Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Regency Millinery: Blood, Sweat, and Possibly Tears

Earlier this month, I headed off to Perrysburg, Ohio, for a weekend educational opportunity I'd been anticipating for months: a regency bonnet-making workshop taught by historical milliner extraordinaire Lydia Fast.

I'd always wanted to try my hand at making a regency bonnet, and I thought it would be good research for those times when my fictional characters discuss millinery matters. Making a bonnet from scratch is a time-consuming process, and I'd already learned that workshop attendees frequently don't finish their bonnets during the workshop. Lydia also warned me that the class was an advanced workshop, while I'd never tried a millinery project before. But as long as Lydia was willing to allow me to attend, I was eager to learn.

Lydia isn't just a skilled craftswoman, she's a real artist. Her bonnets are gorgeous, and each has an average of 30 hours of work invested in it. (That's 30 of Lydia's hours--for a novice like me, you can pretty much double the time required to finish a bonnet.) Here are a few of her creations:

Bonnet by Lydia Fast

Aren't the fabrics and trims Lydia uses gorgeous? Sorry the photo doesn't show the bonnet linings, because they're equally lovely. (Edited to add: Lydia tells me the brown bonnet at upper left was actually made at last year's workshop by Tonya, one of the other attendees. I think I knew this at one point, but neglected to make a note of it. My apologies, Tonya, and your work is equally beautiful!)

Here's Lydia herself, modeling a bonnet she made during the workshop:

Lydia Fast
Lydia tends to gravitate toward fall colors, which isn't surprising since they definitely suit her.
I decided to make an 1809-1817 style poke bonnet. Each workshop participant received a kit that included buckram (mesh permeated with glue to stiffen it), pellon (a heavy interfacing used to cover the rough buckram), wire for shaping, crinoline tape, and mull (batting used to soften the lines of the buckram form). A well made bonnet has up to nine layers of construction: buckram, pellon, wire, crinoline tape, mull, fashion covering, lining, and trim--not to mention the muslin drawstring liner sewn inside the crown. Bonnet construction also involves a variety of hand stitches: running stitches, whip stitches, buttonhole stitches, overlapping backstitches, and the ladder stitch that makes the finishing invisible. When it comes to quality workmanship, Lydia's method doesn't cut any corners, but Lydia and the other attendees were patient with my newbie cluelessness.

After tracing a paper pattern for later use when cutting our fashion covering fabric, we sandwiched the buckram pieces between layers of pellon, wired them, encased the wires with crinoline tape, then assembled and sewed the pieces together. I ended up with a form that looked like this:

My buckram bonnet form. From this point on, the sewing is mostly by hand rather than by machine.
The next steps involve covering the buckram form with mull, and then covering that with fashion fabric, including the silk lining for the brim. I'd bought ivory silk for my brim lining, and wisely chose to cover the outside of my bonnet in velvet--I say wisely because velvet is a pretty forgiving fabric, and the texture helped disguise my overly tight hand stitching. Due to my inexperience (and boneheaded attempts to wind a machine bobbin with thread made for hand quilting), I was several steps behind the other attendees, who were all re-enactors skilled in costuming. But I did reach my goal for the weekend, which was to get far enough along in my bonnet construction that I could finish the project at home. I left the workshop with the top of the crown and the bonnet brim covered in velvet, and when I got home I pinned and pleated the brim lining, like this:

You can see I've covered the top and outer brim of the bonnet in red velvet before stitching in the brim lining. My bonnet looks slightly squashed on one side, because I was a bit too forceful with it. Fortunately, I was able to reshape the buckram later with a steam iron.
The next step in bonnet construction is to cover the sides of the crown, which on a typical regency bonnet has that distinctive stovepipe shape. Here's Lydia, demonstrating how:

Action shot! Lydia gives the newcomers instruction in sewing a bonnet covering with invisible "magic fairy stitches."
I had a great time at Lydia's workshop. The other attendees were all members of the Jane Austen Society, and it was a joy to be around ladies who knew so much about history, and fashion history in particular. Fun fact: Lydia has seen a number of extant regency bonnets, and she reports that the workmanship in them was frequently poor. I learned a lot, including that it's almost impossible to make a regency bonnet without bleeding on it. (I stuck myself several times with pins, and poked myself more than once trying to pull my needle through the stiff buckram).

So how did my regency poke bonnet turn out? In the end, I was pretty happy with the actual construction, though not quite so happy with the job I did trimming it.

I went with a primary color scheme, including blue piping along the crown and brim, but I don't think the ribbon is wide enough to suit the regency proportions.
Part of our workshop included a field trip to a shop that sells vintage ribbon, and I bought some lovely and rather expensive ribbon there, but when I got home that ribbon just seemed too dark against the red velvet. Instead, I ended up using some inexpensive plaid ribbon from my local fabric store, and though I like the brighter color, the new ribbon doesn't have the right visual impact. I wanted to have a finished bonnet photo for this blog post, but I can always re-trim my bonnet later--something any regency heroine worth her salt would have known how to do.

Because millinery work is so time consuming, it's not for everyone. But I found it relaxing to sit and sew, and the best part about making a bonnet is that it's a small-scale project with boundless opportunities for creative expression. I'm already planning to tackle another bonnet once the holiday rush is over. Maybe something in blue...

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's newest regency romance is A Tryst With Trouble, the story of an arrogant man's man and an outspoken spinster who must join forces to solve a deadly mystery. It joins her first two regencies, Lord of Secrets and Ruined by Rumor. Alyssa hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you.


melissamary said...

It looks gorgeous, Alyssa! You did a great job! I'm sorry that ribbon didn't work out for the bonnet, but hopefully you'll be able to use it soon :)


Wendy Soliman said...

Absolutely georgous. I am in awe.

Alyssa Everett said...

Hi, Melissa! (Melissa is an awesome seamstress and bonnet maker, and helped lots of us with color coordination.) I may end up using that ribbon on my next bonnet. It's gorgeous stuff, no doubt about that!

Thanks, Wendy. You wouldn't believe how pretty the bonnets that Lydia and her students make look up close and in person.