Some say, to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter.

Day 60

The other night, I put the finishing touches on my first hat made from scratch. I came to hat making sort of by accident -- I found the class while browsing through an adult education catalog, thinking about taking an American Sign Language class. I had put "learn the basics of a traditional New England craft" on my list for this blog because I love crafts and love connecting to the past in a tangible way. I have occasionally been envious of kids who grew up when history class consisted of churning butter and splitting wood, although I recognize that there are limitations to how much we can really empathize with people of another time even if we get the same callouses. I had thought I'd take a basic woodworking class for that list item, until I saw the hat class.

This one's hard to describe, because it doesn't look like much. Two white ovals, made of a cloth-like material.
The crown and brim of my hat, while I was
working on sewing the wire to the buckram.
Photo of me from the side. In my hair is an oval covered in purple and gold cloth that is fitted to the shape of my head.
Me with my fascinator.
Photo credit goes to my hat-making
teacher, Andrea Zax.
On the first day, the instructor explained the basics of the process. We would be making hats using buckram and wire, a good way to get into hat making. Buckram is a cloth with a very open weave, starched so heavily that I thought it was plastic at first. We made small hair decorations (fascinators, for those knowledgeable about accessories) on the first day, to get used to working with these materials. I have a fair bit of hand sewing experience, but this was new. I noticed that I have a habit of stopping mid-stitch, with my needle in the cloth, when I want to pause what I'm doing, and that just doesn't work with buckram. The needle falls right out. Both the buckram and the wire fought against me, but the more I worked with them, the easier it became to fit them into shape.

I had lots of questions. Some were practical, like how to determine the height of the hat. I've never really had to think about my hats' heights before! Luckily, there's no wrong answer. We designed our own hats from scratch. I found that browsing museum catalogs online was a good way to get inspiration, because -- and I just learned this -- I tend towards hat styles from the 1940s. Some of my questions were more about the context of hat making, and I had to look them up. For example, why wasn't the class called millinery? Isn't that what we were doing? The short answer is probably that it's easier to sell a class with a name everyone understands than one with a niche word. The longer answer is that all millinery includes hat designing and making, but it depends on who you ask whether all hat designing and making is millinery. At some times and in some regions, millinery has referred only to designing, making, and trimming women's hats. In some cases, milliner's shops sold much more than hats, but all kinds of accessories and some clothing.

Image is of a hat about half-finished. The top part is covered in dark green fabric, but the brim has a layer of white buckram and light green fabric exposed.
My hat in progress. The brighter green band around the rim
is some bias tape I added to soften the feel of the stiff wire.
  We had free reign to draft a hat the way we wanted it, as long as it had a brim, a crown, and a flat top, because that was the technique we were learning. To shape buckram into a curved top, you need to learn to steam it and wrestle it into place over a hat form, which takes a lot of work and is a more advanced skill. I decided I wanted to make a hat that was a little bit like a stetson or a fedora, but with a stylish flair. Hat styles like these, which hat traditionally been men's domain, became popular for women, with "feminized" details, around the 1940s, and those were the hat styles I seemed drawn to. They're traditionally made of felt, without the buckram and wire, but I figured it would look nice in a simple twill suiting fabric. 

Choosing a fabric led me to look up the different types of hat materials. I knew that the phrase "mad as a hatter" and the Lewis Carroll character who kept the phrase in popular parlance came from the fact that hat-makers used to get mercury poisoning. I wondered whether buckram itself was treated with mercury before synthetic alternatives. It turns out that no, mercury was used in the process of felting furs and pelts for hats. Beaver hats were a mainstay from the mid-sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Many of the hat styles that we now think of as "old fashioned" whether or not we can put them in a particular era, like top hats, cocked or tricorner hats, and some military styles were traditionally beaver. Other furs needed the same treatment, but treating pelts with mercury, a neurotoxin, is dangerous for the worker. The first laws protecting workers by banning mercury were passed in the 1890s in Europe (although the US didn't have similar protections for another 50 years).

The only other hats I've made have been knitted, but hat making can encompass a wide variety of crafts. Making a straw hat by hand is most similar to basketweaving, and there are hat-making traditions using local plant materials all over the world. The most famous is probably the craft of making a Panama hat, which is actually Ecuadorian; this craft is on UNESCO's lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Some hats are sewn entirely out of fabric, but almost anything with a brim, unless it's felt, needs a stiffener. The brim of a sunbonnet, and its modern relative, the baseball cap, is often buckram. Sunbonnet brims are also stiffened with shellacked cloth called gossamer (which as far as I can tell is the same thing as buckram) and baseball caps sometimes contain plastic in their visors. 

Sewing the points at the bottom of this picture was the hardest part.
Around this time it started looking less like a craft project and more like a hat!
One of the first things I noticed was that drawing a pattern is difficult, but drafting a pattern to look like a particular, pre-existing hat must be even harder. I imagine that many people over the years made hats by enlarging a pattern from a book or magazine; I learned to enlarge shapes with a ruler and compass in middle school and forgot the skill before I ever got good at it. As I got into the rhythm of making my hat, I thought less about hat making and more about the hat in front of me. I still had a lot of questions, but most of them were about which parts to sew and which parts to glue, and how to decide. My hat is mostly sewn by hand, with a few seams done by machine, and a little glue around the brim.

My thoughts having completed the class -- other than "I need to find excuses to wear my hat!" are mostly about who has historically made hats. Today, they are mostly machine-made, although I imagine there are some types of hats made by a combination of machine and human labor in sweatshops. Professional hat makers who are skilled craftspeople are rare in the United States, and they occupy a niche market, selling their wares at high prices. I thought I remembered that hat making, or maybe hat trimming, was a woman's trade in the last few centuries -- wasn't there an Edith Wharton character who half-heartedly took up trimming as a way to make a living? -- but the stereotype of the mad hatter is certainly male.

Having dug into the subject a little, I have found that there's a lot to learn. Traditionally, hat making by felting furs was a male domain, and millinery was female. Hatmaking was one of the industries that was a part of the transition from craft-based industries to factory work in the early nineteenth century -- rural families would take in work from a centralized manufacturer, but do it in their homes rather than at a factory. This was often both men and women (and children). In the 1850s, hat finishers formed one of the first national trade unions in the United States, and in the 1908 Loewe v. Lawlor Supreme Court case, the court found that the monopoly-busting Sherman Antitrust Act could by applied to labor unions as well, in this case, a hatters' union. And I remembered correctly, if fuzzily, that Lily Bart in Wharton's 1905 The House of Mirth, reluctant to work for a living, got a job in a milliner's shop. She hoped that she could do trims because she thought that framing and constructing a hat was drudgery, but she soon learned that even applying spangles to a hat well enough to sell it in a store required specialized skills that she did not have. Hat making, and millinery, have a rich history in fiction as well as non-fiction.

Image is a person in profile wearing a round green hat. The hat's edge is curled up on one side, with an asymmetrical brim.
My finished hat! 

Here are a few resources I used in answering my questions in this post:

Dublin, Thomas. "Rural Putting-Out Work in Early Nineteenth-Century New England: Women and the Transition to Capitalism in the Countryside." The New England Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4 (Dec., 1991), pp. 531-573

"The Danbury Hatters"

Palmer, Bryan. Review of The Practice of Solidarity: American Hat Finishers in the Nineteenth Century. (David Bensman, Chicago: University of Illinois Press 1985) Labour / Le Travail, Vol. 18 (Fall, 1986), pp. 241-244


  1. Tegan, what a great article, blog post you have written here! May I post it on my Hat Making page? I feel honored to be a part of your experience!


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