What are couture millinery techniques and why do they matter?

On my website I emphasise the fact that all my hats are handmade using traditional couture millinery techniques. But what does that actually mean – and why should you care? Given that this coming week is London Craft Week I thought it would be the perfect time to tell you a little more about this.

Truly handmade millinery is created by hand-forming each hat shape (either over a wooden hat block or, for more abstract shapes, completely by hand). Everything is hand sewn – most of the time you won’t even see the stitches unless they are intended to be a feature of the design. All hat trims are stitched on by hand (never glued) with a light but secure touch – they should look as though they are just resting on the hat.

le Grand Bleu wide brim blue hat with blush pink silk scarf trim back
SS17: Le Grand Bleu – hand blocked wide brimmed hat with scarf trim

Most of the hats you see in the shops, however, are mass produced in some way – even the expensive special occasion hats. Basic shapes are blocked in a factory on metal presses, edges and ribbons are machine sewn, and trims sometimes glued in place. Large batches are produced in a narrow range (if any) of colour choice, usually in just the one head size.

You might also have noticed that the brims of these hats are often quite translucent – great if that is the effect you are after, but not so good if you want impact from a good strong colour. This is because they are only made from about three layers of straw at most. A good handmade hat will be made from about six layers, and the difference is striking:

shop hat
shop bought hat – machine stitched edge and only two or three layers of straw in the brim
hand sewn edge
handmade brim – invisibly stitched by hand with six layers of straw creating strong colour

I meet many clients who appreciate the handmade either because they are makers themselves or because they are just tired of seeing the same things on every High Street and are seeking out something more individual for themselves.

But it is not just a question of taste or personality, there are good practical reasons for commissioning a hat: the chance of your finding a hat in a shop that suits you, fits you and is in the colour you need (or dream of!) is becoming vanishingly small*.

So a hand made hat offers choice and flexibility – colours can be matched, trims subtly redesigned to reflect the detail in an outfit, sizes altered to ensure the hat fits comfortably and securely.

And let us not forget that wonderful fashion phrase “pounds per wear”! Your handmade hat can be retrimmed and reshaped by someone with a good millinery training; trims that have been sewn on can be removed and replaced with something completely different (if you have ever tried to remove a glued-on trim from a shop bought hat you will know how hard this is to do – and it usually ends up damaging the hat).

So embrace the high end handmade – you will be making a great investment.

And I strongly recommend a visit to one of the many events and exhibitions taking place at London Craft Week. It is a once a year chance to take a glimpse behind the scenes of some of the very best high end craftsmanship. To quote Chairman Guy Salter :

London Craft Week is a response to a renaissance in the appreciation of creativity and craft; to the role of hand, head, unique skills and true talent. It is another example of what, at its best, the world’s creative capital does so well – mixing glamour with cutting edge; heritage and contemporary and the commercial with the cultural.” 

london craft week catalogue


*If you are going shopping for a hat on the High Street, I do have some tips for you – take a look at this post on choosing a hat for a special occasion.


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