Most people will go their whole lives without meeting a milliner. Milliners make hats, and fancy hats are not the fashion necessity they once were. But even if hats came back, you might go a long time before you met a milliner quite like Janet Sidewater.
It’s not only that Sidewater is a diehard traditionalist and zealous in the pursuit of rare, luxurious materials for her hats, which she makes entirely by hand. What makes Sidewater much rarer, and almost certainly unique, is that she decorates each hat with feathers she got by practicing the ancient art of falconry, catching game birds with trained hawks and falcons.
Falconers are pretty rare themselves, but that sort of pursuit is fairly typical of Sidewater. In college she took up fencing. After college, she managed a ballet company. In her home, which overlooks a bend in the Brandywine upstream of Harvey’s Bridge, you can see paraphernalia from more of her unusual interests—carriage driving, fly fishing, and archery among them.
“I’ve always done very esoteric things,” Sidewater says. “I should be in another century, I guess.”
In 1998, Sidewater read a book about falconry. Intrigued, she found a falconry school in Vermont and started going there every fall to be trained to hunt with raptors. And a couple of years into her falconry career, Sidewater decided she would make hats decorated with feathers from the birds she caught as a way to promote the preservation of raptor habitat.
Sidewater isn’t sure what gave her the idea to make hats—she had never made any kind of clothing in her life—but she plunged into this new venture with characteristic zeal. “I”m very much a sink-or-swim person,” she says.
First Sidewater found a teacher and learned the traditional techniques involved. She worked with other people initially, but found that not everyone was as dedicated to those traditions as she was. So she started her own business, and called it Feather In Your Cap. All her hats are custom designed, and she does everything by hand, starting with the blocking, in which felt or straw matting is steamed and then pressed down on a wooden mold. From the hidden reinforcements inside to the variety of decorative items outside, everything is handsewn—other hatmakers use sewing machines and glue guns, but not Sidewater.
“I”m too much of a purist for that,” she says.
The final distinctive touch is the addition of the feathers, mostly from pheasants and partridges, caught by the hawks and falcons and brought back to Sidewater’s home, where they are kept in a special refrigerator. Some people have qualms about the hunting; to Sidewater it’s a matter of perspective. “I shudder to think how commercial feathers are gotten,” she says. “At least mine have a 50–50 chance of getting away.”
The finished hats are fanciful things with a strong flavor of Old World gentility, but when you know about the feathers, they also have a whiff of the wild, captured as they were by fierce predators that can never be more than tenuously tamed.
Her clientele are “mainly horsy people, carriage-driving people, women who love hats and love wearing them,” Sidewater says, but she’s made hats for men and children, too. Two of her hats went to the Royal Ascot, arguably the highest ambition to which a hat can aspire.
And just as Sidewater intended when the idea first came to her, part of the proceeds from her business go to organizations that preserve raptor habitat. She sees it as enlightened self-interest: By protecting the environment that the birds need, she says, “we safeguard ourselves and our future.”
For more information, visit janetsidewater.com