vintage millinery feathers

Family History and Traditional Crafts | Modern Millinery

Millinery Operations with Kristin Silverman

I don’t know whether anyone noticed, but there was no “Millinery Operations” post last month. My grandfather died right around the time I would usually publish, and what with focusing on my family and being out of town, well, this blog just didn’t happen. But now I’m back. So it seems fitting this month to talk about family and traditional crafts.

Traditional crafts and artisan skills are very much alive … but my guess is that they aren’t alive in the same way they used to be. A hundred years ago, a mother might teach her daughter to bake a loaf of bread. Nowadays, the daughter grows up eating sliced bread bought at the grocery store, goes to college, then teaches herself how to bake bread. Maybe she does it as a hobby; maybe she quits her corporate job and opens an artisan bakery.

The major theme of this site is embroidery. How many of you learned to embroider through being taught by your parents or grandparents? How many of you took classes on it? And how many are self-taught?

vintage hat pins
My grandma sent me this letter with vintage hat pins belonging to my great-grandmother.

It wasn’t until after I became a milliner that I learned that my great-grandmother had been a milliner. She died years before I was born, so I never met her. And I didn’t even grow up hearing many stories about her. This fabulous piece of family history was unknown to me for years! My grandmother mostly taught me how to bake. She occasionally tried to teach me how to knit, which I’d promptly forget after a week. But she never taught me about hat-making. Perhaps she had never been taught, either.

Many of us — even those of us who are using traditional skills — didn’t learn things at the knees of our grandmothers or next to our fathers at a workbench. I have mixed feelings about this.

On one hand, how many traditional techniques are lost by not passing them down? How much family tradition passes out of knowledge? How much have people started valuing the product (cheaper and quicker to get from a store) over the process?

On the other hand, I think we have more joy in our work as a result. Whether it’s traditional millinery or hand embroidery or knitting or baking bread … these are things we’ve chosen to do. I was reading a story recently where a young woman hated embroidery. But she had to do it, because that was what proper young ladies did back then. It was a reminder to me of how lucky I am. I am a milliner because I love making hats . I’m not a milliner because my great-grandmother was one, and I had to follow in her footsteps. Today, a woman can pursue a career in science or technology and not be confined to “ladylike” traditional crafts. Or a man can be an embroidery artist and doesn’t have to follow his father into the family business.

vintage millinery feathers
Vintage millinery feathers from my great-grandmother.

Now that I’m grown and passionate about millinery, I wish I could have met my great-grandmother and learned as much as possible from her. But who knows what would have happened if I’d grown up making hats. I might think of it as a boring chore, something I had to do to please Great-Grandma Katie.

So I consider myself lucky to have fallen into the same art form as my great-grandmother. Maybe it was fate! Maybe millinery is something in my blood. It’s cool to know that I’m carrying on the family tradition, even though it wasn’t passed directly to me through my grandma and my dad. And I have some lovely feathers and hat pins that my grandma gave me.

I have no kids of my own, so no designated person to pass on what I’ve learned. If any of my nieces and nephews want to learn millinery , I will happily teach them. If not, maybe in a generation or two somebody will say to a budding milliner, “You know, your great aunt Kristin used to make hats!”

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