Jim Whittington says he never “moved” to Salt Lake City in 1963. “I found myself here after a two-week drunken binge. I was in Helper, then somehow woke up in Springville.” Originally from New Mexico, Jim thought he had died and gone to heaven. “I saw those beautiful mountains,” he says, “and I found that I really like it here. Utah has been good to me.”
Jim or JW (Jay Dubya) as some clients call him, owns JW Hats, and is one of the very few accomplished hat makers in Utah, shipping his hats and hat-making making equipment all over the world. But Jim never had aspirations to be a hat maker. The business sort of fell into his lap. After spending years in the printing industry as an engraver and printer, Jim started a business making baseball caps. “Then one day,” he says, “I found this old hat shop for sale. It was in a barn in Draper and I got it out of bankruptcy court.” The history of the store dated back to pioneer days, making JW Hats the oldest business in Utah.
Through trial and error, (he didn’t go to school, but “learned it by making lots of mistakes”), Jim built up a client base through constant devotion to customer satisfaction. Most people seeking cowboy hats today buy factory-made hats from Stetson. They offer the best quality manufactured hat, but lack the unique hand-crafted quality of a JW hat.
The finest hats are made out of beaver or hare fur. “The felting industry and process has far more history and know-how involved than hat making,” Jim says. Turning the felt into a hat can be done in as quickly as two hours, “if everything is clicking and going just right.” But most hats require more time. Jim’s shop has a constant supply of hot steam used for shaping. Singer sewing machines fill the shop. Rounded wood molds for every hat shape and for every head size are lined up in rows in every nook and cranny.
Underneath JW’s crotchety exterior is a sweet guy. JW is a man who has built a business based on possessing a true love of his clients. In Jim’s words, “makin’ them happy by makin’ the perfect hat.” JW has made lots of hats for rich people but he says the only celebrity worth mentioning, “who wasn’t arrogant, full of sh** and cheap,” was the late, great country singer, John Denver. “He was a really great guy. We had designs to do some projects together.”
JW’s shop is almost a museum, and he is the curator. Histories of clients, cowboys and friends are all in the front of the shop. He makes hats that can last up to a century. “Most working guys will go through a hat in just a few years, but these will hold up for 100 years.”
His shop has stood the test of time, but how much longer will Jim keep going? He doesn’t know. “I could be closed next month. I’m about ready to retire.” Before he does, get your JW custom hat ordered.
This story originally ran in Utah Stories in 2013. Sadly, J.W. passed away in November 2017.
JW Hats is located at 2354 S Redwood Road, Salt Lake City.