Ever wondered what the world of couture millinery is like? Atelier Millinery in London’s Soho offers a tantalising taste with its workshops teaching couture techniques. After experiencing their basic cloche-making course last November taught by Tina Giuntini, this time I was back to make a fur felt cloche and a wide brimmed straw hat (capeline). Over two days we learnt how to block, shape, stitch and trim these hats by hand, emerging with couture hats we had made and designed ourselves. Rewarding does not even begin to describe how satisfying this is.
Let’s start with the fur felt cloche. My previous cloche adventure was a simple version made from a single piece of wool felt. This time, we were working with finer material, a fur felt with a nap to the fabric. It was much more malleable than the stiff wool and that made the first stage of blocking easier. The process is similar to that for the wool felt cloche – steaming, then stretching the fabric over the block, smoothing it down from the crown and securing the string to mark the point where crown meets brim. We just had to remember to be a little gentler with the material to avoid ripping it.
After leaving the hats to dry we removed the string, eased them off the blocks, pushing up from the brim and cut carefully through the indentation left by the string. The crown was put to one side and the brim went back onto the block, pinned in place 1 inch below its top line and with the string cinched around the pin line to create a ‘collar’.
Then there was more steaming and gentle pulling through and easing out of kinks around the string, using pliers. We stretched the lower part of the brim down under the block and pinned it in place. Finally, we flattened the collar with the iron and brushed up the nap on the felt.
After leaving the felt to dry out overnight, we started on the really interesting work of shaping the brim. We cut a length of milliner’s wire corresponding to the brim circumference, straightened it and then taped it into a circle and secured it with thread spiralled and knotted over the join. Then we started moulding it on the block, using dress maker pins to hold it in place against the felt.
This is the really creative part. We all agreed that so much of what makes a hat flattering is down to the depth and shape of the brim, so it is important to have a clear understanding of what shape will suit the wearer as well as the ability to produce that shape in the wire. I had decided to make a slightly unconventional cloche, more akin to a military cap, with a deep peak at the front. Modelling it free hand was still tricky but the symmetrical shape made things slightly easier.
Once the wire was shaped and positioned, we drew a line 1.5cm below (old soap good for this) and then cut along it with a rotary blade, discarding the excess below the cut. Then we sewed our sweatband into the top of the brim section, the petersham ribbon measured and curved as for the wool cloche, and blanket-stitched the wire onto the bottom of the brim section taking care to leave a small margin of felt below that we then rolled over the top to hide the wire and stab stitched to secure it invisibly. Once we had ironed it flat, the brim was done and ready to be re-attached to the crown.
It was really satisfying to see the hat in once piece, the sweat band sitting snuggly inside the crown. We used a running stitch to secure the crown to the brim, sewing underneath where the sweat band would sit but taking care to keep the stitching invisible on the outside.
Then finally and most rewardingly, came the moment to choose the trim. The classic option is a contrasting petersham ribbon but I had found some gold leather trim at Portobello Market that I thought might work with the slightly military look of the hat.
From start to finish it was a hugely rewarding and satisfying task, though not one for the impatient. Our wonderful tutor Tina, made it all fun as well as educational as she eased us through creating our own couture hats. Atelier Millinery’s next Intermediate Millinery course runs on 2-3 July 2016 and I cannot recommend it enough. If that is not enough for you, then there is also London Hat Week on the horizon from 6-12 October which promises to be a celebration of head adornment. Catch up with the latest at @LondonHatWeek.