July 12, 2009

Sewing my label with a cross stitch, old style

Filed under: millinery techniques and cheats,Sewing label with cross stitch — Cristina de Prada @ 5:15 pm

I was curious how a label would look if stitched the old fashion way, with a cross stitch, so I gave it a try.

I love the result with contrasting thread and although the process is time consuming it looks wonderful.

I’ve seen this way of stitching the label referenced in two books: First in How to Make hats by Ruby Carnahan, and then in How to make hats; a method of self-instruction by Rosalind Weiss.

But although I have searched the web, I have not found any picture of a vintage hat label sewn this way. If you have one let me know, I would love to see it.

How do you sew your label on?

Update July 20 2009:

 Since I wrote this post I have come across this picture of a J. Suzanne Talbot (Paris) label at the Rijksmuseum website. The label is sewn in place with tiny stitches. What I find amazing is that the gros grain is sewn with such huge visible stitches…

June 1, 2009

Gathered side beret from vintage block

One of the many things I find amazing about hat making is the fact that those casual bumps and folds that certain hats styles have are anything but casual and really owe that look to the artistic carving of the block maker.

This is very obvious when looking at this vintage block. If you look at the finished hat you might think that the straw has been gathered to form the pleats, and actually looking at the block it gives this strange impression of folded wood because the quality of the carving is so good!

To reinforce the folds I used reed, also around the head entry to keep the straw evenly tight. I figured out that reed would be great for this purpose myself, only to find out later that reed is what milliners have always used, talk about reinventing the wheel!… You can buy reed at basket making suppliers, and if you need the reed to take a particular curve you should soak it for a while in water which makes it very pliable and easy to bend into shape. I’ve used short pins to hold the reed in place.

The material I have used is straw braid that comes sewn into a cone. These cones are very stretchy and just perfect for this kind of detailed block. After cutting out the excess I did a zigzag stitch all around to avoid the whole thing coming undone. Although I’m one in favor of hand sewing, if the job is going to be done better by machine sewing I see no point in doing it by hand. This is the case with the sweatband because the material is folded under so the underside stitches of the sweat band will not be seen from the outside.

The only trimming on the hat is a vintage button (a gift of my friend Nina), it looks very nice although because it has a shaft it kind of wobbles a bit instead of staying nicely close to the hat.

This beret, in addition to looking nice is extremely comfortable (I can lean back with no problem which means I don’t have to take it out in the car). I’m happy!

April 18, 2009

Straw braid sewing: the machines


Although it is possible to sew straw braid with an ordinary free-arm sewing machine (check out this ebook by Jane Smith if you want to know more) , when sewing narrower straw it is much easier to use a machine that has been designed for the purpose (like my Corsani, above in the picture). Much of what I’ve learnt about these machines has come from reading old patents, there’s a wealth of information there.

This is what makes these straw braid sewing machines different from your household machine:

  1. They are chain stitch machines (just one thread, no bobbin)
  2. They have a special guide system for feeding the braid and holding the work in place
  3. The needle and plate are all the way to the left to make working easier
  4. They are set on a special table with a big cutout on the middle front so there is space for the hat as it grows, and for you to manouver.

Drawing from patent 218413Some of these special machines have additional special features that were designed and patented by their inventors to make the sewing of straw easier.

To start, there is a mechanism that Willcox called in his patent a “vibrator”, and that has been implemented by every manufacturer afterwards. The mechanism is used when sewing the “button” of the hat (where the hat starts with a tight spiral). When sewing this small spiral the operator of the machine is forcing the straw because the curve is very tight, without this invention the straw can get damaged as the presser foot is pushing down on the straw when the operator is pulling. and it is very difficult to keep the work flat. This “vibrator” contraption is a very clever invention that lifts the presser foot as the needle goes down, pressing down again as the feeder goes into action, thus allowing the operator to easily turn the work.

Here is the text from the patent explaining the workings of the invention.

Excerpt from patent 218413Excerpt from patent 218413

Another interesting invention is the lever that allows the tension of the thread to be easily changed to a tighter tension. This is useful because when one starts sewing the button of the hat (the center of the spiral) the stitch length shortens because of the tight angle at which one is sewing, that often causes loose loops on the underside of the work. Before this invention one had to manually change the tension, setting a tighter tension at the beginning and then stopping the work to set a looser tension as the work progresses. With this invention you can switch between a tigher and looser tension with the flick of a lever (without stopping the sewing).  Below are the drawings and explanation for this invention.

Drawing from patent 309514

Drawing from patent 298315

Excerpt from patent 298315Excerpt from patent 298315

I also wanted to mention that there are essentially two types of straw sewing machines, those that do straight stitch, and those who sew in zig-zag. From looking at the patents I know that there were machines that did a hidden stitch, but those don’t seem to have survived the test of time because the ones in use today are the visible stitch ones, machines that are more than one hundred years old and are still (amazingly) working. The zig-zag machine on the other hand (some are still available in the market) allows one to sew edge to edge and avoid wasting material.

Soon I will write some more on the subject… stay tuned.

March 28, 2009

Straw braid hats -machine sewn-

I’ve been trying to tame my straw braid sewing machine and here are the first results. I have used vintage straw braid from my personal stash.

These two hats have been created using a block that I have made myself. The block is made with Plastilina Jovi (a non hardening modelling clay similar to Play-Doh). I buy it in packs of 350 grams, and in this case I have used a long plastic  container as a base to minimize the waste of material (and give it extra stability).

Using a block is important when sewing straw as one goes back to it repeatedly, removing the hat from the machine and trying for fit, checking that the hat is adjusting to the block (and undoing rows of work when it’s too narrow or too wide).  When the hat is finished the block allows us to iron the hat and stiffen it.

My block has a serious drawback (but a design decision) and it’s that the distance between the center of the tip to the front edge is bigger than the distance to the back edge. That means that I have to add extra strips on the front (where the brim begins) to compensate for that. Adding those strips is a pain!

As for the way to wear these small hats, I did try fitting an elastic band (which is the most comfortable way to wear these small hats and hides nicely under the hair) BUT the elastic pulled the sides of the hat apart (because it’s pretty soft) and deformed it.

I used straw stiffener (before trimming) but for some reason it doesn’t stiffen the hat as much as I would want it too.

I had to think of another way of holding the hat on the head so I added a piece of elastic velvet ribbon, long ends sewn together to form a tube and then sewed the ends to the hat (being careful not to close the entry!).

That allows me to thread a metallic headband, with the advantage that I can move the hat to position it and I can change the headbands colour to adapt it to the wearers hair.

I will post some more on this subject soon. I want to share with you what I’ve worked hard to learn on my own, since (and it shouldn’t come as a surprise) there’s  nothing written on the subject on the Internet or in print and many of those who know don’t feel like sharing. As an example, I recently had the opportunity to talk to a person who makes straw braid hats (father and grandfather also did so) and when I told her that I had problems when starting the hat because it tends to curl up too soon she said “yes… yes…”, turned around and went on her merry way. Nice.

Be on the look out for more soon! All (that I know) will be revealed!

December 23, 2008

Bird of Paradise hat

One of the hats I made for the Hat Week exhibition was this Bird of Paradise  in felt.

I’ve been thinking about having birds on my hats for a long time, and after having a lot of sketches done I decided to try and give it a go. My idea at first was to cut a silhouette of a bird to then appliqué it on a hat, but once I had designed and cut out this bird I decided it deserved to be on its own.

It’s made with one of the felt cones I bought during my escape to Kopka in Germany. It’s a beautiful peach bloom fur felt cone off white in colour. With the idea of making the most out of the cone I folded it in four selctions and then traced the shape of the cone into a piece of paper. I drew the shape of the bird within that space, using up as much of the felt as possible. The result is pretty good, and the curvature of the cone is ideal because as a result the bird sits very nicely on the head (with the help of a metallic Alice Band).

The tricky part (one of the very many) was the cutting of the felt. I traced the shape with a pencil on the wrong side and used small curved scissors for the intricate parts. Once I had my first bird cut out, is when I decided I wanted it to be a hat on its own, which meant that I would have to cut another one identical and sandwich them together with some millinery wire in the middle to allow me to adjust the position of the wings and tail.

I must confess that I didn’t expect this to succeed, so I stopped taking pictures altogether (no one really wants to document a complete disaster), but here is what I did:

  1. I wired the bird following the contours, and sewing with a curved needle without going through the felt.
  2. I cut the second bird, but this time I cut it slightly outside the line, so later I could trim it to exactly the same contour as the other one.
  3. I cut a section of narrow tubular ribbon and inserted the thin metallic Alice band into it.
  4. I tried on the hat and decided on the position of the Alice band, and I pinned the ribbon in place (the idea of the tubular ribbon is to allow the band to be adjusted, and even to replace the band with one of a different the colour).
  5. I glued the two birds together section by section. I used a glue called Copydex by Pritt. It’s nice because it comes with it’s own brush attached to the cap, which minimizes the mess, and it makes a great bond.
  6. Once it was glued together and dry I trimmed the edges of the felt to even them out, and I sanded the edges slightly.

This hat (and I call it a hat because I do not like the word fascinator) had a lot of attention during the exhibition, and one of the visitors, a young lady, unpinned it from the chair and tried it on (see picture below)…  next time we will have to chain them on!

November 1, 2008

Making a simple flower with flower making irons

A few years ago I took a (very short) course on making artificial flowers using special irons, and after the course I bought the full set of irons. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t attempted to make a flower since, that is until this week. A small pattern hat I’ve been sewing (another variation of the one I created from a Plasticine shape) was in real need of some cheering up and I decided to try my hand at making a flower from the same fabric (a wonderful fabric by Gratacós). Unfortunately this fabric is not made fully of natural fibers, so I’ve had to be very careful with the iron temperature (too hot and the fabric would simply melt).

I’m no expert in making flowers, but here are some pictures of the process and of the results, as well as the pattern. Click here to get the PDF of the pattern. The pattern is loosely based on a pattern from a Japanese book, you can check it out at this link.

First thing to do is to brush the fabric with hat stiffener (the chemical smelling/bad stuff), make sure you do it on a ventilated room or outdoors. In my case I cut circles slightly larger than the pattern and then brushed the stiffener. Hang the fabric outside to dry (the stiffener will evaporate).

Once the fabric is dry one has to cut the flower pattern pieces (3 large ones and 4 small ones). Notice that one of the petal cuts goes all the way to the center which will allow us to overlap one end over the other (one petal over the other).

Now it’s the time to bring out the flower making iron and the cotton fabric covered rubber base (I bought this foam rubber base along with the irons, and covered it with cotton fabric). The rubber base is springy and allows us to push down with the iron and get the right shape.

Because my fabric is not made of natural fibers I had to be extremely careful with the temperature of the iron. It’s better to start with a lower temperature and build up . I pushed down on the center of each petal and then on the center of the flower. When pushing down the iron on the fabric the result will be an indentation that gives the petals a three dimensional feel.

My flower is made in three sections. The center section is composed of one large and two small pieces. Start with a small piece, overlapping the ends, wrap a second small piece around and finally the large piece. Make it so the overlapped pieces fall on different sides. Pin in place. The lateral sections are made in a similar way to the center one but using only one small and one large piece. these are squashed and put at each side giving the flower a nice effect of volume. Pin, arrange, and when you’re happy with the result, sew in place.

To finish off the flower nicely I made a small pad of stiff interfacing covered in the same fabric., the idea was to sew the flower to the wrong side of the pad, making it more stable and easier to sew onto the hat.

Because the result with just the flower was a little bit too classic for my taste I added a halo of biot feathers. These are strips of goose feathers that come sewn in a ribbon and are sold by the meter/yard. Because they are on this ribbon base they are easy to sew onto projects. I sewed the feathers first and then the flower, underneath is the good side of the pad.

The result on the hat is stunning, I will soon post a picture of the finished hat.

September 28, 2008

A top hat for a little boy

Filed under: millinery techniques and cheats,Sewing projects,Top hat for a little boy — Cristina de Prada @ 10:31 pm

Little boy with the top hat Having had a couple of  friends telling me recently that they  don’t dare to wear hats, hearing my little nephew of five telling me that he really really wanted a top hat, a real one, was a boost for my morale.

I made him a cardboard top hat, but somehow that was not good enough and he persistently asked for a real one. What can I say. I like the boy.

Although the idea is to eventually  make him a felt hat, I thought I’d wait a little bit for that and try a go at making a pattern hat.

The wool coat fabric I used worked nicely, and the hat turned out great.

I made it up as I went along, so the following explanation is not necessarily  the best way to do it!

Here follow some details of the process:

1. I made a 6 section crown, and to make the pattern I divided the head measurement by six, and added two extra centimeters to cover for the thickness of the fabric (with hindsight I should have added one extra centimeter, so 3 in total).

2. I wanted the hat to curve inward on the sides, and for that I adjusted the pattern. Starting with a rectangle 14 cm high by 9 cm wide, I’ved curved it inward 0.5 cm on each side, which results in a very visible curve on the finished hat.

Tracing the pattern - brim has already been sewn

3. The brim pattern is flat (a doughnut), but the polyester sew-on interfacing (non-woven) that I have used on the brim (not the crown) can be shaped while hot from the iron (although it doesn’t stretch), which helped give it the cute roll on the sides despite having a nylon wire on the outer edge of the rim.

Sew on rigid interfacing 

3. After sewing the 6 side crown sections I used corset boning (rigilene, sold by the meter) cut to size and zigzagged onto the allowance, only on one side of each vertical seam. It’s better to cut it a little bit short, because otherwise it might bulk or poke up on the top. Just that bit of boning made the crown stand up like a real top hat.

4. I zigzagged a nylon wire to the top crown with a decent overlap to avoid it getting lose, and then sewed the sides to the top. I used a beading foot on my sewing machine to sew the wire, and it worked really nice.

Using beading feet to sew wire

5. I made a lining using the same pattern but cutting it slightly smaller. I left the back seam open. Next time I will iron some interfacing to the lining fabric to give it some more structure.

Lining ready to be sewn

6. I sewed the grosgrain headsize ribbon to the brim before attaching it to the crown. I stitched an elastic on the back of the ribbon so the hat wouldn’t be too big. I might do it differently next time, but this time I attached the crown and the brim as if the crown was made of buckram, finishing the crown bottom and stab stitching the two parts together through the tabs of the brim.

 Pieces before assembly Crown with lining sewn on... not sure it's the best idea!

Here are some two more pictures:

Mimi wearing the almost finished hat The little boy and his hat

August 29, 2008

Hat from self made pattern (from 3D shape) – persian lamb


A short while ago I tried to make a flat pattern from a 3D design that I had previously sculpted out of plasticine. It turned out pretty good although the resulting pattern had many darts (in order for it to stay flat). If you didn’t read about that process you can do it now by following this link.

This time I’ve tried to see what would happen if I eliminated the darts and compensated by cutting the pattern pieces on the bias.

First I’ve traced the pattern pieces onto another paper and reduced the width on the sides to compensate for the darts that I’ve eliminated. Only one dart remains, on the back, that will help to do last minute adjustments to the right headsize size. I’ve also modified the pattern so the hat has a nice tilt to the right by trimming the bottom on that side.

Once I traced the pattern onto the fabric and cut the fabric, I machine sewed the side panels together and trimmed the seam allowances. Finally I sewed the top piece on. The result was a bit flimsy and the top piece did not stay nice and flat, so I decided to zig-zag nylon wire to the top edge using the beading foot of the sewing machine.


Finally I zigzagged the seam allowance so that it all stayed in place. That was a bad idea because the zig-zag was visible on the outside. Fortunately brushing the pile with a wire brush helped to hide it, but next time I will do that bit by hand.

The hat is finished on the inside by slipstitching the hem first and a grosgrain ribbon onto it (which also helps to adjust the headsize). For the moment I’m leaving it without lining because it looks pretty neat as it is.


Here are more pictures of me with my hat (I’ve used a American vintage brooch -possibly early 50’s- to cheer it up):


August 17, 2008

Black cloche for a theater play – ribbon trimming

Filed under: Black straw cloche,Millinery projects,millinery techniques and cheats — Cristina de Prada @ 11:41 pm

Black cloche straw hatThis beautiful 1920’s cloche is the result of the combined efforts of Nina and me. All credit for the design must go to her since I just helped her apply the trimming.

The first vintage ribbon that we were going to use, a wide waxed black ribbon turned out to be “burnt” and ripped very easily so it ended up in the bin.

The second choice, this beautiful vintage moiré ribbon looks very beautiful on the hat.

Nina thought of this classic ribbon trimming, where a running stitch following a zigzag pattern is made, and when the thread is pulled the ribbon gathers in a beautiful manner. She asked if I knew how to make it and I remembered seeing it in a book (probably more than one), so I just went ahead, and it was relatively easy. I marked the sections (corners of the triangles) with pins, and although I began by folding the ribbon and marking it with my nail, I ended up just doing it by eye using a long needle.

Here is a picture from one of the books that show how to make this ribbon trimming (often referred to as purled ribbon or shell trimming).

This is from a book called “Ribbon Trimmings A Course in Six Parts” by Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences Department of Millinery (Reprinted by Viv’s Ribbons & Laces, Sloan Publications ISBN 0-9631893-0-1).

Here is a detail picture (sorry for the low quality!):

The beads are in fact plastic half spheres with two little holes to sew them on. They shine wonderfully. The three ribbon pieces that stick up have been carefully sewn in place for a natural look, and give the hat a nice sense of movement (we used up to the last centimeter available of the ribbon!). Finally, just say that the hat is unfinished, and will have a long black veil hanging from the right side, because it’s going to be a mourning hat on a theater play.


August 16, 2008

Beehive hat “crossroads” – another hat with the new block

Beehive hat crossroads version

Here are some pictures of the block and of the process of making this hat (click on any of the pictures for an enlarged view).

This is the seagrass cone used for this hat. People not familiar with the hatmaking process will be interested in seeing this (often people don’t understand how the whole thing works!):

Seagrass cone

And this is the new block, that I love, bought at Van der Broek block makers in the Netherlands. Their website is in Dutch, but soon they will have an English version:

Hat block - beehive


I’ve simply sprayed the cone with water and blocked the top (it’s an easy shape to block). the headsize opening sinks into the block, so I’ve used a sort of brace to get a neat finish. I made the brace following a tutorial from the incredible and highly recommended The Hat Magazine. It’s from one of the early issues, and I had not found a use for it until now!

Blocked seagrass cone  Underside of the block  Headsize brace

Below are pictures of me, pinning the brace in place with my wonderful new tool, the pin pusher. I discovered the tool through HATalk e-magazine. It was one of their monthly giveaways, and when I contacted them about it they said I could buy it directly from them. Two pin pushers (one for me and one for Nina!) cost £19.85 including shipping (from UK to Spain), which I find very reasonable.

I’m in love with my new tool. You insert a pin which is held in place (inside a shaft) by a magnet. Then you just push the pin in place (it has a spring). Soooo easy, no more fussing with hammers! In order not to push the pin too deep I have used a collar that came with a drill bit I bought some time ago and that is fixed in place with a little screw.

Inserting the brace on the headsize opening My new pin pusher! Love it! Close up of the pin in place

…There’s much more… click where it says “more” to see the rest.


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