I was involved with theater in high school. After both the director and I figured out that I was no actress, I volunteered to help with costumes. Most of my friends were involved with the production of Winnie the Pooh, so it was a way to hang out with my friends. I now think that the director must have sheltered me from the chaos that is theater. I don’t remember many frantic moments.
Before I connected with Mosaic Children’s Theater, I was trying to decide what crafting to do. Etsy was still a new thing and I briefly toyed with the idea of making dolls and doll clothes and selling them on Etsy. A hobby that pays for itself! My husband firmly put his foot down against the idea of making dolls. Having never seen the multiple Chucky movies, I did not understand his objection.
So I moved onto the backup plan: hats. I must admit, I really don’t look very good in hats. Which means I need to make hats for other people.
Hats are a great medium for creativity. They appeal to my practical side because they are not just ornamental. The right hat can change the look and feel of a whole outfit. Picture a man wearing a plain black suit. Now, add a cowboy hat. Congratulations, you have created a Wild West costume. Take away the cowboy hat and add a felted derby; you have moved from western America to downtown London, 1880. Remove the derby, add wide brim Amish hat and you have created another costume. And only the hats have changed.
The first hat challenge I have experienced with Mosaic Children’s Theater was our production of Babes in Toyland. We needed a Victorian top hat. And not just any top hat – we needed a really tall top hat. After scanning videos and pictures of Buster Poindexter, I did the math: the hat was over 13 inches tall.
A standard felted top hat can cost between $50-80. I could not find an extra tall top hat. Fortunately, I had some experience with knitting top hats. I created a few steampunk costumes for my family, which included two small top hats. They were created using a pattern by designer Dark Twist. The pattern called for knitting the base hat and then felting it. I still have my small black top hat; we used it in Orphan Train.
There are many top hat patterns out there. But I knew that just knitting and felting a top hat would not work. The hat was too tall and would need support for the height. I needed to create a process.
First I found a good yarn that would felt and created some swatches. This is a very important step. I made note of the yarn, row count, stitch count and measurements of the swatch. I then threw the swatches in the wash with some whites washed in very hot water. The hot water and agitation felted the swatches, so I took a measurement of the end results. I now knew how much the yarn would shrink once I felted the hat.
I finished knitting the hat, felted it, started the blocking and continued research. I happen to have a large cylinder that in a previous life held a roll of paper. It was perfect for blocking the very tall hat. You can see the hat still blocking in the image to the left.
The problem with felting hats is that is does not produce a smooth fabric like the old-fashioned methods. Felted hats were made with animal fibers that were felted into a fabric first and then shaped into a hat using hat forms, lots of pulling and steaming. I was using the reverse method: creating the shape first and then the felting fabric. And then I found the solution posted by blogger PieKnit: shave the hat, using cheap men’s razors. Shaving the fabric removes the small nubs of felted yarn or any stray lint and makes the fabric smooth. Perfect! No stray fibers to catch the light on stage.
So, my hat was knitted, felted and shaved. Now I just needed a way to support the height of the hat. Back to research.
I found a fellow steampunker, new knitter and blogger Felix Thadeus Cucumber. He posted his hat design on his blog. But, more importantly, he posted a process that stiffened the felted fabric and allowed the hat to keep its shape. I gathered my supplies: a spray bottle, denatured alcohol and clear shellac. All of these were purchased at my local hardware store. (I am always surprised at the fact that I find more theater supplies for costuming at the hardware store than the craft store.) In the spray bottle, I created a mixture of 2 parts denatured alcohol and one part shellac. While still on the hat block, I used a fine mist spray to spray the outside of the hat: brim, sides and top. The fumes of the spray are flammable and should not be breathed, so I accomplished sprayed the hat on the back patio, in plenty of open air. I left it to dry a few hours and repeated the process twice more. When I removed the hat from the hat form, it stood up tall and straight. Just make sure not to spray the bottom of the brim or the inside of the hat or anywhere the hat might touch the skin. While it is a great hat stiffener, the mixture does make the fabric a little rough and would be uncomfortable.
This process, with or without the stiffening mixture, can be used for any non-woven hat style. I have used it for tall top hats, regular top hats, miniature top hats, pirate hats, and bowlers. Don’t forget that regularly knitted hats can also be used. Our Peter Pan production uses a knitted hat, unfelted, for the character of Smee. I used a night-cap pattern, slightly modified. You can also felt crochet hats, but as I don’t crochet I have little experience with felting crochet hats.
There are plenty of free or inexpensive knitted and crochet hat patterns. If you knit (or crochet) or have a parent volunteer that does, here’s how to create great hats on a limited budget. There are plenty of hat patterns on Ravelry, Knitty and other pattern sites.
Some links to get you started: