Hat Making Part 3: Felt Hat Construction

Felt hat base, molded construction with a decorative block style!

Welcome back! If you missed  Part 1  & Part 2. please check them out!

Today, I will talk about part III, felt hat construction.

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Closeup of beautiful wool fibers (Photo by Lukas)

Felt is perhaps the oldest textile material on Earth. It’s produced by matting, condensing and pressing fibers together. It can be made from animal, or synthetic fibers. One of the most common fibers to felt is wool due to its special characteristics. If you look at wool under a microscope, the fibers are covered in scales much like human hairs. When wool goes through a, “wet felting,”  process, the fibers latch on to each other and interlock forming a cohesive piece of textile and the result is felt. Natural oils found in the wool called, lanolin, aid in the process and create a very tight bond, think of it like sealing something with wax. We did not make the felt hat bodies ourselves for this class.

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Sheep have been a main source of wool for centuries (Photo by Dan Hamill)

 

For this portion of the class, the materials we used are a felt hat body, chemical sizing, wooden hat blocks, a steamer, grosgrain ribbon and embellishments.

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various hat blocks

The felt hat-bodies came in a, “cape,” or “hood,” form, which is a fancy way of saying that they look like a mushroom cap or a maybe a badly drawn cartoon ghost. They come in many different colors and grades of felt, such as basic wool, up to the most luxurious cashmere. We worked with the wool felt to start with, but students were given resources to purchase their own materials if they wanted to.

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The first step in working with a felt hat body (cape) is to paint on a chemical called, “sizing.” Sizing works as a stiffener, since felt is quite floppy and won’t hold shape well, it needs to be given some sort of structure. We used a biodegradable gelatin sizing for our projects. It comes in powder form and you must mix with hot water, until dissolved. You may dip, brush, or spray onto the cape, I chose to brush it on to mine with good reason, the drying time. After sizing is complete, you must wait for it to dry before you start working on the hat, so if you dip your hat, you may be waiting for it to dry for a while. Since this was a class with deadlines, I didn’t dare to experiment with dipping it into the solution in fear that I wouldn’t be able to work on it as soon. I would say that dipping it may produce a stiffer result, so I intend on trying this on my own soon.

powdered sizing for hat making

After the cape was dry, we picked out a hat block for the shape we desired. Hat blocks can range from a basic oval head shape to elaborate multi dimensional shapes. They can be made from wood, or synthetic materials.  I chose a block that was very basic because I wanted to make a cloche.  The cloche gets its name from, cloche, the French word for “bell”. The characteristics of a cloche are usually a fitted, bell-shaped hat, most often made from felt. It was invented in 1908 by milliner Caroline Reboux. They were very popular starting around 1922, spanning the decade until around 1933.  Notable ladies who wore this iconic hat were actress, Joan Crawford, silent film star, Clara Bow and the ladies on the modern cast of Downton Abbey.

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Cloche hats weremmade popular in the 1920’s

To begin the shaping process, I put the cape onto the hat block. I used a steamer machine as well as hand shaping to coax the cape into the desired form. The steam acts as a helpful hand when it comes to molding the felt. It softens up the fibers just enough to manipulate them, but the sizing keeps the shape when it cools down. It took a few sessions to achieve my desired result, but the process was a lot of fun!

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molding the cape over the block. The wide elastic was to keep the shape while drying.

After I was satisfied with the hat shape, I cut a strip of millinery grosgrain ribbon that was equal to my head measurement. Millinery ribbon is a type of ribbon that has tiny loops on the edge on both sides. The loops are perfect for needle and thread insertion points to attach the band to the hat. I placed it into the crown of the hat and sewed it in by hand. The grosgrain band helps keep the crown’s shape so that it doesn’t stretch out and slip down over the wearers eyes.

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Ribbon close up (Photo by Thorn Yang)

The next step is embellishing the hat. It’s a matter of personal preference whether or not you want to do this step, but for me, its my favorite part! I used a piece of sheer white silk fabric and a jeweled vintage button that I put feathers on the back of. I sewed it into place and marveled at how it came out!

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I loved this process, and it was pretty beginner friendly. The only part that may hitch some people up is finding the hat blocks for the project. They can be absurdly pricey, but every so often you can find an affordable one. I recently acquired a jigsaw puzzle type of block on Ebay. Its pretty neat and I used it to make hat number two, by way of the same process as written above.

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jigsaw hat block: all of the pieces come off for easier removal of the final product

The only difference was pushing the fabric down into the valleys and crevices of the block vs. just pulling it down smooth over the form. Here is the result!

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Finished product!

 

 

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