With a long, late summer bank holiday weekend on the horizon, it seemed like a good opportunity for a millinery project to get me in a more autumnal mood. I had an ocelot-print felt hood and suddenly the time seemed right to turn it into something, but what? My eye has been attracted to high crown hats just lately so I started to think about a fedora-cloche hybrid with a steeply sloping, narrow brim. I made a few sketches but decided to be guided by the felt itself. Instead of blocking the hood like a cloche, I would drape and crease the felt and just see what folds it naturally took.
Day 1: I started by stiffening the felt hood. I made up a solution of 1 part PVA glue to 4 parts water and then added an equivalent amount of methylated spirits and whisked it up into the foulest cocktail you’ve ever seen. Then, taking a short, stubby brush, I turned the hood inside out and started working the stiffener into the felt in circular movements, spiralling down from the crown. Its really important to do this in a well-ventilated place – outdoors if possible – because you’ll be exposed to potent fumes for at least 20 minutes (depending on how many hoods you are working on). Once that was finished, I left the hood to dry and stiffen overnight.
Day 2: The next day I readied my block, covering it with clear plastic to protect the wood but avoid risk of colour transfer from the plastic to the hood. I held the hood over a boiling kettle to soften it enough to turn it back the right way around again. Then, placing it on the block I was able to start gently moulding the felt. It seemed to fall naturally enough into the dimpled crown shape of a fedora, and then moving downwards, I turned up the brim on one side and worked it around into a steep slope. The hat was starting to take shape as a forties-style, draped and slant-brimmed hat. As I worked I tried it on every so often to check that the style worked for me, not only in a front-facing view but all the way around. It can be so easy to forget that the side profile of a hat can be even more striking than the front view. Having checked the sides, I decided that the brim needed better definition. Borrowing from cloche technique, I took some cord and cinched it around the circumference where I wanted the crown to meet the brim and where the sweatband would sit inside and the hat band outside. I nailed it in place and then left the hat to harden into shape, sitting on the block. This marker line would be a crucial guide for aligning the interior and exterior bands with the position of the hat on my head, especially important when working with an asymmetrical brim.
Day 3: I faced what I knew was going to be a tricky step. As I suspected, the hat was a little too large. This was because the high crown had lowered the position where the conical hood would sit on my forehead. What to do? True milliners please look away now: as it was not a dramatic mismatch, the unorthodox solution I devised was to sew in a sweatband that fitted my head snuggly and hope that I could make it align with the hat. It was somewhat of a bodge job but it worked. Pinning the sweatband into place was difficult but once I started stab-stitching it in, things got easier. I smoothed the band against the felt as I went and made sure I kept the band aligned with the marker line I had created.
The final stage was to add the exterior hat band. I experimented with several different colours: mustard is always great with leopard, pale blue was interesting, oxblood was bold, emerald was opulent but limiting. I settled on a pale primrose that seemed subtle enough to blend with the print but keep some contrast. I cut the ribbon to the circumference of the hat with an additional 2.5cm overlap and ironed it into a curve before sewing it together. Then I cut a second, 12cm piece of ribbon to wrap over the join and sewed that into place too. By tradition, for ladies’ hats the ribbon join is positioned on the right. I gave the hat a final check on my head before putting in a few tiny invisible stitches to hold the band in place.
Day 4: A day later, the primrose band just looked wrong. I replaced it with a new hat band in oxblood and now it looked right.
So where did inspiration come from? As I looked at the finished article, a remembered image started to re-surface and a quick rifle through some of my files uncovered it: a picture from Vogue Paris, perhaps 2 years old, featuring a leopard print coat with a stunning pastel blue Stephen Jones hat. Subconsciously, I think this image was guiding me all the time, I just never realised it until the hat emerged.