When the starting gate bell sounds at Churchill Downs next weekend, some 150 women in the crowd will be wearing the creations of Diane Siverson, a Post Falls hat-maker.
Siverson, 64, became a milliner eight years ago, initially creating hats targeted to Red Hat Society members.
Now she’s selling 250 to 300 hats a year and the biggest segment of that business is Kentucky Derby hats.
The Derby is a fashion parade, with women showing off spring dresses and elaborate headdresses, much as Royal Ascot is in England. Other racetracks in the United States have also adopted the hat-centric tradition in various forms.
Siverson began selling to that market when she and her husband, Ron, created a website for her Lady Diane Hats.
The hats range from small “fascinators” that were popularized by the wedding of the former Kate Middleton and Prince William last year, to a monumental creation that looks like a feathery wedding cake.
They’re all made by hand in Siverson’s workshop in her Post Falls home, a large space with 10 sewing machines lined up in rows, bolts and bolts of shimmering dupioni silk, boxes of feathers and flowers and ribbons and wire. Inventory ready for shipping is stacked in an upstairs bedroom and hatboxes assembled and ready to be filled occupy a corner of the dining room.
Each hat is made by hand – they’re not hats she buys and embellishes. They’re mostly made from silk sewn around a bendable frame that’s composed of a plastic tube with wire inside. That way, women can “swoop” them any way they please, Siverson says.
“It’s a continuous income,” Siverson says of her career; her husband adds that the business grosses more annually than he ever made as an engineering manager.
Here’s Diane Siverson talking about Lady Diane Hats:
Q. How is it that you started making hats?
A. About eight years ago I said to Ron, “I am going to start making hats.” He said, “How are we going to get rid of ’em?” Because he knows I didn’t just mean one or two. I said, “Well, we’re going to start on eBay and we’ll see what happens there.” After about 10 months we got this website going.
Q. What’s the Kentucky Derby connection?
A. We (attended) the Kentucky Derby for five years – a casino down there hired me to make hats for their high rollers. They had a big party for them, they invited us down, paid our way; it’s a fabulous experience.
Q. How much of your business is Kentucky Derby versus other things?
A. It’s at least half. It starts about mid-March; people get through Easter and then they start ordering.
Q. What’s the price range for the hats?
A. The fascinators are about $135 and (other hats are) up to about $400, but I have a $1,200 hat; $250 is about what people are comfortable spending.
Q. How did you learn to make hats?
A. Trial and error. I sewed my school clothes, part of them, when I was in third grade. My mother was an excellent seamstress and she was teaching me to sew. I still sew all my clothes; I’m picky. (Her mother) said when I started to sew, “You need to make things as pretty on the inside as they are on the outside so you can wear them inside out.” I took heed of that. She passed away in 1989, way before I started this. She would have loved this.
Q. How long does it take you to make one hat?
A. Several hours. I’ve got a lot of parts that I can put together, so I usually don’t cut out and go to the end.
Q. How do you match a hat to someone’s outfit?
A. My method is that I have people send their clothes to me, or I ask them to go to the paint store and get a paint chip that best matches the colors they want in their hat. That works great.
Q. Some of these fascinators look like they’re just pasted to the head – how do they stay on?
A. It took me about three years to figure exactly how to make this super comfortable. It’s belt and suspenders – a comb and elastic. (The elastic goes behind the ears and under the hairline.)
Q. Did you see a lot more interest in hats after the royal wedding last year?
A. The fascinator mania went (big). They’re buying a lot of those for the Derby. … My advice for women that need a hat for any occasion: If the dress is floral and fussy and has a lot going on, then the hat should be simpler. But when people say, “What should I wear to the Derby?”… My motto is go big or go home.