I apologize if you have come here looking for a custom made hat. As of January 2023 I have moved on to other things, including art coats and clothing loosely based on 1900s styles, as well as compiling a retrospective of my work for publication in 2024. Click on the tag cloud at right for my previous works, or check Facebook and Instagram for works-in-progress. I also have an archive my older works on Pinterest. Contact me if you are interested in commission work.
I am now at the Fremont Arts Council‘s Powerhouse on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6-9 PM, and Second Sundays, usually in the Textile Loft which has become my domain.
Thank you for your past patronage, and for continuing to follow my artist’s journey.
This post combines photos of historic garments I saw in Nantes with information I learned in La Rochelle, as well as additional research I did after I returned home to the States.
Within walking distance of the train station in Nantes stands the Chateau des ducs de Bretagne, a 15th century castle built by Francois II, the last Duke of Brittany, and his daughter, Anne, who ruled twice as Queen of France (Charles VIII and Louis XII}. The chateau houses the Musee d’Histoire – 32 rooms covering eight centuries of Nantes history.
The Museum of the New World in La Rochelle is housed in the Hotel Fleuriau, a Parisian style mansion built between 1740-50, with rooms and salons furnished in the Louis XV and Louis XVI styles. The mansion was purchased in 1772 by Aime-Benjamin Fleuriau, who returned to La Rochelle after having made his fortune working on the family plantation in Saint Dominique.
These two museums presented France’s involvement in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade – a subject I was painfully unaware of. France ranked third in human exports behind Portugal and England. France went through Abolition twice – once in 1791-92, and again in 1848, after Napoleon Bonaparte had re-established slavery in the French colonies in 1802 at the behest of the merchants and ship owners in Nantes.
I visited both Nantes and La Rochelle, which were the top two French ports shipping slaves to the Americas and the French West Indies during the 16th-19th centuries. Nantes derived most of its wealth from the slave trade, which is still apparent in the Feydeau district, where ship owners built mansions with the fortunes they made from the slave trade and the import of New World commodities including indigo and cotton.
Fashions from Nantes
The first item I saw in the Musee d’Histoire was this embroidered parasol, which was fully lined. Unfortunately, the informational text is not clear enough for me to provide its provenance.
There were two garments here. This is a dress à la française, or ‘sack dress’ which I believe dates to about 1790. From what I gleaned from the V&A Museum, profiles for women started to slim down during this decade, and full petticoats and hoops were replaced by smaller hip pads. I don’t know much about this period but I was struck by the center front lacing, and the absence of a stomacher.
I was also surprised to see the box pleats on the back stitched to the bodice from neck to waist. I had always thought they were more free-flowing from the shoulders.
The dress appeared to be made from printed cotton, which had been forbidden in France between 1686 and 1759. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, printed cottons (chintz) were seen as a threat to the domestic silk weaving industry, so silk producers petitioned the government to ban them. Legislation was passed in 1686 prohibiting the importation and domestic production of printed textiles. For a more in-depth study on this topic, check out this BBC article: “The Floral Fabric that was Banned
In spite of the ban on trade, merchants smuggled the highly sought-after “indiennes” on board ships of the East India Company, and into the European market. When the ban was lifted in 1759, textile printers in Nantes including Petitpierre Brothers, Gorgerat and Langevin produced up to 26,000 pieces a year over the next 20 years for both the domestic and African markets.
The other garment here was a men’s suit which I believe also dated to the late 1700s. The coat looked like it was made from a twill weave wool with embroidery, probably in silk floss, with matching breeches. The unadorned white waistcoat appeared to be silk.
Both garments were shown together in a room furnished to the same period, which included items that were brought to France from trade with the Americas and Asia. The portrait in the background, painted by Negrini in 1757, is of Pierre Gregoire de Roulhac, Lord of Faugeras, who served as mayor and later Attorney General of the city of Limoges.
This floral wallpaper imitated the printed fabrics that were forbidden. It is in the Museum of the New World in La Rochelle.
Here are a few of my favorite pieces from Nantes. The first, because I am a fan of Absinthe; the second showed the spices that were popular, and where they were exported from, although apparently I was more interested in the porcelains than I was in the spice map…
This plate shows the merging of the arms of two important merchant families in Nantes – Pierre Antoine Espivent de La Villesboisnet and Elizabeth Genevieve de Montaudouin, who were married October 12, 1750. It is white porcelain painted with polychrome enamels, produced by the Compagnie des Indies Decor in China.
Visiting multiple museums in an area has often provided me with deeper insight into specific topics than a single museum might offer. I found that to be especially true of these two museums, whom when combined, provided me a better understanding of how trade affected home and wearable fashion, and how deeply fashion was tied to the political and economic world of 18th century France.
After having landed in France with a dead laptop and nearly non-working smartphone apps, I have returned to the states and have begun publishing my extended ‘Director’s Cuts’ at Daveno Travels.
I visited five cities although I did not follow through in visiting the outlying areas.
In Nantes I rode a mechanical elephant and a three story carousel, and watched a heron fly at Les Machines. I visited the Duchess Ann Castle, the Jules Verne Museum and a working print shop. I didn’t make it to the Apocalypse Tapestry in Angers, and I had hoped to pay homage at the tombs of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine but failed to make that mark as well. My endeavors to follow in Eleanor’s footsteps would fail until I reached Saintes.
In La Rochelle I climbed the three towers that guard this 12th century port, and visited the New World Museum which was very illuminating. I also took time out to film “Les Meduses” at the Aquarium, and filmed some of my favorites at the Automaton Museum, which are all on my YouTube channel.
In Niort I found the castle built by Henry II and his son Richard the Lionheart, as well as some cathedrals. The highlight of that city was the Mazette! a 19th century chateau with a history of its very own.
In Saintes I toured Gallo-Roman ruins including the amphitheatre, the Arch of Germanicus, and an archaeology museum. I lodged at the Abbaye aux Dames, where Eleanor of Aquitaine also lived for a short time when she was between husbands (the Kings of France and England), although I would not discover that until I started translating visitor guides this week. I also lodged for a night at La Porte Rouge, run by a recycled textile artist who sells her stuff in the States…what are the odds!
My final stop was Carcassonne, a 14th century fortified city and a UNESCO Heritage site, whose cathedral has some of the most beautiful glass I have yet seen. I walked around the fortification twice – once along its battlements and again on the path that lays between its inner and outer walls. I took a few strolls around the Bastide St. Louis, which is the 18th-20th century section of the city, and toured their famous Midi Canal by boat.
My flights ultimately made their connections, although two were boarding as the plane I was on was pulling up to the terminal. The trains mostly ran on time and remain my favorite mode of transportation in Europe. I didn’t bring home a lot of inspiration for new textile projects, though I now have a burning desire to learn to read French…
My Director’s Cuts publish nightly at 6:30 PM at my travel website. A couple of articles with textile-related content will extend onto this website in the coming weeks.
I have a lot of photos to sort and even more writing to do. Stay tuned : )
I do custom textile work and so far, I have only turned down commissions that were beyond my physical capacity or skill. So I want to say something In light of the SCOTUS decision today in the case of “303 Creative LLC v. Elenis”.
I have never – and will never – deny your request based solely on your sexual orientation, gender, race, color, religion, or disability. The concept is reprehensible to me. I welcome your query regarding my products and services, regardless of how you self-identify.
Small businesses can and should stand with you.
I stand with you.
Heather Daveno, Artisan/owner at August Phoenix Mercantile
Moving to a new apartment put me on a new bus line, with new bus stops. At the stop at Fremont and 39th, I walked past this artsy building every day on my way home, until one day, I found the door open. So I walked in.
And I said: “What is this place?”
Norma explained that it was the Powerhouse – named because it supplied the power to the B.F. Day Elementary School next door when it was built in 1899. The historic structure now functions as the community art center for the Fremont Arts Council. They were getting ready for the community Solstice Parade, and invited me back to their Open House that Saturday.
I returned, and liked what I saw, and started dropping by on Tuesdays and Thursdays after work. I had gone through my newly set up home studio in the meantime, and grabbed stuff to donate, which I helped to shelf on those first few trips. By my third trip, I was cleaning the textile loft, organizing tools and sorting fabrics and threads and what-not, and trying to make better use of the very limited space. By my 4th trip, I was asked to join the Powerhouse Team. I have now made the Textile Loft my domain.
Organizing a textile studio, is in itself an art form…
I started taking deeper dives into the bins so I could make a mental inventory of what was there, and so I could further refine the organization and general layout. Once that was done, I took a look at the costume rack, and grabbed a dress, and just for fun, challenged myself to make it into something new…
The wedding dress was beautiful but about a size 4 or 6, its size limiting its usability. So I took out the back zipper, pulled out the bin of grommets, and installed lacing up the back which extended the width of the waist and bodice by a few inches. I tried several lacings on site, before making a braid at home that I was happier with. I also bustled the train in back and held it in place with wired gold bows that I found in a bin, and brass paper brads I brought from home. On a subsequent trip, I ran a wire up the back to prevent the lacing from gaping, which also allowed me to suspend a broken necklace like mini-wings out from the top of the lacing.
While organizing the fabric shelves, I found a square of electric blue brocade that was just big enough to insert into the front of the bodice. I took it home, and sewed strips of elastic across the back (that I had cut from old respirators), which gave the effect of shirring. It would add a few inches to the bust as well as give some visual interest. I stitched it in by hand, leaving the selvedge along the top as a mock-lace edging. I didn’t properly finish the seams on the front and shoulders but should probably do that at some point.
I replaced the tight lace sleeves with capelets made from a table runner that I cut in half. Without any planning or measuring on my part, the table runner was exactly the width it needed to be to extend from the bodice insert to the back lacing (!?!). I edged the armholes in blue lace seam binding so it would be more comfortable to wear.
The front skirt of the gown had been cut away, and after some thought, I decided to leave it that way. I evened up the hem of the satin undergown, and added passementerie in gold cord around the front. This gown is now ready for anyone to pull off the rack and wear at some future Fremont Arts Council event, or deconstruct yet again for some other use.
After completing the Polar Bear in Fireweed hat for Carina, one of her friends presented me with a new challenge.
Melissa wanted a hat like her friend’s hat, but with a field of thistle instead of the fireweed, and a dragonfly in place of the bear. A big, blingy dragonfly, the more blingy the better. Challenge accepted!
Just like the Polar Bear in Fireweed, my first step was to find drawings to work from. I looked at several dragonflies, including Art Nouveau jewelry, in order to get a sense of the shape, veining and coloration of the wings. I also looked for thistles, and settled on this one as I had a mind to make those somewhat dimensional as well.
Then it was back to the shop to sort through all the boxes for all the blingy things…
For the body of the dragonfly, I used a piece of silver grey suede cloth which supported inverted heart-shaped studs. I couched silver cording between the studs to get the segmented body and the outline. I had silver heart-shaped links from a thrift store belt, so one of those links became the head, with black beads for eyes and a silver cord for the antenna. Because I intended the dragonfly to extend down over the fur cuff, it needed to be finished on all sides. By the time I had the body done, I briefly considered making it into a pin-back brooch instead…
Next up were the wings. I spent a day re-learning how to do shisha embroidery so I could add mirrors at the tips. The silver tissue had to be fused to a stouter cloth in order to hold the embroidery. I also started playing with pens I had on hand to color the silver tissue behind the embroidery. I discovered that the ‘permanent’ Sharpie pen washed off the silver tissue, but the ‘not permanent white board markers’ stained the cloth and stayed intact. Go figure!
At the same time, I started playing with the thistle, which you can see at the right edge of the first photo here:
I like to check in with the customer on projects like the Polar Bear and this one, since they are buying something I’ve never done, and they’ve never seen. “Too much bling?” I asked, and detailed the materials I was using. I also told Melissa that the thistle trial, looked like a bowl of lavender pipe cleaners and that I would rework that. Melissa loved the blingy bug and especially the inverted hearts, which I had purchased new for another project that had since fallen by the wayside. She agreed with me that the thistle needed to be reworked.
The bug progressed, but the end result was floppy and out of proportion. So I tore it apart, cut about an inch from the center, and ended up wiring the edges so they would keep their shape when attached to the crown of the hat.
The thistle remained elusive. I was trying to mimic the fireweed, but realized that embroidering a field of tiny thistles would take about 100 years, and ultimately would be out of proportion to the dragonfly. So I changed track.
This is the upscaled thistle – stylized, cut from fleece, and appliqued with embroidered detail, which would keep them dimensional as I insisted they needed to be. I knew the effect I wanted, but it took me numerous tries to find a stitch pattern that didn’t compact the thickness of the fleece. The receptacle (the green base of the bloom) is padded and augmented with French knots, the suede cloth leaves are held in place with couching. The fleece blossoms are also padded at the base and held in place with long stitch, which left the edges raw and therefore dimensional. There will be some natural fray to the edges, which is intentional.
The end result came out pretty well. I even had a thistle-themed silver button for the top. (this photo was taken before I stitched the blingy bug in place, which is why you can see the yellow heads of the pins.) With the exception of the heart studs, all materials in this hat were reclaimed from items that had taken other previous forms. Now reborn and living their best second life.
Wear it in good health Melissa! Let me know what it looks like 20 years from now : )
One of my last hat commissions in 2022 was also one of my more unusual requests – a polar bear in a field of fireweed. I had never heard of such a thing, so Carina, who is originally from the NW Territories, sent me links to some photos. Another contact, Jennifer, told that “Fireweed is such an integral part of life here in AK [Alaska]. When the blossoms go to seed, you know that winter is only six weeks away…”
So after reviewing the links Carina sent, I settled on this photograph by Dennis Fast. I also looked for botanical prints for the fireweed.
I went through my yarn stash and found the perfect thing – a shiny, flat, hot pink rayon with black weft that would mimic ribbon embroidery. From the botanical plates I determined that I could do stalks of 4-petal blossoms with leaves at the base, which I laid freehand. I sent a sample to Carina to make sure it was what she had in mind.
Carina was pleased, so I continued with the rest of the hat, embroidering the singular panels and then adding more fireweed over the seams once the hat was constructed, so the field would be continuous. The fireweed took up 2/3 of the crown. This design worked fairly quickly but was also pretty intense, hence frequent breaks to rest my fingers and my eyes.
The Polar Bear was more challenging. After testing 3-4 choices from my fabric stash, I settled on a white suede-like fabric with a short nap, which was the most workable and which would simulate the fur on the bear. I’ve done several dimensional birds, and used the same technique here of stacked layers of padding to give the body some depth.
The next step was to build the Polar Bear’s face so it didn’t come out looking like a sheep. Since fiberfill plays havoc when you embroidering through a dimensional form, I tried to build the face up with “contour padding” which involves building the layers up from the back-side before applying the surface applique. Ultimately, I ended up using fiber fill in the face after the contour padding failed to achieve the result I wanted. Contouring of the face was achieved via needles and thread.
Here is the completed hat, against a mirror so you can see front and back. The bear and fireweed are on a black wool background. His paw is reaching out over a cuff of vintage dyed muskrat. I added a glass button at the top to mimic a piece of ice.
With small beady eyes and a cute button nose, this bear will follow her wherever she goes..
After several months of downsizing and 6 weeks of active moving, I have finally arrived at my new place in the textile art world.
I wisely drew up a floor plan, which verified my gut feeling that I needed to find new homes for some of my furniture, and put other pieces to new purposes. Losing a patio shed meant that anything I wanted to keep, had to become a useful thing rather than a stored thing. So I pulled my grandfather’s tool chest out of the shed and cleaned it up. It now holds my sewing threads and common tools.
My grandmother’s blanket chest became the new filing cabinet, which rolls under what had previously been my sewing desk. My turntable and cutting pads fit nicely into a drawer that used to hold threads. The top of my coffee table transformed that desk into my new cutting table.
The shelving in the cutting room miraculously snuggled in between the electrical outlets, which might be a first. My photographic lights now illuminate the working surfaces, and better utilization of the shelving allowed for decorative pieces along the top. Artwork in every room! This room also laid out well for economy of movement, with nearly everything within arms reach – another first.
Since I’m leaning towards a 1910 aesthetic, I took some time to add some little details, like converting a photocopy of a sewing manual into book format…
…and covering my office chair to accompany the new sewing table, which sits in front of a window facing east, with a 180 degree view of the landscape. I’ve never lived in a place where I could see the sunrise…
Old tea canisters are now pen and brush holders. Magnets adhered to the bottom of a Chinese brush holder will now retrieve pins from the shag carpeting that is exposed between my Turkish rugs.
I’ve also spent the last 4 weeks doing conservation work on a 1904 treadle sewing machine, which I will detail in my next post.
With all the activity that happens with moving a textile shop, I decided to not downgrade this website to a blog after all. I’ve made enough major changes to my environment this year already…
I had intended to maintain the narrative here, but other projects have consumed my time and energy. So as I presented the first chapter here, I also now present the last…
London Accessory Week – July 2022. It is my litmus test. I send about a dozen hats ranging from whimsy cocktails to winter warms. I hope a broad collection will hit a few notes among the hat-wearers of British society.
Every hat I sent, is returned to me, crammed without mercy into the same box I had so carefully packed for the trans-Atlantic flight.
It’s my third show in a row with zero sales. It was one of only two shows that had even accepted my work out of the 10-12 I had applied to over the last 18 months. Many of my commissions have been do-overs. Every new hat style I try ends in utter failure. My Muse, and my interest in hatmaking, have apparently left the room.
I take another break to create a 1900s traveling suit to wear on a family history expedition to Colorado. That project would drive me in a new direction.
In August, I start rebranding my web presence from “Hats” to “Mercantile.” I narrow the selections in my custom hat catalog. I start discounting my hats at galleries and get a surge of custom orders later that month.
Over Thanksgiving I announce my retirement from hatmaking and issue a “Last Call” which results in another surge of custom orders. I sell off most of my remaining hats, and by Christmas I remove my catalog and shopping cart from my website. I stop looking for shows to apply to. I zero out my gallery inventories and stock rotation schedule. I start to jettison trade show equipment and selected materials from my studio.
And things suddenly feel so much lighter.
Walking away from hats feels a little like a change in identity. But after nearly 40 years of hatmaking and a few years of wrestling with the decision, I make the call to close that door and open the next…
The first and last chapters presented here are excerpts from my current work in progress – a book entitled “A Storied Hat: My Work in Retrospect.” Please contact me if you would like to be notified when it is published.
Thank you for supporting my work and following my journey.
I hope you will stick around for the next chapter…
It is traditional for small businesses to recap the Old Year before the New Year starts. But since I am transitioning to a new product line in 2023-24, instead of recapping my (mostly) final hats from 2022, I’m going to take you back to the very beginning in about 1985, when I was still a self taught hobby hatmaker.
I was person of little renown in a medieval group called the SCA, where I portrayed a storyteller whose name was Lao Xue-sheng. Ever the spendthrift, I saved wool felt that had covered old window display panels at my job, and shopped thrift stores for fur coats to cut up, and taught myself how to make early period hats. I gave the first few away to see how they would be accepted. Hatmaking also gave me something to do : )
‘Lao’s Hats’ became the name people used when describing my hats to their friends…
Lao Hats became my brand, and later, the name of my company when enough people convinced me that I could turn my hobby into a commercial venture.
My first business card was printed on construction paper and hand stamped with my chop, which also served as the first “maker’s tags” inside my hats, when I actually started tagging my hats. My first catalog was 4 pages, hand drawn…
A friend known in the SCA as Kerij-e, made a website for me in 2002, which landed me invitations to show my hats in galleries the following year.
And thus the tale of “The Storied Hat” begins…