Story and Photos by Maggie Pruitt
The hat-making process begins with whistling 100-year-old machinery producing hot, cloudy steam. Fur-felt material cut to fit one specific head is placed in the middle to be grabbed by dozens of metal fingers and a wooden split-spherical block is pressed into the middle to create the mold for a head. The smell of ammonia hangs in the air as Spanish music spills from the radio, while hat maker Scott Catalena sips his iced tea.
Catalena Hatters opened in Downtown Bryan in 1983, after owner Sammy Catalena bought hat-making machinery in Florida. The equipment is no longer made, so it was a rare find for someone like Sammy, who was always interested in hat making as a profession.
“The next thing I know I’m quitting my job at the bank and going into the hat business,” says Carolyn Catalena, Sammy’s wife and Catalena Hatters’ administrator.
After 34 years in business, their first customer — a family friend — still comes to Catalena Hatters for custom hats and renovations.
At Catalena Hatters, hat making is a family affair. Not only do the Catalenas work together, but four out of the five of them live on the same ranch property. According to Carolyn, family spills over into work and makes the family closer to each other.
“We work together and play together,” says Scott, Sammy’s youngest son. “It’s normal to us.”
Scott grew up coming to the shop after school and watching the hat-making process, so stepping into a job at the store was natural. He has now been working there officially for 12 years, making hats and overseeing employees.
The cowboy hat is a trademark, icon, and symbol of Texan and Midwestern culture. “Men are very particular about their hats,” says Carolyn, “like women are about their shoes or purses.”
There are even different seasons for different types of hats.
“Felt hats are for the seasons between Labor Day and Easter,” Scott says, “and straw hats are for the seasons between Easter and Labor Day.”
Straw hats are better for the warmer seasons because they have more ventilation and breathe better while still providing shade. A rancher might wear a straw cowboy hat while working in the hot July sun as opposed to a felt hat, which is more for cooler or wetter weather or a formal event.
Catalena Hatters sells both felt and straw hats but only makes custom orders for felt hats. These hats range in many different styles depending on how tall the buyer wants the crown, how round they want the brim, and how high quality they want the material.
Customers from all over the Brazos Valley, the country, and the world have ordered custom hats from Catalena Hatters. From starting as a small, local business, Catalena Hatters has reached an international market, mainly consisting of orders from Australia.
“[Australia] has a similar ranch and rodeo culture as Texas, but the hats made in Australia are not as high a quality for the price,” says Scott, “which is why a lot of them order from us.”
Whether a customer is a first-time or long-time hat buyer, no matter their vocation or location, Catalena Hatters hand makes and crafts hats to fit the customer’s head and personality. They also restore old hats that need new life.
Catalena Hatters is located in Downtown Bryan at 203 N. Main St. and is open Monday through Friday 9am to 6pm. and Saturday 9am to 5pm.