Log in

No account? Create an account

March 2017

Powered by LiveJournal.com

Willow brim block, part one!

The show on deck right now is Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which affords me the opportunity to do a bunch of great craftwork. There are two hats in particular for the character of Lady Bracknell which i'll be chronicling in detail, as they involve a topic near and dear to the modern milliner's mythos: willow.

Willow is pretty much the North American milliner's Holy Grail. Even when it was more commonly used, it was never easy or cheap to obtain here; it's made from an indiginous Spanish grass called esparto, bonded with starch to a layer of fine cotton crinoline. The crinoline side is the right side, and the esparto side is the wrong side. It's known by a host of other names: willow-plate, willowing, esparterie, espartre, espartra, sparterie, and spartre.

Esparto grass grows best in southern Spain and northern Africa, and is also known by a lot of other names: Spanish grass, alfa grass, alpha fibre, halfah grass, and atocha. Japan apparently got into the willow market at one point, raising esparto in rice paddies, though the climate there produces a brittler version of esparto than the Mediterranean does, so the Japanese willow is/was considered "inferior" as a result.

Whatever you call it, nowadays, it's rare as the dodo. Some folks say that it's no longer being manufactured; I used to buy that, but then i kept reading articles about Philip Treacy and his block-carver, Lorenzo Re, using sparterie in his block-conceptualizing process. If Philip Treacy is commissioning hatblocks from his own hand-formed sparterie sculptures, he must have a modern source, perhaps making it just for the high-end couture market. He's not using 50-year-old sheets of willow.

I'm not Philip Treacy though, so that's exactly what i'm doing.

When i first took the crafts artisan job at PlayMakers, i went through all the supplies in every drawer and cabinet and nook and cranny, taking stock of what i had to determine an initial inventory. In the course of that stocktaking, i discovered an amazing treasure-trove: four sheets of vintage willow in pristine condition.

The way it felt to find them, well, i think i have a tiny glimmer of an idea how Howard Carter's excavation team felt when they found that first step leading down to King Tut's tomb.

"Holy crap, this is it!"

I knew the minute i saw it what it was, the minute i touched it, despite having only read about it in millinery texts: esparterie.

For the past five years i have hoarded it, providing my millinery students with tiny 1" samples as part of our media swatch cards, and once allowing one student to cut a tiny sideband for a miniature burlesque top hat from half of one sheet. I've been waiting for the right show, in the right time period, with the right costume designer, someone who'd design a willow-appropriate hat for a performer i could trust to wear such a thing with care.

It's like some string of portents in a sword-and-sorcery novel: that time has come.

This is that show, and our designer, Anne Kennedy, is someone I've got a very good communicative rapport with, and for whom i've made many interesting hats. Lady Bracknell is to be played by PRC company actor Ray Dooley, a consummate professional who treats his hats with respect and care.

Today, I began the process of working with willow.

So, Lady Bracknell has two hats, one of which is a small tilted-brim Eugenie hat modeled on a derby crown shape, and the other a wide assymetrical-brim confection with a pinch crown and a pile of feathers. Both will be blocked in wool felt, eventually. But to block a hat, you need a hat block, yes?

It's no problem for me to block the crowns of these hats. I've got a great new pinch crown block i'm itching to break in, and a small 21" dome block will serve for the Derby-Eugenie. But the brims, that's another story. I could carve them from blue foam, like i did the Rich Lady hyperboloid-crown bonnet from Nicholas Nickleby...but blue foam has to be cut up and stacked up and glued and carved, and these brim shapes could be done easier and quicker using a sparterie block.

There's some great information on making brims and brim blocks in Denise Dreher's book From the Neck Up, and also in Jane Loewen's 1925 text, Millinery. I pored over them, planned out my shapes, and set to work.

Here is my 21" dome block, onto which i've taped out my crown shape (backward!).

Willow pinned to the block at the four quarters.

Dreher recommended i cut the willow on the bias, 2" wider than the widest part of the brim and 2" longer than the brim's outer circumference. This is because the elasticity potential of the material is off the chain, people. Once you activate it (i used the tabletop hat steamer you see up there at the right, a damp sponge, and a fine mister), you can bend and shape it into the craziest bulbous curves. At the risk of getting too far into the vocabulary of hardcore math, i knew i wanted a sort of elongated half-torus shape, curving down and out and back up again around the headsize oval.

So, in the above picture i've just got it misted/steamed, pinned on, and that first right front quarter beginning to take shape.

There's the whole thing pulled in around the headsize opening and curled up.

Side view of shape in progress.

Because willow is a two-ply textile, you can do a technique called a "skinned join" where you need to seam it, to create a smoother look. You peel back the crinoline layer of one side to the seamline, trim the other on the seamline and insert it, then smooth the crinoline back down so that one side is sandwiched inside the other. Then you stitch through all layers to secure it, thus:

Crinoline layer peeled back.

I used red and black stitching since this is just a block form, for photographic contrast.

Here i've whipped on a wire that will stabilize the headsize opening,
also in black thread so you can see it in these pics.

At this point, i misted/steamed and shaped the willow back over the wire, whipping it down to itself for a double-layer around that opening. I'll stabilize it even further later on. If this were going to be a brim instead of a block, i'd have trimmed away the esparto layer in the headsize opening seam allowance and just folded the crinoline back over it, to minimize bulk.

I shaped the brim wire to the particular edgeline i wanted, checking it against the swoop of the willow half-torus i had, judging where i wanted to dip it lower or carry it up. I made that wire a bit smaller in circumference than the widest part of the half-torus of willow, so it would have to curve back in a bit at places, the way a bowler or Homburg brim has been curled over a curling shackle on the sides.

Checking the headsize opening on the crown block, and whipping in the brim wire.

There's that brim we wanted!

If you look closely at the above image, you can see that i've left some ease in the headsize opening to accomodate the thickness of the felt when i block it. It can't sit flush with the crown or else where would the hatbody go when it's being shaped?

This is an example of what probably inspired that quote by Evan Esar:

Milliners never seem to have any difficulty discovering geometrical shapes wholly unknown to mathematicians.

Oblique side view.

Opposite side.

Historically speaking, one would then coat this whole thing with a substance called Spartalac, formulated for solidifying willow shapes. Except, you can surmise that, if it's so difficult to find willow itself people want your firstborn in exchange, where can you find Spartalac? Probably nowhere, i figured. Dreher described it as a cross between gesso and plaster, so my plan for a Spartalac substitute is going to be several coats of gesso on the crinoline side, topped off with a couple-few coats of Sculpt-or-Coat, and some gypsona plaster strips layered inside to further support the structure for the pressure of felt blocking.

Gessoed form drying on a jug of vinegar in the dye shop.

It's not perfect, but i can make it work and i'm ultimately quite thrilled with the final shape. Plus, i'm at about 5 hours' time spent on it, as opposed to the double-that-time it'd have taken to stack, glue, and carve blue foam acceptably. Good job!

That brings me to the end of Part One of this willow-block-making adventure. Over the next couple-three weeks, i'll be forming the second brim and blocking these hats, and i'll have lots more images and commentary yet to come!


Pardon my ignorance, but I have a question...

That you wanted the actor to be careful with the final hat made absolute sense to me when I thought the hat was going to be made itself from the precious willow, but if the hat is felt and the block is willow, I'm confused.

If you're using the willow to make a block, why does the care the actor will use in handling the final hat make much of a difference? I can see why a block that requires extra effort to make would produce a hat that you want handled carefully, sort of.

No, wait, I'm not sure that makes sense to me either. I suppose my question is more general than I thought. I'm going to ramble a bit...

Once you have a block, can't you make multiple hats from it? Is a willow block essentially a one-use item? Or fragile and therefore can only produce a limited number of hats? If you can make multiple hats, then it seems like the determiner of whether an actor is careful enough to have a hat from a particular block would be the effort involved in shaping a hat on the block, not the value of the block itself. If the effort of creating the block comes into play, then wouldn't a willow block (which it sounds like was a pleasure to work on) produce a slightly less precious hat than a blue-foam block that requires hours of carving and gluing?

It also occurs to me that perhaps the willow is rare enough and precious enough that the thought process was "the willow needs a special hat, special hats need careful actors," and the final material of the hat is irrelevant to whether it is special or not. More of a heart-centered decision than a logical one. Which I completely understand and agree with.

I suspect it is the second case, but my confusion made me wonder if I'm thinking of the blocks and effort and materials in a completely wrong way, so I hope you don't mind my questions.
I think perhaps my inclusion of the actor in the determination was misleading. You are correct in that a blocked hat is one iteration of many possibilities--once you have the block, you can just make another hat, or reblock the first.

I thought of him as part of my decision-making process as someone who would take good care of any custom-created blocked hat, whether that block be willow or foam--reblocking or remaking any overly-trimmed-out women's hat is an involved process and not one i usually have time or budget for. Any time i work with an actor who is hard on his/her headwear or treats their costumes with disregard, i push for the option to use a purchased base. A $15 standard felt or buckram shape, rather than something like this.

So, sorry that my language was unclear! It was a quickly-tossed-out turn of phrase that in retrospect may be misleading.
Very clear now, thank you (and sorry for my delay in saying so.)
Thank you so much for your blog. It never ceases to entertain and educate. I also appreciate how it helps build community amongst theatre practioners...way to ROCK!
Wow, thank you for what is among the best compliments i have received on labricoleuse.

When I started this blog, 3+ years ago, I had a sort of amorphous idea for it, mostly as a place where i could chronicle topics that used to be the kind of thing you'd formally submit and get published in trade journals like Costume Research Journal before it folded.

I hoped people would like it and find it useful, and figured if they didn't or if they thought something i posted was erroneous or had a better idea, it *might* foster some dialogue.

I'm so glad to have that hope fulfilled, each time someone comments, both a comment like yours and the lengthy query above that rmkoske commented with, which forced me to confront and clarify an area in which i didn't communicate clearly the first time around. (Which, that's an exchange that would take FOREVER in print media, so hooray for blogging!)


more on blockmaking

Some other things to consider,'
You could use epoxy resin and a filler like cut fiberglass strand (fine powder) to stiffen the form. it must be sanded, but it is perfectly waterproof in the end. Wouldn't you like to build in a chanel to tie off the felt? I would make it part of the form, after you make the block, fold a bias and wire it so you can use a cord instead of thirty pins.
You can make blocks in a similar way with heavy duck canvas, stitch two layers together with a machine circular brim stitch, cut your edge, and stretch a bias strip on your edge, easing in the edge getting a nice roll. You can get some nice gentle rolls like that, and stiffen with epoxy. Sand with orbital sander or belt sander.
Thanks for the post, Ignatius

Re: more on blockmaking

These are all some great suggestions, thank you! When i get around to turning this initial sculpt into a more permanent block (hopefully in the next month) i will give it a try.

I'd have loved a ropeline from the get-go, but the time crunch on this hat was too narrow, in terms of how fast i needed to block-and-go and how many other projects i had to get done.

I was initially thinking expando-foam for a filler, for its pin-into-ability but your epoxy resin idea is another option to consider.

I think i recognize your name as well--are you the milliner who does those lovely complex spiral straw hats, i think out of Virginia? If so, i have admired your work ever since i saw images of it!


type fix

Here in France, there still are a few people around who have stocks of sparterie but I'm guessing they're keepping it well hidden! For a replacement, you have 'toile gommée' which is a sort of hessian buckram or 'toile blanche' which is the 'willow' you have used. Here, you can find a product called 'type fix' which hardens the willow block completely!
You brave woman! I have a sheet of sparterie I bought 10 years ago in London and I have not dared yet to make anything out of it(it cost an arm and a leg). Funny enough I have a tin of spartalac, bought somewhere, sometime, I don't remember exactly where or when.
I also have a sheet of paper sparterie, which is of inferior quality.
I must read your post in detail, and I'm sure I will have many questions, but for now I want to thank you for embarking in this adventure and sharing it with us.


Thank you for your blog.

I just wonder if you know where to buy that sparterie you used to make the block. I recognize it and it looks like the one made in Japan. Do you know the factory name?

Kind Regards.
I wish i knew where to buy it! The sheet i used i found in the storage area of the theatre where i work when i first took this job. It is the Japanese willow, yes--it has a tiny sticker on it with kanji but no idea the factory name. Sorry. I wish i knew where to buy it. I'd buy more.


By the way, it´s exactly the one Philip Treacy is using when he sends his shapes to La Forme.


This is such a wonderful useful resource that you are providing and you give it absent free of charge. I love seeing web sites that understand the value of providing a quality useful resource for free. It?s the old what goes around comes around program.


This was a nice article to read, thank you for sharing it.




I love your blog and your talent. I have worked with willow and have a small collection of it, however my vintage and antique willow looks very different from what you are using and calling willow. I am a bit confused as to you saying it is the Holy Grail (which it is) but then using something that does not look to be the genuine willow we milliners are lusting for? I was disappointed since I wanted to see someone working with the real thing.

Re: Willow

I would love to see an image of what yours looks like! Mine, i have identified mine as such based upon descriptions and photographs in Denise Dreher's book with its chapter on willow, and from swatch sets i own including a small sample of esparterie from a millinery supplier, but i admit the sheets i have do not have any formal label i can determine. How does your differ?


Re: Willow

Thanks! I can send a photo but don't know how to post it here. My willow is a golden wheat color, a bit wider/thicker slats (if that is the word) with a look more of crosshatched caning, while yours is almost white and resembles a buckram weave. I have it 2 ways, backed with crin (large sheets), and plain with no backing (small sheets). I also have some samples which I culled from a few Paris couture hats made in the 1930's, and some Edwardian and Victorian hats. I am amazed at the way you are using yours. I am afraid to try mine for fear of ruining it! I am going to save mine to use as a hat base by draping and blocking the shape over a wood block and then covering the willow shape with fabric or felting. I did not think to use it for esparterie, but I have made my own blocks using plaster bandages and buckram. I admire you so much, you are much more talented than I! Barbara


Re: Willow

Just found your blog, I really enjoyed reading about your sparterie blocking exploits. I'm a milliner form Melbourne, Australia and I haven't seen any sparterie for years - your skinned join made me nostalgic! I love the way it shapes and moves like butter, you can create the subtlest form with sparterie. I worked in theatre for 20 years and loved using it but it's gone now, nothing but a fleeting millinery memory. I made hats for a 1988 production of 'The Importance of Being Earnest' with a young Geoffrey Rush as Earnest...happy times!

Best wishes to you, your work is lovely.

Rose Hudson

Re: Willow

Rose, thank you so much for sharing your sparterie experiences here! What sorts of shapes were your hats for Importance? I bet they were for Lady Bracknell? What fun!