Thursday, January 20, 2011

How to Sew Millinery Straw Braid by Machine: Tips and Results

When Rose, one of my blog followers living in Texas, commented on my post, How to Sew Straw Braid by Machine, that she had completed her first straw braid hat just by following the instructions given in the post, I had no idea that she had sewn such a complicated design.  Rose is definitely on a mission to conquer the iron monster.  She told me that her braid machine had been collecting dust since May, with very little progress sewing braid, until she read the tutorial.  She also credited her husband for his support and help.  Rose later shared with me another project she was working on using another material.  She shared what she had learned, and she taught me a few things I didn't know.  I asked Rose's permission to showcase her hat in this post.  She gave me her permission and offered some words of encouragement:

"I would advise anyone not to be afraid of trying [to sew straw braid]... The reward of seeing what you can do by practicing and patience is paying off.

I would say that Rose's diligence has already paid off.  Rose has used her hands and imagination to produce a very ornate straw sculpture.  Think about it!  I've heard of people taking months or years just to sew a straight round crown and brim!  Most of the time people just don't know where to start.  It's interesting that most of the manuals associated with "trade secretes" have virtually disappeared....  Thanks for sharing Rose.

Now, here are a few more tips I would like to share with you.

The Machine Tension 

Before you go further, take the time to familiarize yourself with the tension mechanism on you straw braid sewing machine.  Here is the patent for the Willcox & Gibbs straw braid sewing machine tension mechanism. I can't stress the importance of understanding this.  Most of these machines are similar, but this one may be the most popular.

Adjust Your Braid Spacing

I adjust my braid spacing by sewing-in-the-round (practice rows).  Here is an image; I've offset the top sewn braid from the bottom single braid for clarity.  After you become familiar with the placement of the braid guide in relation to where the needle penetrates the straw, you will be able to judge the braid overlap better.  I've noticed that most of these antique machines are missing the numbered measuring guide.

 The Button

Just follow the images.   Click on images for larger view.  Note that there is an oblong button; this will give you more of an oval shaped crown.  Study other hats to familiarize yourself with this type of button.  Remember that the button is first sewn by hand and then transferred to the machine.


Straw Preparation

If you are sewing a dry natural straw like the one above, you will have to dampen it.  Otherwise, the machine feed will literally ear the button!  The straw should be damp, not wet

Machine Oiling

If you are practicing or sewing braid for hours, you will have to oil this machine daily.  I use regular sewing machine oil.  It's up to you to research if there is another, more appropriate oil to use.  Unfortunately there is very little information on the straw machine.  I also have a regular Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine, so I use the manual for that machine as a guide for oiling, threading, etc., my braid machines.   There are many of these manuals located in the Smithsonian archives, probably because this manual belongs to a home machine. Yes, the machines are slightly different, but use your imagination.  Again follow the images.  Note that there are moving parts at the back of the braid machine.  So, where there is a hole, drop a bead of oil.  Never put oil in or on the machine's motor!

Machine Threading

Notice the difference between the tension device on the machine to your right and the braid machine above.  This does not affect the threading method of the machines.  Just follow the directions (numbers) to your right.  However, on the braid machine the thread goes between the disks.  Also note that the thread crosses over and goes through the loops on the braid machine (actually both machines).

For additional research go to the Smithsonian Institute located here, and go down to the bottom of the page to select Willcox & Gibbs.  If you have a different machine, I can almost guarantee you that your straw braid machine will work very similar to the one above.  There are zigzag machines, invisible stitch machines, etc., but you can still learn something from these instructions, if you do the research and practice.

A Few More Tips

1.  Go to the Smithsonian site and find the parts catalog for the braid machine (yes, that still exists).  Notice the feeds in the catalog.  There are different feeds for different straws; there are even different foots for different straws--fine milan (right), etc.  The milan feed is finer.  You can learn a lot from the parts catalog.  For example, one of my machines, see first straw post has an attachment that holds the straw firm to the machine (not the hook but another attachment--the outer edge plait guide--see below left image), see the patents, see the catalog.  I could go on and on, but it depends on how much research you are willing to do at this point.

2.  When the tipper is engaged, slow the sewing speed of the machine.

3.  Hold the lower single braid between the second and third fingers.  Hold the upper sewn braid between the thumb and the second finger.  So, with practice you will be able to guide both the upper (sewn) and lower (single) straws.  The left hand guides the crown.  Practice, practice.

4.  When all fails, read the patents.  It will be much easier now that you know more about the braid machine.

5.  Practice making different shapes.   Read how it's down in the first post.  After you have learned to make a full-size hat, practice by making smaller hats with various shapes.  By doing this you will save on supply costs.  Below, notice that only one side of the form has a brim. 

Show us your creations.  Good luck!


  1. HI LEE,
    This is ROSE and I was checking for one of your referrals and saw the post. THANK YOU so much for posting it and I received more straw today and I intend to do this again. The button information you gave was much needed and I will practice that on my new hat.

    I hope those who are interested in learning how to use their straw machine take your advice because it is rare to see anyone share the way you did and I'm VERY APPRECIATIVE of all you have done. It does require a lot of practice and I also suggest that one needs to buy the largest spool of serger thread they can find, you will use more thread than on the regular sewing spools. I'm so looking forward to your next article,

    May God Bless, Your hat pal,
    Rose in Dallas

  2. Hi Rose,

    Thanks a million for your kind comments. I totally agree with you about the thread. If there is a subject you are interested in seeing on my blog, just let me know.


  3. Hi Lee -

    As always you are a wealth of information! Congratulations to you and Rose for keeping the straw conversation alive and sharing your talents with the rest of us. What you do is priceless. xoxo - C

  4. Thanks a million, and after reading your past posts, I'm going to spend more of my time taking fun classes again. You guys appear to be having plenty of fun! Now, that's what it's all about!!!

  5. Lee, this is one of the best tutorials on the subject I have ever read.Thank you for posting it. I think that conidering the fact that straw is a difficult material to work with, this tutorial will help so many people to get more comfortable with it.:-)))I think you should write a book. Seriously. God knows FIT in New York can use tutorials like this to teach their students to design hats, not 3-rd grade level slap together hat-like somethings.

  6. Thanks for such kind words. I will teach, soon I hope. I thought that after I retired I would have more time. So, now I have to prioritize everything, and at least start teaching a few classes. The book, I've thought about it....

  7. muchisimas por esta informacion , y sobre todo por compartirla

  8. Muchísimas gracias, por la información tan fantástica que comparte en su blog.

  9. Hi Carmen, thanks for your comments and support.

  10. WOW! I am so excited to find that you have information for how to work with the Willcock and Gibson straw machines! I bought a few of these units in the fall, and I am so excited to get them up and running! XO Love Charlie

  11. Thanks and good luck. It's fun sewing straw.

  12. were can I buy one of this Machines? Well I am looking for an industrial new one, but any help I wil thank you. my e-mail

  13. I purchased my machines at

  14. Hello, Lee. Thanks for all the information. I also purchased a straw (zig-zag) machine from EBAY. With the information that you shared I now have the courage to try to use the machine. I'll keep you post as I progress along. Thanks so much for sharing most milliner's are very secretive. Thanks again.

  15. Hi Frida,

    Thanks for your kind comments. I was just working on my straw machine last night. It's still fun. I don't have a ziz Zag machine. It would be great to see one in action. Good luck.


  16. Is Rose's hat made of flax straw? It is very shiny.

  17. Hi, I'm trying to find some advice on sewing straw braid by hand? I've taken apart a chap straw hat and hope to resew it in the shape I want.

    1. Hi Lady D, when sewing straw by hand it is sewn counterclockwise, the oposite of what is shown above for machine sewn straw. Here is a little video that may be of help to you. Use a long needle and thread rather than straw to sew the braid. Sew the braid in a way that the stitches are invisible on the outside. Just practice.

  18. Thank you really interesting