labricoleuse: (frippery)
[personal profile] labricoleuse
Back in 2010, i wrote a post in this blog about making a brim block out of esparterie, the rarest millinery material out there. At the time, i had four vintage-1950s sheets of it, which i had found in the bottom of a drawer upon beginning my job at PlayMakers Repertory Company and UNC-Chapel Hill. Because esparterie (aka willow, spartre, esparta, sparterie, espatra, etc.) is so rare, that comprised the one and only time i'd worked with it. I'd also provided a portion of a piece to one graduate student once who wanted to form a top-hat sideband with it as part of my millinery class.

Then, a couple weeks ago, thanks to that post, I was contacted by a woman whose dear friend had passed away; she'd been a milliner in the 1940s and 50s. Was i interested in acquiring 77 sheets of esparterie in nearly-new condition, salvaged from this milliner's studio?

After i stopped jumping up and down and freaking out, i composed a grateful reply and--to make a long story short--the deal was made. The willow arrived and this marks the first of several posts i'll be making regarding it and Madame Sheeta, the talented milliner whose legacy now includes the preservation of the art of esparterie in academic and theatrical millinery practice. I intend to document my own use of the material, that of my future students, any workshops i might conduct with it, and to write about this extraordinary woman herself, to whom I owe this amazing good fortune. (An interview with Madame Sheeta's friend and former millinery student is in the works.)

Before i proceed here, too, i should say that this esparterie is not for resale. It was provided to us as a tribute to Madame Sheeta, and is to be used for theatrical and educational purposes only. My millinery students will have the opportunity to work with it, and if we host any future workshops with it which might be open to more general enrollment, i will post about that here in[livejournal.com profile] labricoleuse first.

For now, though, I'm starting out by writing about the material from an investigative standpoint, to document techniques for others who might acquire or currently possess sheets of it on their own recognizance. Inevitably when i talk to fellow milliners about esparterie, there are a few folks who say they have a sheet (or five, or a dozen) but are waiting to use it, or afraid to use it because it's so rare. And friends, I HEAR YOU. Back when i made my block in 2010 with it, i was terrified. It was worse than cutting into a piece of $500/yd lace because of the rarity of the material. A mistake with esparterie isn't just costly, it might be irreparable. Now though, i have the luxury to experiment. I can practice with it. I can learn from the material, and i can document it here.

There aren't many sources of information on working with esparterie, but so far, the best one i've found is Denise Dreher's From the Neck Up: An Illustrated Guide to Hatmaking. Dreher and others (Eva Borrett's How to Make Hats and Ethel Langridge's Textbook of Model Millinery) talk about the technique of the "skinned join," which i mentioned in passing back in 2010 and which is what i'm writing about today. These writers all suggest that you practice your skinned joins with scraps...but who has scraps of willow? [1]

Well, i can tell you that if you want to practice a skinned join but don't want to use your actual esparterie to do it, you can spray-starch a layer of lightweight buckram (the kind you get at JoAnn's or Hancock Fabrics) to a layer of raffia cloth or sinamay or toyo or similar straight-weave straw, then use that. It will give you a similar experience in the practicing, that you can then feel confident about when making a skinned join in actual willow.

Here's some visuals for what makes a skinned join:



I started with a 2.5" bias strip of esparterie, which i misted with an atomizer of water and wiped with a damp cloth on the esparto side, to moisten the material. Then i carefully separated the crinoline from the esparto on either side of my join, as above.



Here you see what's going to be my overlap for the skinned join. The crinoline layer is pulled back on each side, and i'm about to stab-stitch through the two layers of esparto, backstitching for strength. Once you do that...


...you smooth the crinoline layers back down over top of your stitching (here i did it in black thread so you could see it, because this is meant as a teaching tool). In this way, you wind up with a really smooth join.


A few more bonus images...


Box of esparterie when i first opened it.


These 30 coils of millinery wire were included in the box! What a wonderful acquisition.


Madame Sheeta in the 1940s, making a wire-frame headdress for the Sheffield Pageant.
Isn't she inspirationally fabulous?!


That's it for now. As i said, this is to be the first in a series, with future installments to include using esparterie to do something called "taking a print," forming esparterie in the hand, and a biographical profile of the extraordinary Madame Sheeta.


[1] I realize there's "paper esparterie" coming out of Japan now, and i admit i haven't worked with it, so it may or may not compare to the old-style esparterie in which one layer is crinoline and the second is esparto grass.
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