labricoleuse: (mee)
Many of you have contacted me with great feedback/interest/enthusiasm (here or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram) about the research and exploration my students and I have been conducting with respect to the esparterie acquisition our graduate program and resident theatre lucked into. I'm so thrilled to report that three of my students this past semester elected to take the techniques learned in the esparterie workshop and produce a completed hat with a willow foundation for their final projects!





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This lovely hat is by second year grad Michelle Bentley. The overbrim is the exposed esparto grass side of the esparterie, and the underbrim is covered in a coral and cream brocade. The ornaments are hand-shaped sinamay in a natural color to match the esparterie.

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This image shows a few process shots: The block covered in foil (top left), the esparterie roped onto it (top right), the esparterie removed from the block before trimming (bottom left), and a closeup of the trimmed edge (bottom right). Note that when an edge is cut down, the milliner cuts the esparto layer on the edge line, but leaves a seam allowance of about 1/2" on the crinoline layer. Here's why...
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Then that crinoline can function as French elastic in covering the wired edge! Strong, smooth, and delicate all at once!


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Four views of an esparterie hat by first year grad Danielle Soldat. The crown was blocked on a vintage block, and the brim free-formed in the hand. The hat is covered in a slubby peach gauze on the underbrim and crown, and a pleated organza for the overbrim. Three little vintage velvet flowers finish it off.


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This is the sharpened-crayon-shaped crown block Danielle used for her hat.


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These are several views of the free-form esparterie hat by Playmakers Repertory Company wardrobe supervisor Ana Walton. The cover fabrics are a copper/black velvet on the top and a black lurex piled fabric on the underside. The hat is trimmed with a pheasant feather and a shaped crow feather


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This was the hat back when it was just a piece of willow shaped in the hand, pinned out on a block and supported with curling rods.


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Back view of same.

Fantastic work! Still more to come from our final projects though... :D
labricoleuse: (mee)
Recall, if you will, the incredible acquisition of a large quantity of vintage esparterie by our department, in what i refer to as the Madame Sheeta Legacy.

Yesterday, I conducted the first workshop with Sheeta's esparterie, with our seven costume production graduate students, two continuing-education students enrolled in my millinery class, and two costume staff members of PlayMakers Repertory Company. I'll be writing up several posts concerning the topics we covered, but i'd like to start with a few photographs from the section of the workshop in which we explored techniques of forming esparterie in the hand.

Esparterie, for those unfamiliar with the word, is a generic term for a two-ply millinery material comprised of one layer of straw and one layer of lightweight fine-weave cotton, starched together. The esparterie we acquired from the estate of Madame Sheeta is vintage stock, produced in Europe in the early to mid-20th century, probably some time around 1940. In this esparterie, the straw layer is made from esparto, a grass which grows primarily in southern Spain and northern Africa. To my knowledge, this esparterie is no longer manufactured.

Esparterie is returning to the marketplace of millinery materials, largely driven by the Australian industry. Several Aussie vendors sell what is often called "nouveau esparterie," which is of Japanese manufacture. Japan has long produced a variety of esparterie in a tradition going back to the early 20th century, with the straw layer comprised of toyo straw (strands of twisted paper, woven into a cloth). I have three sheets of the mid-century vintage Japanese esparterie, and for the purposes of this workshop, i purchased a meter of the new stuff coming out of Australia as well, so that we might compare all three.

The burning question on my mind, prior to my acquisition of the esparto-composite stock from Madame Sheeta's atelier, was this:

How does/did European esparterie differ from Japanese esparterie?

After all, the surviving resources which mention the material were all written during or just after WW2, and I always wondered whether British milliners' disdain for the Japanese product was due to bigotry against the Japanese, as opposed to any appreciable difference in the product itself. Now, i know the answer! The toyo straw behaves differently than the esparto when forming the material. The toyo is a bit more "wiggly" and more inclined to droop, while the esparto retains more of a uniform surface topography across complex curves.

I hesitate to make a value judgement about it--i would not consider one type superior to the other. The case is simply that they behave slightly differently when worked with, and both types have their pros and cons and fiddly qualities. Here's a visual:




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Left: European esparterie, esparto layer facing up
Right: Japanese esparterie, toyo layer facing up
In one section of the workshop, we experimented with the processes of forming esparterie in the hand. This is kind of like free-form blocking of felt or sinamay, in that you activate the material (in this case by misting the straw side of the esparterie with water) and then just...fiddling around with it on a block.

Check out some of the structures the students produced!


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This little fascinatory thing was made by PlayMakers costume stock supervisor Alex Ruba. The discoloration on the top edges is from the age of the esparto.

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Fun bandeau-bow shape by second year grad student Robin Ankerich

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Sweet little perch shape by continuing education student Kim Fraser

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This creation is by PlayMakers wardrobe supervisor Ana Walton.
Those are foam curling rods for wig/hair styling supporting the flutes of the shape while it dries.

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Side view of Ana's piece which shows the curlers better.

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Back view, and more curler details.

Pretty excited about the way this first workshop went! Seems like everyone learned a lot, including me. I'll be posting more soon about the other parts of the workshop and what else we covered in terms of the use of this material.
labricoleuse: (design)
After my prior post on resources for working with esparterie [1], some helpful milliners and scholars commented or PM’d me with two other titles of books which feature chapters or sections on the material.


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Madame Eva Ritcher's lovely author photo

The ABC of Millinery by Madame Eva Ritcher was published in 1950, and positions itself as an introductory handbook for “every woman” with an interest in learning millinery techniques. I absolutely adore the photography in this book—glamorous images of various hats created and modeled by the author, interspersed with detail shots of various techniques she describes in the book.

However, I’m not entirely convinced that Ritchie is using the word “sparterie” to describe the two-ply material composed of a layer of esparto and a layer of crinoline. Based on her description of it—a material sold in rolls, in both black and white—and the detail shots throughout the text, it appears that she’s using the term to refer to what I know as buckram: a single-ply woven material stiffened with starch. Nowhere does she mention the technique of skinned joins, nor does she discuss any precautions for avoiding damage to the esparto straw layer as in other references like the Denise Dreher book. And, in all of the detail shots, the material she’s using is clearly one-ply and looks to be standard buckram.

Ritcher's book has great illustrations and as a handbook for basic buckram structures, straw, and felt, it’s a solid resource with lovely period examples, but as an esparterie reference, it’s puzzling at best when taken alongside the other available information out there.



Hats on Heads: the Art of Creative Millinery by Mildred Anlezark was first published in 1965, but went through several reprinting in the 1990s. It’s clear that Anlezark is talking about a two-ply straw/cotton material in her book, because she gives an excellent descriptive definition of it in her “Materials” section, though she describes the straw layer as hemp instead of esparto, and cites it as coming from Hong Kong instead of Japan or Spain.

As the book contains no close-up photographs of the material Anzelark calls “willow,” I have no way to know whether the use of the word “hemp” is a misnomer (and thus what she’s talking about is similar to the vintage esparto-based willow I’ve acquired from the estate of Madame Sheeta), or if it’s a different esparterie substitute which is/was literally made from hemp instead of esparto grass.

Anlezark’s book has several sections which deal with using the material—Moulded Willow Brim, Willow Crown in Two Sections, Willow Breton, Willow Brims, Willow Pillbox, and Willow Whimsy. In none of them does she mention the skinned join technique, or any techniques which take advantage of the two-layer nature of the material such as the edge-wiring technique mentioned in the Denise Dreher text in which one cuts away some of the esparto layer but leaves the crinoline layer longer to encase the wire after attaching.

For the most part, Anlezark treats it like other one-ply foundation materials in terms of the methods described. The “Moulded Willow Brim” section is interesting for how it addresses creating a brim foundation with a rounded edge by folding the willow back on itself, but I’m not sold on her using the material in the most advantageous way to do this, because she doesn’t have you drop the wire inside the fold to obfuscate its presence when covering, and she doesn’t address techniques for grading the headsize opening when you’re working with four layers of material before you’ve even set your crown on.

There’s a lot of other information in this book on both structured and soft stitched hat styles in a range of materials, so it seems like a solid reference book in general, but IMO there are better references for working with esparterie/willow out there which cover a broader range of techniques specific to it as a medium.


Thank you so much to those who pointed me toward these and several prior-mentioned books: Dirk Seegmüller, Rachel Worboys, and [livejournal.com profile] leebee7.

I would love to hear from anyone else who knows of books in any language which feature information on working with this material. I feel certain there have to be some French resources i’ve yet to locate, and probably Spanish and Japanese as well. My goal is to wind up with a series of posts which are easily findable via online search-engines, evaluating and comparing primary source material on the subject of esparterie techniques.


[1] A.k.a. willow, spartre, sparterie, spatra, esparto-cloth…how many names does this stuff have? Geez. :)
labricoleuse: (mee)
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!
labricoleuse: (frippery)
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.
labricoleuse: (design)
We're working on a really fun set of hats for the next show at work, Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play). The script is set in the 1880s, which means some great bustle costumes and of course hats!

The action of the play takes place over a couple of months, and the character for whom I've got the most craftwork is Mrs. Daldry, who undergoes a process of self-discovery. Our costume designer, Anne Kennedy, came up with a great way of expressing this through Mrs. Daldry's hat. Riffing off the idea that women would have a favorite hat retrimmed in whatever the new fashion was, Mrs. Daldry is to appear in each scene with the same basic hat style, but trimmed ever more frivolously and exuberantly. Fun!

We initially discussed whether this would be a single hat with interchangeable decor "appliances" that the wardrobe crew would change out between scenes, but I decided instead to do four identical hats trimmed differently, to instead create the illusion of the same hat being retrimmed. Read more... )
labricoleuse: (frippery)
The show on deck right now is Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which affords me the opportunity to do a bunch of great craftwork. There are two hats in particular for the character of Lady Bracknell which i'll be chronicling in detail, as they involve a topic near and dear to the modern milliner's mythos: willow.

Willow is pretty much the North American milliner's Holy Grail. Even when it was more commonly used, it was never easy or cheap to obtain here; it's made from an indiginous Spanish grass called esparto, bonded with starch to a layer of fine cotton crinoline. The crinoline side is the right side, and the esparto side is the wrong side. It's known by a host of other names: willow-plate, willowing, esparterie, espartre, espartra, sparterie, and spartre.

Esparto grass grows best in southern Spain and northern Africa, and is also known by a lot of other names: Spanish grass, alfa grass, alpha fibre, halfah grass, and atocha. Japan apparently got into the willow market at one point, raising esparto in rice paddies, though the climate there produces a brittler version of esparto than the Mediterranean does, so the Japanese willow is/was considered "inferior" as a result.

Whatever you call it, nowadays, it's rare as the dodo. Some folks say that it's no longer being manufactured; I used to buy that, but then i kept reading articles about Philip Treacy and his block-carver, Lorenzo Re, using sparterie in his block-conceptualizing process. If Philip Treacy is commissioning hatblocks from his own hand-formed sparterie sculptures, he must have a modern source, perhaps making it just for the high-end couture market. He's not using 50-year-old sheets of willow.

I'm not Philip Treacy though, so that's exactly what i'm doing.

When i first took the crafts artisan job at PlayMakers, i went through all the supplies in every drawer and cabinet and nook and cranny, taking stock of what i had to determine an initial inventory. In the course of that stocktaking, i discovered an amazing treasure-trove: four sheets of vintage willow in pristine condition.

The way it felt to find them, well, i think i have a tiny glimmer of an idea how Howard Carter's excavation team felt when they found that first step leading down to King Tut's tomb.

"Holy crap, this is it!"

I knew the minute i saw it what it was, the minute i touched it, despite having only read about it in millinery texts: esparterie.

For the past five years i have hoarded it, providing my millinery students with tiny 1" samples as part of our media swatch cards, and once allowing one student to cut a tiny sideband for a miniature burlesque top hat from half of one sheet. I've been waiting for the right show, in the right time period, with the right costume designer, someone who'd design a willow-appropriate hat for a performer i could trust to wear such a thing with care.

It's like some string of portents in a sword-and-sorcery novel: that time has come.

This is that show, and our designer, Anne Kennedy, is someone I've got a very good communicative rapport with, and for whom i've made many interesting hats. Lady Bracknell is to be played by PRC company actor Ray Dooley, a consummate professional who treats his hats with respect and care.

Today, I began the process of working with willow.

So, Lady Bracknell has two hats, one of which is a small tilted-brim Eugenie hat modeled on a derby crown shape, and the other a wide assymetrical-brim confection with a pinch crown and a pile of feathers. Both will be blocked in wool felt, eventually. But to block a hat, you need a hat block, yes?

It's no problem for me to block the crowns of these hats. I've got a great new pinch crown block i'm itching to break in, and a small 21" dome block will serve for the Derby-Eugenie. But the brims, that's another story. I could carve them from blue foam, like i did the Rich Lady hyperboloid-crown bonnet from Nicholas Nickleby...but blue foam has to be cut up and stacked up and glued and carved, and these brim shapes could be done easier and quicker using a sparterie block.

There's some great information on making brims and brim blocks in Denise Dreher's book From the Neck Up, and also in Jane Loewen's 1925 text, Millinery. I pored over them, planned out my shapes, and set to work.

Images of shaping willow for the Derby-Eugenie )

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