A creator and crafter her whole life, Jackie Priess' most popular project to date involves saving the world from ugly sweaters.
The Missoula resident is founder of Jax Hats, a line of short visor boutique beanies made from recycled, pieced-together portions of old sweaters. Each is fitted with a bright button and stitched with the JAX signature.
When you see a Jax hat, you don't think Bill Cosby.
Priess' handmade hats have turned one-time fashion faux pas into the latest fashion craze in Missoula. The hats have become so popular that the entire family is involved in running the Jax business.
Priess' husband, Paul, is a full-time sewer. Their daughters, Bethany and Adrienne, do marketing for the business. Jax Hats retail from $35 to $46, depending on the vendor. The hats are sold in 10 stores around Missoula and several in surrounding cities. The Priess family also has a permanent table at the People's Market.
"It's been really fun watching it grow," Priess said last week, sitting with Paul in the Apricot Lane Boutique of Southgate Mall. Jax Hats are one of the store's more popular items.
Creating things has always been a part of the Priess family.
Priess sewed her first dress at age 8. She put together her first hat pattern when she was in high school, where she met Paul. They've been married for 37 years. Paul is a creator, too. One of his first gifts to Priess was a handmade leather barrett.
Priess continued to craft and sew throughout her career as a dental hygienist. She now works at Missoula Youth Homes. In 2007, Priess noticed a poster announcing a clothing designer contest at Missoula's Selvedge Studios.
Priess entered a line of clothing, made her way through the weekly eliminations and won the contest. Pieces of her clothing line were sold at Betty's Divine and Sotto Voce.
During her time in those stores, Priess noticed "cute hats" had become popular and decided to dig out her old hat pattern. She cut up a few ugly sweaters she had laying around and after making a few changes to the original pattern, sewed a hat for daughter Adrienne.
Priess quickly sold 20 more to Adrienne's friends, and Jax Hats became hits at markets and craft shows.
"At first, Paul thought when we sold a hat to everyone in Missoula, we'd be done," Priess said. But demand has only increased. "It's kind of like potato chips, you buy one and you want another."
When Paul was laid off from his job in 2008, it opened up more time to help with the family business. Not only has he become the main sewer for Jax Hats, he has his own "Silver Smitten" line of jewelry made from recycled forks.
The popularity of the hats is especially apparent at the summer outdoor markets in downtown Missoula.
"That's the fun part, at the market talking to people," Paul said. "I call (the hats) the feel-good fashion accessory. Everyone who wears one has people stop them on the street and ask where they can get one."
Combinations of different patterns and fabrics turn ugly into unique. No one hat is the same.
Each hat sports a handmade button the couple makes with polymer clay. Some hats have bows, others have flowers, other have crosses stitched in by Priess. Pieces of upholstery are used to complete some looks.
Jax has added men's wear selections, too, that include solid color hats without buttons. Priess also makes "Warm Memories" Jax Hats for customers using a loved one's sweater or clothing.
Jackie finishes each hat with a few hand stitches, spelling "JAX" on the right side just above the brim.
What was a longtime nickname has now turned into a brand name.
The Jax inventory at Apricot Lane flys off the racks, said store manager Linda Yovetich.
"People come in and they say, ‘Where are your Jax?' Not ‘Jax Hats,' " Yovetich said.
Customers love that the hats are locally made from recycled materials, and "they're adorable. I've already sent my buyer a note saying we need more," Yovetich said.
The couple sells up to 400 hats a month in the busy seasons. Paul sews full time on one of eight surgers in their house. Priess' friend Boni Braunbeck sews part time for Jax.
"We live in (a) factory," Priess said.
To keep up with demand, Paul is also now an ugly sweater buyer as well. He hits the thrift stores and Priess goes to garage sales to find good pieces to transform into hats. Stores like Apricot Lane donate unsellable pieces to Priess so she can transform them into hats.
The income from the business has replaced what they lost when Paul was laid off. Priess plans to keep her job at Missoula Youth Homes but will continue to grow the business on evenings and weekends.
Bethany, Priess' oldest daughter, recently moved to San Diego and is beginning to market the hats there. The idea is to get Jax sold across the world.
Wherever the business goes from here, Priess wants to keep the hats locally made, creating jobs for local people.
"Once Nordstroms picks them up, we'll have to add staff," she said.