The following will describe perhaps what has been one of my happiest days in London.
It was a very exciting Saturday morning when, as everyone else lay in the very rare London sunshine planning their next BBQ, I found myself donning a pretty dress and hopping on the scooter all the way to Bloomsbury to learn how to make a couture hat.
My new teacher had emailed a list of things I needed to get, and it turned out I had a choice between making a straw hat, a felt hat, or a fabric hat. I went for straw as I was inspired by the summery weather and bought a straw parisisal capeline in navy from McCullock & Wallis.
Now, I knew from my emails with the Guru that I would be blocking my hat – that was, after all, what I was there to learn. However, several shop assistants I spoke to seemed to think that that would be terribly hard to do as my first project, which was of course completely untrue.
Also, a note for when you are buying materials as a novice. I noticed a huge fold on the capeline, but as it was the last one in navy, I had to purchase it; I did ask if the fold would be a problem, and was told that no, blocking would take care of that. As it happens, it didn’t, so beware: massive folds or creases in less than top-quality straw permanently damage the fibres and even after blocking you will still have a faint line where the fold used to be.
Sooo, to the Guru’s studio for the First Lesson. I was in heaven upon walking in. Minimalist desks, lovely bits of fabric casually peeping out of glamorous hat boxes, and dozes of intriguing blocks and tools everywhere. But first, to identify the First Hat. What did I want to make, the Guru asked? No idea, I replied, and a discussion of designers and eras I liked ensued, aided strongly by amazingly expensive fashion books and stunning pictures. The Guru and I clicked, and very soon after I was donning an apron (standard millinery dress) and the First Hat was being born.
The first skill I learned was an introduction to blocking. Blocking is the process by which you shape the material used to make your hat. Experienced milliners will know how to design their own block according to the hat they want to make, but at a beginner’s level, I improvised with some of the shapes my Guru already had in house. I went for a wide brim, with rounded crown, with an inverted attachment and an improvised angle, ala 1950s New Look (see previous post and left).
Couture hats are made in two parts: brim and crown. I started with the brim, and to start blocking, I covered the brim block with plastic (we used dry cleaning bags); the plastic was attached by four pins in a cross pattern. Then I drenched the capeline in water and, finding the X-shaped seam in the crown, placed it correctly on the block. The Gury blocked four pins into the wood as guides for me to practice blocking on.
One of my first negative thoughts about millinery (the first of only two so far!), was that it was unexpectedly painful! Blocking a hat is basically stretching fabric over a piece of wood and pining it into perfect, smooth shape using your bare hands. Yes, shoving very hard needles into a block of wood just by the strength of your arms (mine are not that strong, so I was very worried my career as a milliner would be over before it even starte
d). I soon got the hang of it though, as there is a special technique you use: with a thimble on your middle finger, pick up the pin upside down. Insert into wood using both your thumb, index inger and the side of your middle finger. No other way works as well, according to the Guru. Thus, the beginnings of the First Hat looked something like this (right).
After blocking all the way round the brim, I bunched up the crown fabric and blocked the top part of the brim that would later join the two parts of the hat together. Once blocked, the hat was left to dry over night, and that was my first lesson over with!
More on the First Hat coming soon, including how not to use fabric stiffener, some basic millinery sewing skills and much more! x