Current Issue #488

Adelaide hatmaker Blake Canham-Bennett is brimming with inspiration

Sia Duff

At a young age, local artist Blake Canham-Bennett was inspired by the genteel tradition of hat-wearing. Now he spends his days creating bespoke headwear to order from the world’s finest materials.

Blake Canham-Bennett has always been drawn to hats. It began with the iconic hats of cultural and folk history – to the cowboys shading their faces from the heat of America’s deserts, the rat pack grinning toothily from beneath black fedoras, the silent film star with round eyes and bowler. 

“I’ve always been interested in vintage culture, old films or more recent period films,” he says. 

“They reflect a time not so long ago when men wore hats. It was part of their identity and they wouldn’t leave the house without one.” 

Recently, when the tools of a hatter who worked on the Warner Bros lot in Hollywood’s golden age went on sale, Canham-Bennett purchased several of his hat blocks. The smooth russet blocks were shipped halfway across the world to his hat-making studio at The Mill artist studios on Adelaide’s Angas Street, where he uses them to stretch and shape hats for clients, among them blues musicians, actors and men who share his enthusiasm for headwear. 

Sia Duff

In his teens, Canham-Bennett began collecting and wearing hats as he developed a personal style that evokes a time when people dressed each day with a greater purpose and care. When a close neighbour died, Canham- Bennett was given the old man’s mid-century, misshaped Akubra. He soaked it in water and reshaped the fabric, his first taste of a fading art form that would capture his imagination. 

The hats Canham-Bennett crafts in his studio are no ordinary hats. Each is constructed with the finest materials – beaver or rabbit felt from Europe, coloured dyes, soft leather sweatbands made in New York, and feathers, vintage ribbons, fabrics and trims collected from online forums and shops around the world. From this collection of materials, Canham-Bennett creates hats of detail and elegance, knowing, seemingly intuitively, what trims to pair with a certain style and colour, when to pare back and when to add something more. 

Soon after completing a course in millinery
at TAFE, which concentrated on women’s headwear, Canham-Bennett shifted his
focus to men’s hats. He read old books on traditional hat-making techniques, connected with the small global and even smaller Australian community of hatmakers on online forums, and eventually visited the United States for seven weeks, travelling far and wide to connect with hatters. 

“I roamed around without a plan, meeting with someone in Los Angeles who’d connect me with a guy in San Diego and so on,” he says. 

“I visited this one hat maker in Kansas City who was like a character from an old film.
He dressed in the old west style, chewed tobacco and approached hat making in a very traditional way. Spending time with him was eye-opening.” 

Sia Duff
Sia Duff
Sia Duff
Sia Duff

It takes Canham-Bennett somewhere in the measure of four to six hours to make a single hat. On any one day in the studio, he works on up to a dozen hats at various stages of completion. Today, he is working on an aqua blue fedora for the actor Hugh Sheridan and putting the finishing touches on a series of five hats for The Mill Showcase with fellow associates Andrew Eden, Annabel Hume and Mark Mason that is showing until 29 May. Elsewhere, a mottled blue hat is the unexpected result of an accident after the once navy hat fell into a steaming vat of water. 

“Surprisingly, I quite like the effect but that hat was for an order and so I need to make another one.” 

The five hats Canham-Bennett has created for the Showcase – four black hats and a burnt orange fedora – are a testament to his 

expanding mastery of this old craft. Each hat is crafted in a different shape or style. One has an unusual nonagonal brim. Another is finely trimmed using stripes of fabric from a vintage silk tie. One wide-brimmed hat with an orange motif lace band recalls the Cordovan style worn by Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro. But of the five, a hat containing a band Canham-Bennett stitched himself using Japanese Sashiko embroidery has been the most laborious. 

“This pattern derives from a time in Japanese history when common people weren’t allowed to have decorative motifs on their clothing bigger than a grain of rice,” he says. 

“It took me about five hours to stitch this band.” 

It’s this insatiable enthusiasm for his craft that gives Canham-Bennett’s hats, inspired from the annals of fashion history, their timeless quality. 

Sarah Couper

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