Exploring Creativity: The milliner
Continuing my series on creative careers, I recently spoke to London-based milliner Anna Dominoes to find out a bit more about what she does and how she got started. You can find Anna and her wonderful hats on Facebook, Twitter and Etsy.
Lori: Hats aren’t an everyday thing these days, so how did you first become interested in millinery?
Anna: I’ve always been a compulsive ‘maker’; when I was young I made bead jewellery and did simple sewing projects like an a-line skirt. I remember making a lot of patchwork using old garments including an ill-advised peach satin and green velvet mini skirt from my mum’s scrap bag. The first hat I made was a ‘Blossom’ style floppy hat out of an old pair of jeans, very 1992. I wanted to do Textile A-levels but was one of only two students who signed up and the course didn’t run. However I did get to do Art A-level, and specialised in sculpture. I had a great, free-spirited teacher and loved the environment and having a whole afternoon to make something with my hands.
About 10 years ago a friend mentioned she was doing sewing classes, which seemed a great idea as I’d just made a few bits by hand such as a corduroy shopping bag. I signed up to the LCF evening classes in professional sewing techniques and bought myself a £100 basic sewing machine. I then did pattern cutting classes too, and made some dresses for myself and a couple of friends, and even a wedding dress. After that was a handbag-design class, and I made a bunch of vintage-styled handbags from a pattern book. I thought I’d keep on in that direction, but then saw the LCF millinery classes which I thought would compliment handbags. I started with soft hats, which is making hats from flat patterns using normal fabric, so the same principles as clothing. Then I did one on trimmings, learning how to cut feathers and so on. I discovered pretty quickly that hats fulfilled many of my creative interests – they are steeped in tradition and little works of art with never-ending decoration and styling possibilities. So I did blocking courses, learning about felt and straw and how to shape with steam, and also classes in carving my own blocks, and on various techniques such as veiling. The huge bonus hats have is that they are generally small! In a tiny London flat making garments was pretty exasperating. Hats have also taken over my flat, but I can pack them away easily, or take a piece away with me for the weekend and finish it without any specialist equipment. I’ve been making hats for 7 years now and I’m only more interested day by day, so hats is where I am to stay.
Lori: Did it take a while to learn all the different techniques?
Anna: I’ll never learn everything, so yes! There is so much to millinery – the more I learn the more I realise I don’t yet know. I love the fact that a 4-hour class will set me up with a whole new set of skills and take me off in an entirely different direction. I spend time with library books of vintage techniques, and there are fantastic resources online now – blogs, videos, even rare source books on eBay. If I feel I’m being limited by something I don’t know, looking online will often help. For example, learning about dyeing techniques for feathers. There is a big millinery trend in both Australia and the US, so I often find help there.
I’ve also done work experience with other milliners who will pass on skills, for example making silk flowers entirely from scratch which is an extremely laborious task. I visit places like Stockport Hat Works Museum and established shops such as Lock & Co, to see other milliners’ work and up my game a bit. I also take part in London Hat Week (held during March) where I can sell hats as well as joining in all sorts of learning opportunities. Once thing I particularly love about millinery is that it can be very low-tech. The materials are often just felt and ribbon, and your tools are heat, steam, water, string, pins, elbow grease! In that respect, you are connected to hundreds of years of other craftspeople which is a nice feeling. Of course it can also be very high tech, using later cutting, plastics and so on too. It’s also rewarding that something I learnt a long time ago, which might seem irrelevant, suddenly comes into its own. Pattern cutting is a good example – knowing the basic principals of taking fabric from 2D to 3D has set me up for understanding hat-making too, and allows me to find a way round a problem.
Lori: Where do you get inspiration from for your designs?
Anna: It can be all sorts of things. It could be a costume I see somewhere, a vintage postcard, or a particularly enticing feather. Or something like watching Downton Abbey (great hat-wearing going on there). I collect fashion photos of clothes with interesting details, textures or sewing techniques which might feed into a hat design. I love flicking through photographs of the early 80s club kids and I’m often influenced by music and styling from past decades. I like pin-up styles, the ostentatious costumes of cabaret and burlesque, and goth and fetish culture. Also film – Faye Dunaway is a fantastic hat-wearer, for example, and film noir is a great source of inspiration. I always take the opportunity of an event being a chance to make myself a hat, as it concentrates the mind to have a specific brief rather than doing whatever I fancy. So it might be a May Day parade, a Black and White ball, or a fancy dress party. Whatever I make will set me up with ideas for something more refined or commercial at a later date.
Lori: How have you built up your business?
Anna: It’s been a slow process as I also have a full-time job, and have at various other times had other things going on too, like playing in a band. I also had a big setback about a year into learning millinery, when I developed rheumatoid arthritis literally overnight in July 2009. For months my hands were almost broken; I couldn’t cook (which I love), or do housework (which I don’t), and could barely dress or wash myself. I couldn’t make anything for quite a long time, well over a year, which was heartbreaking. In 2011, after I’d been on medication for a while and was a bit more able, although still in a lot of pain, I set myself the challenge of entering the Liberty open house auditions, where small designer/makers can get an audience with the buying team at the beautiful Liberty store in central London. I took several classes at an arts studio in pricing and promotion, which helped with the admin side of things and how to price my work fairly. I worked really hard and, although they didn’t take on my work, having a deadline and having to think about things like range-planning and market research was a real kick up the proverbial.
Over time, medication has improved my hands so that now I am 95% back to normal. 2014 was the year that I found I could really work properly and for prolonged periods without being in pain the next day, and so this has really been the year that I’ve been able to make lots and lots of pieces and back them up with developing my website and Etsy shop. I’ve also started doing clothing and vintage markets, and find I get a lot of word-of-mouth commissions too now that I have a body of work out there. Fancy, dressy hats aren’t an everyday purchase, so it might be one or two years between someone seeing my work and then thinking they’d like to order something for a special occasion. But I think hats and headwear are becoming gradually more popular and less scary for people. Lady Gaga and Kate Middleton have also done a lot for hat wearing recently, although in entirely different ways. It’s still hard work though, and I’m still learning to put down the sewing occasionally and prioritise the essential business things too, like editing photos or updating social media. It’s no good making hundreds of hats if people don’t get to see, buy and wear them!