Going to Anime Boston this year reminded me that I haven’t told you all about my hat project. THE hat project. The big one. The mother of all projects. The project that spanned years, involved international commerce, and still has remnants floating around my house. And it all started with a single hat. Or, the lack of one.
A few years back, as the steampunk trend was just on the upswing, I decided to make myself a steampunk costume for Anime Boston. It would have a tweed skirt, a brocade bustier, some interesting leather doodads and brass thingies, and of course a miniature top hat. The problem was, I couldn’t find a hat that I liked– the pre-decorated ones were insanely expensive and the craft-store felt ones were really cheap looking, being more like flocked plastic than real felt and too small for what I had in mind. I did try to place an order for the largest available cheap felt hat from an online supply store, but they were out of stock. That, I think, was the turning point in the whole endeavor, because I had to think outside of the box. (why I didn’t just make a hat out of cardboard and cover it in fabric, I have no idea…)
As you know, if you do an in-depth search for an item on eBay the regular results eventually give way to hits for overseas wholesalers who will sell you bulk quantities of said item. While I personally had no need for huge numbers of tiny hats, it occurred to me that if I was having a problem locating a reasonably priced, decent-quality mini top hat, other people might be having the same problem. Pretty soon I had an email conversation going with a hat company in China that could ship me 150 black felt mini top hats for what worked out to be just under $4.00 a hat, including shipping (which was the most expensive part).
Sparing you the logistics, eventually I ended up with two giant cardboard boxes of hats and about 3 months in which to prepare them for sale at an Artist’s Alley table at Anime Boston.
Rather than sell them plain (which wouldn’t have been appropriate for Artist’s Alley) I decorated them for sale. I bought fabrics, I bought feathers, I bought acrylic jewels. I bought 1,000 yards of 1/4″ ribbon and 20,000 tiny rhinestones (intended for nail art but great for embellishment on other things) on eBay. I had lace, I had beads, I had bags of antique buttons… tiny keys, silk flowers, lockets, clock hands, vintage pocketwatch parts, chess pieces… you name it and I’d at least considered sewing it to a hat. I had huge tubs of supplies to work with (and nowhere to store them), and started making the hats one by one. There were steampunk hats with brass and copper gears; there were Victorian hats with lace and ostrich plumes; there was a Gone With the Wind hat in green velvet with gold curtain tassels, and even (I hate to admit) a Twilight hat with black lace and blood-red teardrop-shaped crystals on silver chains (it was the very first one to sell… I weep for our youth). I even made color-coordinated kits of ribbon, rhinestones, and fabric, so people could decorate their own without spending a fortune buying supplies (you know, like I had). The convention went quite well, and aside from a few annoying teenaged boys who thought it was funny to try on my hats and laugh at each other, customers seemed appreciative of the effort I’d put in.
Happy with my first foray into millinery, I set up an Etsy store and continued to sell hats. As I intended to sell again at Anime Boston the next year, I also put in an order to top up my supply of blank hats, bringing the overall total to 350 (which two of my friends kindly stored in their basement due to my lack of closet space). Over the next several months, I kept decorating hats and doing some decent business online. After a while I stopped trying to make each hat completely unique, and started churning them out more quickly by making hatbands with the feathers and jewels attached that could be quickly and easily stitched and glued to each hat. I enlisted the help of crafty friends, who called themselves my “sweatshop” and were paid in hats and baked goods. In the meantime, I was buying more supplies, picking up random brass candlesticks and antique books to display hats on, and taking up more and more space in our closets. And still I kept going… I contacted a jewelry supply wholesaler and got them to sell me fake gears and cogs in brass and copper; I set up a website so I could expand beyond Etsy (never got around to actually doing much with it, though); I offered hats as prizes for contests and donated them to charity auctions; I cultivated an online presence on steampunk message boards; I staged an elaborate photo shoot with a friend of mine as model, and convinced a picturesque local restaurant to let us use their interior as a shooting locale. It was getting rather all-consuming.
I signed up to sell at the Steampunk World’s Fair, which had its ups and downs (not the least of which was being kicked out of my selling room due to fire regulations that the organizers had overlooked, and having to set up in a random room somewhere in the hotel next to a guy selling gaming dice and comic books…), and did good business selling both blank and decorated hats. However, I was getting kind of tired of the whole thing by this point, and still had more hats than I knew what to do with. It just wasn’t fun anymore. By the time my third stint at Anime Boston rolled around (this time in the Dealers’ Room because there was no space in the Artists’ Alley), I was pretty much over it.
I managed to sell off all of the remaining blank hats pretty quickly– everyone, it seems, wanted supplies to do their own projects and were thrilled not to have to buy them by the gross from overseas. But I still had decorated hats that I couldn’t just throw away– they were too nice! Etsy sales were flagging, the steampunk trend was dying down, and I just didn’t have the time to dedicate to marketing anymore. Eventually I pared it down to about a dozen decorated hats (which I still have in a box, waiting to be sold or used for a theme party or something), and of course the boxes of remaining supplies. What does one do with several dozen peacock feathers? Not to mention the 15,000 or so remaining tiny rhinestones…
So to recap, for this project I purchased 350 custom-made tiny top hats, had them shipped to me from overseas, then spent over two years decorating, photographing, and selling them at various venues before ending up with a stash of supplies including 13 types of brocade, dozens of feathers, hundreds of yards of ribbon, even more tiny brass and copper gears, and literally thousands and thousands of rhinestones. All because one online retailer was out of stock of felt top hats.
Since then I’ve managed to chip away at my boxes of supplies, throwing out the really useless stuff (i.e., printed reproductions of antique newspaper advertisements, artfully torn into pieces and burned on the edges) and repurposing most of the fabric, but I still have more feathers and rhinestones than I know what to do with. Maybe someday I’ll take up abstract art and create a gigantic collage, titling it “The Dangers of Craft Obsession” or something similar.
By the way, here’s the hat I made for myself. Pretty, isn’t it? And to think, that one hat was all I’d ever wanted…
1. If you want to curl feathers, the easiest way to do it is to treat them like that plastic curling ribbon– get a butter knife, use the dull edge, and run it along the spine of the feather while holding it tight against your thumb. If it curls the wrong way, switch hands and try it again.
2. Feathers (especially peacock feathers) will benefit from a quick steam bath– it helps fluff out the tiny barbs and makes the feather much fuller and more attractive. Just hold the feather over a kettle or pot of simmering water and watch it expand.
3. Brass candlesticks make great hat display stands– for extra height, try using a styrofoam ball on top of the candlestick. To keep mine in place, I hot-glued a wine cork into the ball, then plugged the cork into the candle-holding section of the candlestick.