Blocking Success, Lessons Learned

I have dozens of things to write about from my Hattin’ Around adventures. Blocks, feather dyeing, new shops and vintage hats.

This post is about my vintage Bowler Block from Victoria Grant. My repair efforts were a total success! See what repairs I made in a previous post, New Old Bowler Block Repair.  I am completely in love with this new block. I sprained my left thumb and got minor steam burns on my hands trying to block with it and it took me three tries to get it done satisfactorily, but isn’t she pretty.

Successfully blocked on new old repaired bowler
Successfully blocked on repaired vintage bowler hat block.

Tips curtesy of the Bowler Block

  • Wood glue and filler really does work to repair a block. It held surprisingly well.
  • Cover the block in two pieces of plastic. One for the gully between the crown and the brim and another to cover the hole thing, then cut the gully open. This is important to protect the block from the moisture and stiffener as well as protecting the felt from discoloration.
Stain on white felt from block
Stain on white felt from gap in plastic covering the block. Luckily it was on the edge and cut off.
    • Make sure a wool felt is really wet before blocking. I first tried just a good steam, but the felt that I had previously stiffened was not flexible enough. Then I gave it a good soaking, wrapped it in a tea towel put the bundle in a plastic bag and put the bag in the refrigerator for several days. Then steamed the felt until dripping and blocked it. It still was not easy, but it was do able.
    • Pin down the crown first. I tried doing the overall piece first, pinning under the brim, thinking I could then just press the gully into place. It did not work. But pinning the crown first with a piece of torn cloth twisted, pressed  and pinned into the valley worked very well.
      Bowler finally blocked
      Bowler finally blocked
      Blocking pins and rope working together
      Blocking pins and rope working together
      Close up of blocking the gully between crown and brim
      Close up of blocking the gully between crown and brim

      Side view on the block
      Side view on the block
    • Caution: rust risk between white felt and metal pins. Pins these days are not what they use to be and my first attempt left me with a few rust marks. Use fresh pins and set the felt to dry immediately after blocking. I do not have a drying cupboard, so I used the oven on its lowest setting, turning it on & off with the convection setting on to circulate the air. The oven door left open a bit to release moisture and not get too hot. Whew! no rust. The rusty pin hole on the excess felt from my 1st attempt was cut off. No one will every know.
Off the block and looking great
Off the block and looking great. The hat got mangled while removing it from the block, but went right back into shape.
Example of clean vs. rusty pin hole
Example of clean vs. rusty pin hole
    • Brushing makes a difference.  Brush the felt and scrape a pin over the pin holes to rough up the felt fibers. It is beautiful and I haven’t even trimmed my new bowler hat yet.
The felt was pretty beat up, but recovered with a good brushing.
The felt was pretty beat up, but recovered with a good brushing.
Pin holes in felt.
Pin holes in felt.
I used a pin to rough up wool fibers and scrape away the pin holes.
I used a pin to rough up wool fibers and scrape away the pin holes.

Points 2, 3, 4, 5, & 6 were all bits I learned with advice from Edwina Ibbotson’s Hat Class on Monday nights.

Now for the trimming.

 

Field Trip to Luton – HA2

HA2 Field Trip to Luton

It was autumn 2013 and I was surprised with an invite to join Edwina Ibbotson and another apprentice, Mee on a field trip up to Luton to visit three millinery suppliers. Boon & Lane the block makers, Baxter, Hart & Abraham suppliers of felt, straw, and petersham, and Randall Ribbons suppliers of feathers, flowers, an endless array of sinamay colors and much more.

Mee, Me and Edwina
Mee, Me and Edwina

We drove to Luton in Edwina’s light blue vintage Mercedes. That is an experience unto itself. It takes me about 10 minutes to figure out how to do the old seat belts. It is an odd hook and magnet device.  The journey to Luton is about 40 miles through London and takes over an hour and 45 minutes, but we arrive mid morning at our first destination, Boon & Lane.

Edwina and the her vintage blue
Edwina and her vintage blue

 

Boon and Lane  are the block makers. This was an experience to remember. There were two men working in the block factory that was filled  with wood and sawdust on one half and different types of sand on the other. They make both wood and aluminium (also spelled aluminum in the USA, so the reason we pronounce this word differently is that it actually spelled differently in the UK vs US) blocks.  The aluminium blocks are used for more industrial use, where they are attached to a heating device and there is a top and bottom piece that clamps together to form the hat shape all at once.

Steve and sand
Steve Lane tamping sand for aluminum hat blocks.

 

Alan Davies and Steve Lane make everything.  When I was there, Alan was working on wood blocks while Steve handled the sand packing in preparation for the molten aluminium. They were welcoming and generous with their time. Explaining what they were doing, the stages of making a hat block and showing us the various pieces of equipment.

Alan and Edwina
Alan and Edwina discussing her custom shapes that have she has carved from polystyrene.

 

Stages of a block
Stages of block making from Right to Left

 

Thus far in my hat career, I’d done very little blocking, but I was completely seduced by being there. As you are sure to have guessed, today would be my first custom made block purchase. I choose a large downward flat 45 degree brim block and an oval head shaped flat topped crown block with slightly rounded edges, to contrast the domed oval crown block I had in my very limited collection. It took a couple of months for the blocks to be made. Shortly before Christmas, Edwina came back one day with her new blocks along with my freshly varnished crown and brim blocks. They were beautiful shiny golden yellow with my name and the year stamped into them. The excitement was only dimmed a bit as I tried to figure out how I was going to get this massive brim block home on my bike. Alas, I could only manage the crown block that day on the bike, I’d have to wait and bring it home on the bus a couple days later. The journey was made easier by using my very large linen furoshiki

Hat Block from Boon & Lane
Hat Block from Boon & Lane
hat blocks from BL
My first custom hat blocks.

 

 

Next stop –Baxter, Hart & Abraham, suppliers to the millinery trade. This place of tidy and well organized. The textile junkie in me thrilled to touch the various different felts. Wool felt, fur felt, and the really furry felts called Melusine. Then there was the colors. My shopping strategy goes, walking around and gather everything I want.  Then doing a mental subtotal of how much it will cost. Then feeling anxious about how much I have, then putting back some of my treasures, until I don’t feel the sense of financial panic. I bought several wool felts to practice on without too much financial impact, but my prize purchases were a yummy small (cone) cognac (gold) and a beautiful large (capeline) grey fur felt. It was glorious and I was so nervous at messing  up the fur felts. I envisioned a gray (grey) large brimmed hat with a fairly simple crown that I could wear all winter. However, it wasn’t going to be that winter that I’d get to wear it.

my treasures from BHA
My treasures from Baxter, Hart & Abraham – Felts, Petersham, and hat boxes.

 

Last stop- Randall Ribbons, the makers of all things feathers and flowers. They had a minimum order. Their website says a minimum order of £30.  I did not spend anything at Randall Ribbons.  I think I was a bit overwhelmed by this point.  I had placed a rather sizable order at the block makers, and purchased enough felt at the millinery suppliers to keep me busy for a while. And honestly I just could not envision how I would trim these new hats of mine. I would have bought a simple hat pin or something, but with a minimum order, I left with nothing. I cannot say the same for Edwina or Mee.

feather sample board at RR

Boxes of flowers at RR

Sinamay at RR

We only went to three places, but it was such a full day. Many thanks to Edwina for the tour of Luton and Mee for being a newbie like me. It was nice to be able to listen to someone else’s questions.

Since the field trip to Luton, I’ve heard the name mentioned several time in relation to the hat making and millinery industry.  In this country they have been making things for a very long time. Thankfully there are others who love doing to research and writing of the history and I get to read the fruits of their labour.  It was oddly relevant as I have just begun taking a strip straw class at Morley College with Jane Smith.

Stay tuned for future episodes about Luton History and my Strip Straw Saga.

HA Field Trip Luton map