In mid-2009, I found myself without a foothold in the journey of my life. I sought for a meaningful education and a need for housing in my hometown, Copenhagen. Repeated failure fighting for permanent residence, as many local Copenhageners are, weight my knees and my eyes further down than ever. My spirit of luck was satiated with days, and I decided to go away for a while. What started as rootlessness would later prove to be my educational rite of passage.
Hitchhicking with my skateboard and a list of acquaintances in Germany, I went along the motorways. Leberwurst, Käsebrot and family I never knew were now a viable, however uncertain and thrilling, way of life. After visiting many wonderful places, I found something that by instinct caught my attention in the town of Jena.
I had shopped around in a hat shop for over an hour on a small street downtown. The atmosphere smelled of craftsmanship and striking quality. I finally asked a nowadays unusual question: “Is there anyone who still produces some of these great caps here near Germany?” With the assumption that all European textile production was discontinued in favor of an order list to Asia, the lady came up with an answer that surprised me: “Yes,” she said. In a nearby town was a company called Bullani Mützen, which still produced everything from scratch. She gave me a phone number. The next day I packed my stuff and went off. Now it was time for another adventure and my journey around had become a mission. I had to learn everything about hats.
Halfway on my only 100 km. journey to Bamberg I was dropped off at a gas station, where I could make a phone call. “Jaaah? Hmmm. ” Said a friendly lady with a hesitant voice over the phone. I was free to come by and see the workshop, but it was just a small company with only 6-7 employees. It was exactly what I wanted, she did not quite understand. Fortunately I was free to explain it on my arrival.
The factory and shop sales were in Augustenstraβe 10, Bamberg. Four rolling wheels, and a brezel with salt (Bavarian prime baker art from southern Germany) I forced myself forward!
When I entered the door of Mr. and Mrs. Bullmanns factory, a strong stocky man with a fixed gaze and 12-inch stainless steel scissors at hand came swinging through the door. There had to be taken care of things was the attitude. He marched right past me and into another room, where I could catch a glimpse of a band saw at full tilt. “Wir haben besuch” he mentioned in passing. I waited right there. “Grussgott” a lady came out of another door, and looked at my skateboard, my backpack and my windblown hair. “Ha-hello” I spoke. “Ich bin Silas Gärtner, wir haben im Telefon geschprochen.” I said a bit more confidently then to start with. Now she smiled: “Gut, Mr. Gärtner und was wollen Sie ganz genau? Ich habe verstehen Sie wollen Mützen machen lernen?”
I explained that it was just what I wanted: I wanted to learn how to make hats. We talked a while about my trip, my skills and experience with sewing machines. I told that threading a needle was not unknown to me, I was adept with most other tools, but I had never worked on industrial sewing machines. Mr. And Mrs. Bullmann listened. Mr. Bullmann said: “Yes that’s very fine, but if you want to learn how to make hats, you’re not going to learn it in a month or six months.”
I announced I was a quick learner. If only I could learn to sew a basecap, I would be happy. But Mr. Bullmann looked skeptical at me and said: “You might get a taste of the periphery of true craftsmanship, but sewing caps takes years my friend.” We talked back and forth about what could be able to reach and how.
Finally he said: “Fine. If you need to learn here, you have to buy me a little time off to teach you. You have to work for me part of the day, so I move along with production. In the afternoon I can put aside some learning time for you. A normal work week starts at 8:00 and ends 16:30, you can stay at my house if you want, and you can start on Monday!”
The probationary period was one month, and I could give my final answer whether I wanted to start, after having some thoughts first. He gave me a Bullani Mützen cap, an Alpaca and wool blend with a beautiful leather bill. The story of my journey had amused Mr. Bullmann to such an extent that he thought I deserved a real cap, no matter what I decided. We took our parting and I trudged out into the street again, an hour later I called and signed up.
Mr. Bullmann was factory-owner of the old type. There had to be productivity and the wheels had to keep turning. He was a skilled tailor specializing in headgear and things had to be created perfectly or “Pico bello” as he often said.
That weekend, I stayed with some friends of my parents, who back in the days studied in Bamberg. Over the weekend I attended a backyard party in a huge young cohabitation in the heart of the city. As it later turned out, the hatter’s daughter also lived in the house with her boyfriend and eight other students. I was offered to move into their guest room, and my unofficial training period began. Monday morning: Stacks of caps to be ironed, beaten with a piece of wood and then ironed again. And then it went on with a new one. The day was long, the steam iron misted my glasses, and the summer sun shone outside the factory windows. I worked hard and consistent.
In the afternoons I sniffed around and formed impressions from the workshop and its employees. Tuesday morning: the program was repeated. I was allowed to stand by the steam iron for hours. I took a lesson in using industrial sewing machines, how to cut and sew, and lining together for production. Later in the day I was allowed to find fabric from the storeroom that I wanted to sew my first cap in. The next day was my first cap was complete. Mr. Bullmann was not satisfied with the quality, and the processing obviously had not reached his level. The pattern squares were slightly skewed against each other, the brim set 1 mm. too far to the left, and that was reprehensible. He said I had better throw the cap in the bin. I myself was proud and just wanted to wear it all week. So I did, after obtaining permission to do so. Mr. Bullmann decided it was kind of a funny cap, being that it was my first. In trying to sew number two, I had to repeatedly start over. I pushed my limits, the next should be perfect.
As I showed Mr. Bullmann my result and he tore the seams up. “Do it over again. that’s not good enough.”
The following four days Mr. Bullmann was out of town. He was on tour showing his winter collection to all traders in the north and northwest of Germany. I was therefore left with no teacher, and stood early every morning with the steam iron and the wooden bar and knocked. Mr. Bullmann’s production came well ahead of schedule I thought. In the afternoon I had free reign to begin attempts creating new shapes and models of my own. When Mr. Bullmann returned there was once again a critical eye and a good mentor in the studio.
The work became a bit more loose the following weeks. I was given more time to perform my own interests and Bullmann commented on my work with occasional optimism. The craft could be better and I often had to unpick stitching and sew them up again. This honest criticism kept up the pace and every afternoon I came home with 1-2 new crafted caps, and showed the community my days work. In the evenings I often prepared huge meals for the vegans and vegetarians and fishietarians in my new temporary home. On weekends we had trips to the forest, held celebrations, and went out enjoying the city.
Slowly and day by day, I built up my first line which came to be called: Bamberg Special Collection, Anno 2009. All caps were made my size: 59, and came with a numbered label reading: Design by RETRO in collaboration with BULLANI Mützen, Bamberg. I later came up with SIGAR Hats & Caps, but due to trademark dispute about the name in 2015, it changed again the year after. Finally in 2016 I settled with the name Wilgart, a simple connection of my middle name and last name: Wilhelm & Gärtner.
The first collection contained 21 pieces most of which are worn by myself. The collection has a great sentimental value although there are many mistakes and unusual experiments with shapes and materials.
After 4 weeks of work and practice, I heard of Deutsche Bahn Railway Germany celebrating 20 years of united Germany with selling creepy cheap train tickets. Some of my unpleasantly good friends in Jena planned to take to Lake Garda on holiday. So I thanked Mr. Bullmann for the stay and my new teachings, and took my leave of Bullani Mützen for the time. A few weeks later I was back in Denmark and enrolled to begin at the Copenhagen School of Design and Technology KEA with specialty in Accessories Design, with a very specific type of accessories in mind.
In the summer of 2011 I once again visited Bullani Mützen in Bamberg, this time for very short period. I returned home with a few caps that I had to finish on the school’s sewing machines. Throughout 2011, I spent long evenings after school in the workshops. They did not have the best sewing machines available, and I was missing some fundamental materials as well.
This work became the Copenhagen Collection 2011. It is characterized by varying quality, weird forms and templates, as well as a combination of materials that are fully in line with the standard of genuine Wilgart Headwear.
The following year I took a professional internship at Bullani Mützen from January to March through KEA (Copenhagen School of Design and Business). It had become clear that the caps were a driving force for me. This time the work was much more intense and I was allowed to work independently much of the time. Afterwards, I had produced 18.5 kg. of caps which I had to send home in a huge box. This was Bamberg Edition 2012, and the collection is still to some extend being sold in the basement workshop today.
I now produce in Northwest Copenhagen, in a small basement room in Birds neighborhood near Nørrebro Station. This is where collection Copenhagen NV 2013 and future collections will be made.
I have maintained a close relationship with Bullani Mützen in Bamberg. Mr. Bullmann produces the classic Herrensportmütze, with a most loving hand and to the very highest quality, which I now sell in my shop. It remains a good example and reminder for me on how genuine craft is created in the fine workshop in southern Germany.
It is with this history in mind that Wilgart will continue to create hand-crafted and personalized headwear. To know more about the history or to speak with Silas, please refer to the contact section.
Wilgart – The personal capmaker from Denmark.