By Angelica Ingram
Published July 17 2018
Perched on the table at the front of the room sits a long line of hats one brighter than the next.
Next to the hats is a bubbly blonde wearing a fashionable scarf with a life story almost more interesting than her creations.
Karyn Ruiz changed her career from a social worker to a hat maker traditionally known as milliner after watching a popular movie from the 1980s.
The movie titled White Nights starred Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov and was about two tap dancers.
Ruiz decided after being mesmerized by the film that she wanted to learn how to tap dance.
“I signed up at the local high school for a night class on tap dancing” she said. “This was 1987 … the class was full.”
Ruiz looked at the other offerings and settled on a hatmaking class.
“And then my business just kind of went from a hobby to a viable business.”
Fast forward 30 years later and Ruiz’s business Lilliput Hats has grown to include an international list of celebrity clients including The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie Jennifer Lopez and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau. Her creations can been found in the pages of fashion magazines such as Elle Flare and Harpers Bazaar as well as movies such as Academy Award-winning film The Shape of Water and CBC television show Schitt’s Creek.
While her shop is located in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood Ruiz has been teaching a hat-making workshop at the Haliburton School of Art + Design for the past 10 years.
“I cannot tell you what it means for me to come here every year to meet this incredible group of people be among incredible instructors and just see magic being created” she said.
She calls her work of traditional millinary “the second oldest profession” as the method of creating a hat has not changed over time.
“You have a block you have the material being steamed and shaped you have these metal push pins which hold the materials in place” she said. “This is the same traditional process that has not changed in hundreds of years.”
In 2016 Ruiz was given one of the most amazing experiences of her life when she created hats for Gord Downie to wear on The Tragically Hip’s final concert tour before he passed.
As she begins to share about the experience Ruiz fights back tears.
“It began a process that was so gratifying for me” she said.
The milliner created six pieces for the tour and more for a solo project Downie did afterwards called the Secret Path tour.
She had song lyrics screened on the inside of the hats.
Describing the singer as a generous soul who was always giving back Ruiz said at the time she didn’t realize how significant the hats were going to be.
“The task was so daunting. We knew it was going to be big but we had no idea how big it was going to be” she says. “I’m very happy with the work and happy they were so well received.”
Ruiz has seen her hats travel all over the world and is passionate about the craft that has filled her time for the past three decades.
He hats are made from various materials including rabbit and beaver furs. The moulds have been acquired over the past 30 years some from antique markets some have been given as gifts.
“I feel like there are so many stories to be told from these styles” she said. “This is what drives me every day are these raw materials.”
Looking back on her career Ruiz is incredibly proud of her craft and sharing it with others even if it wasn’t her first choice for that night class 31 years ago.
“I still never learned how to tap dance” she laughs.