Day in the Life: Erle the hatmaker

Erle, the owner of Ardiisia, in her studio in Tartu. 12 October 2018.
Erle, the owner of Ardiisia, in her studio in Tartu. 12 October 2018. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

Some people work to afford their hobbies. Some work to get by but harbour dreams of doing something else. Some work just to get by. I am lucky enough to be able to combine all three and realise my dream of owning a small business and making a living doing what I love. My name is Erle Rander, and I am the owner of Ardiisia Hat Studio in Tartu.

It is around 7 o'clock that I wake up on weekdays. I'd sleep longer, as I do on weekends, but we have a child in the family to see off to school in the mornings, and it's nice to eat breakfast and prepare for the day ahead together.

In my case, preparing for the day ahead includes an energising cup of coffee and a walk with the dog — sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, depending on how much time I have and how I'm feeling that day. Sometimes we even drive somewhere to take our walk, which gives us the chance to explore someplace new. Back from our walk, we both have breakfast.

I typically don't arrive at my studio on Lutsu Street before 10 a.m. As Tartu is such a small city, I'm thankfully not dependent on driving or even taking the bus; I can't remember the last time I took the bus here. When the weather allows for it, I take my bike, although that means that I can't take the dog with me to work, as she's too big to fit in the basket and it's too dangerous in town to have her run alongside. When I have time to walk to work, we go together. Over time she has really come to enjoy coming to work with me — the studio means so many exciting customers and new smells!

The building in which my studio is located includes the offices and studios of a number of other artisans and small businesses. Some come and go; the ones who are the right fit for our family remain. The windows of my studio overlook the courtyard, for which I am grateful — not only does this mean a lot of natural light, which I prize, but I also have a view overlooking the flowers that I have come to maintain myself. I don't care for them out of any obligation, and I don't get paid to do so, but I've come to be known in our building as the gardener. My studio itself is relatively spacious as well; many other tenants are two to a room of my size.

When one door closes, another opens

My first experience in making hats dates back to the autumn of 1996, over 20 years ago by now. That summer, I had applied to the Estonian Academy of Arts, but as I wasn't accepted, I had to find a job for the next year, until I could reapply. I ended up working in a hat shop, and after a year spent making hats of all kinds, I realised that this was what I wanted to do. And so I have since.

This isn't the type of job you can do if you don't love it. In my case, I love when I can create something myself, and come up with new solutions. I love the direct contact I have with my customers. I had a Facebook page at some point, but abandoned it fairly quickly, as I didn't like how impersonal it was. Some orders are still placed online, via an exchange of emails, but when I am able to meet a client in person, and speak with them, and get to know them even just a little bit, it suddenly becomes so much easier to envision the right kind of hat for them.

I also especially love the amount of handiwork involved — for example, the various patterns that are to be stitched on the tops of different school and sorority and fraternity caps. Some of the patterns I stitch using an embroidery machine, but others I still do by hand, often sitting by the window. What I don't like is when customers occasionally come to me hoping I can turn something very old and raggedy into something new. Some people don't want to believe that this is difficult to do; yet others don't want to pay for the time and work involved.

Hats as storytellers

I make and sell hats of all kinds — fine ladies' hats for summer and winter alike, flat caps for men, straw summer hats, felt and wool winter hats. While I myself don't belong to a sorority, I can pinpoint how popular the Estonian fraternity and sorority system is any given semester or year solely based on the number of cap orders I receive. I am one of just a small handful of studios that produces these caps; one other is in Tallinn. While I don't know the secrets of each organisation in turn, I have my own insights into their similarities and differences, as some organisations share the same cut and style of cap, while others share the same material.

In addition to more typical hats and caps, I also receive orders for headwear for various exhibits and events — and you wouldn't believe the combinations of elements and materials that some of these involve! Some of them are unusual indeed.

One thing I have noticed over the years is that school uniforms are becoming more popular again. In Soviet times, it was a thing to wear the uniform of the Little Octobrists or the red neckerchief of the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization, known as the Young Pioneers — this was what was done during those times. Since then, there have been periods of freer dress codes. But I am happy to see that more and more schools are starting to buy school uniforms again. It's great for me to fulfil orders for student caps for pupils, because I really enjoy making them.

From a financial and business perspective, maintaining my hat studio isn't exactly the most reasonable thing to do — and certainly, if I didn't love it, it wouldn't pay off. But once you've already gotten involved... My little business has grown very dear to me in its own right.

Thankfully, owning my own business affords me the flexibility of setting my own hours. This means that I'm physically in my studio when I want, and if I find myself stuck in a rut, I can lock up and go for a walk or hike, which helps relax and rejuvenate me and get my creativity flowing again; after that I often return to my work with a fresh perspective and new ideas. Of course, if I have an appointment with a client, I keep it. But especially with a creative job such as this one, the flexibility to come and go as I want and need to an extent is priceless. It's difficult to just sit in one room all day, every day, and I try to take the opportunity to even just get up and walk around when I can.

After work

At the end of the workday, it's time to go for a walk with the dog again, and then start thinking about what to make for dinner. There are some days when I am at the studio late, in which case I have no idea what's being shown on TV or what else is going on that evening. Otherwise, evenings are spent with the family, sometimes going out, sometimes getting shopping and other necessary errands done. I try not to leave any shopping for the weekend, as I don't want to waste any more time on it than necessary; I find shopping to be draining somehow, so the less of it I do, the better. If I have time, I'll read or watch a film or some TV.

I haven't done any sports or specifically worked out in a long time, but thanks to my dog, I manage to get at least one or two walks in per day, and these walks make me feel good and, for now at least, are enough for me. On some evenings I help run activities at an escape room, which is a nice change of pace from my daily work but likewise gives me the chance to meet and talk to new people. Occasionally I also have time for longer hikes, and when I do, I am driven to get moving and explore new places by geocaching, which has become a bit of a hobby for me. There is even a hat-inspired cache hidden somewhere in Tartu...

Time outdoors

While I grew up and currently still live in Tartu, I really value any time I can spend outdoors, whether on weekdays or weekends. Growing up, I spent summers on our family farm in Jõgeva County. The farmhouse had an old blacksmith workshop in one end, where the village blacksmith once worked, with thick clay walls that I can so vividly recall to this day. I helped herd sheep as a child — they are very peaceful and friendly animals.

This rhythm of winters spent in town and summers spent out in the countryside is probably at the heart of my need to spend as much time out in nature as possible; I can't imagine living any other way. I need to have my own garden, which I love tending and where I can apply skills I picked up studying landscaping at Luua Forestry School; I can plant various plants, prune trees and shrubs... I also need to be able to go berry-picking and foraging for mushrooms, and recent hikes in bogs have really fed my soul. Bogs are so delicate and mysterious, and one's body and spirit are able to rest out in nature. Any time spent out in nature has a positive effect, but being able to enjoy it together with loved ones also creates shared memories.

On weekends when the weather isn't as good, we come up with other, indoor activities to enjoy, such as cooking together with the family. These moments are enjoyable in their own right. But we do try to be outside as much as the weather allows.

I once dreamt of owning a small business just like Ardiisia Hat Studio, which I intend to continue running. I have other, more personal dreams as well, such as travelling much more than I have thus far had the opportunity to, especially in good company. But I am happy to have fulfilled another big childhood dream of owning and tending a garden, as I mentioned, and while I used to be much more accommodating in nature, over the years I have begun to focus more on taking care of myself, indulging myself, and taking time for myself. I am trying to fulfil my goals and dreams with more confidence, and think with more clarity, and act. I find that if certain thoughts are not yet ripe, then it must not be the right time for them yet.

Every night before bed, however, I do indulge one family member and take the dog out one last time. It is a perfect, refreshing few minutes with which to end my day.


Day in the Life is a new weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at [email protected].

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Editor: Dario Cavegn

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