October was insane. I had a two week extension on a deadline for a picnic dress, and I still almost didn’t get it done. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the even at all, except I had a concert in Dallas the night before I was not going to miss. All in all, the ensemble turned out nice:
The ins and outs of this dress were legion, so much so it killed most of my writing/blogging time over the past few months. The most I can say about it is… make sure you cut your skirt panels the right length for your height!
Anyway, it needed a hat. A cool hat. Something tall. A nice late Victorian walking hat.
But I’m lazy. And time-pressed. And breaking out the buckram did not sound like fun.
So I tried something new, and it worked pretty well. I also got more photos of this hat than the last one, so I think we can consider this a proper tutorial! Best of all, it’s completely made with items you can buy at the big box stores.
What you’ll need:
– 100% wool hat from Walmart (Faded Glory brand)
– Small can of Bullseye shellac
– Denatured alcohol
– Tin flower pot that is the correct dimension for your head
– A hat that you know fits your head
– Foam core or cardboard
– Tin foil
– Scrap fabric
– Fabric pins
– A GOOD steam iron
– Millinery wire or florist stems
– Petersham ribbon or bias tape
(Now, don’t get me wrong. These are not professional results. However, for a reenacting or stage event, where you’re going for the “look” without the expense, it’s like 90% of the way there. A lot of little issues on hats can be hidden with trim.)
To start, you want one of these hats:
It has to be this one. It’s 100% wool for $13; not a bad deal when you consider that the average felt blank can run as high as $50. Look at how nice this is. Plus, it comes in two colors, black and camel. Super easy.
Making a Hat Block:
There are some good tutorials out there on how to make a proper block; plaster, wood carving, etc. I don’t think I’ll make another hat like this, though, so I didn’t want to invest that kind of time and money. Cutting a shape out of cardboard is possible, but difficult and creates a whole load of other issues. So, that leaves using an existing object as the block. Also, when considering the shape of these hats, I had to take into account that my head is an oval, the side taper, and the crown is circular. Not the easiest shape in the world to mimic! I considered a lot of options before settling on this.
Yup, a tin pail from JoAnn’s. It’s sturdy yet flexible, and the correct shape for me head. Yay!
The head is an oval. The bottom of the hat crown has to be shaped to fit this. Take the hat you know fits (here observe my ancient globe-trotting Tilly), turn it upside down and trace. You can approximate this with a hat pattern if you’ve got it, but my head’s a bit bigger than most patterns, so this works better. Fold and cut to ensure symmetry. Trace this shape onto a sheet of thick cardboard or foam core and cut.
To make the block, stuff the tin pail with old t-shirts or towels, place bottom-up on a hard surface, and slide the cardboard down. This should shape the pail’s base into the currect shape without deforming.
Take it apart, wrap both sections with tinfoil, add a plastic bag to prevent rust issues (this is Houston, everything rusts) and slide together.
Your block should look like this:
Blocking the Hat:
Before starting, gather all your supplies; pins, long strips of scrap fabric, rolling pin.
Take the hat band off the hat. The glue will take some felt off with it; this is okay. There’s also a seam under this band, and that’s okay too. It’ll stretch just fine. Submerge the hat fully in lukewarm water. While you’re doing that, put a full kettle of water on. You might need the steam later.
The wool will bubble. Wait until it stops, check for flexibility, and then remove the hat. It’ll be a bell-shaped mess. You can wring a bit of the water out, but don’t deform the wool.
Take this immediately to your hat block, center it, and start stretching.
This can be a painful process, due the amount of strength you need to exert. My carpal tunnel flared up pretty bad. Wool is fairly easy to work with, but getting it smooth is the rough bit. The top, you can roll flat, but the best trick for the sides is to gently pull, smooth, wrap TIGHTLY with cotton, tuck the ends in, pull, smooth, wrap, all the way down to the base. If it starts firming up on you in the initial stages, hold it over the steam until it loosens again.
(Also, the smell of the wet, steamed wool really wigged my cats out. It is a bit funky, like burning hair. Be warned!)
The crown portion should look like this:
Once you’ve got the crown down, now you have to deal with the brim. Take it to your iron and steam the crap out of it. The point is to get the brim flat. Iron, stretch, pin, move on to the next section, until the whole thing is as smooth as possible. Don’t worry so much about the diameter or shape; you’re going to cut it to size later.
Make sure everything is wrapped and pinned tight, then leave to dry for 24-48 hours.
Once dry, unblock the hat. It might be a little wrinkly still, so feel free to give it another steam. No need to go crazy – this isn’t a professional result, and any major issues can be covered up with trim!
Stiffening the Hat:
One thing you’ll notice is that the hat is very, very limp/loose at this point. Floppy. Floppy is bad. We want it stiff.
Now, you can use fabric stiffener from the craft store. Good products all. Only problem is, they’re all water based, which means that in areas of high humidity or periods of rain, your hat will deform. The only solution to this that I can find is either commercial hat stiffener, available online or at fine hat shops, and rather toxic, or shellac. Since I wanted to do this hat with big box materials, I opted for shellac.
In a container you don’t mind throwing away, with a paintbrush you don’t mind sacrificing, mix two parts shellac with one part denatured alcohol. (Do not use your good measuring cups; the shellac ate my old silicone set!). Mix well. Take your hat and, with even swipes, carefully apply the shellac mixture to the INSIDE/UNDERSIDE. Makes sure the saturation is even. You can use less than what I did, but I wouldn’t recommend much less. Don’t let it soak through to the front, though. Work quickly; the felt will warp a bit due to the moisture. I left mine in the bucket, which seemed to help a bit.
When done, REBLOCK your hat. I cannot over-emphasize how important this step is. Don’t worry, it won’t stick to the tinfoil (and even if it does, tinfoil is cheap). Leave to dry another 24-48 hours.
When completely dry, unblock and check the firmness. For this hat, I used a total of 3/4 cup of stiffening mix, and mine was pretty stiff when done.
Make sure you keep it flat. The brim can still curl!
Cutting/Shaping the Brim:
The tall crown on this hat meant I was sacrificing width on the brim. The blocking process also creates a rather wobbly-looking brim. I knew that going in. For the 1880s, a flat narrow brim works quite well. I had to evaluate how I was going to cut the brim after I got it done. Based on the way mine turned out, I went with the style that protruded in the front and narrowed significantly at the sides and back. Whatever shape you go with, however, the process for making the template is the same.
Take the oval template from which you made the block, and trace it onto a fresh piece of paper. Mark the front, back, and side (at 90 degree angles). Determine how wide your brim can be at those point, and then how wide you want it. From there, mark, measure and draw in your curve. (It always helps to fold and cut the paper, to keep those lines symmetrical. When done, you should have a template.
Cut out the center and lay it over your hat. Make any adjustments you need to, such as cutting about a 1/8″ inch bit out from the inside oval, to accommodate the thickness of the felt. When satisfied, hold or weigh it down and trim with a rotary cutter or mat knife. The shellac will make the felt a little resistant.
When done, your brim will look like this:
Obviously, it’s got a few bumps. No matter. We’re going to hide that.
Wire the brim if you’d like. I’d advise it. I didn’t here because I was a) being lazy, b) was at my parents’ house for the weekend and forgot my wire and c) didn’t think I needed it due to the stiffness. In other words, this works without doing that, but I wish I had.
After wiring (or not wiring), apply the bias tape. I used petersham here. Small stitches, keep it even, all the way around. If you wanted to add an underfacing to the brim, for appearance or to hide any weird shellac marks, cut and pin it in place directly to the felt, and then apply the tape over it. It took about an hour to hand-sew this down.
Trimming Your Hat:
This hat would be fine with a nice wide ribbon, but I like that shruggy silk band look, and needed a little femininity in an outfit that had those masculine tailored lines of the 1880s. Plus, my seam line from the original hat went up higher than what my nice 2″ petersham ribbon alone could hide.. So, I went all out.
(Hobby Lobby, BTW, is your friend when trimming hats. They have ostrich feathers, plus nice flowers and pre-gathered floral/feather bunches that make life SO much easier!)
First, I added my “band”, a strip of silk I cut, turned the edges un on, and ruched/folded/pleated as I went. Then I added feathers and roses, trying not to overwhelm the tiny brim. Whatever looks good, do it! Tack everything down with nice little stitches, and try to use the same thread color as the felt.
A couple hours later and voila, a finished 1880s tall hat!
By the nature of this process, the brim turns out small and flat. If you want a wide brim, or one big enough to curl, I’d say buy two hats, block the crown out of one of them, and use the second for the brim. I have not tried curling a brim yet, so I can’t speak to that.
Shellac isn’t the cheapest thing out there, and thinning adds to the cost. $20 for a pint of shellac plus another $5-7 for the alcohol. However, Lowes sells cans of Bullseye aerosol spray for $7. I believe you can use the spray can if you’d like, just be VERY careful not to oversaturate, and use less that you would with it thinned. Don’t hold me to that, though. I have not personally tried this.
You should be able to use thick florist wire for the brim wire, if you’re in a pinch.
I cannot speak to the durability of this. However, 100% wool felt and shellac are professional-grade products, and these are methods I researched on actual hat sites. It should be fine. You may have to occasionally re-stiffen the hat over long periods of use.