“I call myself the accidental hatmaker,” says Lisa Ventre.
Ventre is renowned in Provincetown — and beyond — for her original hat designs. But she never meant that to happen. She was going to be an artist.
Ventre was working at a friend’s craft store in Boston when she saw a woman wearing a pillbox hat, the kind with a simple band and a lid that was in vogue off and on from the 1930s to the ’60s — Jacqueline Kennedy’s signature versions were designed by Halston. Ventre’s life-changing hat sighting came in the mid 1980s.
Studying art at SUNY Cortland, near Syracuse, N.Y., Ventre figured she would one day make objects as well as paintings. Early on, objects won out, it seems. “When I saw the pillbox,” she says, “I thought, ‘I can make that.’ ”
At home, Ventre sat down with some tapestry fabric from a thrift store. She fashioned a band and a lid but found that fitting them together was harder than she thought — the lid was not the right size for the band she had made. Here’s where her artist self stepped in. Instead of giving up on either piece, Ventre began to roll and scrunch up the fabric to create a wearable shape. It was no pillbox hat, but people liked it.
Already picturing new designs, Ventre looked for someone to teach her how to create patterns. To no avail. “I had to teach myself,” she says. “I made a lot of mistakes. It was playing around with those mistakes that taught me how to make different hat styles.”
Inspiration for Ventre’s early designs came to her during the night. “I would go to bed thinking about a hat and I’d dream of wild shapes,” she explains. Then she’d wake up and draw the flat patterns needed to create them. Looking back, she laughs at the gumption that took.
That determination must have also helped her find her way on the craft fair circuit. That’s what brought her to Provincetown. In 1996, Ventre spent a summer with an uncle here. “I pictured it as one continuous crafts fair all summer long,” she said. It wasn’t. Disappointed, she found herself knocking around in the empty upstairs at the old Whaler’s Wharf — not many shoppers ventured up there, she says.
For a long time, Ventre didn’t quite settle in. She was nearly always packed up for a show — or maybe a new opportunity. In February 1998, most of Ventre’s hats were packed when the old Whaler’s Wharf burned down. Ironically, it was at that point, she says, that she knew she would stay. Being here was about trying to help friends who had lost everything.
She put her name on the list for affordable housing, and even though she thought it would never happen, in 2007 it did. Ventre got a place on Meadow Road. It even includes a studio, which allowed her to finally see Provincetown as her home.
Ventre has remained itinerant when it comes to selling. Some people remember when her hats were at Silk & Feathers, the Commercial Street shop where, until it closed in 2014, Jamie Krysziewicz and Mary DeAngelis sold their clothing designs. For a while she had her own place, Lisa Ventre Hats. Right now, some of her designs can be found at Mad as a Hatter on Commercial Street. Ventre is less about shopkeeping and more about making.
What she loves most about her work is the chance to experiment and learn, she says. The toyo hats Ventre is best known for are the result of a years-long quest for just the right straw. She wanted to make a summer hat but didn’t like the shellac-coated braid used in mass-produced ones. “It was impossible to do what I wanted to do,” she says.
Then she came across toyo — a lightweight straw-like material, made in Japan of rice paper. “I loved the texture and the way toyo holds its shape,” she says. But toyo was challenging in other ways. At first, “the hats would turn out too big or small without me understanding why.”
Ventre has recently ventured back to art, making collages and three-dimensional objects out of wire. But she hasn’t stopped sewing. “It takes a lot to pull me away from hats,” she says.
Her customers allow her to keep her designs evolving. Provincetown supplies the inspiration, she says. “I’ll look out over a meadow, or at the sky over the water, and the many shades of colors,” she says. “That is what inspires me to dream.”