August 29, 2015

Working on a New Pillbox Hat: AKA How to Block a Hat Tip

I knew I wanted to make another pillbox hat to wear for the upcoming fall/winter season, and I also have been wanting to show you all a more proper method for making a hat than the way I explained in my basic pillbox tutorial. The great thing about the first way I showed you guys how to make a pillbox is that it doesn't require any special extra tools, however in real deal millinery, hats are made on blocks. I happen to have a very nice little round pillbox block from this lovely etsy shop, which I bought not only to make pillbox hats, but also to block the tops/tips of other small hats too. I think this style is a good basic block for anyone looking to make smaller sized hats. I also have a round little button shaped hat block from the same shop that is also very nice.

Now I want to add a disclaimer before I begin this little walk through on how I made this particular hat: I am not a fully trained milliner. I have taken some classes with a professional milliner in London who works with high fashion companies, and she learned how to make hats from the man who made the Queen Mother's hats back in the day. In addition to a semester learning from said milliner, I have tried several things trial and error on my own, read lots of hat making books and blog posts, and have been making hats now for several years. All of this is to say- every professional milliner I have come in contact with has proclaimed there is only one real way to make hats, and the rest are not real millinery. The thing is, each of these people have different ways of doing it, so honesty I don't believe them when they say it's their way and that's the end of it! So perhaps if any of you are experienced milliner's you may not agree with the way I went about making this hat, and that's fine, because I have found what works for me.

Anyways, there are going to be a TON of photos below, and this walk through doesn't even include trimming the hat or putting in a lining! I still have to order the hat veiling so the trimming will come later. More after the jump!

To make this hat you would need:
-One hat block
-Plastic bag or plastic cling wrap
-Steel pins
-Both crafting scissors and fabric scissors
-Millinery wire
-Fabric and trimmings of your choice
-Perseverance and time

Okay so you have your hat block, but you need to cover that lovely little guy up so he doesn't get wet and sticky and sad. I used a nearby thin plastic shopping bag, you can use any thin vaguely stretchy plastic including cling wrap. Not only will wrapping up your block prolong the life of your block, it will also make it possible for you to remove the buckram you are going to be blocking onto it, which is good because you don't want to have to pry off a stuck on hat tip (as it will ruin your nicely blocked tip, trust me on this).

We are going to start blocking the top (aka tip) of the hat. To do this cut out a round piece of buckram by tracing my hat block onto the buckram and then add about a 1 to 2 inch "seam allowance" giving you a circle of buckram larger than the hat block. Remember to use craft or paper scissors with the buckram as you want to reserve your nice fabric scissors for fabric only. Once you are ready to block, wet the piece of buckram by holding it under the faucet for a few seconds or by spraying it liberally with water from a spray bottle. Be careful you don't hold the buckram under the water for long as you don't want to wash out the sizing/gluey stuff out of the material. To push the pins into the block I use the above arrangement, with a thimble on my middle finger and my thumb and index finger pinching the pin. This way I can push the pin into the block with the thimble.

So begin by centering your wet piece of buckram on your hat block and insert the first pin on the bias of the material. For those who aren't familiar, woven fabric (even stiff hat buckram, which is less a fabric...but whatever) has warp threads that go lengthwise and weft threads that go crosswise (over under, over under). The bias is the diagonal across these two perpendicular is a picture, the red arrow indicating bias.

 Okay, yes, bias. So put your first pin into the block with the buckram on the bias. Next gently hold the buckram at tension (stretch it over the block) and pin directly opposite your first pin.

You see the little raised bit between the pins from the tension? That is good.

Next you will pin the same way on the sides. Then keep adding pins between these first pins, stretching the buckram over the edge of the block and pinning it smooth. This is a sticky operation due to all the sizing in the buckram, but when that sticky sizing dries it holds the new blocked shape in place. Try and stick the pins in at a 45 degree angle (pointy end up, pin-head end towards the table). I didn't quite succeed at the angel of my pins because I forgot to put my block on a stand for better leverage.

I keep a spray bottle with water handy while I do this because Colorado is super dry and the buckram will sometime dry too much while I am trying to block it! Pull down and pin.

All pinned and ready to dry! Now you wait for this pin cactus looking covered block to completely dry, I recommend overnight.

To pass the time, select your fabrics and trimmings!

So once everything is completely dry, you can gently ease off the now blocked hat tip. I tend to unravel the plastic from underneath and slide the whole thing off and then I peel the plastic off from inside the buckram.

Trim down the nasty bits so that you have a nice smooth hat tip.

Next cut out the stand of your hat crown by measuring around the edge of your block and adding a 1/2 inch. You can make the stand as short or tall as you'd like your hat to be. I started with 2" but eventually cut mine down to and 1 1/2".

Here I am checking the fit, I traced the overlap in pencil and then sewed the stand into it's shape. I did a row of back-stitch and then stitched over the seam. At this point you should technically re-cover your block in plastic again but I forgot.

Slide your nice blocked tip back onto the block to check how everything is going. The tip isn't technically big enough with the addition of the stand but it will stretch just enough. It is time to sew them together.

For this I again used back-stitch.

This is how I pinned the tip and stand together to hold everything in place while I sewed the two together.

Once your tip and stand have become one, it is time for a trick I learned in millinery class to make that seam disappear. Okay so it won't visually disappear, but to the touch it virtually does. You will need a hot-ish iron and a small vessel of water. Slip your hat back onto the block and we shall begin!

You can just barely see the stitches above appear shiny, that is because I ironed the seam just there. What you want to do is dip the tip of your finger in the water and then rub your finger across the join in the two pieces of buckram. Then quickly rub the iron down firmly over the spot you just wet to smush everything together resulting in a completely smooth side. This is why having a block is awesome because you can press as hard as you like with the iron to make the seam smooth. Remember not to use too much water here (and no steam) as the buckram edge just needs to be very slightly damp for this too work. Work in small 1-2 inch segments around the edge.

Here my messy stitches look shiny and flattened from where some minuscule amounts of sizing from the buckram has migrated and managed to sort of laminate everything together.

Now let everything fully dry again (not that you got it very wet at all, right? right.) for a few minutes and then take your hat off of the block. If like me you didn't cover your block again it may have gotten a bit stuck and you may want to panic, but no friends, I have a tip for you! A piece of flat 1/4" spring steel boning is a very useful to to slip between the buckram stand and the block to loosen where it has stuck to the side of the block. So hopefully you also make corsets and have boning lying around :)

This is a good point in the process to sew a length of wire to the bottom edge of the hat stand. I did not do so as I wanted it to retain a little flexibility so it would form to the shape of my head a bit when worn. I did add some minor stability with some horsehair braid which you will see in a moment. If your were creating everything up to this point with the intent to also add a brim to the hat, definitely sew on a wire.

Now we can begin to cover the hat in the desired fabric. I chose a remnant piece of swirly figured black acetate velvet, because swirly velvet is awesome. Trace your hat block again and add 5/8" seam allowance.

Also cut a band of fabric on the bias to cover the sides of your hat. Make this strip 1 inch wider than the stand of your crown.

Okay so I forgot to take a picture of me actually sewing on the fabric covering the tip. The basic principal is similar to when you blocked the buckram in that you begin by pinning the first pin at the center back (where the seam in the stand is) and the second in the center front across from it. Again stretch the fabric gently over the edge and pin it as you go around. Pin through the corner for nice tension everywhere. Then sew a few millimeters down past the "corner" of the top along the stand, I used back-stitch again. Once you have sewn around the whole tip, trim the extra seam allowance down to a few millimeters away from your line of stitches.

Next fold your strip of fabric for the side over 1/2" and iron it (unless like me you are using velvet, in that case don't let your iron near velvet unless you are magical and have special ironing-velvet-without-ruining-it powers). Pin the strip along the sides of your hat with the top folded edge just covering your line of stitches from sewing the fabric over the to. Fold over the back edge of the strip to cover/create the center back seam. Slip stitch the strip in place along the top edge of the fold.

Next fold the excess fabric of the strip inside the bottom edge of the hat. This is where you may have added a wire, instead I just added some plastic horsehair braid for a bit of extra stability. If you tend to be hard on your hats, defiantly add a wire to this bottom edge for durability. I store and wear my hats with care so I didn't worry about it. Now for this hat, with such a thick/fuzzy fabric, I could just add a row of small stitches to hold the folded inside edge in place. For nice smooth fabrics those stitches would be seen, so another option is to use a thin/light coat of glue on the inside being very careful to not let the glue seep trough to the outside (eek!). Or you can stitch it and then add a ribbon or other trimmings on the outside to cover the stitches. When making a hat with a brim the way the stand is covered is different as the brim is added before the hat is covered in fabric...perhaps I need to make a brimmed hat tutorial?...

Anyways, after you secure the fabric over the bottom edge you basically have a little hat! All that's left is adding trimmings and a lining, which I will be doing soon and I will show you all how to do too once I acquire the hat veiling I want to use for this project.

Isn't the velvet I used crazy? I used it to make a dress in my senior collection in college a few years ago and luckily still have some remnants. I think I'll be adding a full face veil and a black feather pouf to this hat for an all black fall/winter appropriate hat!

I hope you guys found some of this helpful, have fun hat making adventures!


  1. Swirly velvet is crazy in a good way! Although I may never make a hat, I find the process fascinating. Thank you for taking the time to create this post. I would love to read a good post on how hats are sized and how to pick a good hat for your silhouette, if anyone knows of one. Your hat is already beautiful! If she were mine I would trim her in black faux fur....

    1. Thank you Piper! I usually make hats that are smaller than head-size, so they just perch upon the head as opposed to fitting around the head. I don't currently have a hat block that is my head-size but I hope to invest in one soon so I can make 20's cloche hats!

  2. Extremely cool - and impressive. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful how to with us. That swirly fabric is tres chic and works marvelously on a hat!

    ♥ Jessica

    1. Thanks Jessica! I finally ordered the vintage veiling for this hat today so hopefully I can finish it soon!

  3. Oooh, thank you so much for this tutorial Bianca! Ever since Tanith sweetly gifted me with that marvelous maroon pillbox hat I've been itching to see if I could make a pillbox hat for myself. Your tutorial definitely makes that process easier. :) ❤

    bonita of Lavender & Twill

  4. What a great, clear tutorial. You explained everything really well. Looking forward to seeing how your hat progresses.

    1. Thanks Kate! I'm glad you find it clear :) Hopefully my vintage veiling will come in the mail soon and I can finish this hat this week!


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