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From felt to finish: Florida man owns one of the only handmade hat shops in the state

A Florida man is making his mark on Tampa with handmade hats. Ash Dudney is one of the only creators in the state and hunts invasive species to use as adornments for his unique pieces.

Between two busy intersections on Nebraska Avenue in Ybor City sits a tiny, red brick shop called Til’ Death Hat Co.

The shop looks squeezed into its surroundings, but inside its four walls are shelves lined with hats, shoes, felt and animal skin.

Owner Ash Dudney is a milliner — one of the only makers of custom handmade hats in Florida.

He said that his start in the industry was unconventional.

A man is sitting on a read leather couch. He is wearing a hat and crossing his legs.
Kayla Kissel
Ash Dudney got into hat-making as a joke, but said he found inspiration in the creation and kept at it until he was able to open a shop.

“Getting into hat-making started as a joke, and it ended in spite because I've never been satisfied with what these bigger companies and factory-made hat shops put out,” Dudney said. “I was joking with a friend, how hard can making a hat be?

"It's pretty difficult.”

From there, Dudney took the time to research various hat-makers and finally found Tom Hirt.

Hirt is a crafter who made hats for many movies, like "Tombstone." Dudney was taken under his brim to learn.

“I spent a week out in Albuquerque, working with him, and learned how to do it a little more properly than what I had been doing,” Dudney said. “From there, it just kind of took off.”

To make his shop stand out, Dudney wanted to pay homage to his native Florida.

“The last thing I wanted was for people to come in and think this is a Western shop,” Dudney said. “I'm a Florida shop. I'm a Florida native. So the styles that I do, they have Western influence.”

According to the Florida Division of Historical Resources, starting as early as the 16th century, the first cattle in Florida were brought here by the Spanish.

The herds were allowed to roam freely, and the "cracker cowboys" had to wrangle them.

“True cowboy culture very much did originate with the Spaniards down here in Florida and in the southeast,” Dudney said. “We started on this coast, that's where cattle ranching kind of began, and then it spread out west.”

A man holds up the skin of an iguana.
Kayla Kissel
Dudney holds up the skin of an iguana from the Florida Keys. The holes are from the legs of the iguana.

And staying true to his Floridian roots, Dudney mines the land to add a personal touch to his hats.

“I use adornments from the Southeast like native bird feathers and alligator bone,” Dudney said. “I use a lot of invasive species in my product.”

Dudney travels to the Florida Keys and Everglades to hunt those animals.

But he said that as someone who deeply appreciates the environment, hunting invasive species was not an easy decision.

“I'm big on environmentalism and conservationism,” Dudney said. “I also love reptiles, so it's not something I take lightly to go down there and hunt any of these animals.”

He said his usual targets are pythons or green iguanas.

“I just figured there's so many ways to help the environment by taking out these (invasive) animals that have these really beautiful skins and can be turned into incredibly unique pieces, rather than taking a native animal out and hampering an ecosystem's ability to sustain itself,” Dudney said.

Dudney also keeps things local by using his Ybor City surroundings.

"Anything I touch inevitably is a Tampa hat," Dudney said. "Sometimes it's soaking a hat in some whiskey and dragging it down the streets of Ybor for a bit, and sometimes I throw on Ybor rooster feathers."

A hat sits on an alligator head that sicks on a wooden block.
Kayla Kissel
Dudney said he uses an alligator head, gifted from his uncle, to display some of his hats.

Adam City Hatters was the last hat shop in Tampa before Dudney's, closing in the mid-1990s.

"I specifically jumped at the chance to be in Ybor because it's the first time Ybor has had a hatters shop in about 30 years," he said.

But Dudney still had concerns.

"It was a real leap of faith to open a shop like this that doesn't exist. I had more than a couple of friends who gave me some funny looks for wanting to sell custom felt hats in Tampa," Dudney said. "It was a matter of, does nobody wear them around here because it's not even an option because where would you even go? Or is it just because nobody's going to want them."

He said as the calls came rolling in, his worries waded away.

One customer wanted hats for their rodeo competitions, while musicians sought new staple pieces to wear during performances.

To Dudney, what makes his hats so special is the fact that they are meant to last.

He said that through the processes he goes through and the precautions he takes, his hats are everlasting.

"I love making stuff quality and I love owning things that are quality that will and are supposed to last you forever," Dudney said. "The only time that you should be gifting or passing this hat to anybody is because you're dead in the ground and now the next person gets it. I really do want them to be appreciated legacy pieces that people want to keep."

"It's the namesake of the business - these hats are supposed to last you till death."

Kayla Kissel is a WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for spring of 2024.
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