For milliner Sharon Panozzo it all started with a baby niece and some beautiful handmade doll hats. Like many milliners from the moment she started, she would not stop. Millinery was a way for Sharon to switch off her academic mind, unwind an unleash her creative energy. An example of Sharon's dedication to her craft can be seen in this beautiful hat. A pink straw braid cloche trimmed with a vintage silk rose and velvet ribbon. Sharon's passion for millinery was enhanced when she stumbled upon a hat shop where she met her mentors. Read on to discover the beautiful story of how Sharon Panozzo discovered her calling. 

What do you love most about  millinery?
This is difficult to answer because to me millinery work is like breathing. I have to do it to fulfill all my creative needs. In the end though, it is the satisfaction of the customer that is most gratifying.

How did you get into millinery?
I have always been a sewer and crafty person, as with my whole family. Most of the time I did this for myself and family but it was in 1985 when my sister had her first little girl that I accidentally got into hats. I started to purchase dolls for my niece but never liked the hats they wore. I tried to get my sister to make better hats for them but she was a bit busy so I started to make some myself. I guess I got carried away because my very patient husband said “Honey, I need a chair to sit in. You have to stop or get rid of some.”

I did a local doll and teddy bear show and sold out. It was there I met a teddy artist who introduced me to lots and lots of willing buyers. But there was always the question the buyers asked, “Do you do these for people?” By the early 90s my “small” hats had been featured in magazines and were being sold worldwide. At this point I decided to do a “Teddy and Me” combination – a hat for the bear and a matching one for the owner. They were very popular.

All this time I was attending college and got my Masters in Marketing and eventually got my PhD in Economics. I started my teaching career in 1984. Although I loved teaching I could not give up the hats. In the back of a book my sister gave me was a list of hat shops and suppliers in Chicago. I decided to “do it right” and get the proper supplies for hat making. It seems fate was with me as I found the perfect shop right across from the Chicago Theater on State Street. When I walked in I was in hat heaven. I told the one owner, Jerry, what I did and had brought a sample of my work. When she saw the sample she only asked one question and it changed my life. She grabbed my hands, looked them over, and said, “Do you want to learn how to do this right?” Boy, did I ever! I started my apprenticeship within the week.

I eventually found out that we were distantly related and both Jerry and Maceo became like a second set of parents. They had started their business in 1925 and I had never seen so much stuff!! I still taught, did the shows, but any spare time was at the store. I am not sure I slept at all during those years. After Maceo passed away because of an accident, Jerry decided to quit the business. I was very sad because I loved it all and had even established my own global clientele. The greatest gift came on the last day Jerry was to come to the shop. She kissed me on the cheek, handed over the keys, and said “Make money kid.” I cried for days. The shop was eventually moved to where I am now because the city bought the building and turned it into the "Gene Siskle Center" and so all the renters had to move.

I no longer have a brick and mortar store because of health reasons but I still work with my old clients. I still, on occasion, give classes, demonstrations and lectures, as well as work with several artists and designers.

How you would describe your designs.
I would say my designs are eclectic and  I try to honor the past by linking it to the present.

What is your ideal customer?
My ideal customer is one that gets as excited about the hat as I do and who allows me to proceed with the creative process without putting up creative roadblocks along the way. 

What inspires you? 
TEXTURES! I love to run my hands over potential materials and it is as though I start the creative process with my fingertips.  As I look at and feel a material I start to see the designs in my head.
If you could invite any milliner to tea who would it be and why.
I can actually think of two. One would be Aage Thaarup because I admire his flair. The second would be Elaine Mergard because we were both taught in the same manner and style. She always seems excited about her work and teaching.  I am sure we would have a great time and become lovely friends.

What is your favourite material to work with?
I like to work with almost anything but sinamay. For some reason it just does not speak to me as other materials do.  I can and have created with it but it is not my favorite. Crin (I even wrote a book about it), silk, and velvet are probably what I like the best.

Whats your best millinery tip?
Always contine learning and try everything. No matter how much you know, you can always pick up a tip or two from every book, article, class, or workshop you engage in. 

What has been the largest challenge you face in millinery? 
I feel my biggest challenge is that I know I will never have enough time to do all the designs I want to do. Because of this I push myself to work on many hats at once and to finish a hat a day at the least.

Famous words to live by?
Always do your best work because the hat you make might just become someone's memory.

» Explore her millinery creations

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