Monday, 9 January 2012

Elephant No. 99: Millinery

For the next meeting of the fibre arts guild to which I belong, we were challenged to create a piece of headgear. I'm fairly new to this group, so I'm not entirely sure I'm on the right track with today's elephant, but it's the only thing I thought I could conceivably do in a day. As far as I know, other members have been working on their projects for quite some time, so I could be in big trouble.

Millinery is the name given to the design and manufacture of ladies' hats, while "hatmaking" is a more general term that also includes headgear for men. The name "milliner" likely derives from the production of ribbons, gloves and straw for hatmaking in sixteenth-century Milan. The hatmakers who imported the straw were called "Milaners", a name which ultimately came to describe anyone making hats for women.

Although women had worn veils, scarves, hoods and caps for millennia, it wasn't really until the sixteenth century A.D. that they wore structured hats. And not even women's hats: early hats for women were actually modelled on those worn by male courtiers.

By the late seventeenth century, women's hats had begun to come into their own, no longer influenced by men's headwear. Women's hats, along with their hairstyles and hairpieces, became more and more elaborate, culminating in the extreme styles worn at the court of Marie Antoinette in the late eighteenth century.

Satirical cartoon of Marie Antoinette in a hat
that wasn't too far removed from the fashions
of the day.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, bonnets were all the rage. These, too, grew larger and larger, and were soon embellished with lace, ribbons, flowers, feathers, jewels and other trims, By the mid-nineteenth century, although bonnets were still common, other styles had now emerged, including hats with wide brims, top hats and even toques. Women's hats were now being woven with imitation straw, grass, horsehair and even cardboard. Silks and felts were also popular, as were velvet and tulle. Veils were added to many styles, as were discreetly tasteful embellishments such as ribbon, jewels and small sprigs of silk and velvet flowers.

By the early twentieth century, hats had become extravagant again, and would not be scaled back until after the First World War. By the middle of the 1920s, the cloche had come into fashion, followed by a sudden proliferation of styles and materials. Women began to rely on milliners for fashion advice—a state of affairs that lasted into the 1950s.

The advent of ready-to-wear in the 1950s changed the role of milliners. As fashion became more casual, milliners lost their central role. This began to change in the 1980s yet again, as figures such as Diana, Princess of Wales made hats fashionable again. Today, women's hats are generally worn only on special occasions—the larger the better, and often the more outré the better.

The late British fashion icon Isabella Blow
in Alexander McQueen's
"Chinese Garden" hat, 2005.

Today's elephant definitely falls into the category of slightly outré. I've never actually made a hat before—knitted, crocheted, woven or stitched—so I wasn't quite sure what I was doing. An online search for help turned up little that was directly applicable—most references offered courses rather than tutorials—so I was basically winging it. Luckily I have some idea how to sew, so I wasn't completely at sea.

It was incredibly difficult to find a basic form on short notice, and I almost ended up buying a headband to which I thought I might be able to attach something. Fortunately, I found this bridal hat for fifty per cent off at a fabric store, so I bought it with plans to cut it up.

I really wanted to find some millinery ribbon to use on this, but I couldn't find any at the three or four stores I checked, so I bought this roll of marked-down Christmas ribbon from a craft store. There were about 9 metres (10 yards) on the roll, which I hoped would be enough for what I had in mind.

Next, I cut off the brim of the wedding hat so that I would have a simple skullcap form. I thought briefly about shearing off the ivory satin covering, but it was heavily bound along the edge and I was going to cover it anyway, so I left it as is, including a band of grosgrain ribbon inside.

To cover the form, I stitched on bands of ribbon, securing them with a whipstitch onto the inside band.

Once the form was covered with ribbon, I tightened all the strips by tacking them in a few places with small stitches.

Now came the fun part. I started by adding a folded strip of ribbon to serve as a trunk. I didn't cut the ribbon at this point, because I wanted to keep winding and folding and tacking it, rather than having a lot of ragged edges to deal with.


Next, I folded some ribbon on top of the head to either add more volume to the head, or to serve as the lower part of the ear. I still haven't decided which it is, but it doesn't really matter.

Once I'd tacked these folds in place, I made three large loops on each side for the ears. To make them stay in place, I stitched through the top of all the layers, then through the hat form beneath. I also tacked the loops wherever they folded into one another along the sides.

To finish this off, I made a small loop of ribbon in the middle of the top of the head and tacked it under like a little sausage roll. I added a couple of small rhinestone button "eyes" that hopefully don't look too ridiculous. I also stitched crimps into the trunk, and loosely gathered the trunk near the tip. To cover up the stitching inside, I sewed in a lining.

I'd like to blame the rhinestone eyes for making this look ridiculous, but let's face it: it would be ridiculous with or without the rhinestones. I would never wear it—then again, I never wear hats even when it's -20˚C outside.

This was really easy to make, and I like its sculptural form. So, even though it will never grace anyone's head—and although I'm not completely sold on the rhinestones—I'm pretty pleased with it.

Elephant Lore of the Day
An elephant's head weighs literally hundreds of pounds. To support this weight, there are extra muscles along the neck. Interestingly, an elephant's skull is actually filled with tiny air pockets, just like the bones of birds, to keep it relatively light.

Some palaeontologists believe that the Greek myth of the one-eyed Cyclops arose from discoveries of the skulls of dwarf elephants on Cyprus, Crete and Malta. These elephants had skulls roughly the size of humans, but with a large cavity in the middle of the head. Because these early Mediterraneans may have lacked direct knowledge of elephants, is is conceivable that they believed they were looking at a humanoid skull with a large central eye socket.

Skull of dwarf elephant on display at
the Hellabrun Zoo, Munich, Germany.
Photo: MaxM

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 

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