AltaHandcrafted's first Featured Artisan: Justin Carpenter of El Rancho Carpintero
This past June in honor of the beginning of my seventh seven year cycle, I drafted a list of goals, intentions, and items I wished to have or accomplish for this new phase of my life. Amongst these items, I listed Ranch hat, with a very specific hat in mind. I tried on a number of hats, followed some hat brands on Instagram, but had yet to find THE hat. I trusted I would find the exact hat I had in mind, knowing exactly what it would look like. In July, prompted by some recent research into my California roots and genealogy on my mother’s side, I posted a photograph of my second great grandmother who was born at Rancho La Ballona in Alta California to my Instagram Stories with the hashtag #californios. Being ever curious, I did a search of #californios on Instagram and came across a post by El Rancho Carpintero, a brand of incredible bespoke sombreros hand shaped by ninth generation native Californian, Justin Carpenter. There was THE hat! I contacted Justin immediately, excited to have found a native Californian making the type of hat I had envisioned. Not only was this the style of hat I had in mind, Justin’s sombreros transported me precisely to a place of inner knowing, a familiarity, tapping into a feeling so great that it is nearly impossible to put into words.
Serendipity and fate brought Justin and I together on a recent Friday afternoon at Mission San Fernando Rey de España in Mission Hills, California. It was a joyous time connecting with another native Californian, passionate about his family’s roots. Justin is a ninth generation Californian on his father’s side, and is descended from ancestors of varying backgrounds including the tribes of Tongva, Gabrielino, or Luiseño Indians. A cousin of mine imagined that our ancestors knew Justin’s ancestors, and it seems completely plausible. As we toured the halls of the ancient mission, we swapped personal stories of our childhoods, our creative journeys, connecting bits and pieces of our stories together. Since our first Instagram messages to our recent meeting, there has been a definite kismet excitement to our conversations and shared stories. We talked about Justin’s incredible sombreros, how he came to create his first hat, and what has happened since.
Photo shows Justin hand shaping a bespoke sombrero for a "future friend".
Justin is brimming with enthusiasm for creativity, stories, memories, history and connecting deeply with the friends who cross his path. Consciously leading an examined life, with a regular meditation practice, whilst spending considerable time questioning his own personal existence, his connection to everything, his ancestors, and to all of life has led Justin on an inspired journey, tapping his ancestral roots, resulting in an authentic expression of self through hand shaping sombreros. Always having enjoyed working with his hands, shaping sombreros came naturally. The initial experience reminded him of surfing, bringing him into in the right state of mind, state of heart, and into a place of pure joy. Following this joy, he shaped and reshaped his first sombrero, wetting down the fibers to the point that the palm becomes “like silly putty”. He says it took a lot of courage for him to set out on a path to share what he is naturally good at, and when he finally did, it was clear that he was on the right path. Shaping his first sombrero became a life changing experience, the sombrero becoming an expressive vehicle, gifting him with the discovery of self, an intuitive understanding of who he is, where he comes from, and why he is driven to create, at the same time allowing him to access deep ancestral memories. He says, “Questioning my own personal existence and manifesting through my art has allowed me to learn how to remember my family’s history, creating sombreros helps me remember who I am, to feel more deeply connected to my family, my ancestors, to everyone and everything.” As Justin continued shaping sombreros a friend invited him to his first makers market, where others got excited to have their very own hand shaped sombrero. Thus, El Rancho Carpintero was born.
Photo of Carmen Torres, Justin's great grandmother, wearing a Sombrero El Poche in old Los Angeles
Customers are referred to as “future friends” —the folks who discover El Rancho Carpintero via social media, word of mouth, or at an Alta California makers market. The sombreros are “Protectors”, for the “future friends” vida nueva. Justin likes to ask for details about a “future friends” lifestyle, what interests them most, getting a feel for the sombrero he will create. If the “future friend” is local, a time to meet is agreed upon, oftentimes meeting at historical landmarks, other times at the beach, usually a place of significance. Measurements are taken and a hat body is selected. The hat bodies are made in Guatemala from pure palm fiber, each one signed by the maker, then shaped and completed by Justin. Brim length, material, and a crown style are all considered. The most popular hat is the Sombrero El Poche, with a 3” brim and El Poche crown. El Poche was a term used for Native Californians of Mexican descent, but now can mean native Californian. Sombrero El Jardinero is named for Justin’s mother —who is a fourth generation native Californian. Justin refers to the Sombrero El Jardinero as his future team hat, for pro-gardeners, skaters, and teachers. Sombrero Sandstone Peak is inspired by Justin’s favorite part and highest peak of the Santa Monica Mountains. Sombrero El Presidente is reminiscent of the classic Stetson Open Road hat with a traditional Cattleman Cowboy crease, popularized by Linden B. Johnson, and is a hipster favorite. And, finally, the most dramatic sombrero in the collection, Sombrero Sugarloaf de Sandstone Peak, inspired by the highest peak in the Santa Monica mountains, this sombrero has longer sculptural lines with a honkin’ crown and brim for long days in the saddle, or perfect for the desert. Justin describes the styles, “shapes keep unfolding, coming from images and imagination —where does imagination come from? Lots of sources, memories manifest in unexplained ways, the shape is compelling, it’s like dancing, or surfing to me, why do we keep dancing or surfing? Because if feels so good, dancing matches your heart rate. Simple and pure and I’m not going to stop”. The initial shaping takes place during the first in-person meeting, so the new friends can experience the process, then Justin takes the sombrero home to finish it over the next two to three days. Justin gets very esoteric about collecting the water he uses during shaping, collecting emotional waters from various sources —his parents home where he grew up, family and friends homes, and also collects rainwater to be used. He says, “I light incense and burn piñon, energetically I make sure I’m in a peaceful, happy, loving place, feeling really grounded, and connected to everything, so that I put that into the hat. And, then I am extremely excited to meet up with the person the next time and show them their hat, get the fit just right, adding shims in there and customize it, so it’s perfect for the shape of their head. Then, away they go, I’ve sent them off into the world with their ‘protector’. The hats are great, because they are 50 UPF, they are great sun protectors, very durable, great for rain, they will absorb the water and then shape that much more to your head, so you can wear it in just about any weather condition.” The magical sombreros of El Rancho Carpintero serve as a modern day vehicle to transport us back to another time, Alta California times, when life moved at a different pace, barter was a common practice, and a deep connection to the land of California was paramount.
Photo of the Sombrero El Presidente
Photo of the Sombrero Sugarloaf de Sandstone Peak