Last summer my boyfriend’s stepmum, Sally, came to stay with us whilst attending a millinery course at Central St Martin’s School of Art in London.
St Martin’s has taught some of Britain’s great creative talents, from Stella McCartney and Jarvis Cocker to Paul Smith. Oh, and back in the early Nineties I had a massive crush on someone I knew who studied there. Reason enough to be enthralled by Stepmum’s foray into hat-making! I would come home from work each evening and she would come home from her day as a student, and we’d compare notes. It was wonderful to see someone so invigorated, excited and inspired by a week’s study!
Fast forward a few months, and Sally was ensconced back in her Brittany home, furiously making hats. She sent over some photos and, really… How could a girl resist? I asked her to make me a cloche hat with little direction other than, ‘Here’s a photo of Angelina Jolie wearing one in a film.’ I asked for my hat to be simple, appropriate for day wear and big enough to accommodate my huge head and big hair. (I struggle to find hats that fit.) The above photo is the result, sent over from rural France to Walthamstow just in time for Christmas.
I thought it would be great to have a little interview with Sally and allow us all to share the benefit of her experience, walking the hallowed halls of one of Britain’s great artistic teaching venues and learning all about how to make hats. I hope you enjoy the chat Sally and I had:
What inspired you to step into the field of hat making?
I have always loved and worn hats. As far as I’m concerned the bigger and more outrageous the better. As far back as I can remember I visited stores in London, such as John Lewis, Selfridges, Fenwicks and Harrods to admire, and try on, their hats! I love sewing, designing and fashion, and enjoy using my talents to produce innovative yet wearable hats. Ten years ago, when I taught Art and Design in Manchester I attended a part time course in Millinery, but other commitments prevented me from making them. I am inspired by the designs of Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones, but having been taught recently by Ian Bennett I am now being influenced by his more sculptural forms.
Could you tell us a little about the course you went on and how the experience was?
In 2010 I took a a five day full time summer school at Central St Martins in London, taught by Ian Bennett, covering the basic techniques of blocking and finishing hats in straw, sinamay and felt. There were students from the UK, France (me), Holland, Italy, Spain and the USA, taught in English (as were the comprehensive course notes). I enjoyed the atmosphere and getting to know the other students in the class. The techniques we learnt were traditional and had not, essentially, changed in the past hundreds of years.
What hints and tips would you give to anyone else wanting to try their hand at this craft?
I enjoy making model and couture design hats in felt, sinamay or straw, or a combination of these traditional materials. They can take quite a long time to make, and you need to be very patient as they are made exclusively made by hand. There are no instant results but the final outcome can be stunning! Expect to make mistakes and don’t be put off when you do. I use my ‘ideas hats’ as I call them, to try out designs and techniques. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. Since the course I have made 20 hats which I exhibit to potential clients and have received many favourable comments. I am now taking commissions for hatches, matches and dispatches and any other special events!
Do you have a favourite technique?
Not so much a favourite technique, more a favourite material. I love working with sinamay, hats of all sizes and shapes, from small cocktail hats to big brimmed wedding/races hats! I like sinamay because it’s a very flexible material. It can be blocked into crowns and brims, is available in a wide range of colours and can be used for decorative bows, loops, flowers and leaves. There are also variations which are made from silk, and have printed patterns, fluffy spots, dots and tufts. I also enjoy using crystals on my hats, either ironed on direct or incorporated on silver wire ‘feather’ decorations.
Living in France how have you found your suppliers?
No problems with suppliers. I source most of my materials through the internet and mostly from the UK as it’s much cheaper than France, but have bought antique decorations and feathers through Ebay. Etsy also is a good website for some basic materials. Most orders arrive within 3-5 working days, so I can usually plan to work on something else whilst I wait for materials to arrive. However I do keep a basic stock of materials and trimmings.
What do you have planned for the future?
Ah, The Future. I want to set up a website showing my current range of hats, which will allow my designs to reach a wider range of clients. I have some potential commissions for this year, including a Black and White Hat for a wedding in Cheshire in July and I’m currently planning to produce a hat for an international competition in March. (That’s under wraps at the moment.) I’m now registered here in France as an Auto-Entrepreneur and my company, H’ATELIER22 is up and running; Atelier means studio, and 22 is Cote d’Armor, the Departement where I live. I will be displaying my hats at various shows and craft fairs here, and aim to keep my prices reasonable, but not sacrifice the quality of the finished hat. I know we are in difficult times economically, but hey girls, we all need that special hat!
Thanks, Sally, for that lovely interview. Below is another photo of the hat with a feather addition for more formal occasions. Now I just have to cross my fingers and wait for someone to invite me to a formal occasion. I’ll have just the right head gear…
I ain’t dirty! I washed my face and hands before I come, I did.*
* Points out of ten for anyone who can name that quote.
If you’re interested in Sally making un chapeau for you, drop a note in the comments and I’ll forward your details to Brittany, France.
May Sally inspire us all to get creative! For any Londoners out there, Sally discovered a new shopping venue just off Carnaby Street – Atelier Millinery. A good venue for resources and some interesting-looking courses, too!