All sewn up

High Sierra Photo

Kelsen Thompson, co-founder of Big Truck Hats, representing at the Squaw Valley Prom.

The Mad Hatter: Have I gone Mad?
Alice: I'm afraid so. You're entirely bonkers. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are.
-- Lewis Carroll, "Alice In Wonderland"

Glancing over at the row of sewing machines in his factory, Kelsen Thompson, co-founder of Big Truck Hats, didn't hesitate to choose which one he would take with him tonight.

"Mary Magdalene."

Each machine was given a name in the spur of the moment. There's Brother Gus and Brother Albert. But Thompson's favorite sewing machine -- his first -- is the vintage beige Mercury that he rescued from a lonely shelf, where it had been collecting dust for 15 years. Mary has been with Thompson since the very first hats. She was there during the late nights when Thompson and his friends sewed the night away, burning through a creative streak. She's moved with Big Truck from shed to kitchen to attic and now lives at the factory in Truckee, Calif. Mary is reliable, Thompson said. And he wouldn't have taken any other machine to the prom.

Courtesy Big Truck Hats

Reflections of Squaw Valley.

Thompson and Taylor Siegel, who started working for Big Truck last year, were packing up to sew hats at the Squaw Valley Prom, an annual theme party hosted by High Fives, a nonprofit that helps injured skiers come back from life-altering injuries. At events throughout the year, Big Truck packs up its needles and thread to set up a tent and sew custom trucker hats for customers. Last year, their hats took them to events like the Teen Choice Awards and the Video Music Awards. And they've made regular appearances at skiing events and concerts throughout Northern California.

Thompson and Siegel have the system dialed for packing, gathering up the essentials in less than an hour. Neon-green sunglass patches were cut and prepped. More than 100 trucker hats, their brims a blank canvas at this stage, filled cardboard boxes. Bobbins, needles, thread: Thompson said his list out loud.

"We got patches?" said Thompson.

"Sick patches," Siegel said. "Tons of goggles. Tons of glasses."

"Okay, hats: all colors? Pinks, teals?"

"Yeah, we got all the teals in the house."

It wasn't long before Thompson and Siegel loaded up the truck and were ready to go. The two hatters took one last look around their factory before they drove off to the prom, where they would design trucker hats for revelers until the dark hours of the early morning.

The first hat Thompson made was for his dad's light-haul trucking business. That's where the logo came from: It's an exact outline from a photo of his dad's old truck with the bed raised up. His aunt embroidered the first labels and Thompson put them on the brim of a trucker hat. It was a simple design, but it wasn't long before his friends wanted their own hat.

At first Thompson just gave them away. He'd show up to parties with a backpack full of hats and hand them out like candy.

High Sierra Photo

Mobbing the Big Truck Hats booth at the 2013 Squaw Valley Prom.

"Moments like that were just fun," Thompson said. "We were buddies on a beach not really doing anything but making hats, making product and giving it out to cool people."

In the early days, the operation was just a hobby. The sewing machine was set up in the shed on Thompson's parents' property in North Lake Tahoe. His friends were as much a part of the process as he was, designing and sewing their own hats. He turned it into a brand and put his savings into buying signature labels in bulk.

"He was just this fantastic, creative artist that was giving his art away," said Galen Gifford, who grew up with Thompson and co-founded Big Truck. Gifford and Thompson make a good couple: Thompson sews and heads up manufacturing, where Gifford brings to the table his business background and manages sales and marketing.

At that point, Thompson and Gifford weren't paying their bills with hat making. They had a business designing 3-D computer renderings for architecture blueprints. But Mary Magdalene still lived in their office, which now was Thompson's kitchen table. When they weren't busy working on a project, Thompson taught Gifford to sew. After the building industry collapsed in 2008, Gifford and Thompson found themselves making more hats than 3-D images. So they quit their jobs and devoted their lives to trucker hats and the pursuit of fun times, which is their mission statement.

"There's a lot of risk," Thompson said. "But I was at a point in life where I was in a job that I was so unhappy with. There was so much stress. The risk was so much better than spending another day being so unhappy."

Big Truck became an official business in 2010 and the company's first break was in the skiing industry. Marker, Volkl, GoPro, High Fives and the Shane McConkey Foundation all placed big orders for co-branded trucker hats. Gifford and Thompson started to earn a paycheck from their efforts and they moved out of Thompson's parents' house into an attic space above a deli in Truckee. It was a humble "sweat shop loft," Gifford said.

"It was just me and Kelsen," he continued. "We were both sewing together like crazy, sewing like maniacs."

The more hats they made, the more demand grew. They hired employees and moved into their current factory space. Their business expanded to Hollywood when they were invited to sew backstage at the Teen Choice Awards, the Video Music Awards and Jingle Ball, a music festival with headliners Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. Big Truck hats have graced both the heads of teenage celebrities like Zac Efron and the pages of magazines like "Us Weekly" and "In Touch."

At the same time, Big Truck solidified its roots in the action-sports industry. They sponsor athletes like ski racer Julia Mancuso and snowboarder Ralph Backstrom. They just booked a sew-on-site event with the Big Stick surfing competition in Santa Cruz, Calif. Last year alone, Gifford said, they made around 25,000 trucker hats.

"It very much started as a local community effort," Gifford said. "We feel very strongly that the community of people in Tahoe and who wear Big Truck to other communities are very much the motor behind this brand. Now that we've had local success, we're talking about taking it to other markets."

At its core, what Big Truck offers is creativity. Customers can put together their own hat with a one-of-a-kind patch and thread to match.

"We try to go off on all the colors so there's something for everybody," Thompson said.

At the Squaw Valley Prom, Thompson sat down at his sewing machine and never got up -- until the last 30 minutes, when hat sales slowed down and he was dragged to the dance floor. Mary Magdalene purred away, her humming drowned out by the heavy bass from the DJ in the next room.

Party guests clad in '90s-themed beachwear took a break from the dance floor to check out the hats. A rainbow of thread was displayed on the table: pumpkin orange, sunshine yellow, '80s pink. Hats were displayed in neat rows and patches were filed in boxes. Some picked out their designs in a few minutes; others took longer to find the perfect fabric and color combo. The orders stacked up and the mad hatter himself sewed the night away, never looking up, a wild grin spread across his face.

"Meeting people, seeing people's designs, breaking us out of our box," Thompson said. "You get charged up when people are so stoked on something they made and you get to help them make it."

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