Friday, March 29, 2013

Classic Millinery Techniques: My Love Affair With Buckram Covered Hats

Well I'm back. Wow! doesn't time really pass fast.  I hope you all had a wonderful holiday and I hope the new year started out  as you ordered.  As for me all is well.  So what have I been doing?  Not much.  I made a crown wedding hat and veil for one of my friend's, friend's African style wedding, and I helped with making the broom.  I attended and participated in a couple of fashion shows.  I also converted one of my portable electric straw braid machines to a treadle.  I'm sewing straw braid again and loving it.  I hang out with Ms. E', my granddaughter, and I'm still amazed at her every move.  Oh, I picked up a new obsession--hula hooping!  Well, I'm still learning.   Check out my hoops at the bottom of the page, two of which I made--you go girl!

Vintage Sewn Braid and Crochet Rope
So, lets talk about the subject at hand couture millinery and foundation materials.  I must warn you that I've been trying to write this post for a couple of weeks.  I have been totally distracted.  Forgive the rambling; I hope you get a little encouragement and knowledge from it.  Also, I have to note that these are my experiences with couture millinery and how I prefer to makes my hats.  How others make theirs is totally up to them. 

We probably have our individual definitions of couture millinery.  When I think of it, and as I was taught starting out, I think hand made--hand sewn, not being glue gunned or mass produced, and the outer covering of the hat being support by a foundation material.  As a matter of fact my instructors referred to this  type of millinery as French room couture millinery.  In earlier days, these types of hats were referred to as piece good hats.  Well, what about felt and straw hats?  You figure that one out for yourself; certainly some, including this milliner, hand sews all of her hats.

Buckram is  my favorite foundation material for making covered hats.  We always like what we are most familiar with.  It is economical, costing approximately $8 per 60-inch-wide, square yard for regular ply.  That translates into quite a few hat frames.  Throw in a small piece of high quality cover fabric, not including a few other things, and you have yourself a very expensive couture hat for a minimal cost. 

 I guess at this point I still use buckram out of habit, but mostly because of it's flexibility.  I could use a more modern foundation material, one being Fosshape.  I talked about this material in a post on copying a hat block, so I will not discuss it here, except to mention that when using it as a foundation frame, it is not necessary to mull (pad) the frame to cover frame imperfections, because its texture takes care of this step.

When possible, I try to give you the names of a material as used here in the States, as well as outside of the States.  The differences can be quite confusing, at least to me. In some parts of the world buckram is referred to as 20/20.

My first experience with buckram was the same as shown in Stephen Jones's YouTube video, Millinery in Action: making a hat in the Stephen Jones workroom.  In Mrs. Eloise King's classroom, we could only use steam to block our buckram into frames.  Of course I don't steam buckram any longer because I figured out how to block it without loosing any sizing (stiffener).  Yes, a fast dip into water and/or spraying with additional water if needed, kneading it in the hands, and finally blocking it on a hat block will yield the same results as steaming--a firm stiff foundation.  Both methods are great; there is no wrong or right way to getting the job done.

If you look closely at my spider hat to the left you may notice something a little different, the softness of the folds in the hat.  It is this flexibility that I love in buckram, the ability to create any shape, molded or flat patterned.  Depending on how complex the hat's shape, you can lay the buckram in strips to eliminate gathers or block it in one or two (or more) sections.  What I'm saying is, don't limit yourself to one blocking method when using buckram.  You can combine it with straw or fabric to create another fabric, and to an extent, you can control its resilience, flexibility, and stiffness.  Like everything in life, you are only limited by your imagination.  I will use buckram right off the role or treat it with other solutions, depending the size and type of hat I'm making.

OK, let's discuss a few vintage millinery materials, more specifically willow, referred to as esparterie in some circles; flexible buckram (lightly sized--stiffened);  and buckram (heavily sized) is still around, of course.  The willow/esparterie was used to create hat frames and shapes in the hand, make hat blocks, and as extensions on felt, straws, and buckram frames.  Flexible buckram was used as extensions over buckram frames and frame edges.  When we purchased frames with flexible buckram attached, we would have to remove the bubble-like extension, cover it with a bias strip of fabric, and sew it back onto the covered frame perfectly.  If was not put on perfectly, we had to remove and reapply it.  See the two uncovered frames below left.  These frame images were obtained from a vintage millinery supply book.  Covering the frames was a true art form because flexible buckram was extremely stretchy.  

So why am I mentioning this to you?  Because if couture millinery is your passion, as it is mine, you have learned to work around the fact that many millinery materials are not being made today, or you may not have access to them depending on where you live in the world, or you may not even know that they existed.  If you have been making couture hats for a short time, chances are you will not miss these materials, but it would be worth your while to study them and to learn exactly what they contributed to this wonderful craft.  For example, since I've worked with flexible buckram, it is easy for me to simulate it using different materials just by knowing the properties of the substituted material--flexibility, stiffness, type of stiffener needed in order to achieve my desired results, etc. 

Above right is a large hat I made for a fashion show some time ago.  One of my former millinery classmates called me to tell me that the Haute Couture Hattitude Tea, held at the California African American Museum every year, would be held on Sunday--three days away! Well, at least I thought she said the tea would be in three days (that was a couple of weeks ago--it's actually on April 7th).  I thought to myself, I need a hat!   It takes me forever to design a hat--the hardest part of hat making--and I was not going to be stressed (remember I thought the tea was in 3 days).  So I put on my thinking cap and ...YES! I would do a quick remake on my large bowl hat; I was not very fun of it anyway.

As always, when I need a hat for a fashion show or whatever, I have to rush and make something up, never mind that I have a ton of hat boxes filled with hats.  I also needed a dress because I always need something to wear being that I only buy dressy clothes when I have to. You will not find tons of shoes and clothes in my closet--hat blocks, sewing machines, etc., yes.  I will live my senior years as comfortable as possible, heels off, the whole thing.  So for my original hat, I ran down to Ross Dress for Less and purchased two dresses from the "clearance rack," costing me a whopping $7 each.  No! I didn't forget a zero or two; SEVEN DOLLARS each is correct--two of the same dresses in different sizes.  No, I didn't plan to purchase two dresses, but when I saw them on the rack,  I thought I would wear one in the fashion show, and the other I would use to cover the hat I would be wearing.  Those dresses had been on that clearance rack since 1980, balloon sleeves and all.  Tuesdays are 10% off for seniors at the store.  The original hat also contained the sterling silver spider nested atop stiff vintage veiling.  Anyway, the outfit was a hit!  Vintage is the thing....

When I blocked my bowl hat I treated the buckram with a different solution than my regular hard buckram, water only solution.  I would need a flexible but resilient frame to accommodate my over-sized hat.  With a hat that large, the shape had to rebound if picked up in the wrong manner--usually on its edge,  punched in, or stumped on by a toddler, at least within reason.  Because I had  treated the buckram, I was able to shape my restyled tea hat in the hand as I would shape a free form straw or felt hat because the material was so flexible.  Had I not treated the buckram in a different manner than I would have treated a smaller hat, I would not have been able to create the free from buckram hat below.  While forming the folds in the hat, I had to reposition them to obtain the result I had envisioned.

So, make your hat foundation based on the type of material you are using, the size of hat you're making, how the hat is to be used, the mood you're in (have to make a hat but don't want to), etc.  I have many millinery books.  Most of which I've never read.  When I open a millinery book, I start at the last page and work my way back to the front.  I'm not concerned with how someone else creates a hat, I'm more concerned with how I will make that hat.  How can I learn if I always mimic someone else.  However, there are certain things you will need to know, certain rules and principles of the craft; rules can be broken.  It would not be practical to try to learn couture millinery (speaking in terms of the beginning self learner) without understanding the importance of fabric bias, hand sewing, properties specific to individual materials, and yes there are other things you should know; that's where study and experimentation comes in.  Contradictory?  Not really; I guess what I'm saying is you need to know certain skills before you can even start at the back of the book.

I study other milliners' work, but not because I want to make a hat in the same manner as that milliner, but to achieve a similar outcome based on my research and experimentation, taking into account the properties of the materials I'm working with.  My concern is not how they achieved something because that prevent me from moving forward.  You see this all the time, learners asking how to achieve a task rather than trying to achieve it on their own.  Why?  Because many think that there is only one way to achieve something.  Well, there are many ways; various materials have different properties and different properties require different solutions.  You will not find everything in a book but you can learn a lot just by experimenting and adding to that newly acquired book knowledge.  The results of that experimentation is burned into your psyche.  Just think, if I had not been experimenting with various solutions on my buckram, I would have never learned how to make flexible, resilient buckram.  So you stumble upon things when you are trying to achieve other things.  I know I'm rambling, but I hope you get the idea.  ...and if you think all of those YouTube videos, etc., are telling the whole story, you had better think twice.  But what they give you is a good foundation to take what you are trying to learn to another level.  You see, very few people are willing to put in the extra effort. Stop thinking that you have to do something exactly ow someone else has done it.

Understand that when I give you millinery advice, it is from almost 30 years of experience and continued learning.  I reiterate, it is not good enough to do something a certain way just because someone teaches you a certain way or you read something in a book.  You have to go beyond what you are given.  Another things, my knowledge is limited to my domain.  For example, there are materials whose descriptions sound similar to what I mentioned have been discontinued or no longer exist.  I know that willow/esparterie is being made again (although not of the same quality) and some milliners never stopped using  it from old stock.  So I advise you to do your own research.  Always, do your own research, and if you run into a barrier, go around it.

All of us learn in different ways; explore how you learn and exploit it. I was lucky enough to start out with great couture millinery instructors.  I would advise you to do the same.  If you are unable to do so, learn to critique your own work, otherwise you will never improve.  Your learning is your responsibility.  I still study millinery by studying vintage millinery.  This is why I mostly pin vintage hats on one of my Pinterest boards.  I do this because these hats are more diverse in styling and they require, in some cases, more millinery expertise to complete.  Once you really learn millinery and understand that there are many ways to achieve a task, you will be able to create any couture hat using any type of material regardless of whether you have ever used it before.  I'm not that great at identifying some fabrics, so the first thing I ask my fabric store manager is (I've known her for a couple of decades), "Is this fabric made from natural fibers?"  If not, I ask how much synthetic fiber does it contain, etc.  This does not mean that I will not be able to use the material, it means that I know what I need to use on the material to achieve the task I want to achieve.  And what about straw and felt?  The same applies.  Good luck and happy learning!  Oh, in case you got lost on this long journey, so did I.

Who needs a treadmill when they could have a hula hoop?  Stand at attention treadmill and hold my hoops!


  1. Thanks so much for this post! Very inspiring and the timing could not have been better!

    Sonja Pemberton

  2. Dear Lee - thanks for sharing. I was wondering if you would mention what other "types of solution" you use with buckram?

    1. Hi Tracy,

      That was the point of this particular post. It was to inspire readers to create their own solutions, some of which will come by accident. What I forgot to add is that the more you research and experiment, the better you get at.

  3. Thank you for this extremely interesting article!

  4. Just wanted to say, thank you for continuing to blog. Your blog is an amazing modern millinery resource! Also, have you got a link to a hula hoop making tutorial?

    Thanks again

    1. Hi Giffydoll,

      Thanks for your comments on my blog. Regarding the hula hoop resources, before you rush out like I originally did to purchase a hoop, do some research. Here is a link to my Pinterest where I pinned lots of stuff:

  5. I bought some buckram online (UK) and ended up with the stuff used for curtain pelmets? Is this still useable for hats/bonnets? I just can't seem to find the same stuff there is in the US over here? Maybe I should be looking for another name?

    1. Hi Lady D,

      Things do have different names, depending on geographical location. I did a searched and it appears that there is buckram there that has adhesive on one oror two sides--I've never used it. However, I notice that buckram in your location goes under the name "buckram" and also "20/20." Please compare prices when you are purchasing these materials because some suppliers sell supplies for three to four times more than some others. I found this site I hope they have what you need. Concerning the buckram you purchased. Buckram is not the only fabric you can block on. I don't know what you bought, but if it's woven cotton, just stiffen it with white glue (PVA) and block it. You can also make a cornstarch mixture for blocking.