tan porkpie hat

The Ins and Outs of Quality Hats | Modern Millinery

Millinery Operations with Kristin Silverman

Becoming knowledgeable about a subject is a double-edged sword. It’s exciting and interesting, and you can better appreciate quality work. On the other hand, you get a more critical eye. Milliners can tell at a glance if a hat is well -made.

I privately cringe when people I know proudly show off the mass-produced junky hat they bought for $40. I’ll nod and smile, but I won’t lie and say it’s a good hat. Back in January, when everyone was criticizing Kellyanne Conway’s inauguration outfit, I couldn’t help but be appalled at the choice to pair such an obviously cheaply made hat — it turned out to be a cloche by Nine West that cost less than $40 — with a $3,600 Gucci piece.

And in the millinery forums I frequent online, many milliners have shared stories of “customers” expecting hand-made hats at factory-made prices. I wrote before about “Why Does That Thing Cost So Much?” But what are you getting if you buy handmade, and what are you getting if you buy mass-produced?

A porkpie hat made in America by Goorin Bros.

Before I became a milliner, I bought mid-range hats — nothing too expensive, but not super cheap, either. Goorin Bros. was my favorite brand. Between my husband and myself, we amassed quite a collection. And these are decent quality, good hats. Some are made in China; some are made in the U.S.

Wearing a less-expensive hat is a great way to get into hat wearing! Then, after a while, you might (like me) want something a little more special.

How are the trims attached?
Lower quality hats will have the ribbon glued on. Yuck! There’s no replacing that ribbon if it gets soiled or damaged. Might as well throw the hat out. Oh well, it was cheap, right?

The Ins and Outs of Quality Hats | Modern Millinery
This hat (also by Goorin Bros.) was made in China. You can see how the ribbon was glued directly to the felt.

Medium quality hats will have the ribbons sewn on. But the stitches might be bulky or sloppy .

The Ins and Outs of Quality Hats | Modern Millinery
You can see how that one bulky stitch slightly distorts the ribbon.
The Ins and Outs of Quality Hats | Modern Millinery
Visible, lumpy stitches inside the hat. But at least the trim was sewn on rather than glued.

Here, by way of comparison, is a porkpie hat that I made:

The Ins and Outs of Quality Hats | Modern Millinery
Shaped bow, hand-stitched brim, invisible stitches attaching the ribbon to the hat.
The Ins and Outs of Quality Hats | Modern Millinery
Inside the hat: No visible stitches and the head-size ribbon is sewn in by hand.

How is the rest of it finished? Many milliners do use a sewing machine to put in head-size ribbons or finish the edge of the brim. Others sew everything by hand. Hand-sewing will give more dependable, perfect results — but obviously it takes more time than machine sewing (and therefore tends to cost more).

What is it made of? Any decent felt hat should be 100% wool at least. A quick perusal of a Chinese wholesale site showed me felt hats made of 80% acrylic and 20% wool. Even with 100% wool hats, there can be wide variance in quality. How does it feel? Does it feel soft and thick or stiff and papery? At the upper end for felt hats are fur felts, cashmere and beaver.

I’m not trying to knock mass-produced hats. I still think that Goorin porkpie is pretty spiffy. There’s always a give and take. If you want a stylish hat that’s a little less expensive, there are some decent options out there. If you want fancier materials or more attention to detail or something a little more rare, find a milliner. Either way, know what you want and what you’re getting. If you’d be happy with a feather glued onto a headband that you found for $30 at the mall, please don’t buy from a milliner. You’ll be bitter and resentful — and unappreciative. But if you want something a little better quality that will last longer, take a look at what you’re getting. If you’re paying high-quality prices for a mass-produced hat, you’re being ripped off. Find a milliner, and you will be happier.

Whether you buy mass-produced hats or bespoke millinery from the likes of Philip Treacy or Anya Caliendo, please at least stay away from abominations such as this:

The Ins and Outs of Quality Hats | Modern Millinery
Lumpy, poorly shaped and with huge visible stitches under the trim. And what is it made of? Web site says cotton, but who knows? Via AliExpress.
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