Portland, Oregon is a mecca for craftspeople with a DIY spirit. Tsuchiya Kaban had the rare opportunity to visit John Fish’s studio The Folklore Hat Co. and talk with the craftsman who specializes in classic bespoke hats. Decorated in a huge collection of old Americana, it is a studio where the world of a century ago is perfectly restored in sepia hues. We asked John to try our signature bag brought from our workshop in Tokyo and exchanged thoughts on timeless craftsmanship through his aesthetic viewpoint.
You began making hats 8 years ago. We heard that your customer base spread all over the world overnight, reaching the status that people would normally have to wait a year. How did you get into making bespoke hats in the first place?
It all started from a place of sheer lack of knowledge and curiosity. I came across a picture of someone making a hat on the Internet and it immediately resonated with me, so I bought a pre-war hat block and tried to make one by imitating what I saw. My first hat was quite awful and I got discouraged, but for some reason, I still didn’t give up. I kept practicing to make them, and I remember that at some point when I finished making them I started to feel a little better about it.
So you started in the niche of classic hats all by yourself and from scratch?
Not just hats. Ever since I was a teenager I designed and made whatever I wanted on my own. In my small hometown in Michigan, there was almost none of the culture that I was interested in like skateboarding, art, design, and fashion, so I drew board graphics and made clothes like the ones skateboarders wear. However, at the time I was into antiques and always incorporated old-school elements like leather rather than just making so-called “skateboarder style”.
We heard that in the early days of "The Folklore Hat Co." you worked with leather. You must have a deep understanding of leather working, so what are your impressions when you see a Tsuchiya signature Randoseru?
Even though it has a complicated structure of many overlapping parts, it’s given a very simple look. The thickness of the thread, number of stitches, and detailed curves are all slightly different depending on the part, and these minor details let me feel the pride of the craftsperson.
John’s eyes were also fixed on the hand-finished corners made in a method called “Kikuyose”. The material is reinforced by folding it radially so that it resembles a chrysanthemum flower.
It is said that you can know the skill of the craftsperson if you see this [kikuyose] finish. It is one of the most difficult techniques, combining function and beauty. Indeed, it is perfect. And there is ample cushioning on the back.
It helps reduce the burden on the back and at the same time, the stitching helps improve breathability. So, even if you carry it on your back for a long time, you won’t get tired and stuffy.
I see. A lot of careful work on unseen details and consideration for the user went into this. That’s why I believe that there are things that create an air of elegance, and it’s something that’s very important when I make hats too.
Our craftsmanship begins with thinking about the functionality and ease of use that material has. For example, the flap is made with sturdy cowhide, and the side that comes into contact with your back is made with leather that has a soft texture. Since you deal with fur as the main material, you would know well about the subtle differences.
You use different leathers for different parts? The same can be said about the fur I use in my hats. Just as each person has different skin, even different animals of the same kind are individuals. Besides that, the more can and attention that is put into leather and fur, the better it looks, and moreover, it can be used and handed down for the next 100 years while growing in appeal. That’s the reason that I like antiques.
But since they’re so carefully made and in large numbers, how many craftspeople does Tsuchiya Kaban have in-house?
There are nearly 200 craftspeople in the studio, ranging in age from 22 to 82. Diversity in age, experience and background are important to us in our work force because we believe there is a rich exchange of information and experience in the studio. Everyone learns from each other and works together. For example there are over 300 steps in the making of our Randoseru, so a single bag passes through the hands of many craftspeople, it’s a beautiful thing!
That’s an unbelievable number. I have been self-taught all my life but there are times when I wished I had a mentor. It’s been 8 years since I started making hats, but it’s quite hard to train one assistant and keep it going. Young craftspeople are disappearing in every field, so I think passing down skills is important and you should be really proud of what you achieved.
Passing on the tradition of our craft is part of our DNA and comes from our Japanese culture. Traditionally in Japan, trades are passed down in families, there are many multi-generational specialists, and what you see in those cases is an exceptional level of expertise. For over 50 years, we have strived to create an environment where skills and knowledge are passed down among our makers, there is a culture of sharing knowledge and techniques that have resulted in a level of craft that we are very proud of. A by-product of this is also our new designs that are born from established styles, like the OTONA RANDSEL, which is really the evolution of the classic Randoseru. Take a look..
While it’s slimmer than a normal Randoseru, it has plenty of room for a day trip. And while maintaining an extremely simple look, it’s functional with compartments that are easy to access even when the flap is closed and inner partitions. You can even see in the edges where the leather is cut that it has been finished carefully. It’s a modest job that takes a lot of time and effort. A lot of backpacks are casual so this is the first time I’ve come across such a sophisticated design.
This bag has a character like jewelry that adds a humble accent.
I can say for certain from my experience growing up in street culture immersed in antiques that adding a classic hat and leather bag can dress up any style. Just as long as they’re high quality and made by craftspeople.
The Folklore Hat Co.
Born in Michigan. Established in Portland, Oregon, in 2015.
2926 NE Killingsworth St. Portland, OREGON USA