WASHINGTON (AP) _ Darcy Creech watched with pleasure Wednesday as first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton made one of her hats the focus of a nation.

''My year is off to a great start,'' said Creech, 30, who has been designing hats in Southport, Conn., for just three years.

Her inaugural creation was a cadet blue velour, off-the-face hat with an upturned brim in front, that turned down in back.

There was satin binding on the brim. A pleated satin band crossed in the back and was accented with a satin button. Mrs. Clinton added a large hat pin at the back.

Creech gained Mrs. Clinton's attention shortly after the election by sending her a congratulatory note attached to a hat.

''It was a hand-blocked velour hat with my signature parchment paper roses and blackberries,'' said Creech.

Mrs. Clinton like it and asked for some designs for Inauguration Day.

''I sent them several shapes that were designed for an event like this so you could really see her face and the brim wouldn't be in the way if she wanted to greet and embrace people,'' said Creech.

She never met with Mrs. Clinton and didn't see the final effect of her work until she turned on the television for the swearing-in ceremony.

''She looked like a lady, but didn't look frilly,'' said Creech. ''I thought it was great. She really made a statement.''

A 1984 art history and visual arts graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, Creech turned to professional hat-making after being praised for a hat she made for herself for a party.

''I realized I had found a product I could market,'' she said.

She said she made another hat and test-marketed it in Nantucket, Mass., where people raved about it and placed orders.

''Then I took a collection to New York City, and found a sales representative and started selling,'' Creech said.

Her hats are now in many of the major department stores, but she said it wasn't until last year that she made any money from the business.

Creech said she'd liked to design a hat for the vice president's wife, Tipper Gore, too, but had nothing to do with the classic, deep purple picture hat Mrs. Gore wore to the swearing-in.

Outgoing first and second ladies Barbara Bush and Marilyn Quayle were hatless.