About the Artist
Melissa Wahnbaeck was a popular hat designer who participated in many Sugarloaf Craft Festivals, beginning in 1998 and until her untimely death in 2010.
Melissa was grounded in a wonderland of worldly and soulful inspirations alike. From college studies in architectural design, film, photography, French, and German, to travels abroad in Nepal, Thailand, France, and India, Wahnbaeck had a vast foundation of creative stimuli from which to draw.
However, even more so than studies in culture and art, the artist said, “A bigger inspiration for me is the expression on the face of the woman who puts a hat on and finds that it lifts her up in some way. My hats aren’t really complete until they’re on someone’s head—that’s when they come to life!” Many would say though that it was the life and joy oozing from Wahnbaeck’s hats that drew in each hopeful wearer.
The artist’s crowning glories were sewn individually from fine and unusual fabrics. “I use rich and eclectic combinations of silk brocades, velvets, embroidered fabrics, hand loomed cottons, and tapestries,” Wahnbaeck explained. “I make hand felted wool and do painting and marbling of cottons and silks.” The intricate, mesmerizing patterns she created are formed into hats of varying proportions and shapes and were embellished with ribbons, beads, or feathers. “Some of my hats have a soft structure and others have wired brims to provide a tailored shape, but all are soft, lightweight, and adjustable to fit,” Wahnbaeck explained. “Each has a casual-to-dressy versatility which makes them easy for any woman to wear.”
With no employees or assistants, the artist created her masterpieces in her small studio on a makeshift assembly line of sorts. “I can make several hundred hats a year by myself—each one unique and [constructed] with great attention to detail,” she explained. Why hats? “I started making hats for myself because I couldn’t find much that I liked and I have always loved hats,” Wahnbaeck said. As for the fanciful and smile-inducing designs, “I love fabrics and color,” the artist said. “I think of my fabrics as paints and my hats as the vehicles for using colors and textures like any artist would.”
After more than a decade of hat-making and successful selling, Wahnbaeck certainly had entertaining stories to tell. “I was at my booth at a quiet craft show when a woman told me she felt so inspired by the hat she had just put on that she wanted to ask my permission to sing a song,” Wahnbaeck shared. “Of course, I said yes. Well, she was a trained opera singer, and when she started singing the whole hall went quiet! She bought the hat and commissioned others for her stage performances.”
Many past customers will treasure Melissa’s unique and beautiful hats for years to come. Melissa Wahnbaeck will be sorely missed by the Sugarloaf community.
by Elizabeth Weiss