THUA class: Basic millinery overview

Horned Headdress side view.

Horned Headdress side view.

This is a class I’ve offered for SCA Grand TUA in October 2015. I’m opting not to do printed notes, and instead am posting my “notes” for the class here, as below. 

*Regular disclaimer – I’m presenting here as I’m aware of it. Any links to commercial services does not suggest you should buy from those services; they’re presented as informational only.*

Basic millinery overview

Need something on your head? In this class I’ll discuss a variety of millinery (hat-making) techniques and options, share sources, and discuss pattern-making for millinery.

With Drífa at lækjamoti

No maximum student limit

Cost: Free

1 hour block

Digital hand-out only, no paper copy provided.

Millinery vs. dressmaker hats

When talking about hat-making, there are two distinct styles of hats – dressmaker hats, and millinery. I’ll view them as two separate things.  Dressmaker hats being the kind of hats you can completely (or near-completely) construct on your sewing machine, with little underlying structure. Think of the Jorvik Hood, a goldhaube, a mop cap, or a touque. Millinery on the other hand has an underlying structure, or in itself is structured. Think of a wool felt top hat, a medieval henin, straw hat, bycocket, or a French Hood.

The underlying structure

The underlying structure, or the structure of a millinery hat can be made of several things. Some are period options, while others are modern compromises.  You might compromise because of:

  • Cost or availability
  • Packing & transport
  • Washing, cleaning, or care (especially for a hat that might be shared)
  • Wearing (weight, comfort, allergies, heat, etc)
  • Ease of production (speed, skill level, necessary tools, drying time, etc)

Some of the materials you can use for millinery include:

  • Leather
  • Buckram (water-moldable or flat, unsized buckram)
  • Canvas
  • Wool felt
  • Plant material (reeds, willow, straw, grasses, sinamay, etc)
  • Cardboard, pasteboard (paper or parchment layered together with glue)
  • Wire
  • Boning (whalebone/balleen, or modern boning alternatives)
  • Additional layers of fabric for stiffening

Period-supported materials

While many authors, museums, and publishers describe the content of fabrics in extant soft, dressmaker hats, they frequently don’t describe the inner (unseen) structure supporting millinery hats.

This is an area I’m still working on learning more about.

Some examples:

13th century – The Museo de Burgos has a pillbox-style hat from 1255-1275 which is “embroidered with pearls, coral and trimmed in gold, sapphires and garnets”. The museum does not indicate any stiffening used in the hat, or what the underlying fabric is, though the extensive embroidery may provide sufficient stiffening to an already firm fabric. View this hat here:

1350 – a blue felt hat found in the Little Sampford Church in Essex has a formed, domed crown made of “blue felted wool, without any seams” and a sewn-on brim “covered in cream colored tabby woven silk in four sections, and gold wire.  Ivory colored tabby woven silk lines the the brim and the inside of the hat.  The brim has a red satin woven silk binding along the edge, and a cream silk and silver gilt cord.”   Read more about this hat and see Marc Carlson’s pattern here:

Henry VIII’s Cap of Maintenance, Waterford City – hotlinked from

 1536 – the Waterford Treasures Museum has a cap of maintenance given to the mayor of the city in 1536.  The hat is described as: “The cap is made from red velvet, possibly imported from Italy, that is embroidered with Tudor Roses and marguerites. It measures circa 116 mm in height by 397 mm in diameter and contains a strip of whale balleen near the top of the hat for additional support.” View the hat here:

1545 – from the shipwreck of the Mary Rose, three nearly-complete wool hats were recovered. Each has a double brim, and two have a “square silk lining and had a silk band between the brims”. View one of these hats here:

1560-1600 – A hat mentioned in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 3 is described as a high crowned hat with “felt base and silk pile” with an interlining of coarsely woven linen, and a black silk lining. The silk pile was worked by “six-strand plied silk” thread “worked in even rows round the crown”.  Another hat, from c1600 is described as being made “of felt covered with black velvet… embroidered with couched gold metal thread”. The hat was “moulded from thick felt” and the crest was “pinched together and stitched through at the base over the top of the head with white linen thread”.

Workman’s felt hat: late 16th – 17th century Hotlinked from:

Late 16-17th century – the Museum of London has a wool felt “workman’s” hat on display. This appears to be not much more than a cone hood with a folded up brim secured with a pin. View this hat here:


There are a number of different patterns available, both commercially, online, and you can draft your own.

No pattern needed

Moulded hats, such as straws, wool felt, and similar hats don’t require a pattern, but rather require the material, tools for blocking, and steam and/or sizing.


Bloggers & costumers

Lots of costumers keep blogs and websites where they share their patterns. Some of these you’ll need to re-size for yourself, or use their examples to draft your own patterns. Review them and analyze if you think they meet your personal criteria for period authenticity.

Some examples:

  • German goldhaube – a cap (a dressmaker’s hat) made of gold silk embellished with pearls and gilt thread –
  • French Hood – a millinery hat using buckram and millinery wire The author writes that the “original French Hoods were made of a pasteboard or glue-stiffened fabric base, with a wire or perhaps a metal billiment of some kind sewn around the edges to help the hood keep its shape, and covered in a variety of fabrics” and that the “materials necessary for making a French Hood are in all likelihood very similar to those originally used”.
  • Truncated hennin – Cerridwen Creations shares her work-in-progress photos and challenges making a hennin using sized buckram.
  • 15th Century horned headdress /hennin – Work in progress photos to make a horned headdress along with period inspiration.
  • 14-15th Century Norse pillbox hat – Marc Carlson shows patterns from extant garments on I made my own here:

Commercial patterns

Draft your own

Hat patterns can actually be extremely easy to draft, since frequently you’re looking at only fitting one small area of your head.

In the workshop I’ll discuss basic pattern drafting – starting with a pillbox pattern, and adapting it for a hennin (tapered as it rises from the head), and a fillet (flared as it rises up from the head).

Techniques to discuss in class

Wiring buckram for millinery

How to attach millinery wire to buckram

How to attach millinery wire to buckram

Covering edges

Covering the edge of the pillbox with extra-wide bias tape to soften the seam.

Covering the edge of the pillbox with extra-wide bias tape to soften the seam.

 Padding & domet

shot of the piping between the tip and the band

Padding the hat softens the harsh lines where wire and materials meet, like in this close-up

Shaping wool felt and straw hoods

My classmate Rhonda shaping her straw

My classmate Rhonda shaping her straw



Read more!

Hopefully you’ll be inspired to make interesting hats! If you’re interested to see what else I write about insofar as millinery is concerned, follow my “Millinery” category.  I show works-in-progress, for both historically influenced, modern, and vintage-inspired hats, as well as class work and museum exhibits featuring interesting headwear. If you’re on Pinterest, join me on my board specifically for hats & headwear.

Looking for inspiration? I love looking at Kat’s Hats – a re-enactor who makes beautiful hats inspired by paintings, effigies, and more, along with her client’s wishes.


Leave any questions you might have in the comments below, and I’ll do what I can to answer them!



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