in Ukraine. “You can’t get rabbit fur felt in Australia anymore and I like supporting the company in Ukraine,” she says as she steams a rigid felt until soft then moulds it over a hat block to set the size.

The felt is then sanded back until smooth, the brim is trimmed to the right size and a leather band is stitched inside. Then the “lid”, as Cat refers to it, is bashed (shaped) and moved to an old hat stretcher she found at a vintage tool shop.

“It must be about 140 years old and when I found it, I said to myself, ‘Bet you thought you were retired,’ but I have different ideas,” says Cat, who tracks down her vintage equipment on websites and marketplaces. 

The felt comes pre-dyed, although Cat does some hand-dying to suit her clients. 

She has orders for more than 80 custom hats from throughout Australia and overseas and there is currently a 6-month waitlist for her beautiful creations carrying her signature dressings that reflect the owners’ personality and interests.

This story excerpt is from Issue #148

Outback Magazine: April/May 2023