Lilliput Hats

Some people plot to pursue a particular career. Others fall into their life’s work by accident. Karyn Ruiz, founder of Lilliput Hats, was one of the serendipity group. After an education in social work and intending to pursue a Masters degree, she planned to sign up for a tap dancing class with the Toronto School Board night school program. When she found that the dance class was full, she opted to take a millinery class instead.

The rest is history. Within weeks, she found that she was good at making hats, and the work appealed to her sense of creativity. In her second floor apartment on Bathurst Street, above the veterinarian across from Central Tech High School, she set up a sewing machine on her dining room table, and, with a few hat blocks that she had acquired, began to make hats on consignment. For five years, she worked out of her apartment, making hats for independent shops on Queen Street. Then she started wholesaling her line of hats to Holt Renfrew, selling her hats at One of a Kind and, after some publicity in a Canadian Jewish News article, making custom hats for women in the Toronto Jewish community. She carried on her hat-making business in her upstairs apartment, creating a showroom and a workspace where her roommates had been, for twelve years.

When her landlord required her space and she had to move, she rented the premises of the former tailor shop run by the Sherman brothers at 462 College Street for 55 years. Their location was as far south as she thought her Jewish clients from North Toronto would travel. After renting the premises for four years, she bought the building in 2003. Even today the Sherman children and grandchildren come to visit, pointing out the elements of the original premises (like the original tin ceiling, the back windows, the back shelving, the cutting table, and the cement carved with the initials of the children) which still exist and which provide a “nice thread of continuity.” Today, she and her husband live on the second floor of the building, and they keep the third floor loft area as an Airbnb that can accommodate four people.

Lilliput Hats is a full service working millinery shop, creating all the hats and reviving or repairing vintage hats. She has seven employees whom she trains herself, and who produce the hats when not providing service to clients. Karyn also has a collection of over a thousand hat blocks, many of which she acquired from other millinery shops when they went out of business. Her collection dates from the early 1900s to 1960.

What makes her shop unique, and which most find intriguing, is that clients can see the twenty-step hat-making process in action. Raw-materials are dyed, bleached and dried before the process begins. Then, the hat-makers use steam, pins, and pulling to shape the flat materials around the many different types of hat blocks. Once the base hat is formed, wires are added to keep the shape. Then, the hats are embellished with feathers, flowers, and netting. The entire process takes four to eight hours, all done by hand. During the busiest months of the year, May and June, the shop can turn hats around in 24 hours.

Lilliput Hats specializes in weddings and in outfitting women for the Kentucky Derby, the Queen’s Plate, and the Royal Ascot. When hats are purchased for these events, the shop keeps a register of which client buys which hat, to ensure that all the hats they supply are unique and there will be no two alike. Karyn also has a big export trade. Twice a year, in December and April, she brings her hats to a large craft fair in Chicago. She finds that American women have a great respect for hand-made goods and are not shy about spending on themselves. She still sells wholesale to Holt Renfrew and to the Granville Island Hat Shop in Vancouver. Others buy hats using her website. In recent years, custom hats for men have become increasingly popular. One of her regular clients is Victor Micallef, one of the Canadian Tenors. Lilliput Hats is also a corporate sponsor of “The Thrill of Ascot,” a fundraiser held at the Woodbine Racetrack early every June for the benefit of Best Buddies.

Lilliput Hats is at 462 College Street, just west of Bathurst. The telephone number is 416-536-5933. The shop is open Monday to Friday, 10:00 to 6:00 and Saturday 11:00 to 6:00.

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