Mad as a Hatter

Costume Construction, RWCMD

Week five was MILLINERY! I was excited for this week – making hats was always something I’d wanted to try, and it would be the first completely new skill I’d learn at RWCMD. The 3rd year BA’s (who did it last year) told us that we’d get to choose three hats to make: one felt, one straw, and one covered. With that in mind I spent the weekend researching Edwardian picture hats – but how on EARTH was I going to choose?!

So those were my options for a straw hat. Then I had to think about what to make for my felt hat – initially I wanted to make a bowler, but after seeing everyone else’s choices I decided to go for something more whimsical. Cue this fantastic 1940 Schiaparelli number:

Schiaparelli hat

Which then left the covered hat. I had initially figured my Edwardian hat would be covered instead of straw, so I didn’t have any ideas. That is, not until I saw Ellie’s picture of a Tudor headpiece, which reminded me that hey, the hat I make doesn’t have to be 20th century! Enter the Medieval heart-shaped hennin:

Once we had all chosen the hats we were making, it was time to stretch our felt hats on the block. Ruth, our tutor, said that millinery is a bit like cooking – it’s all about timing, and it’s best if you have a few things on the go at once. Felt takes the longest to dry, so that’s where you start.

First, you take a wool felt capeline like this (or if your hat doesn’t have a brim, you can get a wool felt piece that’s just the lump in the middle called a cone)…

wool capelines

…and stretch it over the most appropriately shaped block for the hat you want to make. Then you work out how deep you want the crown to be, mark it with some elastic, and cut and flatten to brim; like so:


It’s exactly the same process for the straw hat, again starting with a capeline if you want a brim, or just a cone if your hat doesn’t have a brim. By lunchtime the dye room was awash with hats on blocks!

Then it was onto the covered hat. I showed Ruth my reference pictures, and her instruction was “work out a pattern” for the heart-shaped bit. The idea of drafting my own pattern was daunting for about five seconds. Then I remembered what we’d been doing for all of week three, and once I applied the same flat-drafting process it really was pretty simple. Result!

After creating the heart-shape, I molded two separate side bits on a smaller block. In retrospect I think this method resulted in something too horizontal and bulging, but oh well, live and learn. Molding the buckram (that stiff hessian-looking stuff) was pretty gross – it comes on the roll glued together in two layers, which we had to peel apart. You have to dampen the buckram before you can mold it (actually, you have to do that with the felt and straw too – completely saturate them in hot water before putting them on the block so they mold more easily), which means the glue gets really sticky and slimy. Really not pleasant, and not altogether different from papier mache.

Did I mention millinery is a messy business?

Once I had the side bits, I had to make a close-fitting cap for the whole structure to sit on. This basically comprises of Frankensteining a bit of buckram molded to the top of the head to a wide rectangle cut on the bias that wraps around the head, and then trimmed down to get rid of the pleats/bulges before sewing it together by hand. At Ruth’s suggestion, I painted the side pieces gold, the idea being I would eventually embellish them with gold braid and get that net-like effect from the exposed weave of the hessian.

Then came time to pad out and cover the heart bit. NIGHTMARE!


It really shouldn’t have been that hard. It was literally just glueing the fabric to the buckram – but my god those curves were awkward. I ended up staying til 7.45 that night getting it neatly glued and pinning on the inside layer of fabric before bringing it home to slip-stitch (which took approximately three episodes of Masters of Sex). It sucked. But I did it!

Anyway, after working on the hennin late into Wednesday night I came in on Thursday ready to go back to my felt hat. I had wired, bound, and sewed the crown of my straw hat to the brim in between working on the hennin, resulting in this understated (read: unfinished and undecorated) little number:

I’ll get around to decorating it sometime. Maybe. Probably not. Anyway, felt hat! First thing was to delicately take it off the block and trim down the brim to the appropriate width. After trimming, it needs wiring and hand-sewing around the edge of the brim to bind it. After wiring and sewing the brim, Ruth helped me pleat it to look like the picture before leaving me to sew on the crown.

My hand-sewing under the brim is really pretty shoddy, but the felt was thick and my fingers were sore and by Thursday afternoon I can’t say I was particularly bothered anymore. Not that you can really tell in the photo…!


If I were to do this one again I would scale the whole thing down – I was imagining a much daintier hat, but just went with what Ruth suggested for the brim based on what we could see in the photo. One of these days I’ll put a band on it to hide the janky handsewing around the crown, and hopefully attach a fantastically Surreal bow!

Once the felt hat was done (or as done as it was going to get – Dot and I had a field trip on Friday, so we only had til the end of the day on Thursday to work on our hats), it was back to the hennin. Of the three, this is the one that isn’t actually wearable because it is still in bits. However, I assembled those bits and got a photo which I think lends a decent impression of what the finished product would look like:

And yes, I was kind of going for the whole “evil Duchess” thing.


This week, I am in the building NEXT DOOR (gasp) with the four MA Performance Designers working on a Shakespeare costume design project. Now I just have to figure out what the heck King Lear is all about…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s