Hat Making Part 1: Buckram Pillbox Hat Construction

The making of a buckram based pillbox hat!


I recently attended a Millinery class at Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine and learned how to make hats from Betsy Scheintaub, an instructor at MECA and owner of Bobbin Studio in Portland, ME. Betsy has a lot of experience with hat making and worked in costuming for a while, so her knowledge about hat making is invaluable since it’s an art that isn’t taught very much anymore. Her class opened up a new world for me that I had previously never dreamed that I would learn about. I was excited about the limitless ways you could embellish, shape and design any type of hat imaginable! In this class, we were taught basic hat making construction and used two common materials, buckram and felt. I will be covering the processes over a series of three posts.

Buckram is a stiffened, coarse linen used as an interfacing, or internal support system for the item being constructed. It is coated or stiffened with gum or paste so that it maintains a rigidity which makes it wonderful for pillbox or brimmed hats, which need structure.  Surprisingly, the buckram was easy to work with, despite how stiff it was.

Closeup of buckram fabric

The first project we worked on was the basic pillbox hat. Pillbox characteristics are a flat crown, no brim, and straight, upright sides. They are thought to be named after the small cylindrical cases that pills used to be sold in. They gained popularity in the 1930’s post war period and spanned into the 1960’s as being a fashion, “must have.” Many notable women donned these hats during their heyday such as, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, actress Audrey Hepburn, and Princess Diana of Wales.

Basic materials needed for pillbox construction are buckram, milliner’s wire, scissors, a needle and thread, a sewing machine, a fabric for covering the frame, a lining fabric, and some scissors that you do not mind cutting coarse fabric with and wire cutters.

To get started, we measured the circumference of our head and then, traced an oval template for the top of the hat onto the buckram. We added a 1/2″ seam allowance around the actual measurement line that we were to cut out.

Template for hat sizes

Next, was deciding how tall to make the hat sides. I chose a mid-height since I didn’t want it to sit too flat or too tall on the wearer’s head. We cut out the strip that was to make up the side of the hat and then measured the milliner’s wire to match up with the top and bottom edges of the strip we had just cut. Also, when I cut the strip out, I made certain that I added a 1/2″ seam allowance for later when I sew the ends together.

Strip Hat crown
the strip thats going to form the sides of the hat
Zig zag over the wire
Zig zag stitch over the wire

To secure the millinery wire on the top and bottom of the side strip, I used a sewing machine set on a very wide zig zag stitch, but be warned you have to go extra slow because the needle can hit the millinery wire and snap it off. I would strongly suggest wearing safety glasses to protect your eyes because it happens a lot even when you’re trying to be careful. With the hat sides finished, we attached the ends by sewing to form the crown. The top of the hat was next!

The top construction consisted of sewing the top down onto the sides. Using a milliner’s stitch, we secured the flaps down and made sure they were neat enough so that nothing would show after we covered the hat in the main fabric.

Once we were done, then we wrapped the bottom of the hat sides with millinery tape, which is like a bias binding for your hat edges. It was finally time to pick out our covering and sew it on. I picked a black and white polka dot fabric for mine. I started by sewing the top on first so that the edges would be hidden under the side when I put that fabric over it. I hand stitched the whole covering on because sometimes machines can be more trouble than they’re worth! Hand stitching has more control over the project even though its a little time consuming, its well worth the effort!

Top stitched down and bottom edge covered with milliner’s tape.


Covering is complete!

Once the top and sides were covered, I chose a chocolate-brown lining. I laid it into the inside of the hat and pinned it into place. I hand stitched it in for a neat finish.

Lining progress

After sewing the lining in, all there was left to do was decorate it. I used a vintage beaded button and some feathers for embellishment and voila! I had my first pillbox hat!

This process was a lot of fun to do and the result was a fun hat that is one of a kind!

I made a  second buckram hat after this, but this one had a brim. The process was a bit different but involved some of the same materials as this project.

I hope you will return next week for part II of my adventures hat making, when I post about constructing a big brimmed hat in buckram!
















4 thoughts on “Hat Making Part 1: Buckram Pillbox Hat Construction

  1. I have wanted to make hats for a very long time. But I do not have the funds to take courses at university or online. I appreciate the instructions, and suggested materials given for the pillbox hat. I am excited to purchase what I need and make my first hat. Thank you for your time and creativity and for sharing your knowledge.


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