My students frequently ask about hat blocks as they are beginning their millinery journeys:
"Which ones should I buy first?"
"What size(s) should I buy?"
"Where can I purchase hat blocks?"
I thought this would be a great topic for a blog post. My hat block collection is currently at about 150 blocks. I have a few that I use constantly (I swear it seems I could make half of my custom Derby orders with one crown + brim combo!), some I use occasionally, and a few that I love but rarely use, as the styles just don't resonate with today's hat buyer.
Hat blocks can be expensive but they are absolutely necessary for proper millinery and are definitely worth the investment. Should you ever want or need to sell your gently used blocks, there's a market, especially at the moment.
One note of caution before you begin shopping:
I know it may be tempting, especially if you have the funds, but DO NOT spend $5000 on hat blocks and equipment before you have taken some classes and figured out whether millinery is for you and if so, what styles are going to work for your customer if this is going to be a business.
Some people make a few hats and then decide they'd rather make men's hats. Different blocks and really different techniques.
Others make a few hats and then decide they really hate the slow process of blocking, wiring and finishing. They'd rather buy pre-made hat blanks and bases and focus on trims. That's perfectly fine!
You may make a collection, do a few shows, then realize your local customers only want fascinators. Or historical millinery. Or everyone has big heads and your blocks need to be a 23.5. Adjust your block purchases accordingly!
I frequently am contacted by milliners who dove right in and bought EVERYTHING and realized within a year or two, they didn't want to be a milliner after all. Many of my hat blocks and a lot of my trimmings were acquired this way. It happens often! Make wise purchases from the beginning whether this is a hobby or a budding business.
I have narrowed a list down to 8 essential hat block styles, plus a few must-have accessories (in addition to a steamer and iron, basic sewing tools and notions, etc.)
Remember, you may use all of a block, or re-draw style lines and cut for a shorter crown or a narrower brim. Be creative with the possibilities!
1. Domed-tip Crown
Wooden crown block, approx. 5 inches (12 cm) in height, with a slightly curved tip. Sides are vertical. Think classic bowler.
This can be used for so many classic hat styles! Mix and match with different brims for a wide range of styles. You can also use this block for fedoras and men's style hats: block, let dry, then re-steam lightly and add a center crease and/or bashes.
2. Flat-tip Crown
Wooden crown block, approx. 4-5 inches (10-12 cm) in height, with a flat tip. Sides are vertical. Think boater, pillbox or stovepipe.
This crown is another great basic, though in a pinch, you can substitute the bottom of your domed-tip crown and block that!
I am including this small wooden oval with the blocks instead of accessories because you really do need one (if not several in a range of sizes). Order the collar with the domed- and flat-tip crowns as you want it to be a perfect match to the oval at the bases (size and shape).
The collar can be used with the crown as an extension to add height. Most of my collars are between 5/8" and 1 inch high. 3a
The collar is also used when you block crown and brim separately. I peg a collar to a brim block and it establishes the head-size "seam allowance" that will allow you to attach crown to brim when finishing the hat. 3b
And I use a collar for a lot of my pattern-drafting for sewn hats.
4. Balsa Utility Block
Soft wood form, usually about 8 - 9 inches (20-23 cm) in height. Typically comes in 1/2" size increments, ex. 21.5, 22, 22.5, 23, 23.5... This block is analogous to a dressmaker's dummy -- it's a stand-in for the human head that a milliner designs, drapes and blocks upon with felt, straw, and foundation materials.
An absolute essential! I still have my very first balsa block, in my size, a custom 21-1/4. It was a required purchase for all millinery students at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Now I own about 15 of these in a wide range of sizes and I use them in my studio work as well as for teaching.
It is very important that this block is made out of BALSA rather than the hard wood of traditional hat blocks. Balsa has gotten pricey over the past few years so a new utility block will cost you over $200 USD, though I still see used ones on Etsy or Ebay for $60-$75.
Balsa is a soft wood so it is very easy to pin into, and to an extent, the wood is a bit self-healing.
I use a utility block for blocking cloches, turbans, fascinator bases in all materials, lace work, supporting a hat or fascinator during trimming, adjusting size, even for display.
A utility block with or without the rope line is fine. The groove is there for turbans or deep cloches, but I never use it.
5. Cartwheel Brim Block, Double-Sided
Wooden brim block, oval circumference. Brim width of 5 - 6 inches (12-15 cm).
Order a double-brim, meaning that it is designed to be blocked on either side - one side will be angled (5a) and the other flat (5b). Both sides should have peg holes for attaching the crown block.
You will be able to make wide brimmed hats with a lovely slanted brim as well as flat brimmed styles like a boater.
6. Cloche Brim
Wooden brim block, oval circumference. Brim width of 2-3 inches (5-8 cm).
In addition to the big cartwheel brim block, I think you also need a small brim with a deeper curve or steeper angle, suitable for cloches.
This could be a double-brim, too, if you wish. Just ask your block maker. I love a double-brim because you get 2X the options for your hat making and you save on shelf space.
I recommend a string groove on brim blocks as I find it makes the blocking process easier. Alternative is to use pins.
With both blocks, remember you can use the whole block as designed, or draw in new style line. Many of my blocks have pencil marks designating a narrower brim width or even a totally new shape such a deeper brim on the right side, cutaway on the left.
Once your straw or felt is off the block, you can play with the brim shape even more by adjusting the wire. Create a swooping Derby brim or a brim that angles up on one side, or even a snap-back Trilby brim.
7. Saucer Block
Wooden block for creating a saucer or disc style that perches on the head, rather than fitting above the ears like a "proper hat."
There are lots of styles available. Pick one you like that will be versatile and easy to work with.
8. Fascinator Block
Wooden block for creating a small-scale style that perches or tilts on the head.
Fascinators are ideal for trims, so keep the style fairly simple. I think my button or beanie fascinator block gets the most mileage in my studio. These can be made with a string groove or with a deep rounded edge and a hollowed base.
Mini top hats, heart-shaped, beanies, berets, perchers, pillboxes -- I know it's going to be tough for you to choose just one! You can always buy more once you've developed your techniques and aesthetic.
You're going to want these items, too. All should be available from your block maker or a millinery supply house:
Spinner or block stand
Blocking pins (DO NOT USE BIG THUMB TACKS OR T-PINS!!)
Blocking ropes with slip knots
Rope runner (or runner down)
Hat brushes for felt (one light, one dark)
Flexible corset bone (used in removing hat from block)
Pegs or screws for connecting crowns to brims (usually provided by your block maker)
When choosing size, you need to decide whether you'll be making blocks for yourself or a specific client, or for a yet-unknown client.
If for you, measure your hat size including ease, and order that.
If you have a specific client, ex. your mom, measure her hat size including ease, and order that.
If you are unsure, I recommend ordering in the average range. Most women wear between a 22 and a 23, with 22.5 being a medium. (56 - 58.5 cm). The majority of my modern blocks are a 22.5. Most of my vintage blocks are a 22.
You have a little wiggle-room in sizing once the material is off the block. It's fairly easy to go up or down 1/2 inch with a little steam and a collar or balsa utility block in the desired size, plus a carefully measured grosgrain ribbon for the sweatband.
Also, a good trick to know is that you can increase the size of your block and therefore the finished hat by first blocking a cheap wool felt over your crown block. Let dry. Cover with plastic. Then block your hat body. Each cheap wool felt underneath will increase the hat size by approx. 1/2 inch.
There are very very few talented hat block makers left in the world. With the retirement of Richard LaMode in 2016, there are no options in the USA. All of my modern and custom blocks are made for me in Europe, Australia or the UK.
Keep an eye on the exchange rates. You may have to pay customs duties on your blocks.
Allow lead time and shipping transit time. Your blocks will be made to order. Depending on how busy the company is, it may be weeks or even a few months before your order comes up in their queue. Be patient. They work really long hours just like milliners do, and without them, we couldn't create our beautiful hats.
If you have any questions as you are ordering, email or call. They should all be happy to answer your questions.
Boon & Lane, Ltd (UK)
Easy Hat Blocks (LV)
Guy Morse-Brown (UK)
Hat Blocks Australia (AU)
Hat Blocks Direct (UK)
Melbourne Hat Blocks (AU)
Etsy and Ebay are also good options, especially for vintage hat blocks and some modern basics. And I'm a big fan of a private group on Facebook called "Milliners Exchange," where milliners from around the world can de-stash and sell hat blocks and materials they are no longer using. Do a search and request to join.