It means I don’t have a visual mind’s eye, and I don’t see any pictures in my head. When I close my eyes to think about something or go to sleep it looks a bit like the black and white image above, although probably not so pretty. And sometimes it’s blurry black and and red dots, instead of black and white. In fact, I suspect I am looking at the light coming through my eyelids.
I found out that I had this in 2016 and it still fascinates me! It really is so utterly alien to me that most people have a mind’s eye and see pictures. My whole life I have never done that, although I do have visual dreams and sometimes hazily remember them. Unlike my sister I can’t remember anything about the wallpaper in the house I grew up in, or the clothes that people were wearing at memorable events.
“But… you make things?!” is the puzzled reply from most people when I tell them I have aphantasia. I do. I’ve always instinctively known how to make something – e.g. sculpting, working out how many parts a casting mold needs to be, carving in polystyrene. Sometimes, with the pressure of time as a deadline approaches, I have a sudden idea about how to problem solve and make something. The idea just pops in there and I know it will work.
I have worked as a professional milliner, making hats for stage, film and TV for over 10 years. My hats have been on Doctor Who, The Globe, English National Opera and Bridget Jones’s Baby. I love learning a new skill. I teach myself from video or picture tutorials online, or books with either just words or diagrams, as well as learning from a teacher on a course.
Aphantasia is not a barrier to creativity
So I want to pop the bubble of people thinking that aphantasia is a barrier to creativity. Are you a teenager and reading this because you’ve just realised that you have aphantasia and you think it means you can’t be creative? Don’t worry, you can have aphantasia and be creative. Think about it logically – if it did, then why isn’t everybody who can see pictures an artist?
I’ve been slightly obsessed with talking to people about aphantasia since discovering I had it, and the thing I have realised is that everybody has a very different visualisation process.
Everyone is different. Embrace what makes you, you.
Creativity is more than seeing pictures
I think there is an issue with people linking imagination and visualisation. They are two different things. I don’t visualise but I have a very active imagination and ability fantasize. Imagination and visualisation can exist independently of each other.
We are talking about the nature of creativity – and creativity is far more complex and nuanced than equating people who see pictures as creative, and those who don’t see pictures as being at a creative disadvantage.
There is an interesting area to discuss about how all artists record their ideas. You have a stream of ideas, and there will never be enough time to create them all. Some of the ideas are better than others. How do you record them? Thumbnail sketches? Photographed mock ups, toiles and maquettes? Ideas written down in words? I use a combination of all of those, and I’m sure other people do too.
For me, creating is a form of self expression. Sometimes with the act of making, you can feel an emotional connection, and you just know it feels “right”. Time disappears, thought disappears, and all that exists is you and the work. I’ve realised for a long time that making things with my hands makes me happy, and I feel very lucky to be able to earn a living doing it.
EXHIBITION – ‘Extreme Imagination – inside the mind’s eye’
Two of my headdresses will be part of the exhibition ‘Extreme Imagination – inside the mind’s eye’. The show will be at Tramway Glasgow from 10th January to 3rd March 2019 (free entry) and will then move to Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery.
Whilst in Exeter the exhibition will coincide with the first international conference for people with aphantasia and hyperphantasia. This conference will take place on the 6-7 April 2019, at the University of Exeter, UK. See the facebook page linked below for more information.
‘Extreme Imagination: inside the mind’s eye‘ is an exhibition that will feature works by people who cannot visualise, alongside works by those who have particularly vivid mental imagery.
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and curated by the artist Susan Aldworth, the exhibition is the result of research lead by Professor Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter College of Medicine and Health, and the Eye’s Mind research group: Fiona Macpherson (philosophy, Glasgow), Crawford Winlove (neuroscience, Exeter), John Onians (art history, University of East Anglia), and Matthew MacKisack (cultural history, Exeter).
❇️ A short clip of me talking about my aphantasia as part of the exhibition can be seen here (filmed and edited by Matthew MacKisack):
‘Normal’ felt is flat. If you try to use this flat felt to block a 3D shape – like a standard domed crown – it will have to have a seam. It might also rip and get a hole in it as it is usually quite thin. And modern day craft felt is also very likely to be synthetic or have a mix of synthetic in it. It will never have the same look and feel as a hat body made specifically for millinery.
Hat making felt is sold as already in a rounded hat shape. There are quite a few different shapes you can buy from factories that make hat bodies, but as a beginner you will probably either buy it as a cone or a capeline. When you are looking for what to buy you need to know 2 things:
The shape you want to buy. The shape you will buy from a millinery materials supplier is either a cone or a capeline. Sometimes you might hear people talk about a ‘flare’ (which is a slightly bigger cone). See below for a picture of a capeline (needed for larger brimmed hats) and a cone (used for pillboxes / berets / short top hats and bowlers).
The material you want the shape to be made in. Felt is what the material is. It is a compressed shape of felted fibres, but the fibres can from a variety of animals. And the cost of your hat body (cone or capeline) will change depending on what animal it has been made from. It could be wool, rabbit, hare, beaver, cashmere, mink….. and probably more that I have forgotten! If buying vintage felts, please remember that it is very likely the felt was made using mercury. Think about your health and safety and wear gloves when blocking it as you might otherwise absorb the chemicals through your skin.
A millinery felt cone
A millinery felt capeline
Felt is one of the oldest, if not the oldest material used for making hats. When you think of Guy Fawkes and see those tall crowned hats, they are made from felt. Below is a great film from the Torb and Reiner YouTube channel, where they describe some of the differences between different millinery felt hat bodies.
Some pictures of my own stock of millinery felt and what they are called if you want to buy something similar
A plain furfelt. I bought this from Kopka in Germany. A thinner felt than a peachbloom and a lovely matt quality. A good option for making vintage looking hats. I have not found a UK supplier of plain furfelt, and have been told by a large UK supplier that it doesn’t exist (not true!) If you want even thinner felt, which is perfect for draping and flower making, then you can buy ’tissue’ felt, also from Kopka in Germany.
Plain furfelt (have not found a supplier in the UK)
A peachbloom or velour felt. When you buy it they will normally ask if you want a single sided or double sided peachbloom. That means do you want the slightly fuzzy surface on both sides or just on the top (double sided is more expensive). Yes, this is made from rabbit fur. It is most likely if you buy this in the UK to come from a large felt producer in the Czech Republic called Tonak. The rabbit fur is a by product of the meat industry. Furfelt is much easier to block and has a softer look to blocked wool felt.
Peachbloom or velour – a furfelt
A soleil millinery felt cone, in blue and red. It is a quality of felt half way between a melusine and a velour peachbloom. The shiny surface shows up best on dark colours and for this reason the supplier I bought them from (Kopka in Germany) only sells them in jewel colours.
Soleil fur felt
I made this hat from nothing! I made the felt from raw sheep’s wool whilst on a course with The School of Historical Dress taught by Rachel Frost of the company Crafty Beggars. It took 2 days, 2 days! If you are interested in buying a hat like this, Rachel is an expert in hats that were made in the days when felt was made entirely by hand with very little machinery http://www.thecraftybeggars.org/hats.htm
Handmade felt from scratch by me
I bought this felt by mistake from Kopka and it was impossible to block. I bought it from the men’s section of the website and it is a very thick hood that is designed to be blocked by machines in a factory. ‘Melange’ means the way the colour is made up of different coloured fibres mixed together to create the colour, rather than a dyed flat colour.
melange felt sold for men’s hats
A melusine felt in hunter green. These are getting to be pretty expensive these days! You can create a nice recreation of a plush silk vintage top hat with this type of felt. After blocking you steam, brush and polish it and you get a lovely shine.
2 wool felt cones, blocked on top of each other over a rounded crown to bring up the size of the crown to my client’s headsize. Wool felt is cheaper than furfelt, and you can buy it in a range of bright colours. There seem to be quite a few suppliers selling from Poland on Ebay, and most millinery suppliers will stock woolfelt, so shop around.
These types of hoods will not have the same finished appearance as furfelt. They are also more likely to shrink. When you are blocking them make sure you leave them for an extra amount of time on the block, to make sure that the felt is 100% dry before you remove them.
They are perfect to use for blocking skull caps to go under wigs or sculptural creations for carnival, showgirl, opera and pantomime. Get one in a colour that matches your creation, plus 1 meter of 1cm wide petersham to bind the edge.
How do they make the felt hat bodies??
I’ve been making hats for over 10 years. I knew a lot of labour went into making the hat bodies (the ‘hoods’, ‘cones’ and ‘capelines’) but seeing how much work goes into them from watching this film just blew me away. (Also, the health and safety person inside me wishes they were all wearing dust masks!!!)
Below is a film of a modern day felt making factory. If you compare this one to the black and white film at the bottom of this blog post you will see that the machines are pretty much the same.
Similar to the film above, here is a film of modern felt cones and capelines being made. This one has a bit more information at certain points (like they get rid of the longer hairs in the felt, as the shorter hairs make better quality felt). Also, I like this film because you see some great hat making processes for making the finished hat. (Look for the heavy sand bags that are lowered down on top of the hats to press down the brims).
Below is another film of a hat being made from start to finish. It is from around the 1930s I think. At this time they probably would have still been using mercury as part of the process, something which poisoned many hatters, they had the ‘danbury shakes’ and were ‘mad as a hatter’. Mercury was used as part of the felt making process called carroting (so called because it turned the felt fibres more orange). You can find out more in this Wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erethism
You see at one point in the film a man working the felt with his hands. It says 2 hours to felt 3 hoods. That’s 2 hours of working with bare skin against some very toxic chemicals. If you are using vintage materials, think about what has gone into making them (this also applies to buying vintage feathers).
If you compare the black and white film below with the colour more modern day film above, you will notice that the beginning bits are almost identical. The part where the felt cones are worked by hand to compress them in the black and white film has been replaced by a machine process in the modern day film.
One of the most amazing parts for me was at around 8 minutes. You see a Steson being hand blocked around a crown block. The men pull out the brims by hand, a brilliant thing to watch, so skilled.
A couple of weeks ago (November 2017) I was at Cockpit Arts in Deptford as part of their ‘LCN’ (London Creative Network) programme. Less than 2 minutes away is the new building for ‘Petershams’, which has moved to Deptford from Elephant and Castle. So I thought I’d pop in and have a look. It is great. Lots of veiling, crin, feathers, textured feathers, premade bases, feather spines, sinamay, combs, hairbands, some felt hat bodies and more. The lovely lady running the shop told me they try to make themselves a one stop millinery supply shop.
I didn’t go to the Petershams in Elephant and Castle, but this one is apparently much bigger with lots of lovely light. It is a little tricky to find at first, but hopefully the pictures below will guide you to where to find it. Also, I have ordered from their website in the past, to make the Dr Who Missy hat, and their website is very easy to navigate and prompt delivery and good communication throughout the whole ordering and delivery process.
The closest station is Deptford Bridge on the DLR (you can get this from Stratford, Bank, Tower Gateway or Lewisham). It is also close to New Cross. See this link on the Cockpit Arts website for buses and directions from the different stations: https://cockpitarts.com/contact-us/cockpit-arts-deptford/
It was like being in a sweet shop – I loved it! Look at their website to find out the latest opening times and days https://www.petershams.com/
Outside of the building at ‘Petershams’ in Deptford
Inside the shop! (November 2017)
Directions to Petershams in Deptford
These pictures taken from the direction of Deptford Bridge, walking towards Petershams. You go down a main road called Deptford Church Street and then turn right at a pub called ‘The Birds Nest’.
When you are on Pinterest you sometimes find a great board. And my advice would be to also see who these people are following themselves. But anyway, apart from that, here are some great people on Pinterest who have gathered lovely boards and research images, and I am specifically looking at millinery and headdresses, and so inevitably also interested in fashion, costume and styling.
Judith M millinery supply
A selection of millinery and headwear boards put together by somebody who clearly has a genuine interest in millinery and isn’t just in it to sell materials. One of her boards is about carving hat blocks, another about crin, another about veiling, another about cut and sewn hats plus much more.
I believe the internet is a wonderful thing! Here are a few of the facebook communities who love hats and costume. If you can recommend others then feel free to add them in the comments below!
On facebook in 2017 you have pages that you can ‘like’ and get regular news and updates. And you also have ‘groups’. Groups are basically forums. Some of them are closed and you have to submit a request to join them and some of them are open. If you have a friend on facebook you can usually click on their profile somewhere and find out what groups they are part of – a great way to discover new groups!
If you are still not sure what a facebook group is, then join one and have a look. You can always very easily leave again. It’s kind of a bit like being in a room with lots of people asking for help or telling you about interesting things, crossed with the old fashioned classified section at the back of the newspaper in ‘the olden times’ lol.