I’ve been asked a lot of weird and wonderful questions in my time, especially when I was a manager in IT. I think the challenge of a sprout hat has been one of my most interesting adventures in millinery,
This question was posed by Adam and Joseph, the organisers of The Christmas Carol Festive Trail in October. Here’s the story behind the question…. and also the answer! guidance of another expert,
Planning for Christmas – In June
I’ve been very fortunate to be part of The Mercury Creatives scheme, run from the Mercury Theatre in Colchester . Even though the official scheme has finished, they still share information about opportunities. In June 2022 I was made aware of The Christmas Carol Festive Trail, which was to be twelve art installations, themed around ‘A Christmas Carol’ in shop windows in Colchester City Centre over the 2022 festive period.
The submission included submitting a design to accompany an excerpt, and I have to admit to being very unsure as to how hats would work, but came up with an idea of Scrooge being the first ‘Upcycler’ and upcycling his Christmas hats each year, by applying a different date over the top.
My first concept
I was notified in July that my application had been successful and then a week later we had a zoom kick off with all the other artists. At this point we were allocated our chapters, and I was given Chapter 7 ‘The Nephew’s House’.
In doing my research, I found that Martha, Bob Cratchit’s eldest daughter was a trainee milliner and that early Christmas crackers could contain very elaborate handmade paper hats.
I was convinced that was my theme!
When meeting with Adam and Joseph to talk it through, I explained my worry that crackers came in a few years later than Scrooge was written, and thus I wouldn’t be truly authentic,
“Can you be a bit more ‘avant-garde’? You remember those cupcake hats you made, do you think you could do Christmas foods? Make the hats the central focus ?”
The reworked idea
As I drove back to Saffron Walden my mind went into overdrive! I remembered how I had seen some pictures of Maor Zabar’s desert hats exhibition in Holon, and Stephen Jones’ exhibition at the Royal Pavillion . Could I do something in that spirit for my Colchester window? How would I convey the fun, friendship, food and games in hats?
My skills in creating far exceed those in drawing, but I mocked up a suggestion, based on Christmas Food and Board Games, and sent it through to Adam and Joseph. I said to them to think of ‘Bake Off’ when the drawings of the show stopper cakes can sometimes be very different to the final creation…. I was very fortunate that they believed me. I got an immediate response ‘ Go for it!’
Time to Put the Sprouts on
The first hat I tackled was ‘the sprouts’. I had a vision of a sprout beehive. Unsuprisingly, when I googled ‘fabric sprouts’ there was very little information available. I did find some felt ones, and some crocheted ones, but with the number of sprouts I had in mind, I needed them to be lighter.
My first idea was to try making it similar to a silk rose, seeing as I was once told by an ever supportive husband that my roses looked like cabbages. I started by covering a polystyrene ball with green silk, then arranging petals around it. It ‘sort of’ worked, but I had to experiment with different ball diameters. It was a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the first was too big, the second too small, and the third was just right. The same was true with the petals, until I saw some ‘flower petal confetti’ in a shop, and realised that this would save an awful lot of time. Each sprout was individually wired, then arranged in a ‘bouquet’!
The base of the sprout hat is fosshape, blocked on Highland Hat Blocks 404 teardrop, and though you can’t see the base, its covered in emerald dupion silk.
Life is like a box of chocolates
I could claim that I chose the purple of the ‘Quality Street’ tin to be the colour for my box of chocolates, but the truth is I had a gorgeous remnant of purple satin, and thought that would work perfectly. Plus purple is my brand colour. As my ‘ribbon folded’ cupcakes were part of the inspiration for the whole window, I knew I had to include the spirit of them in the box of chocolates.
The actual box is made from two buckram framed pillbox hats, upside down on top of each other, with another layer of buckram on the outside. Working out what order to cover each component, and to sew them in place was the biggest challenge for this piece. The ‘chocolates’ are made from pleated chiffon and from ribbon origami. And underneath the chocolates, the foundations are made from fosshape moulded over used nespresso capsules!
Nan’s Christmas Pudding
One of my earliest Christmas memories is gathering at my gran’s house with my cousins to stir the Christmas pudding. I may be biased, but I think it’s the most delicious I’ve had. When she died, I inherited her Christmas Pudding recipe, and then started making the ‘family puddings’. So I had to include a Christmas pudding.
This one is blocked in felt, using a vintage percher crown, covered in a sequin knit I found in a charity shop. The ‘cream is a bias cut satin, topped with a sequin chiffon. The holly leaves are made in velvet, and the ‘veins’ were made by ironing them over a metal leaf decoration I picked up last year after Christmas in Paperchase. I thought I’d experiment to see if it would work like a proper millinery leaf press, and it did.
It’s not trivial
I remember vividly when Trivial Pursuit came out. My mum bought it to play that Christmas. I must have been about 12, I think. The questions were ridiculously hard, so a relative decided they would help me by ‘miming’ the answer. Except they got the answer wrong. And it was very difficult to differentiate between his mimes of Dolly Parton and Marilyn Monroe.
This was the piece which gave me the greatest construction problems. I spent time debating what medium to use. Felt/Sinamay/Fosshape? And how to make the ‘squares’ for the board. I was also concerned about having a ‘floppy’ brim, so I made the structure in fosshape, wired it and then put felt on the top.
I was also worried that making an exact replica might get me into copyright issues, so hence created the ‘feel’ of Trivial Pursuit. I did break some new millinery ground in making this, by doing my very first dyeing to get the orange and yellow ribbons to be the right shade.
Sudbury Snakes and Ladders
The design of the Snakes and Ladders was quite straightforward. I’d made a sculptural swirled silk hat before, so had worked out the mathematics and the physics of how to make it balance. I used a ‘tester piece’ of silk, got from a factory shop of one of the silk mills in Sudbury in Suffolk. If you look at it, you can see where the weavers are changing the colours, and this is what helps to give this a checkerboard pattern. There was another ‘Goldilocks’ moment with the ladders… The ‘dolls house ladder’ I had was out of proportion, and cocktail sticks just didn’t look right. I ended up making the ladders from an offcut of a tabletop protector, which had a lovely geometric pattern and made it easy to cut out the rungs.
The Party Hats and Crackers
After I had put the hats in the window, I thought it needed a bit more to make the table more ‘festive’. Keeping true to the ‘handcrafted’ idea, I came up with making some Christmas Cracker style party hats, and some fabric crackers. A big thank you to Susie Rogers Millinery for party hat advice, and Josie Dom (my window dressing assistant and amazing upcycler) on the crackers. I used silk remnants from my from Sudbury silk hoard, plus some more sequins that I had left over from mask making in 2020!
What Happens Next?
I unfortunately don’t have a picture of the whole window on display, as the lighting and size proved too difficult, but here is a snap of me in front of the Sprout and Snakes and Ladders !
The Christmas Carol Festive Trail is on display in Colchester City Centre until 8th January, so if you are local, there is still time to pop along and see them! After that, my hats, and all the other artworks created as part of the trail, will go to their new home with The Christmas Carol Experience
I’ve been so pleased in the interest in them, that I’m already planning a fun sprout fascinator range for next year, as well as some hats and crackers! If you think you’d fancy a workshop on how to make any of these, please do get in touch. See my contact page for details