Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Balsa Wood Utility Hat Block: My Favorite Working Block

Recently I needed a hat for a special occasion, and I was just not going to pull out the steamer, a set of hat blocks (crown and brim), millinery wire, sizing, etc.  After all, I only had an hour or so to make this hat...and it was not like I was making it for anyone but myself. In other words, I was not going to be the perfect couture milliner today.

So what was a girl to do?  Well I reached up and pull down a balsa wood hat block in my head size.  It wasn't glamorous like the ones I set out for display--the blocks I call my sculptures, the blocks I would not dare to nail  into.  Hold your head up Ms. Balsa.  All of those other hat blocks may be eye candy, but if I needed to make 100s of hats and was given the choice to choose one out of  those other blocks, it would be you, girl!

Why? Look around when you enter a store.  How many 1920s - 1940s (my blocks of choice) hat shapes would you find there.  Usually the crowns are round and the brims are plain.  Given a utility block, I can style a fedora, a pixie, a 1920s cloche, all the cocktail/fascinator hats I would ever possibly need and in any shape--well almost.  Using the excess fabric (felt or straw)  draping from the crown, I could create a sailor brim, a deep cuff brim, a symmetrical brim, an asymmetrical brim, etc., and that's without a brim block.  I could add all types of shapes to the balsa block because it's soft and easy to pin into, thus creating hundreds of hat shapes.  Just think about it!  From couture to not so couture, this block is the one.

The block shown here is my latest balsa acquisition.  It is a size 28; huge!  I'll use it as a veiling block (block used for blocking veils).  I found this one on EBay for around $39 plus shipping.  These blocks retail upwards of nearly $200.  So, before you purchase one, do some research.

So, for all of you out there that are new to millinery, on a limited budget, and feel that you have to amass a million hat blocks to start a small businesses or to make your own hats--and I've talked to some of you--start with a simple balsa block and a head size collar ($10).  The average woman's head size is 22 1/2.  If you need a larger block, say a 23 to 24, just block felt (must have wool content) over the block to increase its size....

Technique for making the finished hat?  I selected the balsa block in the size I needed, including a headsise collar (see drawing below); in this case, a straw capeline (over-sized, brimmed straw); a fine spray water mister (bottle); a pressing cloth, a blocking cord (see video below on tying your own); and an iron and ironing board.  I covered my block with plastic so that it would not be damaged by steam and/or water, misted the inside of the straw, and placed the straw on the block.  After determining my desired crown depth, I tied the crown portion of the straw to that depth using a blocking cord.  After which  a damp pressing cloth was placed over the crown and only the crown pressed.  Set the straw aside to dry.  After drying, mark the center front of your crown, remove the straw from the block, place a headsize collar inside the crown and press around the collar to set the 90 degree crown/brim angle; press the brim.  Don't forget the pressing cloth; you don't want to scorch your straw.  This straw came heavily starched; so it was perfect for a floppy brim without a wire.  I ironed the brim edges back, put the hat back onto the block to finger-set the pleats.  Finally I sewed the trim on.  Yes, that's leather on a summer hat; it was my daughter's suggestion, and I liked it.  I made the leather rose when I was teaching myself how to do bead embroidery.  Sorry, but I'll have to put the headsize ribbon in latter.

Have you ever wondered how to make a blocking card?  Well, the slip knot is my favorite method.  I tie a knot on each end of the rope so that it does not slip back through the main knot.  I use polyester clothe line rope for  my blocking cords.  View the YouTube video below.  Enjoy

  1. Check out the Free Online Books from my previous posts for additional help.
  2. Don't forget the Los Angeles County Fair Millinery Contest; you must adhere to posted dates.  More detail is in one of my previous posts.
  3. If you believe in prayer, please take a moment to send out a prayer for me on Monday, the 24th, as I will be involved with serious medical issues on that day.  If prayer is not your thing, please send out wonderful positive thoughts.  At this point, I don't know how long before I will be able to post again; hopefully within the next three weeks.

Thanks, Lee

How to Tie Your Own Blocking Card:  The Slip Knot Method


  1. Le mando un 1.000000 y mas... de pensamientos positivos. Animo y suerte¡¡¡ Quiero verla muy, muy pronto en este blog.

  2. Dear Lee,

    I hope you are doing well. I just red your post right now. I really hope everything went fine for you on the 24th of May! Lots of positive thoughts for you 3 weeks after (never later than never) from Berlin!!!

    PS The straw hat looks wonderful!!!


  3. Hi Gigi,

    Thanks you, thank you! Surgery went well; I'm still a little sore; all tests were negative, etc. I did have to stay a couple of days longer in the hospital because I contracted a mild case of pneumonia. I'm driving now. This was the first time I actually felt a little helpless...but I've been blessed; and for that, I'm so thankful.

    Thanks again,


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  5. You are absolutely right! The balsa utility block is the very best for maximum creativity and mileage. I've been using mine for 20 years now. So you know what's so very exciting about a size 28" hat block? You can make hats for women with dreads! That's a huge untapped market. You go my darling milliner and inspiration!

  6. You're right jasmin. I have locs, so my head size is a whopping 25 1/2. I also like the large block, veiling block, for draping. I first block the fabric on the larger block, then I block the head size on the smaller block, while draping the top.

  7. Does anyone know if I need to stiffen the felt hood before blocking it on a balsa block?

  8. Hi, I'd like to know where I can buy this balsa wood block head form? Thank you!

    1. I purchased most of my balsa blocks from