labricoleuse: (mee)
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Esparteríe has long been a research interest of mine, pretty much ever since i heard about its existence in my very first millinery class (1992), but actively since I took the position of crafts artisan at PlayMakers Repertory Company and discovered the four sheets of it in the stock here. Now that our graduate program at UNC-Chapel Hill is the proud owner of 77 more, thanks to what i’ve begun to think of as the Madame Sheeta Legacy, I set about collecting the extant documentation i know of for working with it. That’s the subject of today’s post.

First, let’s take a look at written references, millinery manuals which address techniques for working with esparterie/willow/spartre/etc. You can find the term popping up in many glossaries of millinery materials, but if a reference only mentions its existence and features no additional information on working with it, i’ve put it aside. We know it was once a commonly used and beloved millinery material, but what about the HOW of its use?


The book i used as my guide back when i made the brim block from a portion of one of my sheets in 2010 was Denise Dreher’s From the Neck Up: An Illustrated Guide to Hatmaking. This book is also the required textbook for the graduate level course i teach in theatrical millinery at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—it’s worth owning for many other reasons beyond its sections on esparterie, which she refers to exclusively by the term “willow.”

It’s clear that esparterie was already scarce when Dreher wrote her textbook, because she starts out advising milliners not to use it as a flat-pattern foundation material or as a blocking material, but to conserve it to use exclusively as a material shaped in the hand, free-form. She goes on to talk about the material’s properties and specific techniques for working with it—how to activate the willow with moisture/steam without damaging it, how to patch a damaged area, how to create a skinned join, how to wire an edge.

Specific instructional sections follow: Shaping the Sideband in Willow, Shaping the Tip in Willow, Shaping Narrow Brims in Willow, Shaping Wide Brims in Willow. She goes on to discuss both sizing and Spartalac as stabilizing products, though the information about Spartalac only serves to help a modern milliner conjecture as to what might serve as a good substitute, since that’s not a product one might run out and buy anymore.

All this information fills about five pages of her book (pages which are 8.5” x 11” in size and printed with two columns) and includes a few black-and-white photographs. Unfortunately, because the book is printed on essentially card stock, the quality of the images is not great. Nevertheless, if you have a sheet or few of esparterie and want to read up on it before working with it, Dreher’s book is a great reference.

Eve Borrett’s How to Make Hats is the second book i’ll mention. It features a 17-page chapter called “Tackling Esparterie and Shape Making.” Borrett essentially covers much of the same ground Denise Dreher does (and not as clearly), but i mention her book because it has an excellent hand-drawn diagram of a skinned join, which makes the process for it much clearer than simply relying on the description and fuzzed-out photography in the Dreher text.

A Textbook of Model Millinery by Ethel Langridge was a pearl of a find. It includes a ten-page chapter entitled “Esparterie Work, including Shape-Making,” full of detailed hand-drawn illustrations concerning a process called “taking the print” of a hat or a block. This involves using the esparterie (or as Langridge tends to call it, the spartre) to make a topographical copy of an existing hat or block, in order to create replicas of it or commission a wood block copy. The book includes a black-and-white photo printed on good-quality glossy paper depicting examples of these esparterie hat-prints. Langridge has stitched them in contrasting thread, as i have done in past posts, to better illustrate the type/size of stitches used in reinforcement sections. This is a technique i’m very excited to practice using the esparterie we acquired from Madame Sheeta’s estate, and be sure i’ll document it fully here.

In Studio Secrets: Millinery by Estelle Ramousse and Fabienne Gambrelle, there’s no specific technique documentation of esparterie work, but there are some beautiful, high-quality, full-color photographs of the surviving esparterie blocks in the studio of Madame Galanter, a Parisian milliner who’s been in business for decades.

There are also some photos of esparterie shapes in Paula Reed's biography Philip Treacy, which features text in both English and Italian. You can also see some of Treacy's esparterie block maquettes in two earlier blog posts of mine: Photoessay Part 1 of 2 - Philip Treacy's Hat Blocks, and Photoessay Part 2 of 2.

And, in L'arte di fare i cappelli by Anna Maria Nicolini there’s a chapter on esparterie work also written in both English and Italian. There’s not any new material there, but the bilingual nature of the book and its full-color photography make it worth a mention in this post as well. Milliners more comfortable with Italian than English would find it to be a good starting place for the basics, perhaps?

At one point, an Australian company called Ascot School of Millinery was offering a DVD of a master class in hand-formed esparterie, but they seem to have gone out of business or otherwise disappeared from the internet. All that remains is this preview video which has some spliced together fast-motion examples of the artisan working. If anyone reading has information on how to contact the folks at ASM to obtain a copy of the DVD in question, or owns a copy who might speak to its contents, please do drop a comment on this post!

Should you know of a reference book in any language which features well-documented instruction on working with esparterie/willow/spartre/espatra/etc., please do leave me a comment with the title and author name! I’d also love to see links to any other resources—photos, videos, etc. If you're hosting an upcoming workshop in working with esparterie (such as the one at Millinery Meetup 2016 with Jane Stoddart, please do also drop a comment!

Thanks to Dirk Seegmüller of Les Incroyables for his invaluable input in tracking down some of these sources.


ETA: Many thanks to milliner Rachael Worboys, who has drawn my attention to the book Hats on Heads: The Art of Creative Millinery, by Mildred Anlezark, with several sections on esparterie. This book was published in New South Wales, Australia, and i've requested it through Interlibrary Loan, so as soon as I receive that, i'll report back here my thoughts on how its contents compare to what i've already mentioned above!
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