Local hatmakers get all dressed up with help from their sheep

BRANDON — What do you get when you mix a mother of three who had some sheep with an artistic hat maker in Vermont? Fabulousness, from the grass up.
Sam Stone of Brandon and Nora Swan of Ripton met five years ago when their sons were in the same play group. Two years into their friendship, Swan said she wanted to make something with sheep’s wool and Stone shared an idea she had to make baby booties, along with a book that told the story of each sheep in her small flock.
“It was part entertainment, part education, part deluxe fabulous baby gift,” Stone said. “I mentioned it to Nora and she said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Stone had taught herself how to turn sheep’s wool into felt, and they researched online how to make booties.
And thus was born Little Hill Woolworks, named after Stone’s homestead in Brandon where she lives with her husband, musician Kenny Cifone, and their three children; Luka, 7, Clara, 5, and Arlo, 2.
Each set of booties, which are a work of art unto themselves, comes with a tag explaining which sheep’s wool was used to make those booties and describes that sheep’s personality.
After about a year or so, Swan suggested that she try to make a hat.
“That’s when she starts telling me, ‘Trust me,’” said Stone, who began to learn that Swan wasn’t just an artsy-craftsy person. Turns out Nora Swan spent a decade in New York as a professional milliner, a maker of hats. She started by taking a millinery course at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).
 “I’d always been drawn to hats,” Swan said. “But it was always something I did as a creative outlet, not for anyone but myself.”
After FIT, she studied for 18 months under the revered Lola Ehrlich, and then moved on to working for the renowned Lynne Mackey before striking out on her own. She designed and made hats for Broadway shows like “The Lion King” and “Our Town,” as well as the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Ballet. There was also some work in film.
“I learned historically accurate hat making, and I learned how to do things that people don’t do anymore,” she said. “And it was so much fun working with Lynne because she knew everyone and everything and we were making these fabulous hats.”
Swan said she has always negotiated a delicate balance between her intellectual side and her love for aesthetic artistry, which explains her master’s degree in environmental communication and PhD in environmental sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She had gotten married and left New York, moving with her husband to Madison.
“There wasn’t a lot of call for hats in Wisconsin,” she said wryly. “I met a professor who wanted me to go to graduate school, and I’ve always had a theoretical bent.”
Genetics also plays a role in explaining Swan’s predispositions. Her grandmother is Vermont Poet Laureate Ruth Stone, who at 96 lives with Swan and her mother in Ripton, along with Swan’s son Henry, who is 8.
Swan is also a writer, albeit only for herself, of screenplays and poems.
“You basically can’t be a member of my family without being a writer,” she said.
The first hat Swan made from Stone’s felted sheep wool opened the door, and Swan’s creativity took over. Within a year, Little Hill Woolworks had a number of hats and began selling locally at events like Brandon’s Moonlight Madness at the Town Hall during the holiday season. Like the booties, each hat comes with a tag that has a photo of the sheep the wool came from and a description of that sheep’s personality.
Stone currently has seven sheep in her flock and four of them have their own hat lines. Roxy, Lucy, Simon and May have distinct personalities and Swan designs the hats in their lines to reflect that.
“The frothy, ladyish stuff is May,” Stone explained.
“She’s a girly-girl,” added Swan.
When the sheep are sheared, the wool is sent to a woman in New Hampshire who washes and combs it. Then Stone felts the wool using hot water and soap, combing the wet wool in different directions to create sheets of felt. The women dye the felt according to their design needs.
Now, they’re adding feathers to their creations, and Stone has added Guinea hens, Heritage turkeys and a variety of chickens to her brood at the farm.
The millinery studio is above Stone’s mother’s garage just up the road from Little Hill Farm. Susan Stone splits her time between Brandon and running a non-profit literacy program in Honduras.
“Now we’re plotting to convince my mother to get peacocks,” Sam Stone said.
And because wool felt hats are rather warm for the late spring and summer months, the ladies have branched out into using other material like jute straw and nuno, which is felting directly onto silk.
The felt hats start at $175, and the smaller cocktail hats range from $75-$135. Headbands (technically called “fascinators”) are $35-$75. Depending on the style, Stone said each hat takes three to five hours to complete.
“Since every hat we do is one-of-a-kind, there’s a lot of thinking between stages,” she said.
One thing Little Hill prides itself on is the hyper-local origin of its products, and they now use alpaca wool from Deb Bratton at Maple View Alpacas and mohair from Debbie Kirby, both based in Brandon.
Little Hill is now offering cocktail rings as well. The sterling rings are made by Rebecca Zelis of Adornment jewelry studio in Brandon.
“Because we source our stuff as close to home as possible, even our colors are inspired by the nature around us,” Swan said, adding with a laugh, “We keep it as close to home as possible and celebrate down on the farm with floofy hats.”
“Our motto is that we make all of our products from the grass up,” Stone added.
After a successful showing at Moonlight Madness last December, Stone and Swan did the Burklyn Holiday Show in Lyndonville in December 2010 and it was a watershed experience for the two.
“We did so much better than we expected,” Stone said. “We sold out of all our best stuff.”
At the end of the show, the organizers approached the women and told them they were the “it” girls of the event.
“We drove home and were so excited,” Stone said. “We said if we can be the fabulous milliners of Vermont, that’s great.”
From there, the two women ramped up their show attendance. They did two shows in Boston and again, ran out of hats. Then they were at Lincoln Center in New York over two weekends in June for the American Crafts Festival and had another defining experience when the future of the business started to gel.
“There was a moment when there were people crowded into our booth,” Stone recalled. “And they didn’t know each other, but they were taking pictures of each other with our hats on and surprising themselves and loving it. Then they exchanged e-mails about where they’d be next.”
“It’s like an ongoing dress-up cocktail party,” Swan added.
The two women also said that creating and selling hats definitely brings out other sides of people and a unique relationship forms between them and their customers.
“They trust us,” Stone said. “People feel very vulnerable when they try on hats and they’re not used to wearing them. That’s the fun thing about having a product where it’s original but there are risks, and the moment when people take the risk and try it on, it transforms them.”
“It’s an object,” Swan added, “but it becomes an extension of them. Some people know what looks good and the first thing they put on is just the thing. Others need some guidance.”
Little Hill has a full slate of shows in the coming months. They will have booths at the Made in Vermont Festival in Burlington and the Vermont Craft Producers event at Hildene in Manchester in September, as well as the Vermont Handcrafters Show at the Burlington Sheraton in November. Then they make a return appearance at the Burklyn Holiday Show in Lyndonville in December.
The shows also provide Stone and Swan with valuable feedback from customers about what works and what doesn’t.
“The shows inform how popular the styles are,” Stone said. “And seeing the hats on people is great.”
And there’s another thing the two have learned in their travels.
“New Yorkers have small heads,” Swan said.
“But in Boston,” Stone added. “Everything was a little too small.”
The friendship Stone and Swan have forged defines both the business relationship and the artistic endeavor, and both women are enjoying the connection.
“It’s the first time I’ve worked with someone where we’re symbiotic instead of reproducing each other’s strengths,” Swan said. “Sam has other skill sets I don’t have.”
And both embrace their roles whole heartedly.
“I’m the farmer and the felter and Nora’s the designer and the milliner,” Stone said proudly.
Swan said Stone balances her out.
“She totally lends me her coherence,” she said of her friend and business partner. “Otherwise, I’m just like, la-la-la, I’m just going off in this different direction…”
The women say that they feel Little Hill Woolworks has been in development up to now, but that they are ready to take it up a notch.
“It’s paying for itself now,” Stone said of the business. “We’re not putting our own money into it anymore. And, we’re intentionally not paying ourselves because there are things we want to do.”
There are plans to update the website, start attending larger shows, purchase larger orders of supplies, and create a wholesale catalog. The women would also like to do more custom work and avail themselves for weddings, bridal parties and the like.
In the near future, Stone and Swan want to hold what they call a fashion show/barn dance and invite boutique buyers from around Vermont to see their hats in action … and to have a party.
“We’ll invite buyers, and our friends, because if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing,” Stone said.
They are actively looking for a venue, however.
“We were going to use my barn, but I’m getting more hay and I need the space,” Stone said with a laugh.
Little Hill Woolworks is ready for its close-up and there is one sure sign that Stone and Swan were meant to form this partnership: They have the same size head.
They were asked if the hat is coming back.
“Definitely, big time,” Swan said. “It used to be mostly people involved in fashion, but now its people who are just more adventurous. One hat can change your whole look. Get yourself a good hat. And yes, there is a hat for everyone.”
For more information about Little Hill Woolworks, check out www.etsy.com/shop/littlehillwoolworks or www.littlehillwoolworks.com.
Little Hill Woolworks will have booths at the following upcoming craft shows:
•  Made in Vermont Festival, Waterfront Park, Burlington, Sept. 10 and 11.
•  Manchester Fall Art and Craft Show, Hildene Meadow, Sept. 30, Oct. 1 and 2.
•  Vermont Hand Crafters Holiday Show, Sheraton Hotel, Burlington, Nov. 18-20.
•  Burklyn Holiday Market in Lyndonville, Dec. 3 and 4.
•  Sowa Holiday Market, Boston, Mass., Dec. 10 and 11.

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