Hat Tricks

Designer Lisa Ventre creates one-of-a-kind fashion pieces that mimic the sand, surf and waves.

By Lisa Connors • Photography by Julia Cumes

Standing inside her shop on Commercial Street in Provincetown, Lisa Ventre remembers the first time she wanted to make a hat.

“I was working at the counter at a friend’s consignment shop in Jamaica Plain,” says Ventre. “I saw somebody ride by on a bus wearing a hat that I liked. I said, “I’m going to make myself a hat. Like that one.” It was a simple, pillbox hat. But when Ventre sat down and sewed it by hand, it was far from perfect. “It didn’t work right—the crown didn’t fit the band, but everybody loved it.” Words of praise went a long way and inspired Ventre to pursue designing hats full-time.

“I always wanted to make art—to paint and make sculptures,” says Ventre. “I thought, maybe this could make me some money and I could do those other things.”

In 1996, she rented a space upstairs in the old Whaler’s Wharf building, located in the heart of town on Commercial Street. Two years later, however, a fire destroyed the building and left her without a space to sell her hats. Although she backed off making hats for a while, Ventre didn’t give up. In 2003, she started experimenting with other materials besides cloth. She discovered toyo, a raw plant material from Asia, at a millinery supply house in Manhattan. The continuous braid appealed to her because it was lightweight and flexible, yet durable and tough. She fell in love with toyo and has been working with it ever since to create sophisticated, one-of-a-kind hats.

“I just really love the way it moves,” she says. “I feel like I could just work with toyo forever because it’s subtle and moves nice in your hand; it’s soft, but it holds up.”

But nobody wants to do it, that’s for sure, jokes Ventre. It takes a certain kind of person, she explains, to sew a continuous braid over and over again in a circle. One has to be very patient and detail-oriented. “You have to be a little bit OCD, too,” says Ventre.

Observing Ventre in her home/workshop, one begins to understand why the process is so labor-intensive. As she sits at her industrial Singer machine, the self-taught sewer stitches row upon row of the toyo material, a quarter-inch braid, in a circular motion. This could go on for hours. She doesn’t use a pattern and no two hats are exactly alike. The hats, which range from short and tall to flat and pointy, are not stiff, yet they hold their shape. They are organic in nature and form to the hat wearer’s head. 

After she builds the initial shape of the hat, she goes back and creates texture—a term called “ruching”—with dozens of pins to create some “wavy action.” Once the pinning is done, Ventre then goes back and sews. This look, says Ventre, echoes the sand, surf and waves. Most recently, she has started to build weave patterns into her hats because she loves to experiment with new looks. Ventre describes her hats as “intriguing sculptural objects that are both beautiful and functional.”

“When I first started out, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing,” Ventre says, comparing the process to making pottery. “It’s sort of akin to throwing a pot and learning how to hold it, and it grows at a different rate and shape. I had to teach myself and I finally have a handle on it.”

Lisa Ventre Hats is located at 357 Commercial St., Provincetown.
For more information, go to lisaventrehats.com

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