Janet Kenworthy Creates High-End Women's Chapeaux
In a small, cramped room of a 1920s home in Aberdeen, pieces of straw, silk and suede are stacked, stuffed and stored from floor to ceiling.
Sprinkled on an old wooden work table are feathers, frosted flowers and felt. Their bright blues, reds, purples and yellows liven up muted white walls.
The items are tools of the millinery trade that Janet Kenworthy, owner of Blue Street Designs, uses to create haute couture for the head.
Kenworthy is in the midst of her busiest season.
"Passover, Mother's Day and Kentucky Derby all come right together," Kenworthy says. "Now is one of the my busier times of the year."
Kenworthy spent her weekend at Stoneybrook Steeplechase at Carolina Horse Park watching the races and the hats.
"I love to look at the hats. They can be so ostentatious," Kenworthy says.
Millinery is the fine art of making women's hats.
"The great thing is that the human head has remained unchanged for thousands of years," Kenworthy says. "That means I am limited only by my imagination and what people will be seen wearing in public."
Kenworthy began her millinery mastery more than 30 years ago, but her business began only 11 years ago, she says, purely by accident.
She accompanied friend and local artist Mary Wright to a two-day art show in Hickory, with a handful of handmade hats and little else.
"That first show I had nothing," she says. "No sign, no contact information, nothing. Mary came up with the name and designed a business logo."
That was just a tip of the cap, so to speak.
"We sold out everything I had for the show on the first day," Kenworthy says.
Now she creates extraordinary designs out of her home on a part-time to full-time basis.
"She loves hats," says Joe Newberry, public information officer for the North Carolina Cultural Resource Center. "The only thing I can glean that she loves more than hats is people."
Working from home allows Kenworthy the opportunity to craft hats on her schedule and still have time for her family and other community activities.
Kenworthy makes mostly women's hats. The reason is the process to create women's and men's hats is different.
She says she refers her male customers seeking hats to a friend in Chicago.
"I send him all my male customers, and he sends me all his female customers," Kenworthy says. "It really is a great business relationship."
Kenworthy's hats are sold at major cities across the United States, and are for sale through her Web site, www.bluestreetdesigns.com. The hats are not currently available at any local retailers.
Despite having no local retail outlets, Kenworthy says she is doing quite well.
She makes about six trips a year to various cities throughout the United States to sell to hat retailers and wholesalers. Each trip she takes about 150 hats of different styles and colors.
Currently she is preparing for a trip to Nashville, Tenn., later this month.
And spring and summer aren't the only busy seasons for Kenworthy.
"I make and sell about 25 to 30 dozen fleece hats in the winter, too," Kenworthy says.
Start of It All
Kenworthy's business began 11 years ago, but her love of hats began many years earlier and farther north.
Working for a brokerage firm in New York, Kenworthy found herself attending many parties, community events and business functions.
"I wore hats to the horse races (in New York), and I got bored with their designs," she says. "I began to tinker with them trying to improve them."
Her limited knowledge of millinery and her desire for a better hat led her to seek the advice of expert milliners in New York.
"They were so generous with their time, their teaching and their materials," Kenworthy says.
The knowledge allowed Kenworthy to start making her own hats, and incorporating her creative designs into already existing hats.
"I was creating hats with a much better fit and a unique style," Kenworthy says of her first creations.
Soon she was making hats for her friends and family.
Her biggest customers were her husband and many of the family's musician friends.
"He (my husband) has an uncommon head size, so he has a hard time finding hats that fit properly," Kenworthy says. "And musicians, well, they are traditionally 'hat people.'"
For more than a decade Kenworthy's millinery was more for hobby than profit -- that is until she relocated to Aberdeen.
Now she creates hats for wedding receptions, charity dinners, Kentucky Derby, Red Hat Society, Mardi Gras, and other social events.
Her hats have been sold and worn around the world.
"Christmas, Kentucky Derby and Easter are big times for her," says Newberry. "But she is always busy. I think it is a tribute to her love of her work."
Making a Hat
Creating a hat isn't as easy as it may seem, and creating a quality hat is a painstaking process.
"It can take up to eight hours to complete one hat," Kenworthy says. "Everything I do is done by hand."
Hats are created in different stages depending on hat style, detail, head size and material.
The head piece or block and the brim are created separately and then must be hand-sewn together.
By building hats in stages Kenworthy can work on 10 to 15 hats at a time that are at the same stage in the creation process.
When creating hats, Kenworthy says she likes to be "as outrageous as possible," but is ruled by the fashion taste of her clients.
"Sometimes my style isn't what someone else would wear," Kenworthy says. "Hats are made to be worn, so I design hats that everyone will like."
She buys much of her materials from retailers across the country, but she shops locally for that unique touch that all her hats have.
She says thrift stores, garage and estate sales and flea markets are a treasure trove of design items for hats.
"Hardware stores are great, too," Kenworthy says. "You can find some of the best stuff there -- intricate chains and metal pieces; stuff I don't have any idea what its real use is, but it is great for my hats."
Tom Embrey can be reached at 693-2473 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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