The art of hat design

| April 14, 2011

By JO ROSS
Special to The Voice-Tribune

Eight different artisans spend eight hours on one hat.

Eight different artisans spend eight hours on one hat.

Few Kentucky Derby attendees have any idea what is required to create the artful hats on their heads.

On a recent visit to the Frank Olive studios in New York where Gabriel Amar designs hats, I learned it takes eight artisans eight hours to make one hat.

Making a hat involves conceptualizing the overall design, selecting the color and materials, then sewing, steaming, blocking and trimming.

When the construction of a Frank Olive hat begins, the braided straw is very narrow and is sewn in a circle, around and around on a special machine to create the crown, or top part of the hat. When a large enough disc is formed, it is put on a wooden block and steamed to the desired silhouette.

A crown can be rounded, flattened, dented with a crease, folded like a turban or made into countless other shapes. Then the same process is used to shape the brim, which can be created in many different silhouettes. There are hundreds of different wooden hat blocks at the Frank Olive studios, and some are nearly 100 years old.

After the crown and brim are sewn together, the trimming process begins.

After the crown and brim are sewn together, the trimming process begins.

After the crown and brim have been sewn and steamed, another special machine sews the two together, inserting a grosgrain band to fortify the seam. The brim is then rolled at the edge, with a fine wire inserted, and hemmed to assure that the brim’s shape is retained. Many “designer” hats are actually mass-produced in China on machines, shipped to various vendors and then simply decorated.

Frank Olive uses the finest straw available. There are many kinds of straw,  and the best straw comes from Switzerland. Swiss straw includes Paglina and Starbright, which is  supple, resilient, and once blocked with steam, retains its shape. Rafia and Sisal come from  Mexico,  South America and China. Rafia is very soft and almost paper-like,  and has a shiny quality; Sisal has  a stiff, course quality. Both Rafia and Sisal tend to be less resilient and can be dented or misshaped easily. Sinamay is a stiff open-weave fabric spun from the fibers of the banana plant.

“Horsehair” is another spring and summer material used. Today it is a synthetic, supple and lightweight material named after the past use of actual horsehair.

Fine braids of straw make up the sewn hat.

Fine braids of straw make up the sewn hat.

The final step in the creation of the hat? What adornment will be added? Lace, ribbon or netting? Silk flowers, feathers, beading or all of the above? Hand placement and sewing are required to affix them to the hat. Perhaps rhinestones, crystals or aurora borealis stones are used. These glittering stones have to be placed on the hat, one at a time, by hand.

The newest head trimmings, fascinators, are configured on headbands and sit more to the side of the head – whimsical and yet ladylike.

As the late Frank Olive said, “Who do you want to be today? Flirty, sophisticated, sassy, or coquettish? Just pick the hat that tells who you are!”

Gabriel Amar’s Frank Olive hats are available at Clay and Cotton in the Summit and at Von Maur at Oxmoor Center.

The Frank Olive studio is filled with hats, trimmings and sewing machines.

The Frank Olive studio is filled with hats, trimmings and sewing machines.

Starbright and Paglina braided straw are shipped from Switzerland.

Starbright and Paglina braided straw are shipped from Switzerland.

Colorful flowers and ribbons add just the right accent.

Colorful flowers and ribbons add just the right accent.

Category: Cover Stories

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