Monday, December 20, 2010

How to Sew Millinery Straw Braid by Machine

Note:  In order to keep my promise of creating a straw braid tutorial in a timely manner (actually not so timely), I'm issuing this post in DRAFT form, and I will be adding to it, hopefully, on a regular basis until it has been completed.  Of course I will add more images, but if you have resources that are relevant to this post, please share.

Let me assure you that I'm not an expert when it comes to sewing straw on the straw braid sewing machine, but I'll share what I've learned over the years.  I've picked up the machine and put it down over and over again until one day I decided to "just do it."  What I found out, is that it was quite easy.  I had been led to believe that that little machine was some big monster and that it would take years to learn how to operate it; no way!

Note:  If you do not have a straw braid sewing machine it is still possible to sew straw braid on a regular sewing machine.   A free-arm sewing machine would be ideal, but a regular flatbed will work alsoOf course you will not have the straw guide and the sewing area will be larger.

When I decided to "just do it" several things had occurred:

1)  I had purchased two straw braid sewing machines, and totally refurbished and added a base with motor to one.  As you may see, these machines are portable.  I don't have the room to accommodate a commercial machine setup.

2) I had collected patents for the straw braid sewing machine and its accessories.  You would think that a lady with a graduate degree would have had more success at deciphering that stuff--boringgggg!  I'm the type of person that will try to put something together before I read the instructions.  Yes, I had put that machine together, parts from here and there, filing metal for a week with a tiny Dremel tool.  I thought I had really accomplished something;  the machine worked perfectly.  I should have been learning how to stay focused while not understanding old 1800s patent language.

3) I had practiced on the machine and made cute LITTLE HATS.  No matter what I did, my hats always came out tiny. 

4)  I had asked questions concerning sewing on the braid machine and had either been given vague answers or had been outright insulted.  I love insults; they help me to succeed succeed.  Thank you.

5)  I emailed a very accomplished straw braid sculptural artist, Ignatius Creegan.  I had read his story in a magazine, and I became absolutely fascinated with his work.  I hadn't been so excited about straw since I first saw Patricia Underwood's hats a couple of decades ago.  Ignatius sent me an email describing, in detail, how to solve my small hat situation.  So, because he had been so wonderfully generous in sharing this information with me, I emailed him and asked for his permission to published it.  A few months after he had emailed me two years ago, I learned how to solve the small hat situation using another method, pulling the braid--not pushing it as I had read earlier.  So, I let Ignatius know that whatever he decided was OK with me; I was so thankful for his generosity.  Ignatius said that it was OIK with him to publish his email; so here it is in it's entirety:
On the machine there is a tipper that is just above the needle on the right side of the needle bar, there is a straight wire spring that is sticking out of a little hole, the whole tipper pulls out, and when you sew it raises the foot a little every stitch and allows you to make that tight curve around your hand sewn button.  If it doesn't pull out right away turn the flywheel till it does.  Or lower the foot. If you have trouble figuring out what I am talking about just feel around about two inches or so above the needle and to the right for a part that will pull out  (it is a sort of odd lever shape)  it pulls out about a quarter inch or more toward you,  that should help you sew the tip. Also, you will note that when the tipper is pulled out there is a hex screw that the top of the tipper hits against. You will turn the hex  screw out, or extended, for a thicker straw, that will give you a higher raised foot, or turn the screw up, so it will jump less for fine straw.
Now, I have to point out something here.  Given the information above and the fact that the same thing can be accomplished by pulling the straw (I'll explain later),  I now had everything I needed to know about sewing straw braid.  So, understanding this bit of information propelled me to the finish line (well, I'm still no expert, but I do OK), a very short time--an hour maybe.  So lets get started.

Preparing to Sew the Braid  (more detail will be added in the future)
  1. Familiarize yourself with the materials I've provided  you below--books, videos, patents
  2. Set up your work area*
  3. Adjust the braid spacing by adjusting the straw braid guide
  4. Sew the button by hand (approximately 1" inch wide--I prefer a little wider).  Read Straw Hats, Their History and Manufacture:  Chapter IX, Hand and Machine Sewing
  5. Read Ignatius' email above
  6. Pull the tipper out to sew the tip (top crown) of the hat
  7. Sew the crown tip
  8. Push the tipper back in after the crown tip has reached your desired width
  9.  Push the tip down vertical to the floor (see videos) and continue sewing
  10. When the side crown has reached its depth, turn the crown horizontal to the floor and pull the edge of the crown.  It will begin to flair out forming a brim
  11. After the brim has reached the desired width, pull the lower single braid to decrease/curve (if desired) the brim after you have reached the desired width
  12. Study better straw hats
  13. Observe
  14. Practice
  15. Practice
*The Spool ( area)

Actually I don't know what the rotating contraption is call that the professionals hold their braid on, so I'll call it a spool.  I created one by simply placing a Lazy Susan (one of those circular rotating things that is placed in the middle of a table) on my work surface and placing my camera tripod on it.  The Lazy Susan has ball barrings under it, so it will move freely without securing the tripod to it.  As the straw is taken up while sewing, the Susan and straw moves very smoothly.

    Where to Purchase a Straw Machine

    eBay:  This is where I purchased my machines, including additional machines for parts.  Search on Willcox & Gibbs and hat sewing machine.

    City Sewing:  Sewing machines, parts and services.

    Note:   These old machines are mechanical; so, more than likely, your local sewing machine repair shop can repair them, if you decide to purchase a machine off eBay.  Make sure that you study images of complete sewing machines before you purchase one from anyone other than a sewing machine shop. 

    Where to Purchase Straw
    Sun Yokos Enterprise (USA), Inc.:  Straw braid and other millinery supplies.
    Manhatco:  Straw and other millinery supplies.  Old fashion in a good way; nice people; located in New York, (212) 764-2218

    U. S. Patents (there are others)

    Improvement in Machines for Sewing Straw, Straw Hat Sewing Machine, Guide for Straw Braid Sewing Machines, Sewing Machine Tension, Guide for Straw Braid Sewing Machine, Presser-Foot-Lifting Mechanism,Tension Apparatus for Straw Hat and Other Sewing Machines

    Helpful Videos

    We all learn in different ways; some of you will look at these videos and see nothing; others will see plenty.  Play certain segments over and over again.  Maximize the screen to get a better view of video.
    Sewing Straw, The Hat Makers, Straw Boaters, Jack Straw Comes to Town, Caught by the Camera

    Free Online Book

    In order to achieve some of the shapes you may try in the future, it's important to study books that teach how to hand sew straw.
    How to Make Hats; A Method of Self-Instruction Using Job Sheets:  Unit III, Straw Work
    Straw Hats, Their History and Manufacture:  Chapter IX, Hand and Machine Sewing

    I Little Advice

    Practice, observe, research, practice.


    1. Wow! That is a wonderfully detailed tutorial. And how lovely of Ignatius to share his knowledge with not only you but everyone who reads your blog. I can't wait to see more of your straw hats!

      Hope your holiday is safe and joyful.

    2. Thanks. That was nice of him. I think he knows that a lot goes into being as good as he is. So it takes more than just knowing how to do something.

      Stay safe.


    3. THANK YOU for this!!!!!! Rose from Dallas Texas.

    4. Thank you Rose. Let me know if this helps. I'll be posting more information in a week or so.

    5. Muchas, muchas gracias ¡¡¡¡¡¡

    6. This is wonderful! I frequently have customers asking for help with the machine technique and can offer them little in resources. Your blog will now be at the top of my list!

    7. Carmen, gracias por tomarse el tiempo para dejar comentarios. Ellos son apreciadas.


      Carmen, thank you for taking the time to leave comments. They are appreciated.

    8. Thanks Judith. I will posting more info in a week or so.

    9. Hi Lee,
      With the help of my husband making the button for the straw and your tutorial, I made a hat, its not fully decorated and if I had someway to send you a pic of it, I would. The film clips helped both of us a LOT. Just want to say THANK YOU for all your help. Rose

    10. Hi Rose,

      Thanks you so much for letting my know that the tutorial helped. By knowing that it helped one person encourages me to keep posting these little tutorials. If you want to send me a picture, you can email it to:

      Thanks again,


    11. Thank-you Lee for such an informative site.
      I have a question for you. There's a Japanese hat maker named Akio Hitara. I saw a piece about him on a Japanese network.
      He said that his work got easier when he learned how to make hat forms called "chips" They look as if they were made from straw braid. Are you familiar with this technique?


    12. Hi Cheryl,

      Sorry for the delay in answering you. I think I know what it is, but I'm not sure. I think it is a rough shiny straw? Google Straw Museum in Long Beach and send the owners a question. They would certainly know what it is.

    13. Hi, was luck enough to obtain an old Grossman hatmaking machine, having a few problems with it, wanted to make sure I had it threaded properly have looked everywhere but can not find any instructions, it is clogging after a few stiches, if anyone can help WOULD BE MUCH APPRECIATED, thank you Regards Phillippa

    14. Hi Phillippa,

      I have Willcox & Gibbs sewing machines, but I think most of these machines are basically the same. Make sure that you keep your machine clean and oiled. You must oil these machines often.

      For threading, check out the Youtube video locanted here Good luck.

    15. Hi Lee,

      Thank you so much for that - had a look, had the machine threaded wrongly and the poor thing was still trying to do its work. Will thread it properly as per the video and let you know, thank you again - wish you all the best.


    16. Hi Lee,

      Threaded and working - learning a lot about it, will go through all the info you have so kindly put on your site. Have a few questions - should the straw be soaked before using and do the people on the utube video have a site - they say it quickly at the begining but can not catch it properly. Thanks again will leave you in peace for a while.

      Best regards

    17. Hi Phillippa,

      The only straw I have ever dampened is the ruff straw--I didn't soak it. You will know when to dampen the straw after working with it for a while. I'm not an expert and some of the straws I have not worked with. When I worked with the ruff straw I sprayed it with water and wrapped a damp towel around it. I pulled the straw from the bobbin as I needed it. There is very little information that straw sewers are willing to give out so we will have to experiment, experiment. I was lucky enough to have help, as mentioned in my post, plus I had an opportunity to see a lady here sew some straw later, but her machine didn't work properly, but I got the idea.

      If I did not give a link to the patent for the braid machine, go to Google patent search and look for the machine that looks most like yours. Then, read about the bobbin adjustments, etc.

      Willcox & Gibbs, the makers of my machines also made a domestic sewing machine that look very similar to the straw machine. I have one and it's one of my favorite sewing machines. Anyway, there is a sewing machine manual that will explain how to take care of the machine. Go to the Smithsonian site, under sewing machines, and look up a manual for the W&G domestic sewing machines. They are free there, rather than purchasing one from Ebay.

      Hope this helps.

    18. Hello Lee,
      I cannot tell you what a blessing your blog has been to me. I have been on a 3 year journey to learn the art of sewing the straw braid hat on a machine I purchased in NYC. I am having difficulty with the machine actually stitching now. I adjusted the tension and the height of the feed and now I am not making stitches. I hate to admit the level of frustration I am feeling about the adjustments I made. I initially started making adjustments because the tipper of my machine does not pull out. do you have any suggestions about how to get the machine to stitch instead of just penetrate the material and not loop?

    19. Anonymous,

      Re-check tension and threading.

    20. Any tips on making stiffener for felt Thanks Pam Ireland

    21. You are Wonderful! I have been searching for more details......and you put the icing on the Hat :-)

      Thank you so much!


    22. Hi Lee

      Where can you buy the straw braid from so that I can try my hands in making church hats please??

      1. Call them if you don't see what you need on their site.