‘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.
Some of the links below are to processes that you won’t be able to recreate at home, they are factory processes – but you can still learn from them. Other links are to couture and model milliners – who show you techniques you can use in your own artisan millinery studio.
How to block a felt hat – wooden block in a factory
A 2005 film by Austrian hat company Mühlbauer (based in Vienna) showing how they block felt hats in their old traditional factory. This is a factory setting, but the hat is made on wooden blocks, in a very traditional way. I love the big round metal steaming case at 1 minute into the film …. and all those wooden hat blocks on their own spaces on shelves (swoon!). I think the blocker claps his hands at the beginning of blocking because the felt is hot. It must have been steaming in the dome for a while.
Blocking a felt hat in a factory in between 2 metal ‘pans’
This YouTube film is made by Anthony Peto. Watch how long the felt hat body is left in the metal steam cabinet at the beginning – they get it really really saturated with hot steam. You can still see the steam rising off it when he puts the red felt capeline onto the bottom metal pan. And if you watch until the end, you will see that the hatter sprays the black felt capeline with water before he puts it in the steam cabinet.
Look as well at how the top metal pan is being heated with gas flames – so that shape is really pressed out of the felt.
A felt hat made at Christies in the UK
Some lovely old machines that make beautiful hats. I love the way the steam comes out of each machine at each step of the felt hat making process. If you are making hats by hand you can also smooth off felt with different grades of sandpaper – but please make sure you wear a dust mask. And that brim cutting machine, and the brim curling machine are top of my millinery wish list!
Dressage hats and top hats
A film about how traditional top hats and dressage hats used to be made and are still made in a few places today. I would not recommend that you try to recreate these processes! But it is good to know how these hats are made and why a recreated bowler hat / derby hat / dressage hat / top hat, will not look exactly like one made using old original machines and materials.
Extra info! at 2 minutes into ‘The Art of Dressage Hat Making’ film below, you can see a really good demonstration of the antique machine used for measuring the shape of a person’s head. It’s a french invention called the conformator, and it is used to shape hard hats (e.g. bowler hats and top hats).
and below is an old pathe film from 1951 showing top hats made by Patey Hats. If you look inside a vintage silk top hat, you will see that very thin, very strong and sturdy material behind the silk pile. That material is being made at the beginning of this film – it is calico soaked in shellac.
A top hat made in workroom of Stephen Jones
A beautiful model millinery top hat crafted in the workroom of Stephen Jones.
Block Makers – Boon and Lane and GMB Blocks
When you watch these films and see the skill that goes into making a hat block you understand why they cost the money they do and why as milliners we need to treat them with care and respect.
Luton based block makers Boon & Lane are the first film below. It won’t show on my website because of security settings, but you can click through to see it on Vimeo. Well worth a watch they are the last block makers in Luton, master crafts men and making blocks in metal and wood.
And click below to see a film of how the GMB blocks are made. Each one hand carved in wood, it gives you an idea of how much thought and work goes into each one. Guy Morse Brown (the GMB of GMB hat blocks) and his wife Ann retired from the business and Guy was awarded an MBE for services to millinery and skills training. His son Owen and wife Catherine now run GMB Blocks and it is Owen who you see skillfully carving the wooden blocks. I’ve noticed as well that each year they add more useful millinery tools to their website.
How to Make a Hat presented by Philip Ian Wright
Very useful information and knowledge – whether you make hats one by one at home or in a big volume in a factory.
“Hats are made the same way… they all have to be shaped, trimmed and sewn by hand”. In this video, milliner Philip Ian Wright provides a passionate and fascinating insight into the process of how to make a hat. No matter the shape, decade, style or fashion, the methods of hat-making are the same today as they have been for hundreds of years. You can buy one of Philip’s wonderful hats from his site http://www.philipwrighthats.co.uk [Quote taken from the YouTube page]
Making of a baker boy cap in a factory – film by Stetson Europe called ‘cut and sewn’. This is an example of how hats can be mass produced to a high quality. See how they cut out lots of fabric at once with a machine (not recommended to try at home!). And how each shape of cap has it’s own corresponding wooden block that shapes the hat whilst it is set into shape in a steam cupboard. Real attention to detail made using quality old machinery – I love these caps.
YouTube videos – industrial machine for sewing strip straw (also known as peddle straw)
Strip straw or peddle straw comes as a skein of plaited straw. If you are making hats at home or one off hats for theatre / film, then you will have to use a domestic machine. It takes quite a bit of practice to get the hang of positioning the straw under the row before and stitching it with the machine.
Below are some YouTube films that show the industrial strip straw machine in action. Notice how there is a metal guide, that holds the straw in place so that the operator knows the next row is going to be in the right position.
That’s why mass produced straw hats are much cheaper than a one off straw hat made by a bespoke milliner. And even then, these mass produced hats still take a lot of skill!
If you are interested in making strip straw hats, then the hardest bit to make is the ‘button’ that you start off with for the middle of the hat. Jane Smith’s ebook ‘Stitched Strip Hats’ sold by How2Hats is a great guide to teach yourself how to do it http://www.how2hats.com/shop/stitched-strip-hats/
You can see the maker below make the centre of the hat ‘the button’ at 1 minute 20 in the film below.
Torb and Reiner YouTube channel
The Torb and Reiner YouTube channel is brilliant.
The ‘how to’ films are presented by Waltraud Reiner of ‘Torb and Reiner’ – a millinery supplier in Australia. She has very good tutorials for the beginner on how to work with lots of traditional and some newer millinery materials.
Some of the more recent films cover Waltraud’s journey around Australia, but if you scroll down towards the bottom she has YouTube demos on how to work with a wide variety of materials.
Sometimes when you just want to sketch down lots of ideas for headdress designs, you don’t want to get bogged down with trying to draw the same head over and over again, in the same sized scale.
So I have developed these 3 templates. Please feel free to download and use them to help you with your designing. At the moment they are free! All I ask is that if you want to pass them onto a friend, then your friend downloads them from this website, instead of you forwarding the downloaded file onto them.
You can either
Print them out and draw on top of the templates
OR use them as a background layer in photoshop (they are A4 size)
To download the files:
Scroll down and choose the file you would like out of the 3 different options below
Right click on top of the image to save the image to your desktop (they are jpg files).
Template 1 – ‘Head template – 12 x small scale, front facing blank heads’
12 small heads to trace
Template 2 – ‘Head Template – 5 x front facing blank heads’
5 heads to trace
Template 3 – ‘Head Template – 3 x front and side facing blank heads’
Its a very mathematical way to generate a pattern and to be honest some of the creative flow in sculpting can be lost. You have to make your brain think in the kind of way you think when drafting a paper bodice pattern (or trouser pattern) from scratch using measurements. Its fun when you get in the swing of it, but very precise, with lots of straight lines, right angles and measuring.
It works brilliantly for simple geometric shapes – e.g. A straight sides and flat top crown. And it also works well for more complex symmetrical geometric shapes, e.g. A cone, pyramid, all those kinds of shapes that would be time consuming to make perfectly symmetrical if you were sculpting them out of polystyrene.
However, I recently wanted to make a horn shaped block and realised that using this technique was going to be mentally taxing and time consuming. So, instead I decided to make a metal wire armature, bulk that out with paper and use it to generate a pattern.
A couple of weeks ago (in November 2011) I went to an evening class at Milliner Warehouse called ‘Feather Dying Techniques’. It ran from 6.30 – 9.30 pm, and was taught by milliner Ian Bennett.
It was brilliant! I’ve been studying millinery for a while now, and finding a good teacher is always a pleasure. Ian clearly has a lot of teaching experience, his explanations and demonstrations were clear and to the point. He was a really nice friendly guy, whilst at the time being full of knowledge from working as a milliner for over 20 years.
Earlier this year I made 4 mohican headdresses for Shooting Flowers (a styling company). The headdresses were commissioned for ‘Thriller’ the Michael Jackson musical – on at The Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue.
The headdresses are snug leather hoods that fasten under the dancer’s chin. The mohican is made from horse tail hair, from a supplier based in London (Golders Green). Interestingly, he also supplied Ron Mueck with hair for him to use in his sculptures. I got the leather from Alma Leather in Whitechapel – a treasure trove of fabulous leather.