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March 2017

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top hats!

Project: Blue foam hatblocks for Fosshape millinery

We're in full swing with production on The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the largest show our theatre has ever produced. If you've been reading labricoleuse for a while, you know that it's a huge deal around here--we've gotten a big NEA grant for all the work we're doing above and beyond the show itself under the auspices of the Dickens Initiative via partnerships with our regional libraries, book clubs, businesses, and so forth.

I've been restricting most of my "NickNick-related" blogging about it to our official production blog, Nicholas Nickleby: Page to Stage, which is aggregated on LJ as nicknickleby, but those posts have been more for a general audience. This one marks the beginning of a two-part series strictly for y'all here, as it's a lot more technical in its focus.

One of the hats i'm making for the show is a fairly unusual bonnet form, for a character called "Rich Lady," a demanding customer in Madame Mantalini's Millinery salon.

close-up of hat design from costume rendering by Jan Chambers

Check out the crazy hyperboloid swoop from crown to brim on that bonnet! When i saw this rendering, i knew i was going to have to make that hat, and i couldn't wait.

I thought about various methods for it--a wire frame structure was one early idea--but ultimately decided i needed a hat block in that shape, not only because it allows me greater freedom in terms of an ultimate foundation choice, but because my shop would benefit from having a bonnet block as a resource for potential future use as well. The wire frame is a great choice for a lightweight and/or transparent cover fabric, but it's got no advantage if the fabric chosen is opaque or heavy, and i'm expecting a cotton velvet or similar winter-weight fabric choice for this hat. With a custom carved bonnet block, i could use it to do a traditional blocked felt shape, or a thermoformable felt (Fosshape) base shape, or even to use one of my super precious rare-as-the-dodo sheets of esparterie or willow, a millinery material which is no longer manufactured but which i own 3.75 sheets of.

(If you are familiar with the Seinfeld episode in which Julia rates her dates as "spongeworthy" or not, this is the millinery equivalent of that exact sentiment.)

If you've ever thought about making your own hatblocks but don't have the woodworking skills or tools to do traditional ones, this technique is one to try. I briefly touched on it in the photoessays i posted back in August, when i attended the USITT Costume Commission Symposium on creature heads; this is basically utilizing that technique but to make a hat block rather than a head matrix.

So, the first thing you need to do is get some blue foam, aka polyisocyanurate foam or residential insulation foam. Dow is the major manufacturer of this product in the US, and you can get it in sheets at your building materials store (Home Depot or Lowes). It comes in different thicknesses--the thickest i can find locally is 1" but we had 2" at the symposium. One sheet of the 1" thick foam was about 5' by 20', cost under $20, and i didn't even use half of it to stack up my block.

blue foam

This stuff has an MSDS and be sure to read it. It comes with plastic sealed onto each side and you will want to peel that off in a well-ventilated area, as it releases traces of cyanide gas. You'll also want some kind of particulate respiratory protection when you cut and carve it.

I cut my sheet into pieces with an electric serrated knife.
They get progressively smaller and stack up like a ziggurat to conserve material and carving time.

The layers are glued together with an adhesive called Fastbond by 3M.
Fastbond is a water-based rubber cement that sticks well to this foam.

In addition to the electric knife, a curry comb (at right) is good for sculpting.
Note work gloves, because that curry comb can rake off your flesh.
On the top you can see the circle noting the tip of the bonnet crown.

It's looking more like a bonnet now!
Note how you can use the glue lines between layers as registration lines for carving.
I just need to shave a bit more away and sand it smooth...

Voila! A hyperboloid bonnet block, custom carved!

I decided to go with Fosshape thermoformable felt for my bonnet base structure. (Sad to say, but this bonnet is too large for me to deem it spongeworthy willow-worthy.) Fosshape comes in a light and heavy weight, and can be stiffened with heat and pressure, yet still stitched through by hand or machine.

You can get it from a number of sources, but i get mine from Dazian. I gather Dazian has just produced some instructional videos on using it, which will soon be available on DVD--the guy who made them was talking about that recently at the symposium. I don't see them on their site, but if you order by phone it's worth asking in case they just haven't listed them yet.

ETA 10/5/09: Shoot a PM to nonwoven if you'd like samples and a copy of Dazian's how-to CD with instructions from costume designer and crafts artisan Bill Brewer.

I find that Fosshape works best on odd shapes when i put a couple of seams into it, so i knew i'd want to take a pattern from my block. I used the same kind of technique that wigmasters use when taking a head wrap and hairline trace for a custom lace-front wig.

First, I mummified the block with clingfilm and clear packing tape,
then transferred my front, back, and side markings.
(Yes, that's my pink rabbit head there in the back looking on.)

Pattern pieces freshly cut from the block.

Pattern pieces trued up and drafted in paper.

I then cut these out of Fosshape 600 (the thicker kind--this bonnet needs to be very sturdy), allowing for 20% shrinkage, as you lose some surface area when Fosshape takes heat and solidifies. I also re-mummfied the foam block, this time with aluminum foil and foil tape, to provide a good heat-resistant surface on which to block my hat.

Foiled block on the left, Fosshape hat form on the right.
Foreground: mini-iron and specialty heads for fine shaping work.

You'll note that the block doesn't have quite the undercut at the crown tip that the rendering has. This is because i figure, it is easier to remove material than to add it back, and it's possible in the fitting that we learn we need more diameter in the crown there. I can always go back and carve more out, and reblock a new front piece if required, or even take a fisheye dart out of the piece i've got to create a more extreme curve. I'd like to keep the block this less-extreme, more historically accurate shape if possible though, as it'll be more useful in the long run. Still, time will tell and the fitting may bring a second round of carving.

That's where i'm at with this. The Rich Lady gets fit on Tuesday, so we'll hopefully know more about where to go from here then!


So, with a blocked hat like this one, where it's been done in pieces, will you completely mull and cover it, treating like you would buckram or wire?
In the fitting, i plan to decide on the upper and lower circumference shapes (so, we could cut it down or reshape it from both ends). Then i will wire the tip edge and brim edge and drop in a solid crown tip. And then, yes, depending on the fabric chosen i'll mull it and cover it in the requested fabric.

This show has so many hats that i'm assuming they all will need to be ultra-durable to stand up to handling by multiple performers and/or wardrobe or run crew members, hence the Fosshape structural choice. Though i hope the hats will get careful treatment, i want them sturdy enough they can withstand being chucked around by undergrads backstage through quick-changes and stay lovely!

Mulling and fabric and trimming will get detailed in a forthcoming Part Two!
I LOVE those insane bonnets.

I wish we still wore bonnets. My hair is useless, fashion should let me wear a giant and firmly anchored hat!
They say hats are on the way back in. I wear them fairly often myself (not to work, but in non-work life). I vote, do it! Maybe you'll be the fashionista to bring bonnets back! :D
Did you attach the pieces to each other prior to heating, or did they bond together in the heating process?
A little of both, actually!

I stitched the pieces in overlapped seams with a wide zigzag. The Fosshape will bond to itself but i like to stabilize seams with stitching in addition to that. The stitching gets fairly fused into the Fosshape then and it's super sturdy, whereas IME sometimes a join that is just bonded from heat and pressure will pop under strain.
La Bricoleuse- A very nice and most informative project....with great pictures. If anyone wants a copy of that CD you mentioned "FOSSHAPE MILLINERY".....just let me know or if anyone wants a couple swatches of FOSSHAPE to experiment with.....can do that as well.
Just need a regular mailing address.
The Thermoman of Dazian


Nice succession of pix. Anxious to see the final product. I've had great success in using a Mud Tool for fine-tuning the foam. Not used a curry tool. The Mud Bug is from a NC company too. Found the little device while teaching at Arrowmont a few years ago. I've only had limited success with Fosshape and Wonderflex. Gonna see about that DVD!
Thank you so, so much. This is my kind of post and I love that you share so much with the world. I look forward to seeing how the bonnet turns out, I'm sure it's going to be lovely!
I had read about fosshape and was tempted to buy some, but was not sure about its uses in millinery. I will try to get some samples and that video although being in Spain I don't know if they will want to ship out.
In any case, thanks a lot. You're the best!


Thank you for this tutorial. Wonderful Job.