The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Millinery

 

The making of hats and other head coverings for men, women and children.

 

Status Currently viable
Craft category  Textiles
Historic area of significance  Luton and Dunstable, Bedfordshire
Area currently practised  UK
Origin in the UK
Minimum no. of craftspeople required  1000
Current no. of trainees  Formal ‘apprentices’ = 0; Other trainees = unknown (see ‘Other information for further details)
Current no. of skilled craftspeople  500-1000
Current total no. of craftspeople  500-1000

 

History

Millinery is a 5000-year-old craft. The first milliners were felt blockers making hats from wool and rabbit hair. In Britain, hat making was not reserved for the rich – practical hats for workers were the mainstay of the milliners work in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. Until the 1960s hats were worn as everyday wear and many trades were recognisable by their hat: bowler hats for businessmen, trilbies or deerstalkers for country gentlemen, chef’s hats for chefs, dress caps for busmen etc.

The millinery trade was originally centred in Dunstable, but moved to Luton when the railways arrived there and it became easier to get supplies from a more central base (followed later by the arrival of the M1 which passes through the outskirts of the town). Of the 400 factories and micro-businesses that used to be in Luton, only 5 factories remain and the micro-businesses are dwindling fast. Much of the production has been out-sourced to China and the Far East.

 

Techniques

  • Blocking – a method of shaping the millinery fabric over a block to impress the shape
  • Steaming – immersing the fabric in front of the steam to help shape the fabric
  • Rolling – rolling over fabric to shape fabrics to make trimmings or shapes for hats
  • Wiring – wiring the edges of shapes to make them stand up or out
  • Finishing – to cover with fabric or to steam and brush
  • Trimming – to add decoration to the hat (this can sometimes take as much time as blocking the hat)

 

Local forms

  • Luton: straw plaiting was key to the hat industry, as well as to the craft of corn dolly making
  • Cirencester: historically, wool was shipped from Oxford to Bristol via the River Thames and the River Severn. The wool trade served the blanket trade in Whitney and many other trades, such as that of making military hats (and uniforms) from wool which was dyed in Stroud and sent to Bristol.

 

Sub-crafts

  • wool hood makers
  • straw hood weavers
  • panama straw hood weavers
  • handmade sinamay straw weavers
  • flower makers
  • headdress makers
  • tiara makers
  • veil makers
  • military headress

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Market issues: cheaper products available on Ebay or on the high street (manufactured abroad)
  • Skills issues: Shortage of skilled milliners
  • Training issues: Training qualifications are being stopped due to lack of numbers. Awarding bodies ask for 100+ students per qualification in order for the qualification to run. There are now no qualifications in traditional millinery skills – you can only take them as part of a fashion qualification (such as ‘Fashion: Millinery’ or ‘Fashion: Embroidery’) rather than as a stand-alone qualification.

 

Support organisations

The British Hat Guild closed in 2000.

 

Craftspeople currently known

Other information

Number of trainees: There are no formal apprenticeships in millinery as no standards have been set on which to base an apprenticeship.

 

References

  • Wilcox, Turner. The Mode of Hats and Headdresses.
  • Laver, James. A Concise History of Costume.