Making a Victorian Bonnet from a Thrift Store Hat
I just finished a new bustle gown for an upcoming late spring event, and none of my existing hats are quite right for it. Usually I’d simply turn to expert milliner and Redthreaded team member Frontier Millinery, but with a tight schedule and project budget I decided to try my hand at this one myself. I don’t have finished photos of the dress yet, but here’s a fitting photo.
The calico print dress is mid-1880’s, just like my plaid bustle gown. However, this one has definitely got some historically accurate prairie dress vibes going on, so I thought a bonnet would be perfect. I’m not generally a huge fan of late 19th century bonnets—the tailored perchers and hats are more my style—but I thought it could be fun to make something floofy for a change.
First, I familiarized myself with the general shapes and proportions of the era. It’s s bit of anything goes with 1880’s bonnets, trimming wise, but the pointed top that raises above curled bangs is one of the signature shapes. The back usually cuts up high, revealing the back of the head. Fabric bonnets seem to be almost completely covered in trimmings. Straw hats often keep some straw visible. Ties attach to points near the ear, and tie under the chin.
I made this hat in about a day, so it was a fast and rewarding project. This could absolutely be adapted for a wide range of 19th century styles.
Picking a base hat:
Since you’ll be cutting the hat down significantly, the overall size doesn’t matter too much so just find a straw that you like and that is at least a few inches bigger than your ideal bonnet size.
If you want a straw edge on your finished hat, you MUST find a hat made of coiled braid, not an overall straw weave. Find a straw with some structure and rigidity to it; a floppy sun hat will cause structural problems.
Finally, if you can, find a hat that hasn’t been trimmed with hot glue. Glue is very difficult to remove from straw, and re-activates with steam and heat. You don’t want to accidentally re-glue your hat to your ironing board (not that I would know anything about that...).
Start by removing all trims, interior band, etc from your hat. Then, take it to a steam iron (watch that glue if there is any!) and steam into a more rounded shape. For my hat, I steamed out some of the harsh transition from crown to brim. Small Victorian bonnets just cup the back of the head, so a softer line is helpful. However, don’t stress about getting it perfect at the start. You can re-steam at any point in this process.
Next, roughly sketch out your bonnet shape. I did this right on the inside of the hat, making sure to choose and mark a center line/top point. Start big, because it’s easy to trim down to a smaller shape. I used a frixion marker in light blue which disappears with heat (and is unfortunately hard to see in photos).
A note about my bonnet shape: I kept the back lower than most 1880’s bonnets I’ve seen. This is because I’ve just recently cut off a lot of hair, and this allows me to hide it in back. I can always change the shape in the future if I grow my hair out again.
At this point, unpick the outer straw edge beyond the margins of your bonnet markings. I wanted a finished straw edge on my hat, so I needed at least the bonnet circumference’s worth. I unpicked quite a bit more than that, just to be safe and because my base hat was quite large.
Next, cut out your bonnet shape. It’s tricky to get it truly symmetrical, so just do the best you can. I trimmed, checked the scale on my head, and trimmed again several times. If your straw is malleable enough you may be able to fold it in half to help with symmetry. Don’t stress too much, this is more art than science.
Note: at this point, the stitched and braided straw can easily start to fall apart along the cut edge. Be careful with the edge and try not to handle it too much. My straw really started falling apart at this point, so I ran some lightweight hem tape in a coordinating color around the inside edge. I used my domestic Bernini 1008 on a large zigzag stitch in matching thread, taking care not to stretch the edge. You could also use a ribbon, strip of muslin, etc.
Once the shape is cut and edge stayed, zigzag or hand stitch the reserved extra braid to the outer edge, overlapping beyond the cut edge of the bonnet a little bit. If your braid is really narrow, you can add a second row. Start and stop at center back or somewhere unobtrusive that you plan to cover with trim. I forgot to take a photo of this step, but you can see it in subsequent photos.
Add millinery wire around the inside edge of the brim, set back by about 1/2”. I did this by machine, but it can also be stitched by hand.
Now it’s time for the fun part: trimming! For my hat, I used a mix of floral stems, fabric scraps, and ribbons. Pin in place and then hand stitch securely through the hat (please, don’t glue. If you ever want to re-trim, you’ll be so unhappy). I looked at research and then just sort of winged it based on what I liked.
Finally, you’ll want to mask the wire and raw edges on the inside. I pleated up a folded strip of fabric, and hand stitched in place. You could use ribbon, lace, or smoother fabric for a more tailored look.
I used a scrap of bobbinet for the lining. A lining keeps the hat from snagging your hair, gives it support, and protects it from hair products etc. I chose bobbinet so it would stay light and airy, and because hat pins should go right through it. Linings can be cut to shape and made fairly complicated, or you can take the easy route and dart a single piece in to shape as I did. Hand stitch in place, catching through any edge trimmings into the straw.
I’ll have finished photos of this ensemble in a month or so. The bonnet was a lot of fun to make, especially because it’s so far outside of the usual Corsetry projects I stitch.
I find that hatmaking can be fairly intimidating, and I’m sure I’m not alone there. I find that starting from a repurposed base can be much less frightening than making a full buckram or wire frame from scratch. I hope this little project inspires you to try your own DIY project! And if you’re looking for a professional milliner for your Historical project instead, I absolutely recommend contacting Frontier Millinery!