When Does A Hat Maker Become A Milliner?

Model Millinery - Silk Lady Bird Cocktail Hat
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When Does a Hat Maker Become a Milliner

Does the title Milliner come with the amount of official courses undertaken? Has it now become a common term used by anyone who can make or trim a hat? Does an apprenticeship alongside an experienced milliner automatically define the student as a Milliner too?

In the past, the only true way to learn the millinery craft would be through an apprenticeship. This apprenticeship could span many years. I ask these questions because I myself, was often called a Milliner, when I still considered myself a hat maker. I had already been working as a hat maker for over 10 years, and had taught myself many of the millinery secrets.

I never received an official apprenticeship under a renowned Millinery Designer. My education was very much afforded me through a few evening courses in London. Mainly I learnt through experimentation and through the ladies and gentlemen that I found working in the Millinery Factories and Theater here, in South Africa.

Many of the ladies I have met in the factories had been there since their teenage years. They had been given a position within the factory and remained there their entire lives. What I experienced in these factories was that the creative spark had been squashed to produce lines of imitation. They were not encouraged to think outside the box, instead they were forced to fit in it. Anything that was seen as different had also been identified as wrong! The Millinery tricks and craftsmanship was excellent, but the design ideas were simply imitation of Europe. It was obvious to me that Millinery had hit a creative dead end in South Africa. I myself witnessed the passing of two Millinery factories in Cape Town.

Due to the political situation in SA, the workers were not invested in, but used as cheap labor to reproduce the fashions from overseas. The ladies were not encouraged to express individuality or offer new. That was the responsibility of the Designer/ Owner, who had an authority and was addressed simply Mrs. Know it all. The staff were to perfect their ability to copy. Definitely a valuable practice on the road to creativity, however it is a creative death sentence if the buck stops there.

I remember my first day at MM Keller Milliners. The staff obviously knew that they should be expecting a new designer as their Designer of many years had retired. I had been told by management that the designs were the same for over 25 years. That I should be warned to prepare for battle with the staff, with any changes I proposed. Most of the ladies were old enough to be my mother and grandmother. Just imagine telling your granny to try something new, when she had been doing the same for her whole life. As the manager walked me towards my new glass studio, you could have heard a pin drop. I was officially under inspection from the toughest group I had ever encountered.

I started by designing the Winter collection. Some of the styles had already been blocked and I began to trim. After the first week of polite responses from the ladies, I found that it was the men in the blocking room who gave me my first break. At the conclusion of the first weeks work, I found the Head Blocker in my studio doorway. We were situated on opposite sides of the factory and he had come to inspect whether everyone was wasting their time. I invited this gentleman in and he proceeded to look over my work. He did not say much, simply smiled and gave an affirmative nod. I was only to discover later that this gentleman never gave much away, and the nod had meant everything. I now had the support and backing of the blockers but still faced some opposition from the trimming ladies.

My ideas were new to them which meant that I was asking for change. Since the designs had not changed for so many years, the ladies found it difficult to bend their ways. I had unwittingly introduced a new style of rose to my collection. This was not the way it was done! In introducing a new design I had altered the hierarchical expertise. This action brought the head trimmer out from behind her table, all guns blazing. I realized from this, that instead of teaching, I first had to be prepared to be taught.

I asked the ladies to teach me how to make their style of rose. I spoke broken Afrikaans, to the best of my ability, to show that I was prepared to meet them half way. I sat on the production line and made a mess in front of all of them. Then I tried again, failed and laughed and then again. I did this many times and I learnt many secrets. I hoped that by doing I would be encouraging others to try a new way, that it was acceptable to find yourself challenged. That was how we learnt. It worked. The new roses soon became second hand to the ladies. I realized then that the action of learning something new, had been associated with shame and ridicule, rather than excitement and joy. As you can imagine, I faced many challenging situations at that time. Even though I held a position of authority, I still was not comfortable with being known as a Milliner, but I was definitely on my way.

By this time I had worked as the Designer in two hat factories, created my own collections, winter and summer, Wholesaled to Harrods, The Hat Shop ( Covent Garden.) I still considered myself more of a Hat Stylist, than a Milliner.

It was only after I was forced to leave the factory and found my new profession in the Film industry, that hats really started to excite me creatively. As a stylist, word soon got around that I could make hats and the work start to filter through. I was now creating one-offs for the film and TV industry. This was the time when I slowly started to see myself as a Milliner. I just loved creating a hat from scratch. Saying this, I still would not define myself as a fully accomplished Millinery Master. I am fully aware that there is still much knowledge to learn, but the last 18 years has given me the solid base of learning through doing.

I often question, why Millinery? Perhaps it has much to do with the absolute diversification of potential designs. A true Maverick Milliner I BE! I have honed in on my craft over time and place. I believe that is why the profession has held my interest. The truth is, my Millinery education shall never end, the process is organic and the layers to learning are continuous.

So let me end this entry with my very short answers to the above questions:

When does a hat maker become a Milliner

A hat maker becomes a Milliner, when the tools and knowledge acquired, allows the hat maker to confidently say YES to the challenge of creating the unknown. Once created, the piece surpasses the expectation of the vision, and the process of creation becomes the link to ones creative source.

When does a painter become an Artist

A painter becomes an artist, when he has explored the techniques of others and subsequently comes to finding his own. When the Source of the Artist is identified and mirrored in his technique and expression of the subject.

When does a hobbyist become a Craftsman

The Craftsman is born when the hobbyist finds the source of perfection hidden within the creative process of the craft. Once the connection has been made, the hobbyist moves toward the perfection of his said craft and becomes a Craftsman.


So my understanding of this process is that, it is not to be rushed. I am definitely on my creative journey but am humbled to acknowledge that I still consider myself a Milliner in the process of learning towards my Master ship. Millinery like all the Arts and Crafts has far more to teach the student than is often recognized or acknowledged in the West. The process is slow my friends, and the rewards are often only discovered in the afterglow.

I invite you now, to join me on my journey, as an active participant! Find your creative centre, be it in Millinery, Painting, Gardening, Baking or Sand Castle making! Perfect your ART and become Conscious of the Laughter