Heritage Crafts

Straw hat making

The making of straw hats and boaters including the stitching of straw plait or braid, using a hat block to create the shape and finishing. See also straw hat plaiting, hat making, millinery, hat block making.
Craft category
Historic area of significance
Luton East End of London
Area practiced currently
Luton There are one or two people in Luton still able to machine-stitch straw and a few individual hat makers. More makers are able to hand stitch, but do not due to time and cost
Origin in the UK
Machines for stitching were introduced in the 1870s The dates for hand stitched straw hats are unclear but they are documented in pictorial sources from the 13th Century.
Current No. of professionals (Main income)
5-10 individual full and part-time makers using hand and machine stitching.
Current No. of professionals (Side income)
Included in figure above
Current No. of trainees
Current total No. of serious amateur makers
Current No. of leisure makers


Before the introduction of the sewing machine in the 1870s plait hats (also called strip straw) were constructed by hand stitching. There were two main methods of hand stitching:

  • Overlapping then stitching the length of plait into the rough shape of the hat being made.
  • Stitching the plait together edge to edge (remaille).
  • When overlapping the plait, sewers often used a back stitch using specific millinery (straw) needles and a variety of types of threads.
  • The shape must be sewn to the required head-size.

After the introduction of a sewing machine capable of stitching plait, and with the growth in size and number of factories, hand-sewing decreased and became more associated with model hats. Much of the factory work was undertaken by home workers who were supplied with a machine and received deliveries of work to be completed each week.

There were different types of machines, some only stitching straw as a flat sheet, or stitching from the brim in towards the crown. There were visible stitch machines, including a zigzag-stitch machine introduced in the 1920s and concealed stitch (box) machines. The Willcox and Gibbs 17-Guinea machine is the most well-known but the same chain stitch machines with similar configurations were made by other makers including Grossman and Singer.

With the introduction of ‘endless’ man-made fibres in the early 1900s, machine stitching increased in popularity. From the 1980s the introduction of sinamay fabric and cheaper hoods meant sewing skills began to die. New machinists were no longer trained and outworking decreased. As the industry declined in Luton and hat factories closed, many machines were disposed of or left in factories and the homes of outworkers. These are the ones that are now available.

New machines specifically designed to sew plait or braid into a hat are only available from China. The alternative source is to find an old machine and set it up with a motor or treadle and dedicated workbench. Many machines appear on selling sites but not all are suitable for stitching straw. Machines were used in hat manufacture to complete a wide range of production processes. Spares including needles are no longer available in the UK, the specialist machine repair companies having closed as the hat factories closed.


The process for a factory-based operation and millinery studio are very similar but will vary slightly according to the design and materials used.

A hat can be sewn on a flatbed domestic machine into panels which are then assembled into a design, however this was not the method used in wider production. Traditionally sewing the hat would start at the top centre of the hat crown (the button) and spiral outwards to form the crown and then the brim. According to some designs, gussets (gores) might be added to the shape and for other designs the hat was made with a double brim.

Stitching straw plait:

  • The plait (handmade) is checked, damped, wound onto a plait winder.
  • A button (top centre crown) is created either by hand or machine (according to the design).
  • Sewing – the process involves matching the hat to the design hat block checking both size and shape.
  • Creating the shape – some hats are created free-form, the intended shape develops without a block.
  • Finishing – the remaining processes of blocking, stiffening and finishing are the same as those used for hat making and millinery.

Stitching braid:

  • Sewing – the processes are the same as for stitching straw plait, but according to the type the braid may not require damping. When using a zigzag-stitch machine, the plait or braid are stitched together edge to edge.
  • Shaping – the braid can be stitched free-form without reference to a hat block or matched to the block.
  • Finishing – the processes are the same as for other forms of hat making.

Hand stitching:

  • Sewing – the initial processes of preparing a button and damping if required are the same as when machine stitching plaits or braids. The plait or braid is either sewn together by overlapping or edge to edge to form a hat shape. Plait or braid may be stitched into filigree patterns.
  • Shaping – while most hats are made by matching the shape against a block, the shape can also be formed by working free-hand and letting the shape develop organically.
  • Finishing – the processes are the same as for other forms of hat making.


  • Straw hat plaiting
  • Hat block making
  • Bleaching and dyeing
  • Millinery
  • Hat making

Issues affecting the viability

  • Access to machines: Machines are no longer made in the UK and those that were in educational establishments have been removed.
  • Repair and maintenance of machines: Spare parts are not available in the UK.
  • Market issues: Effects of Brexit affecting European trade and import from Europe.
  • Competition from overseas markets: There are now only one or two people in Luton still able to machine-stitch straw and a few individual hat makers. The skills are being lost to producers in other countries.
  • Decline in skills: there are now only a few people left with the skills to make straw hats and few opportunities to pass on their skills.
  • Market issues: Rising prices for materials/supplies.
  • Training issues: Lack of apprenticeships/training within college courses.
  • Courses: Lack of availability of specific courses due to lack of machines.

Support organisations

  • The British Hat Guild
  • British Millinery Association

Training organisations

There are no training providers for straw hat making including sewing straw plait. There are a number of opportunities and short courses to learn hat blocking techniques with straw and sinamay.

Craftspeople currently known

  • Lucy Barlow – 17-Guinea machine and hand stitch
  • Harvy Santos – Chinese and hand stitch
  • Jane Smith, using a flatbed machine and hand stitch
  • Bridget Bailey – hand stitch
  • Justin Smith – hand stitch
  • Veronica Main – hand stitch
  • Rachel Frost – hand stitch

Note: There are other milliners who are able to hand sew strip straw, but are not currently using the technique.

Other information



  • Evidence for straw hats in the 13th Century: Pierpont Morgan Library, MSS 638, folio 17 v, reproduced in Charles Freeman, Luton and the Hat Industry, Luton Museum, 1953.
  • The history of straw plait in Herefordshire http://www.hertfordshire-genealogy.co.uk/data/occupations/straw-plait.htm
National Lottery Heritage Fund
Swire Charitable Trust
The Royal Mint
Pilgrim Trust
Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation
William Grant Foundation

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