Closer Look

Hat maker keeps art of millinery alive in Macon County

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Anna Waskey

Teresa Bouchonnet, owner of Cowee Textiles and Cowee Millinery, has a passion for making hats.  

“I love hats, and I am addicted to making them,” declared Bouchonnet who considers herself a milliner, which means that she handcrafts hats and sells them. She sells her hats to people of all ages and for events ranging from daily wear to weddings. Bouchonnet’s passion stems from her time in the military and due to generations of milliners in her own family. Yet, millinery is not a profession common in modernity. In fact, Bouchonnet is considered the only milliner in this area, making her craft quite unique.  

TERESA BOUCHONNET, owner of Cowee Textiles and Cowee Millinery, works and exhibits in a space at Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center.

While Main Street Milliners was popular at 76 E. Main Street in Franklin for many years and warrants a Women’s History Trail plaque, hat-wearing as a fashion statement dwindled after World War II. Women, especially, were expected to wear a hat in public in order to adhere to a certain fashion-statement ensemble; but after the war ended in 1945, women were less committed to particular fashions and adopted a more practical approach to clothing. Some events, such as the annual Kentucky Derby, vintage balls, sporting events, and rodeos, encourage some people to don particular hats. But hat-wearing as a standard practice is not often considered. However, Bouchonnet, whose family has been in Macon County since the 1800s, believes that people should always have the option of wearing a hat. 

“When I was in the military, as a major in the Air Force, I liked wearing the hats,” said Bouchonnet. “My mother and grandmother made hats; I still have some of their hats from the 1950s. Also, when I was in high school, we all liked to wear and make hats.” 

After 42 years working as a government contractor, Bouchonnet retired last September. On the side, however, she has been perfecting the art of millinery. She attended the John C. Campbell Folk School in 2015 for a one-week millinery class, and also took part in the online, England-based Katherine Elizabeth’s Millinery and Business Academy for a year.  

Bouchonnet is drawn to the historical aspect of millinery. 

“Traditionally, that was a way for women to earn their own money,” she explained. 

BOUCHONNET HANDCRAFTS a large variety of hats using a variety of materials. The hat designs are one-of-a-kind, while others are historically inspired.

According to the Women’s History Trail brochure, when magazines reached Franklin, women saw the fashion trends and began to make hats of their own. Many women picked up the craft as a way to express their personalities. Lily Moore, for example, opened a hat shop in her father’s Main Street store in the late 1920s. 

Bouchonnet makes a large variety of hats. 

“My fancy-type hats are made from a material called ‘sinamay’ that I block and shape. These types of hats are for weddings, church, derbies, or any special events. They range in price from about $150 to $450. Sinamay is my favorite material to work with,” Bouchonnet explained. 

She also makes wool felt hats and many of them have tablet woven hat bands. She can cut and shape the felt hats into specific folded designs. The felt hats range from $70 to $200, depending on the size and trims. Additionally, she makes straw hats and hats sewn from fabric. 

Bouchonnet’s inspiration originates from a plethora of sources.

 “I think about hats all the time and many of the designs just come to me while I am blocking the material. I have a good selection of materials to enhance the hats. I have a number of old and new hat-making books and I belong to millinery groups that share ideas. I try not to make any two hats the same and create my own special style. I have a large selection of hats in my studio for sale and can make special order hats. A special-order hat can take 3 to 4 weeks depending on the material.” 

Considering the fact that millinery is a historical craft, Bouchonnet often takes her inspiration from previous decades. 

“I do like some of the 1920s and ’40s style hats but do not [make] truly historical hats. I have made a few hats for 1600-period outfits, using modern materials, for people that are in the Society for Creative Anachronism. I love watching old movies and the ladies’ hats give me great ideas. Since I am a felter, dyer, spinner, and weaver, I once wove the material for a special contest based on a Royal Wedding Hat. I was very happy with the finished woven hat.” 

All Bouchonnet’s hats are hand-stitched, so it is important that her stitching is precise. “With every hat that I make, I can see my stitching get better and better.” 

She has attended millinery conferences for the last three years. At these conferences, she takes classes to learn new techniques and perfect existing skills. 

“It is called Millinery Meet Up,” she said. “People from all over the world attend to teach other milliners.”

Millinery is an art form that Bouchonnet admitted she thoroughly enjoys – a generational hobby with historical interest and a gratifying activity that she does not see herself giving up.  

“By wearing a hat, you are saying ‘I have confidence; I know who I am,’” she said. “It is a confidence thing. When people put on a hat, they just glow, and I like to see that.”

Anna Waskey is an honors student at Franklin High School.