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The Making of a Freeform Felt Bowler-Cloche Hat

January 8, 2011

Inspired largely by the amazing Behida Dolić, about whom I blogged last year, I’ve made a few felt hats using the freeform sculpting method where you block the crown and then hand-manipulate the rest to your liking.  One particular hat (a bowler-cloche) that I made for myself has become an attention-grabber and has led to some commissions of replicas for clients (yay!)

Millinerium bowler-cloche, freeform sculpted felt, 2010, personal hat from my wardrobe

I shipped one of these bowler-cloches to Poland a week before Christmas (it was a birthday present) and just finished a second one this week for that woman’s sister.  The second one was a fun exercise in adjusting the client’s proportions to the scale and feel of the hat.  I kept most of the dimensions the same but my client has a petite, short crown, so I blocked the crown on a vintage block with a very small headsize, then adjusted the slope of the sides a little and scaled down the headband to half the size of my prototype.  I think it worked very well and will be delivering it on Monday.  Hopefully it will fit like a glove and she’ll love it!

What do you think?


custom bowler-cloche from the front

custom bowler-cloche from the front


custom bowler-cloche, left side

custom bowler-cloche, back with bow detail

custom bowler-cloche, right side with upturned bowler-style brim


In the photos, you can see the hat block and spinner I used to make the hat.  Because the vintage block was a 20″ (50.8cm) head size (much smaller than the average modern woman whose head is 22.5″ or 57.2cm), I had to block two scrap felts over the crown to increase the head size to 21″ (53.3cm).

If you’ve never seen freeform blocking before, here are some photos I snapped after I had already produced the shape I wanted.  Naturally, it didn’t occur to me to take photos during the process – it was only when a friend on Facebook said she wanted to see pictures that I did it.  (No, I didn’t even think to photograph the bowler-cloche that went to Poland.  Duh.)

freeform hat with pins, drying

So what you’re seeing in these photos is the hat on the block with the pins still in the felt.  I placed the pins in strategic spots to hold the hat in place to dry and keep the shape I created.

left side with pins

Before I stretched the felt, though, I had to mark the hat block with tacks to show me where the crown should stop for my client’s proportions.  The top of the tack indicated my stopping point, so the body of the tack was below the headsize line.  This allowed me to feel where to pin the four corners (front, back, and sides) after stretching the felt.

back with pins

Next, I steamed the felt using my handy electric tea kettle that I bought from a lovely European woman off of Craigslist.  When the felt was nice and saturated, I quickly removed it and stretched it on my hat block, pinning the four corners into place.

right side with pins

Once the crown was pinned in place, I put a rubber band underneath each of the four corner pins to substitute for the blocking string that would normally show the headsize line on a blocked crown.  The rubber band also made a slight indentation into the felt (also like a blocking string would) to act as a guide when I sewed the hat band outside.

From there, I switched to my garment steamer which has become quite handy in the studio.  It allows me to bring the steam to my hat, rather than having to hold my hat up to a steam source.  I steamed segments of the felt, stretching the wool in places to make it flare out or stand up, quickly pinning that segment into place before it cooled too quickly.  Continuing on…  pinching parts to create little valleys, then pinning….  Back and forth until I had the shape I wanted all around and touching up spots until I was satisfied.

The important thing to remember with felt is that once it starts to dry – even within a few seconds of removal from the steam – it starts to curl under and harden, shrinking back to its original form.  That’s why blocks work: the wool shrinks back to its original form unless something (like a block) gets in its way, in which case it shrinks to the shape of whatever it touches.  That includes tacks, pin heads, strings, etc!

The freeform process is a lot of fun and, once again, reminds me of working in clay.  Except clay doesn’t dry nearly as fast as wool!  But it’s amazing to see the forms you can create out of felt.  I plan to become proficient in this method of blocking because it’s so natural to my style of creating, which is a spontaneous and stream-of-consciousness style.  Okay, you got me, I plan to become proficient in every method of millinery I can!  It’ll take a lifetime, but what fun I’ll have!


As always, please feel free to comment on this post below.  If you like what you see here, subscribe to this blog for more great millinery stuff!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2011 12:00 pm

    Loved reading your method. Thank you for sharing.

    Was wondering if the details are sewn after shaping or does the hat maintain the shape even in damp, humid or rainy days?

    • May 9, 2011 7:22 pm

      Leslie, nice to hear from you! The trim (ribbon) is hand-stitched onto the hat, never glued because that would ruin the felt. By hand-stitching the trim, one can always remove it and replace it with something different later if desired and the hat itself will not be damaged.

      The hat is sprayed with sizing (glue) inside the felt to help it maintain its shape, and it will keep that shape as long as the hat is cared for properly. I spray the outside of my felt hats with a rain/stain protector to help mitigate the elements. If a felt hat gets quite damp, keep it away from heat (which will cause it to shrink) and try to let it air dry on a styrofoam head or stuffed with tissue paper that has been rounded so no sharp edges are poking into the hat from the inside. Depending on the style, the brim may need to be supported with tissue as well. Most hats should be stored on their crowns (the top of the hat) with rounded tissue inside the crown holding the shape, meaning the hat would be upside down. Again, this also depends on the style of hat. For my Bowler-Cloche, I recommend storing it on a styrofoam head if you wear it often, or upside down in a hat box with tissue in the crown if you only wear it occasionally.

      All high-fashion hats, whether out of felt, straw, or buckram, react to heat, humidity, and rain and therefore need to be protected as much as possible. (Steam and heat are what create felt hats; straw and buckram are created with moisture and heat/drying. Straw and buckram are particularly vulnerable to changing shape with the elements, so you would need to consider this when planning to wear your hat. (Only special straw hats are meant to be worn at the beach, for example, and they tend to have one basic style so it doesn’t matter whether they change shape a bit.) This is why you will see plastic covers for hats, even on those lovely ladies at the Kentucky Derby when it’s rainy.

      I hope that answers your questions. Let me know if you have more!

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