The City Milliner

Making every day a hat day

The City Milliner

When I met a milliner named Gabrielle and a trunk maker named Louis

The City Milliner- When a hatter met a milliner and a trunk maker

I can't profess to be a dedicated follower of fashion.

I've never been on trend or en vogue. I don't read fashion magazines unless I am at the hairdresser and I've forgotten my kindle. Both are rare occasions.

I can't remember when I bought new clothes... and before then 'new' would likely to have been from a second hand shop (erm...vintage?). I've always dressed for myself, for my feet (no heels), for practical reasons, and as a result, don't really know, or dare I say it, care, about designers/labels or latest collections. 

So imagine my surprise, when in the space of a single week, I found myself worshipping at the altar of not one but two fashion behemoths. Chanel and the Madamemoiselle Privé exhibition and Louis Vuitton with the Series 3 exhibition.  

Part story-telling seduction- part sensorial-how does one say it?- Bitch-slap!

Chanel hit the nose and ears (birdsong no less) with Gardens (indoor and outside), and rooms of giant compacts, steaming and gurgling as they opened, swirling and wafting the ingredients for Chanel no 5. Fingertips were seduced with floor to ceiling, drape upon drape, of black and white materials which begged to be touched. Eyes blinked at twinkles from Coco's one and only diamond collection, then squinted looking at the lighting rod filled busts trying to see HOW the artisans had melded sheer fabrics,feathers, beads and glittering embroidery to make up Mr Lagerfeld's latest evening wear collection. 


Louis Vuitton- on the other hand- was brash. With digital multimedia and flash, LV logos changed shape, tunnels of lights connected rooms, models on walls walked circles around guests (making you feel a little bit dizzy if I'm honest). Lasers and 3D computer images created shoes and bags before your eyes. Trunks from the past were boxed in museum cases whilst the latest bags hung on white sculptures. A room full of catwalks and 25 life size screens gave everyone a front row seat. 

If Chanel had been magic come nostalgic romance, LV was magic does tomorrow's world.  

I loved that the crafts, on which the houses were built, were celebrated and shared; from workshops open to the public in Lemarié and Lesage at Chanel; to being able to sit at a LV Workbench and see the process through the makers eyes. And where Chanel's designs out-sparkled and enchanted any of the offerings on the LV catwalks (in my view) - it was LV's idea to have visitors crowd around a real-life LV craftswoman making signature "Petite malle" trunk bags(below) giving the curious visitor an opportunity to ask questions which really endeared.

And what did I take away to reapply to my world?

As a founder of fledgling business and hatter

1. That even Multi Billion dollar brands were small once.  

Chanel was recently valued $6.8billion. Louis Vuitton a cool $28.1 billion. However we all start somewhere. This might seem obvious- but who would have thought a 1909 milliner could become the mother of the House of Chanel? Or in 1854 a trunk maker could become the darling of Paris and the founder of a mega fashion label?  Hmm... I wonder if the Saatchi Gallery is taking bookings for the year 2100. Who for? The City Milliner exhibition of course.

2. Attention to detail is at the heart of well made products, from trunks to dresses. Your brand and everyone who works for the brand need to embrace it

3.If you want to be a luxury brand think like a luxury brand. Customer experience is key and goes beyond the end product

4. Functional, Simple, Modern is enduring.

Chanel's designs were classic and comfortable and have lasted the test of time. Firm believer in comfort and she build a beautiful brand which put comfort and 'being able to move in it' at the heart of it. 

5.Slow and steady wins the race ( Quality over Speed)

 Though you always want to get a clients order out to them as soon as possible- detail takes care and time. I was surprised and reassured at how slow Louise Vuitton machinist stitches the leather pieces together.

6. Strive for perfection in how you put things together so people don't know how you've done it. I remember my milliner tutor telling me this in making hats and both LV and Chanel's collections exhibited this- every one of our hats should beg the question 'how did they do that?' 

7. Be curious in your craft and keep telling stories. It's not just about a dress, a trunk, a shoe... it's the experimentation, the testing, the multiple fittings and the story(ies) behind it.

Mademoiselle Privé Exhibition, London 2015

Mademoiselle Privé Exhibition, London 2015

8. Passion, Attention to detail, Drive and Constant Curiosity are attitudinal qualities which are vital to be a successful craftsman/business. It's not about the school you went to. This is a pet peeve of mine- I didn't study fashion or design. The LV craftswoman had been a chocolatier in her pre LV days.  Chanel didn't go to a fashion school either:

I was self taught, I learned badly and haphazardly…I had worked out on my own that which cannot be taught…it is with this that one succeeds. ~ Gabrielle Chanel

6. The road is long. Like Louis or Chanel, I might not be around to see The City Milliner exhibition. But I can live with that.




The artists behind our hat blocks

“He who works with his hands is a labourer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
― Francis of Assisi

These days I get excited by craftsmanship. Not just the beauty of the end product but the individuals, processes, the tools, and the stories behind each piece.

Becoming a bespoke hatter, and thus a maker myself has given me a greater appreciation for the skills involved, often handed down from one maker to another; the labour of love involved on a piece by piece basis, the frustration of trying to create the actuality of your mind's eye, the continual problem solving when someone or something (namely what you're trying make) poses a challenge which requires you to do something different without showing you how... and the time, the time, the oh- so- much- time- involved in creating something by hand.

In a world of time = money, volume = cash,  craftsmanship is at odds with commercialism. Ever heard of a wealthy craftsman or woman? Me neither... not yet anyway. But as woodworker Richard Maguire points out in his excellent post The price of a craftsman

Craftspeople don’t go in to their work with the anticipation to earn lots of money... our craft is part of who we are and what we love’

All bespoke artisans, from hatters to tailors, from jewellers to bag makers rely on their fellow craftspeople for tools and materials of the trade. For example, the hat you commission from The City Milliner will - depending on whether it is panama, fur, wool or cloth- have included a weaver, a feltmaker, a block maker, a leather worker, a stamp maker to name a few. The tools used to create your hat may have included the handcrafted brim cutter, the hand carved tolliker, puller downer, stretcher and most probably a hat block.

Handcrafted Tools of a Hatter - The City Milliner

It's particularly hard as a milliner/ hatter to find the tools for your trade. An industry which created thousands of patents for tools has all but died, and with it many of the tool-making skill sets. We hatters scrabble for tools on eBay, or we commision the few remaining tool makers who are scattered across the globe. And it's not cheap.  In the image above you have probably the best part of £2300 worth of tools and several days of work from each of the artisans involved. Worth every single penny. 

Those of you following us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook were made aware of our excitement when we knew our bespoke hat blocks would be delivered last week.

Hat blocks are one of the most important parts of a hatter's tool kit. These are the forms which the felt or panama body is stretched over- creating the mold of the hat. Hatters like myself use the wooden forms - larger manufacturers use metal blocks. A hand carved wooden block start from £95 ranging into the upper hundreds of £s.

The particuarly squeak worthy delivery of blocks were from Boon & Lane, one of the last surviving hat block makers in the world. Is it workshop of 10 or even 5 people? - nope it's a team of two- Alan Davies and Steve Lane. 

The Hat Block makers Alan Davies & Steve Lane from Boon & Lane

In their Luton workshop and foundry they make both aluminium and wooden blocks for hatters large and small across the globe. Christies, Frederick Fox, Philip Treacy, the who's who of the hat world are amongst their past and present client list.  

For our hat-blocks I'd briefed Alan with what I thought I needed- 3 crown blocks and 4 brim blocks so I could handshape open crowns fedoras, trilbies and homburgs. He helped me to glean what I actually needed- we shared some doodles via the net- talked a little more- and then I left him to it to do his magic. Tania and I have been to their workshop, we've seen the hundreds of shapes in his studio, I know his client list include the great and global, and in a dwindling trade- they've survived. I knew we were in good hands.

Each block, whether aluminium or wood requires a mixture of skill and precision, coupled with years of experience and patience- from being able to translate the customers vision into a form, to creating the form to the exacting shapes and sizes required and managing the multiple variables of wood, plaster, metal, weather, glue, varnish.

The Making of our Hat Blocks

I asked Alan to document the process of our hat blocks with photos.

As the wood used by Alan is kiln treated Obeche wood the story starts not in Luton, but Africa.  Triplochiton scleroxylon (for the tree geeks) these tropical trees are found in Benin, Cameroon, Congo, DRC, Côte d'Ivoire; Equatorial Guinea; Ghana; Guinea; Liberia; Nigeria; Sierra Leone. Recognisable for their long trunks and highly elevated crowns, popular in the timber trade, the wood from these are particularly good for making hat blocks due to the absence of knots in the wood, and the wood being lightweight but strong (us milliners have a habit of sticking hatblocks with pins which requires resilience yet they need to be light enough to be carried from work bench to work bench). 

Depending on the height of the finished block, 2/3 pieces of wood are glued and compressed together before being left to dry. Once dry the basic shapes are cut out with a band saw and then the chiselling, measuring, carving, measuring, sanding, measuring process begins to get the exacting curves and shape of the block.

As our hat crown blocks need to fit within the brims block as seen below taking into account the hat body whether it be panama or felt- it is vital that their sizing is precise. 



Once sanded the blocks are then varnished with up to 5 coats of yacht varnish- each requiring drying time between. I asked Alan how long it takes- 'it depends' he said 'on the wood, the weather, the complexity of the piece...'

The finished varnished hat blocks waiting to dry


I asked Alan what was the most frustrating part of his work  'its the money, we're not charging enough...' yet he's aware milliners can't afford more. 

Its amazing how some of the merest transactional services can cost thousands yet an object created by hand barely covers the time and effort spent on it. Which is why the heart has to be involved.. and why Francis Assisi quote rings true- it's more than craft- it is art.

And Alan & Steve are artists. The finished result, the beauty of these blocks, built to last hundreds of pins, strings, the onslaught of steam, stiffener..means these tools- their art will be around long after Alan and Steve. The tools will outlast their makers, having formed hundreds of hats, worked on by dozens of hatters and milliners - just like this one which we found this weekend dating from 1939.

This was made by William Plant a hat block turner which ran from 1828 and finally closed in 1976. 

William Plant Hat block from 1939

Hat Blocks are not just tools, they are pieces of art. Functional Art.

For more on Boon & Lane or Williams Plant block makers there are two wonderful videos.

'Mad As' by Alun Bull - The Boon and Lane story

Hat Block Maker by John Crumpton




Let's talk about Panama hats.

We've been delighted with the success of our bespoke panamas.

There's been the holiday maker looking for something cool and stylish for his break. The Swede who wanted something special for Midsummer. The Wimbledon ticket holders looking for the perfect head gear for court 1. Let's not forget the Aid worker who commissioned one to take back to South Sudan.

We've worked with hat newbies and newly weds. We've hand delivered Panama Hats to Croatia and Ukraine.

We've sold Brisa weave and Cuenca weave from the classic bleached to dramatic colours in red and cornflower blue. We've worked with straws which are light as a feather (46g capelin) to the tightly woven superfine 18/20. We've left it natural edge or cut the brim to size.  

What we've loved, in bringing our client's hat ambitions to life, is the wearer's constant quest for knowledge. So here are some of the tit bits we've shared about our panama hats:

1. Our bespoke panama hats start their life in Ecuador-  generally from the Cuenca region.  Handwoven from paja toquilla. (Alternatively called jipijapa palm) The plant is cut, stripped, boiled and dried to make a straw.

2. The hats arrive at The City Milliner like this. Simple hat bodies which we call capelins.  Two types of weave- cuenca (herring-bone weave) or brisa (diamond weave)- and then in different weave qualities and colours.

3.  3/5, 8/10, 18/20  is a measure of quality identified by the rows per inch. (if it's 18/20 for example, there could be between 18-20 weaves per row- horizontally and vertically in a square inch). In our case it relates to the perceived quality of the hat (the more rows per inch, the finer the weave, the more expensive hat. Our superfine hat is 18/20 ). I say perceived because it's not just about the fineness of the weave. Quality is also affected by colour, regularity of the weave... Some people consider the vueltas ( the concentric circles) as a mark of quality but as different weavers use different styles - it lacks consistency. Aren't they beautiful?

4. Weaving skills are passed from one generation to the next. Families work together to produce hatbodies to sell to the factories. A 3/5 weave- will take 3-5 days, an 8/10 a matter of weeks, and an 18/20 - 3 weeks or more.  Higher than a 20 count - months.. That's before they get trimmed, washed, bleached, dyed (if coloured), stiffened, hammered and reblocked in the Cuenca factories. 

5. There are three different types of weavers involved in the hat body making process. The weavers above are tejed0ras- they start the hat, weave the concentric circles, all the way to the brim edge. The weave needs to be locked and the rematedors back weave to 'lock' the weave so it doesn't unravel. Finally the brim edge specialists azocadors get involved to tighten the brim. As brim size is important for my customers- we try to buy woven hats to the right brim width before blocking so we don't need to cut it as it seems a shame to trim off another craftsman's work. 

6. 5- 10 years left for the Panama hat? Panama weaving is and has been under threat for some time. Why? Hat weaving is time consuming and underpaid. To be a great weaver one needs years of practice which means starting young. However lured by cities and less back breaking work for better pay, the young are looking at alternative careers. This is why hatters like Brent Black are trying to protect the very finest artisans (like those in Montecristi) by raising awareness for the craft- most recently with his £3 million dollar hat campaign. Across the board, prices for genuine panama hats will have to increase as the supply gets smaller. Ethically it makes sense too.  A craft which is recognised by its UNESCO intangible cultural status needs protection and promotion to keep it alive. 

7. I'm told by my Ecuadorian supplier that it's the women who wear the panama hats- not the men. I'm looking forward to seeing this for myself when I visit Ecuador at the end of the year.

8. As a hatter- working with Panama is a delight. It is incredible how malleable yet strong it is. And as it has been stiffened as part of the initial hat body making- we can block it once and it retains its shape. Hats have memories whether it's felt or panama.

9. Breath-ability is something more and more our clients are going for. Lets face it.  If you are hot head or a sweaty betty you want to feel cool as well as look cool. That means keeping the additional stiffening (stiffener can be a water based or chemical based lacquer painted on the inside by the hatter) to a minimum. Perhaps go for a brisa weave which is not so tightly woven- utilising a wired brim to maintain its shape. A leather sweatband will protect the crown and the hat from you. And you can always dry the band out after you wear it by turning it inside out.

10. Don't fold a Panama hat. I know people always want to fold it and there are even those which are sold as travellers- however just remember the more you fold it, the more you break the weave. Eventually it'll crack. Travelling with a Panama is easy- keep it on your head. Failing that pack it in your case upside down protecting the crown with soft clothes.

If you want more information on the weaving process I recommend watching the Cancion de Toquilla.

Summer Networking in Style- Your Secret Weapon to Success

Tania The City Milliner & Networker

This week summer arrived with glorious sunshine and tropical temperatures and that gives us all a chance for some alfresco networking. Perhaps a spot of lunch at Coq d’Argent, or afternoon bubbles at Madison’s. If it’s not too windy (and you’re not wearing flip flops) I can recommend some cocktails on the terrace at Sushi Samba.  

For me, networking is all about making connections, and eye contact is a key part of communicating, building trust and finding common ground.  Yet in the summer, so many of us hide behind dark sunglasses.  We may be protecting our eyes, we may look cool in the latest styles, but we also put up a communication barrier.

Sunglasses impact communication by removing eye contact- some might  even call it rude

Sunglasses impact communication by removing eye contact- some might  even call it rude

How does a successful summer networker overcome sunshine glare without sunglasses?

Enter the Panama hat.  As a recent convert to hats, wearing a hat when out and about in the summer has a lot going for it from both a practical and statement standpoint. A Panama is light and breathable, it protects not just your eyes but your face (I can’t be the only one who’s forgotten adequate sunscreen and suffered the subsequent tomato blush - not cool.) 

And it is memorable.

The City Milliner networking in a panama

 The City Milliner is on a mission to bring the hat back to the City. Yet until hats become a common sight again, a stylish unique bespoke Panama hat will make you stand out in the crowd, which is key when you network.  I meet so many people when out and about, it’s often difficult to keep track of everyone, and having something visual to remind you of them can really help. 

As the old adage goes ..”If you want to get ahead - get a hat”…. So next time you leave your house, or office for a smart day outside, don’t forget your hat - your Panama hat.

See you on the rooftops.

A City Milliner Panama hat before blocking

A week of firsts.

Last week was a week of firsts.




There are tailors, cobblers, shirt-makers,watch-makers and now hat-makers. Do you really need to go West for Bespoke?




We tweeted, instagrammed, facebooked, linked in'to existence. The City Milliner is alive online.

Bear with us- we're new at this. Though not quite the $5.5million dollar kickstarter campaign of Exploding Kittens, lacking a cat theme and the Oatmeal genius, we're pretty excited with our likes and followers. More please. And we'll try to remember which #@? to put where.




We finalised The City Milliner consultation kits. Now we can show our clients the endless bespoke hat possibilities. Pick the shape, the hat ( flatcap or felt hat), the material, the brim, the trim, the ribbons. You have to see it and feel it to believe it.  Your Hat. Your way.





We spent our first Tuesday and Thursday in Choppin & Lodge with Richard and Altay. In between measuring head sizes, finishing brims and taking orders for flat caps, we learned a little more about the magic of bespoke tailoring.



We planned our first ever bespoke head to toe collaboration. Hats, suits, shirts, shoes- all coming to the windows of 42 Cornhill in the next month.  We can't wait to get started. Bespoke hats and suits.

The City Milliner and Choppin and Lodge collaborations




Did we tell you we were launching an exclusive club for hat-lovers? 

Made up of our first 120 clients. David was our first customer. Club 120 #001 . A hatless to hatlover convert. He wanted a lightweight flat-cap with some crazy lining to take to Sudan. We obliged. It's nice to think that nearly 6000 miles away Adventure Dave (as we've fondly renamed him) is Making Every Day a Hat day. And we've got more Club 120 members lined up.




About the blog- we've got some ideas of what would be of interest.. but we'd love to hear your ideas.. what do you want to know, see and hear about hats, hat-making, hat- etiquette,  about The City Milliner, about our partners?

Let us know.




The City Milliner Ltd 2015

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