Atelier Millinery is a genius little shop in London’s Soho that not only sells beautiful hats but also offers customers the opportunity to have a go at making hats themselves. After recent posts on Philip Treacy and other hat-related topics, I had to have a go. I also had a more personal interest: my great-grandfather ran a hatshop where my grandmother also worked. I vividly remember her affection for hats and, as a child of the 1920s, she never veered from her opinion that the cloche hat was the most flattering of all. So the opportunity to make my own cloche with Atelier Millinery was too good to pass up. Here, in two instalments, is how it all turned out.
Our teacher was the rather brilliant Tina Giuntini. You can see her elegant 20s and 30s-inspired work on display on Etsy but she is also a patient and gifted teacher. She started by measuring our heads, placing the tape measure just above the eyebrows for a cloche – the place you expect the hatband to sit.
Tina had already pre-stiffened the felt forms for us. This enables the hat to hold its shape but it also makes the wool felt quite tough to handle. One of the things that surprised me most was the sheer hard physical work required to block and shape the hat.
Stiffening can be done either with a speciality stiffener solution for felt or straw hats or you can make your own using a PVA glue & water solution (1 part glue to 3 or 4 parts water). Turn the felt form inside out to avoid affecting the colour and roll it in a shallow bucket or tray of solution and start working it into the fabric in large coin-sized patches. It helps to put a pin in where you start to avoid going back over patches. The whole process should take around 15-20 minutes.
Next comes the blocking and shaping. We started by softening the felt in the steam from a kettle, turning the hat the right way around again and then, with more steam, forcing it down on the block using our bodyweight to pull the base down as far as possible, smoothing it down from the crown and pinning the bottom edge to the base of the block. This is really hard work with wool felt and I was not surprised to learn from Tina that traditionally this work had usually been done by men.
The next step is to cinch the hat where the hat band will sit using a string line, pulled tight and nailed into the block. This is what gives the cloche its distinctive bell shape. Next we used a small wooden tool, a tolliker, to smooth down the felt and push the string firmly into place.
Now it was time to focus on the brim, extending below the string line which meant more steam and stretching and pinning to the base of the block.
After all that effort the next step was more fun – choosing the sweatband that we would sew into the interior of the hat. The sweatband is made of petersham ribbon, chosen because it is a ridged fabric that can be curved along one side. This means it can be shaped to reflect the curvature of the hat’s crown so that it sits snuggly and comfortably inside.
The ribbon is cut 3cm longer than the circumference of the head measurement and then curved on an ironing board, running the iron over it as you curve the ribbon in an arc. Finally, you turn over 1cm at one end and iron it flat.
Back to the felt next to blow-dry it to dry out any remaining steam before the next decisive step – trimming the brim. The depth and angle of the brim is highly influential in how flattering the hat is to the wearer. Some look better in shallow, flat brims, others need angle. Tina’s solution to creating a clean and precise line was to make a ring out of millinery wire and using it to model a perfect circular brim at the level and angle desired. This then acts as the stencil for you to draw around with some old soap (less likely to mark than tailors’ chalk) before making the decisive incision with a rotary blade.
Tina also gave us some more history at this point. Traditionally milliners have always marked the front of a hat with a star or cross and the back with a single vertical line. So if you ever find a vintage hat with a star sewn inside the sweatband, it indicates a couture hat.
By this point we now had our cloche formed and shaped and ready for finishing. It was very satisfying to see it taking shape and rather exciting to start thinking about how to decorate it, but first there was one step that proved to be the single most frustrating, scream-inducing part of the whole process. More about that to come in part 2.