When I started on my 1880s polonaise, I knew I needed a bonnet. I also knew I didn’t have much time – two weeks is an eyeblink when you’re trying to deal with millinery. I needed something fast, quick, and period appropriate, so I turned to the straw hat stash in the craft closet.
(Yes, I have a straw hat stash. For reasons exactly like this. You never know when you’re going to need one!)
And it turned out pretty good!
Easy, fun, and period correct! And the best part is, I did this without any special supplies at all. Including the time it took to block and stiffen, this was a three day project (a day to block, a day to stiffen, and about six-seven hours to finish up).
Below the break is a sort-of tutorial on how I made this bonnet. I do apologize for the paucity of photos; I had very little time to get this done!
What I used:
– Straw hat
– Flat-bottomed canister the same diameter as the crown
– Various straight-sided weighted objects (I used baking mix boxes)
– 1/4 yard velvet
– Scrap cotton or linen for lining
– Trimmings (ribbon, more fabric, flowers, feathers, etc)
– Unflavored gelatin powder
– Small paintbrush
– Thread the color of your bonnet straw
– Stout needle
– Jewelry pliars or heavy-duty thimble (as required)
The mid to late 1880s saw simple bonnet forms, with narrow or non-existent brims, sometimes peaked at the center. I imagine this was to accentuate the vertical lines of the styles and accommodate the hair. Most the bonnets I looked at had slight brims and crowns that cut off at the bottom to allow for the hair.
Make the Bonnet Blank:
Trim your hat down. It’s very easy to pull out the chain stitching; cut and tug in the direction of the seam. I took all but three rows off my bonnet here. Then, cut a wedge out of the brim and crown both, about 1/5th of the total circumference. It’s better to underestimate this, as you can always trim it down later. In fact, trimming it down as close to finishing is preferred, as straw braid can fray something wicked.
Make sure it’ll fit your head. An early 1880s hat should sit on the curve of the back of your head at a 45-60 degree angle, while a late 1880s hat will be almost vertical.
Your hat – now a bonnet blank – should look something like this:
Don’t worry if you’re using a recycled hat with hot glue residue or holes. You can always cover these up with trim!
Block the Bonnet:
Submerge the bonnet blank entirely in water. I stuck mine in the bathroom sink and weighed it down so it wouldn’t float up. The straw must be soaked for the next step to work. It should only need to be in there for a few minutes.
Build your hat block. Set a few cloths down on a flat surface (counter or table) to soak up excess moisture. Gather your sizing objects – I used my split pea jar, baking mix boxes, and tea canisters. The idea is to flatten the top of the crown while shaping the sides of the brim.
Get your bonnet blank from the sink. Make sure it’s pliable and ready to go. It should bend easily to the touch with no breaking. Set it down on the crown on the table and stick your jar down in the center of it. This will flatten the crown.
Next, experiment with the brim. It should push upwards very easily, since it’s so wet. You can flatten it almost entire upwards, to the same slope as the sides of the crown, which gives you the added benefit of a sharp peak at the top. You can also do what I did, which is give it a moderate upturn with a pinch at the top. Push it around with your boxes until it looks the way you want it too look. Make sure it’s symmetrical. Build up where you need to, but maintain the pressure; these objects need to be heavy enough to keep the straw from pushing back out.
Straw won’t pick up super fine detail, but it will nicely curve from one forming object to the next, so the end shape should be nice and smooth. You can also block it, leave it for a moment or two, pull it out and look at it, then put it back in.
Once satisfied, leave the bonnet in the block for at least 24 hours, or until fully dry.
When dry, take your bonnet out. Don’t be worried about last minute adjustments, as you’re going to be getting this wet again. Check the fit again, just in case any adjustments are needed.
Stiffen the Bonnet:
Straw does a great job of holding its shape, but sometimes it does need help. For very floppy straw, you should wire the brim. The hats from Michaels are very stiff, and will hold well on their own (sometimes too well… wire is a good idea). Mine was somewhat flexible, so I wanted more hold in it.
Take half a packet of gelatin and dissolve in a 1/4 cup of water. With your paintbrush, apply 3-5 coats of this to the underside of the brim and the inside of the crown. It’ll make the straw shiny, so unless you want that on the outside, put it where you’re going to be covering. Don’t soak the straw; if your hand feels damp holding it on the outside, you’ve gone too far.
The water will make the straw slightly malleable, so use this time to make any adjustments you want. If necessary, reblock. (Wrap your inside canister in tin foil if you do this)
Leave to dry another 24 hours
Remove your shaped and stiffened hat. It should be noticeably firmer at this point. Hold it up to your head and evaluate the fit/shape. I wanted my brim to narrow down at my ears, so I trimmed off some of the straw at the base. Be careful not to shred the straw. If the stitches are loose or areas lifting up, tack those down.
Choosing Your Trimmings:
There are many ways of trimming and lining an 1880s bonnet.
Certain online vendors sell straw bonnets with glued-down gimp braid or ribbon on the edge. Ribbon-covered edges are not common in period on straw, and I cannot find a single example of gimp. I can see this being good for something like fantasy or cosplay, but if you’re going historical, I would advise against it.
A more historical way of doing the edge would be to add a flat underbrim lining and stitch a line of straw braid over it on the underside of the brim, and a velvet or ribbon edging just on the neck section, so raw edges are concealed. It’s just as easy, and looks so much better. This would also be a good way to hide an edging wire. If you trimmed into the braid at the edge, add straw braid top and bottom.
Alternatively, you don’t have to leave the straw visible at all. You could cover the entire thing with silk or velvet. Spray the entire thing with a good bonding glue like 3M Super 77 and lay down mull, flannel, or some other material before adding the fashion fabric. You’d just finish it the same way you’d finish any covered hat.
For a rolled edge, which the period shows a distinct preference for and what I chose to use, you need velvet. I know velvet is expensive, but you only need a bit. Utilize one of those lovely 40% off coupons from Jo-Ann’s. You can also raid the dress section at your local Goodwill. You can get dyeable silk velvet from Dharma Trading for comparatively cheap.
I had some of this dyable stuff on hand, for another project I’m planning for Dickens on the Strand. I bought some blue and green Dylon dye and did a little color mixing. I also threw in a bit of white silk I had on hand. Dylon penetrates rayon (the velvet pile) to a great degree than silk, which is how I got the color variation.
(An aside: I cannot find any examples of silk being used for a rolled edge, and calico would not have been used at all for a bonnet. Silk or a good imitation polyester would be best utilized with one of the other methods above. A nice thin white cotton would be fine as a brim underfacing, but with one of the other methods as well.)
Simple decorations on a bonnet this small seem to be both practical and historical. They do like piling the trim on at center front, probably to emphasize that vertical line again. Ribbon is good, but velvet or silk strips are common as well. Flowers and feathers can be used as well. Some extant bonnets even have beading on the velvet edging!
I had some extra velvet after cutting the facing, and lots of hot glue to cover, so I cut some strips, sewed them up on one side to make tubes, and used those for the top loops and hat band. I flatlined one strip with canvas to use for loops at the top. I ended up using the silk I dyed to decorate as well.
For ties, don’t go with a new material. Use the velvet you lined it with, or the silk/ribbon from the top loops. Make them long enough to tie in a bow… mine are a little too short! Longer is better with bonnet ties.
Facing your Bonnet:
If you choose to go velvet, this is how to get the look.
Measure the outer edge of your brim, multiply by 1.5 for moderate gathers or 2 for lots of gathers, and add two inches. Measure the distance from the edge of the brim to the inside of the crown, and add 1.5 inches. Cut a strip of velvet to this dimension. This is your brim facing.
Run a line of gathering stitches about 1/2″ along one long side of the velvet. Mark the center. Lay the velvet right side down against the top of the crown and pin at the center of the brim and at the edge.. Pull in your gathering stitches until the velvet fits the circumference, and stoke until the gathers are evenly distributed. Pin liberally INSIDE the stitch line.
Pins will leave small holes in the straw, but not to the degree that it causes a problem. Don’t worry about trying to bring them back through; just push them straight in. If you’re worried about pricking yourself, you can use bobby pins on the edge instead.
Carefully stitch the velvet down using a backstitch. Straw stitches very easily, but sometimes problems can arise. Use the pliars to push and pull the needle through if necessary. Sew to the side raw edges as well.
Take the gathering stitches out. Turn the velvet right side out, covering the underside of the brim. Pull firm. Gather to your liking and pin. If you want more puff, add a thin layer of cotton batting around the edge. If the straw’s very rough, you might want to add a layer of cotton or linen under the velvet.
Add the crown lining. Cut a strip of lining fabric (cotton is fine) 1.5x the circumference of the crown and at least 1.5x the depth. Sew up one side to make a loop. I cut this with one long edge on the selvage so I don’t have to finish it. Run a line of gathering stitches at the bottom and pin this, right side out, to the inside of the crown, over the velvet. The raw edges should point up, into the crown.
Stitch the lining and the velvet down. Let the lining hang loose and open for now, so you can get your hand inside the crown to work.
Finishing out the bottom edge is a bit tricky. Cut a piece of velvet at least 2 inches longer than the still exposed raw section. No need to gather here. Roll the raw edges on at the side, lay the front to the outside of the bonnet crown, and stitch on the same way you stitched the brim. Roll this up and over, covering the lip just like before, and hiding the raw edges of the lining. Pin. Stitch down with a ladder stitch. Angle the needle so it comes out just at the front edge of the velvet roll on the front of the bonnet. If you’re careful, you can completely hide your stitches this way.
Here’s a (slightly sloppy) diagram:
Trim the Bonnet:
You’re almost done! Now all you have to do is trim.
You can cover your lining stitches with more straw braid, or a velvet/ribbon/silk band. Personally, I think a fabric band is a lot simpler.
Drape the band, pin and stitch down. For ribbon or a fabric band, you only need to tack it in strategic places; enough to hold it where you want it, not enough to make it look appliqued. Don’t pull the stitching super tight, just firm enough to hold. I like the ladder stitch to keep things nice and hidden.
All stitching on the inside of the crown will be hidden by the lining. Anything added to the brim can be hidden in the pile of the velvet, as long as you take up very little fabric in those underside stitches. If you angling the needle down and back up to catch a chunk of the straw in between, it’ll hold fine.
Add any additional trim, tucking raw edges into the band and sewing down as you go. If you want to add trim to the underside of the brim, like a ruffle or flowers, attach those along the same stitch line as the lining, before putting on the hat band.
Add the ties.
Once finished with trim, gather the lining up. Some ladies like to put a drawstring in it; I just tucked the ends up under themselves and stitch to the back of the hat. Here, I had those silk pieces to hide the stitches under.
And voila! An easy little 1880s bonnet, without having to buy a pattern or fuss with buckram and millinery wire!