A 1910s costume, part eleven: the hat

This post is the eleventh in a series in which I endeavour to create a historically-accurate late-1910s outfit to the best of my ability. From using an antique sewing machine, finding modern patterns of historical designs to using contemporary sewing manuals, this project is a huge challenge and one that I’m super excited about. I hope you will enjoy following along with my baby steps in historical costuming.

When I planned this project, I had intended for the jacket to be the last piece of the puzzle; I was incredibly intimidated by millinery and thought I would keep to my comfort zone. As I’m writing this blog post, that obviously isn’t the case. As I worked through the project, it kept gnawing at me that it would be highly improper for a lady in the late-1910s to leave her home without a hat. It was finally through a long conversation with my friend Bella (of @rougeyourknees on Instagram) that we decided I would actually make a hat. For my first attempt at millinery, I am very pleased with what I’ve made but I am fully aware that my method is not correct. This is not at all a tutorial but I hope that maybe others can learn from my mistakes! Ironically, Nicole Rudolph (of @silk_and_buckram on Instagram) uploaded a video on how to make a c.1914 hat only a week or so after I had finished mine – her method is much better than mine so if you are interested in making a early 20th century hat I would thoroughly recommend.

Once I had decided that I did need a hat to complete my outfit I consulted Bella for some advice – she is far more knowledgeable than me in matters of hats and 1910s fashion! We discussed the options of getting a reproduction hat made or buying an antique hat of Etsy but these were out of my price range. I showed her a couple of modern hats I had found that looked historically appropriate to my untrained eye but Bella told me that modern hats rarely have the right crown depth – I had learned my first lesson! Then I sent her examples of contemporary hats I had found on the MET’s online collection to try and pin down what type of look I was going for. I can’t post photos of them but I’ll add the links below:

With some inspiration in mind, I found two options for hat patterns: the 1912 Ladies wide brim hats pattern by Mrs depew or the early 1920s hat pattern by Wearing History. I chose the Mrs Depew pattern as I liked the curved crowns I had seen in the MET examples but, in hindsight, the shape of the Wearing History may have been easier for me as a beginner.

A happy coincidence of this project is that it tangibly links me with my own family history. My Great-Great Aunt Maisie, born in 1904, was a milliner in the 1920s and 1930s, working in shops in Leicester and London. Her daughter Ann believes she trained in a small hat shop in Leicester. We think that she stopped making hats in the 1940s due to rationing. Last summer, after hearing about my endeavours in historical costuming, Ann generously gave me Maisie’s hat block. We think that she made it herself and its full of brightly covered wool scraps. I am astounded at how bright the colours are after all the years and I’m honoured to be the custodian of it.

Maise (right) with her younger sister Margaret (left).

Making my own hat provided me with the opportunity to use the hat block but over 5 years experience of volunteering in historical conservation made me hesitate – after all, this is a historical artifact that was now under my care. However, I recently spoke with Ann and we agreed that Maisie would be delighted if the hat block was used, especially within the family. It is a family heirloom and it feels very special to be able to use something that my Great-Great Aunt used in her trade. As a compromise with the conservation part of my brain, I am keeping the block in a box under my bed when I’m not using it – out of direct sunlight and in as stable an environment as I can achieve.

I have conducted research for each garment in this project so far and this was especially necessary for the hat – I really had no idea where to even start. I referred to two contemporary manuals that I found on archive.org throughout this project:

However, starting with these books made me realise how out of my depth I was as there were lots of processes I was unfamiliar with; I decided to go and try YouTube to see if I could find more accessible tutorials. The most helpful video I found was Angela Clayton’s Edwardian Hat Tutorial – although the hat shape was not the same, this video eased me in to the idea of using thick interfacings and wire.

The difficulty I ran into in all my research was that I could not find a tutorial for how to make a hat with a curved crown like the pattern I was using. All the examples I could find were for how to make hats with cylindrical crowns. Furthermore, the contemporary millinery manuals are built on the principal of making wire hat frames which are then covered. As I had a pattern that I had never used before, I wasn’t sure how to make a frame that was the right size. I spent a couple of days researching for this hat and got incredibly in my head about the whole thing. It was after I spent an evening unable to get hats out of my head that I decided I just needed to get on with a mock-up. I find that seeing a garment in reality helps to focus my mind on techniques and shapes I’m not familiar with.

This hat doesn’t come in many pieces so I was able to throw together a mock-up very quickly. I used a medium weight interfacing in the place of the buckram I would use on the real thing. One of the decisions I had made early on was to interface the crown of my hat. The pattern is for a soft-crown hat (there may be a reason for that) but I liked the stiffer crowns I had seen in contemporary examples and I thought it would better support my intended embellishments. I was happy with the size and shape of the hat but something the mockup revealed was how crucial wire in the brim would be; it wasn’t holding its shape at all without it.

My first job in making the hat was to make the buckram crown and I’ll say not that my first attempt was a bit of a disaster. As I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, I had a few methods I was considering. I had seen in Bernadette Banner’s witch hat video that she flatlined her hat with canvas but I knew the buckram was too thick for that. As I couldn’t attach the buckram to the wool (I hadn’t bought fusible buckram because historical accuracy), I knew I had to make a separate buckram crown. I did know that I was supposed to seam buckram edge to edge but I didn’t know how to do that without the edges overlapping so I decided to seam them right sides together – this was my first mistake. My second was getting buckram wet: as I was pressing it into shape I thought wetting it might make it more malleable. It did, but it also made it incredibly sticky. I had to discard those pieces and recut them. Two positive things I realised from making the buckram crown was that it was easier to use clips to keep the pieces together rather than pins and it was important to mark which pieces were which as they are indistinguishable when sewn together.

I could already see that the buckram crown wasn’t working so I decided to sew in some wire to hold out the curved shape. I bought my wire from Petershams on Etsy and they recommended ferrules to finish the bands of wire – they were really helpful, my alternative was to use pliers to bend the wire back on itself. I sewed wire into the bottom of the crown, I knew this was right as I’d seen it in my research, and another band nearer the top of the crown. It helped a bit but not much. I also cut notches into the curved seams to try and get them to lie smoother. This also helped a bit but wasn’t going to change the fact that I would have to redo the crown.

Sewing in wire.

I could see that the buckram crown wasn’t right, even after I had sewn wire into it to maintain the shape, but I decided to proceed with the wool crown anyway. I sewed together the pieces from the point at which the seams on either side converge then handsewed the top of the hat at the point where all the seams come together to reinforce it. Once I had stretched the wool over the buckram all the minor issues were exacerbated – it looked crumpled and uneven. I tried pressing and cutting more notches into the buckram but nothing worked.

I decided to experiment the next day by sewing a new buckram crown edge to edge with no seam allowance. I figured that if it didn’t work then I would just work with what I had. I was running low on buckram at that point which led to some inventive pattern placement but I just about had enough. At first I just sewed three pieces together to see how it would work and I was delighted with the result. You can see from the photos how much better the second version holds it shape compared to the first.

I sewed four bands of wire into the crown to support it; you can see from the photograph above that the top of the crown was collapsing a little bit. Once I had covered the crown with the wool I actually removed the most central wire band because the weight of it caused the crown to collapse a little. At this point I wasn’t convinced with my construction method for the crown and you can see from the excerpt from Modern Millinery below how I should have done it. Although the crown shape is different the principle is the same: I should have braced the crown with wire with vertical bands of wire as well as horizontal. I didn’t do this at the time because I thought the horizontal wire would be enough.

With the crown at a point where I was broadly happy with it, I moved on to the brim. At first I only sewed two bands of wire into the brim, one at the edge and another approximately an inch from the inner edge, as I was running low on wire but I quickly realised this wasn’t sufficient. I actually accidentally lent on the brim, causing it to buckle, which made me realise it needed more support.

Sewing wire into the brim.

Once I had more wire I sewed two more bands of wire into the brim, one on the inner edge and another between the first two bands. The stitch I used is described in A complete course in millinery below, the long stitch being on the underside so as little thread is on the right side as possible – I thought this was really clever.

At the start of chapter nine of Modern millinery, Hester Lyon sets out clear instructions for how the brim and crown should be constructed and attached, starting with the brim. Once I had covered the brim, I secured the outer edge in the way set out in the illustration below. It was difficult to sew through the buckram but I managed!

With the outer edge secured, I then used running stitches to secure the inner edge of the brim. As with the bottom edge of the crown, I figured that these stitches would be covered by the velvet I would add later.

Before sewing the crown and brim together, I followed the advice set out in Modern millinery and secured the crown at the front, back and sides with tie tacks. Hester Lyon states that ‘Tie-tacking is to millinery what basting is to dressmaking’ so I wasn’t about to omit this crucial step!

I cannot credit which blog suggested the use of curved needles in millinery as I didn’t note it down but this advice came in handy when I sewed the crown to the brim! I followed the instructions set out in Modern millinery and used a ‘Roman key’ shaped slip stitch which was near impossible with a straight needle. I only sewed from the right side of the hat and it may be that Hester Lyon intended me to sew all the way through the hat but my method seemed to work!

With the crown and brim sewn together, I could move on to step three of the instructions from Modern Millinery: attaching the underbrim. However, before I did this, I removed the two inner bands of wire from the brim. I had tried to press out some crumpling but just created ridges in the brim where the wire was. Once I had done this, I sewed the outer edge of the underbrim to the outerbrim with whip stitches. Then I sewed the inner edge of the underbrim with running stitches, using the stitch in the ditch method on the outside.

Once I had set the hat down after sewing the underbrim, I realised there were issues. As I had taken out two bands of wire which supported the brim, it was collapsing under the weight of the crown.

You can see the brim collapsing.

I spent another evening pondering how I would fix this issue and settled on adding wire ‘spokes’ perpendicular to the outer edge of the brim to support it. I undid the seam securing the inner edge of the underbrim so that I could sew the wire internally. I had to sew through the wool of the overbrim so I just used the smallest stitches I could. There are only ten of these ‘spokes’ pictured but I added another to go along the back seam. I sewed these at equal distances around the brim which seemed to work!

You can see from the photograph below the difference the wire made but this was not the correct method at all. The excerpt above from Modern millinery, shows a better method of adding braces. The issue with the way I have done it is that the ends of the wire are not secured so I run the risk of them poking out in the future. I have cut them down to minise that issue so we’ll see if it works! The reason why I didn’t use this method was because I was already at an advanced stage of construction and couldn’t face having to undo all my hard work! At least now I know better for next time!

The right side has wire in it and the left does not.

With the main structure of the hat complete, I could start adding embellishments – a far less scary concept! I noticed that strips of ribbon or fabric were common decorations at the time so I decided to use velvet I had left over from the coat to cover the hat. The scrap of velvet I had left was not the most useful shape, so I cut it into two rectangles of equal height and width and seamed them together. Once I had done that, I pressed up about 1cm on the bottom edge and pinned it to the hat with the seam on the hat aligned with the side of the hat. First I had to figure out how wide the velvet should be, so I continued pinning it to the hat until there was an overlap and cut the velvet to the correct width. Then I did a similar thing for the height: pinning the folds in place then cutting the velvet to the correct height. I took out the pins and felled the top and bottom edges of the velvet.

Now that the velvet was the correct size, I could start pinning it to the hat and draping the gentle folds I wanted. I decided to pin the folds from quite high up on the hat as I liked the drape of the cascading velvet but I also thought it could be used to cover the multitude of sins in my crown construction. Pinning the folds was quite a fiddly process but I found that it was easier to pin the top edge of the velvet in position I wanted it then form the folds from there.

Draping the velvet.

Once I had all the folds in place, I came to the issue of how to finish the edges. I was concerned about the bulk around the side of the hat as well as the finishing the edge of the top section of velvet neatly. I tried folding the top section of the velvet back on itself but it was far too bulky.

After experimenting a little, I decided to trim back the underlapping piece of velvet to reduce bulk and finish the overlapping piece with a bit of velvet ribbon I had left over from the suit. Once I had sewn the velvet ribbon over the raw edge, I tacked it down to the hat through the other piece of velvet.

Pinning the velvet in place.

I did decide to tack down the pleats to hold them in place but once I had done it to one side I absolutely hated it. It made the velvet bumpy and uneven and it detracted from the organic look of the gentle pleats. I took out almost all the tacks, just leaving those on the seam in the middle of the velvet as these were hidden in the seam.

Tacking the velvet in place – it looked terrible!

I could have happily left the hat there as the finished edge of the velvet did look really nice but most of the hats I had found from the era had some kind of floral embellishments and I wasn’t about to pass up on that opportunity. I found these adorable vintage berry sprigs from Rhubarbjumbleshop on etsy and fell in love with them. I know they are made of plastic and are not historically accurate but they’re so cute and the colours are perfect: the green matches my suit and the purple hue to the berries adds depth. I bought two and sewed them to the hat so that the berries cluster together.

Adding the berries.

The end was finally in sight – I just had to do the lining! I had lots of satin left over from making my Dad’s waistcoat so I was able to use it for this, the burgundy is a really nice pop of colour. Putting this together was very simple: I just sewed the pieces together then pinked the edges so they wouldn’t fray. To sew the lining into the hat, I pinned it in place, matching up the seams on the crown then sewed it in place using the curved needle. I tried using a straight needle but I found using a curved needle was far easier.

And with that, the 1910s project is complete – and what a challenging piece to end on! The making of this hat is really a tale of trial and error and has been really fulfilling for me as a craftsperson. Although each piece in this project challenged me, I was still in my comfort zone of sewing. I have been sewing for over ten years so I have a lot of skills and experience to fall back on. When it came to hat-making, I was starting from scratch and the process taught me to be patient and compassionate with myself in learning a new skill. Although this hat is not perfect, far from it, I am really pleased with what I have created and I’m keen to learn more! I will be adding a velvet ribbon to the inside of the brim to stop the hat from sliding down, if I wear my hair in a modern style it’s okay but when I wear my hair in a historical style I’m at risk of not being able to see where I’m going!

All the garments in this 1910s series are complete but I do have some more content relating to it planned so stay tuned!

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