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France's crafts in focus - April 2019

I loved hats so much I learnt how to create them

Amélie Hélin has adored hats since she entered a hat shop for the first time, aged 17, and fell in love with all the different forms and styles.

“A hat finishes an outfit,” she said. “It is a beautiful and stylish accessory and I wear one whenever I can.”

She continued to visit the shop regularly, bought several hats and got to know the milliner, who offered her a job.

“I used to love advising the clients and finding the hat that suited each particular person’s style and need.

“I liked it so much that I decided to do a qualification to learn to make hats myself.”

Ms Hélin, now 31, studied for a CAP mode chapelier at Lyon to become a chapelier-modiste, the name given to someone who creates their own hat from idea to final article.

“It was a two-year course and at first I was nervous because I did not have any background in sewing techniques or fashion, as the other students did.

“However, I kept up with them easily and I also had the advantage that I had worked in a hat shop and knew about the different models and different designers.”

In 2016 she qualified and set up her own business, Kum-A at La Roche-Chalais, in Dordogne. Her workshop is full of colour from the different materials she uses and the tools of her trade.

“I use felt, wool, cotton, viscose and straw, which is always natural and can be rice, raffia or hemp. I have a sewing machine, though I also do a lot of sewing by hand.

“An important tool for me is my semi-industrial steam iron, which I use to iron, but also to steam the hats into shape.

“I also have several wooden hat blocks.

“For each style of hat, you need a different-shaped block and you then need that in a range of different sizes.Women’s sizes range from 53 - 59cm, and the average is 57cm.

“Men’s sizes go up to 61cm and the average size is 59cm.”

Ms Hélin said milliners have to master several techniques.

“I make hats for which I use a pattern, cut out the pieces and sew them together. A man’s cap is a good example.

“I also mould hats using straw or felt, stretching it and steaming the material over a block, to make a felt cloche hat, for example. Then I might also make a cloth-covered hat, using the coupé-cousu method, where there is a material base, which is then covered in other materials.”

It will take about three hours to make the simplest of hats, but many more for her hand-sewn haute-couture creations.

She makes all styles because she likes variety and adores the creative side of the job.

She creates summer and winter collections for women.

“I think about what styles I would like to make, what materials to use and what colours. 

“You have to love being creative, love hats, love detailed work and using your hands to do this job. I also love working with the customer and finding something to suit them.” She sells her berets, cloches, bonnets, boaters, caps and other hats from her workshop and in the Boutique Métiers d’Art at Nontron, which showcases artisans’ work. She will also make made-to-measure hats for both men and women.

On average, one of her hats will cost €80, with a €40 price tag for the simplest style and €100 upwards for more complex ones. Felt hats are often more expensive because the base material is costly. 

For her, selling and marketing are the most difficult parts of the business.

“Like most craftsmen and women, I know a great deal about my craft and love doing it. But I also have to be accountant, saleswoman and on constant lookout for clients.

“Because many of my hats are top-end, I often go to salons in the big cities to promote them.”

There used to be at least one hatter in every town until the 1950s, according to the Institut National des Métiers d’Art.

There are very few now, despite a slight increase in activity since 2000, and there are, at present, very few openings for hat-makers. Most work independently.

There are fewer than 10 manufacturers in France making mass-produced hats as most have closed due to competition from China and eastern European companies.

It is estimated that there are between 200 and 300 chapelier-modistes working for themselves.

They might also do work for theatre and cinema, for fashion designers or in haute couture.

There is a two-year CAP chapelier-modiste ( available in a few lycées in Paris, Lyon and Normandy.

There are also private, non- diploma courses which teach the basic techniques.

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