Lucy Barlow with Heritage Crafts Co-Chairs David Clarke and Jay Blades MBE
Straw hat maker Lucy Barlow has won the 2023 President’s Award for Endangered Crafts. The prestigious award, and £3,000 bursary, was initiated by Heritage Crafts’ President the former Prince of Wales.
Heritage Crafts was set up 13 years ago as a national charity to support and safeguard heritage crafts skills, and has become well known for its Red List of Endangered Crafts, the first research of its kind to rank traditional crafts in the UK by the likelihood they would survive the next generation.
The President’s Award trophy was presented to Lucy at a special presentation at St George’s College, Windsor Castle, on Wednesday 15 November 2023.
President’s Award 2023 made by Eddy Bennett
Lucy apprenticed with Phillip Somerville of Bond Street in the late 1970s and then went on to Paris to assist master milliner Jean Barthet on the collections of Yves St Laurent, Chanel, Balenciaga, Karl Lagerfeld and Claude Montana. Recently completing an MA in Menswear Millinery at the Royal College of Art, Lucy’s dissertation ‘The Last Straw?’ looks into strategies for the regeneration of the stitch straw industry in the UK. She is a 2019 QEST Garfield Weston Foundation Scholar.
Lucy plans to use the prize to equip her garden workshop so that she can teach machine sewing of straw plait into hats. She would repair historical machines and also invest in new machines that are easier to acquire spare parts for. She plans to focus on finding ways to bring the skill to future generations and involve more diverse communities.
Judges for the Award included Heritage Crafts Co-Chair Jay Blades MBE, Kate Hobhouse (Chair of Fortnum and Mason), Patricia Lovett MBE, Simon Sadinsky (Executive Director of The King’s Foundation), and Johanna Welsh (2022 President’s Award winner).
Klay Evaori by Lucy Barlow
Winner Lucy Barlow said:
“Its now up to me to take the baton of support and recognition for this wonderful craft and use this to power for the good and for future generations.”
Heritage Crafts Executive Director Daniel Carpenter said:
“Many people know the former Prince of Wales as a long-time supporter and champion of traditional craft skills, and his passion is all too evident through initiatives such as the Heritage Crafts President’s Award. Lucy is an immensely deserving winner and we know that in her hands the prize will provide a massive boost to the outlook of this endangered craft.”
The two other finalists for the 2023 President’s Award were Michael Johnson and David French. Michael, the UK’s leading artisan coppersmith operating from Newlyn Copperworks in Cornwall, was awarded a finalist prize of £1,000 donated by former Heritage Crafts Chair Patricia Lovett MBE. David, a fifth generation withy crab and lobster pot maker from Devon, and one of only about ten remaining in the UK, was awarded a finalist prize of £1,000 donated by President’s Award judge and Chair of Fortnum & Mason Kate Hobhouse.
Catherine Ade, lithographer. Photo copyright Jo Hounsome.
A lithographer, a wallpaper maker and an oak bark tanner are among the recipients of the latest round of grants awarded to help safeguard some of the UK’s most endangered craft skills.
The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), which published the third edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts in May, has awarded a further eight grants from its Endangered Crafts Fund, which was launched in 2019 to increase the likelihood of endangered crafts surviving into the next generation.
This round of the HCA Endangered Crafts Fund has been offered with support from the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Dulverton Trust, the Sussex Heritage Trust, Allchurches Trust and the Swire Charitable Trust. The eight successful recipients are:
Catherine Ade, from Bristol, to run a series of workshops on different lithography techniques and continue to supply lithography plate graining services.
Peter Ananin, from Fife, to train an apprentice in the skills and knowledge of traditional Scottish bark tanning.
Deborah Bowness, from East Sussex, to learn traditional wallpaper making techniques through one-to-one training with a wallpaper conservationist.
Rachel Evans, from Stoke-on-Trent, to learn the techniques of hazel basketmaking, specifically the Gower cockle basket and the whisket.
Nikki Laird, from Edinburgh, to print a book on how to make a traditional hand sewn kilt.
Kate Longley, from Cornwall, to maintain the skills and knowledge of withy crab and lobster pot making in the community of Gorran Haven.
Steven Lowe, from East Sussex, to provide shoe last making courses covering heel making.
Edie Obilaso, from London, to make hats from straw plait produced on an antique machine, and to document the craft.
Peter Ananin, oak bark tanner. Photo copyright Woodland Tannery.
These eight projects follow 27 awarded in previous rounds, covering endangered crafts such as scissor making, sail making, damask weaving, boot tree making, cockle basket making, folding knife making, neon bending, coracle making, fan making and swill basket making, coppersmithing, withy pot making, disappearing fore-edge painting, plane making, kishie basket making, flint walling, brick making, chair seating, lipwork basketry, paper making, concertina making and flute making.
As usual the fund was oversubscribed, and the HCA hopes to work with many of the unsuccessful candidates to identify other funding and support opportunities.
HCA Endangered Crafts Manager Mary Lewis said:
“For all the progress we’ve made, it will take more than just the Heritage Crafts Association to save craft skills; it will be the people who make a positive choice to learn, make and teach an endangered craft who will do that. These projects will provide future generations with opportunities that they might not otherwise have, to become productive and healthy members of our shared craft community.”
The Endangered Crafts Fund has been funded through generous donations from organisations including Garfield Weston Foundation, the Dulverton Trust, the Sussex Heritage Trust, as well as individuals who have donated sums from £5 right up to several thousands of pounds.
The HCA continues to seek further donations to save even more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion. Donations are welcome at any time – for more information visit www.heritagecrafts.org.uk/ecf.
The making of all types of hats using straw, felt and fabrics by an organised series of processes. These include, but are not limited to felt hats such as trilbies and fedoras, straw hats, fabric hats such as caps and deerstalkers, and uniform hats.
This category is distinct from millinery which includes bespoke, occasion wear, haute couture and theatrical hats, although we acknowledge that there will be areas of overlapping skills. A milliner would usually make one-off or small runs of hats. See also millinery, straw hat plaiting, hat block making, and bowed felt hat making.
Historic area of significance
Felt hats – Luton
Silk hats – Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Bristol and Warwickshire
Straw hats – Luton, Dunstable, St Albans
Fabric – East End of London, Luton
Area currently practised
UK, but still centred around Luton
Origin in the UK
Current no. of professionals (main income)
11-20 companies making hats. Number of individual makers not known.
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
Current no. of trainees
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
Felt hats – This is the oldest of the organised hat making industries and is also the only type of felt that was traditionally made in the UK. Felt hat making as we know it today is believed to have started around 1500, before then they were largely imported from Italy and France.
The Company of Feltmakers was established in 1604. Originally they were responsible for making the hoods but gradually became involved with the making of hats. The industry of felt hood making and felt hat making was centred in London until the mid 1700s when both trades located in Manchester, gradually spreading into Stockport, Denton and Cheshire. Bristol was another important centre.
Felt hat making became a factory-based commercial enterprise and was the first hat industry to be organised into a recognised trade. There are two main types of felt used to make hats: fur-felt and wool. Fur felt was often made from beaver and/or rabbit. The final product was a felt hood, now known as a hood, cone, flare or capeline.
Felt making was also a cottage industry with small businesses established outside of cities. There is some evidence to suggest that the Feltmakers Guild tried to suppress these small enterprises in favour of the more industrialised approach.
The majority of felt hats in the UK are now made in the last few remaining hat factories using imported felt hoods.
Felt hats made from handmade felt – This relates to the making of functional, hardwearing felt hats from raw materials (wool or fur) using a pre-industrial felt making process (bow carding) that is quite specific to the felt hat making trade. Although this craft was practiced throughout Western Europe and the Americas, historically, Britain was globally recognised for its superior craftsmanship and exported its hats worldwide.
‘Contemporary’ feltmakers make hats using a different process which, although facilitates great creative freedom in both design and colour, does not produce the dense, smooth felt traditionally associated with functional hats.
Felt hood making is now commercially extinct in the United Kingdom. There is one felt hat maker that we are aware of, Rachel Frost, who makes felt hoods and hats using the traditional method of bow carding. Today, most hat makers and milliners use imported felt hoods for their work.
Straw hats – These can be dated back to the 1600s in an organised form of production, but probably predate this. Straw is a generic term covering many plant materials which were constructed into hats by either weaving or plaiting. Both forms existed as British industries. A woven straw hat only requires shaping over a block
while a hat constructed from plait involves more stages. The plait has to be wound onto a ‘plait winder’ then stitched either by hand or machine. See straw hat sewing.
Contemporary makers tend to use either ready-made straw hoods (flares or
capelines) which require stiffening, blocking and trimming, or sheets of sinamay
fabric (woven Abaca fibres) which may be cut to pattern shapes, or blocked then
trimmed. See straw plaiting and straw hat sewing for more information.
Fabric hats – Originally these were associated with both hat makers and dress makers. The fabric was placed over a base of straw or over a stiff fabric, or over commercially made millinery wire frames. As the commercial hat industry grew fabric hats were made in large numbers principally in the East End of London. The trade
came to Luton in the early 1900s. One of the most famous fabric hats was the iconic silk top hat. It’s manufacture was associated with Stockport. Many bicorne and tricorne hats were also made of fabric.
Within hat manufacturing there is no longer any ‘mass’ production of fabric hats, except for sinamay/abaca (an open weave fabric made from natural fibres) which is used to produce long runs of single designs.
Many contemporary makers do still make fabric hats over a base or over wire. This type of work is also found in theatrical millinery.
Fabric hats – These were traditionally less commercial and were associated with both hat makers and dress makers. Within hat manufacturing there is no longer any ‘mass’ production of fabric hats, except for sinamay/abaca (an open weave fabric made from natural fibres) which is used to produce long runs of single designs.
Uniform hats and riding hats – These are now made in one or two companies in the UK including Patey, Try & Lilly, Cooper Stevens and Herbert Johnson.
There are many individual milliners making pattern-piece caps and hats.
Felt hood making techniques – In the beginning the processes were mainly hand processes, but with the development and growth of the felt hat industry, the processes became mechanised to speed production to satisfy the demand for hats.
Unpacking the wool/fur
Blending – previously bowing
Finishing – polishing and dusting
The hood was then sold to a hat manufacturer or to an independent milliner to transform into a hat. Some companies did make hats from the hoods they produced.
Making a felt hat from a hood – The making of a hat involves a range of techniques, which will vary according to the type of hat being made. This falls into the Millinery category and also into larger scale hat manufacturing.
Straw hat making techniques – The process for a factory-based operation and millinery studio are very similar. The process will vary slightly according to the design, but main difference occurs within blocking. A long production run of hats requires the use of an aluminium block and blocking or pressing machine, while a milliner making a single or just a few hats will block by hand on a wooden block.
The following sequence of processes can be undertaken as a factory process or by a milliner.
For hats made from straw capelines (sisal or sinamay/pinok pok/abaca:
The straw is blocked wet over a wooden or aluminium block.
The straw shape is stiffened before removing from the block.
Once removed from the block, the shape is wired, edged, lined, and has a petersham ribbon sewn into the head-fitting (if applicable)
Trimming can involve a wide range of skills and materials such as fabric flowers, feathers, beading, and other constructed trimmings from millinery and other materials
Finishing – included sewing in the label, attaching elastic or comb, and setting the head-fitting on a poupée, or block (if applicable).
For hats made from straw plait:
The plait (handmade) or braid (usually man-made) is checked, wound onto a plait winder, lengths of plait or braid may be joined to create longer lengths.
Sewing – the process involves matching the hat to the design hat block. Note, within the factory setting the block was usually, but not exclusively, made from plaster or composite material. The sewing can be done by hand or on a specially adapted sewing chain-stitch machine.
Blocking – either by hand or on a blocking machine or press if this is part of a large run of hats. This relates to hat block making.
Trimming – within the trimming section there are various jobs, lining, sewing in the headband, adding labels. Adding the decorative trimmings of artificial fabric flowers, ribbons, feathers, etc. This relates to millinery.
Market issues: Effects of Brexit affecting their European market, creating problems for larger scale production and individual makers.
Market issues: Rising prices for materials/supplies, creating problems for larger scale production and individual makers.
Business issues: Ageing business premises and rising rents. Also rising energy costs are having a negative effect on all businesses. The industry requires Government assistance for the 3rd and 4th generation factories operating from historic buildings, where they are still producing hats. There neeeds to be greater awareness and willingness by local government to identify and support heritage crafts within their area.
Training issues: Perceived lack of interest for apprenticeships/training. There has been a large growth of online and face-to-face training often only providing basic skills. There are threats to college-based courses due to increased costs and apprenticeships are still rare. To raise skills levels there needs to be a greater push to developing opportunities for training to a higher level. The two main providers of accredited advanced millinery training (Morley College’s HNC qualification and RCA MA course) are both under
threat. The RCA is not currently employing a millinery technician, prioritising design over technical skills. Students working on millinery have to gain their skills outside of the RCA. Morley is not currently able to offer tier 4 visas to overseas students, thereby greatly diminishing student numbers. Domestic
student recruitment has been diminished through increased fees and reduced opportunities for beginners and intermediate courses. The awarding body City &; Guilds is in the process of withdrawing their accredited level 2 and level 3 millinery qualifications, further reducing the opportunities for accredited
Traditional British hat making skills have suffered a major hit with the announcement of the closure of historic firm Olney Headwear Ltd, makers of the iconic Peaky Blinders hats.
On Monday the company – which has produced straw boaters, panamas, fabric hats and caps since 1914 – left its factory at 106 Old Bedford Road to make way for housing developers to build 31 apartments.
Despite overseas competition leading it to focus on more artisanal production such as the hats for the Peaky Blinders TV programme, Olney was a viable company until COVID-19 saw the closure of most of its retail network. As recently as September the company announced that it would be relocating to a new site, a prospect that has now evaporated. Its termination means the end of traditional straw boater making in the UK and the end of commercially-made pattern-piece caps and hats in Luton, as well as the loss of 25 jobs and the skills that went with them.
The traditional boater has a double brim and is blocked twice, the second time on a specialist machine. Some of the Olney machines have been passed to other companies and individuals, with Culture Trust Luton Museums acquiring the iconic Brochier boater blocking machine.
As well as making Peaky Blinders caps, the company also made the famous ‘Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker hat, and supplied hats to private schools including Eton and Harrow. The closure is bound to have knock-on effects on other Luton hat companies and allied trades, who looked to Olney as the strong and stable industry core. The town is home to the last large commercial hat block maker and the last commercial bleacher and dyer.
On hearing of the closure, members of the hat making trade are calling on the local Luton Borough Council to support and assist the remaining companies.
Daniel Carpenter, Heritage Crafts Association Operations Manager said:
“While our first thoughts are with the workers who have lost their livelihoods, as the national charity for the safeguarding of craft skills we are also concerned with the loss of an important part of our shared intangible cultural heritage: their embodied knowledge and skills. Whilst it is good that some of the machines has been saved, unused they become little more than relics of cultural loss. Finally, but not insignificantly, we also think of future generations whose repository of craft skill will be diminished as a result.”