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How do you make a hat larger?

Discussion in 'PUBLIC Vintage Fashion - Ask Questions Get Answers' started by claireshaeffer, Jun 9, 2013.

  1. claireshaeffer

    claireshaeffer VFG Member

    This is a question for Barbara and those of you who sell vintage hats.

    When we went to Ecuador 2 yr. ago, my dog sitter asked for a panama hat. Since she has a large head, we bought the largest one we could find in off-the-rack hats. It's still a little small.

    It has a ribbon and as I remember from my hat making days the ribbon can be used to resize the hat. If we take the ribbon out, do we steam the hat to make it larger. I don't have a large block to hold the shape. Any recommendations?
  2. pastperfect2

    pastperfect2 Alumni +

    If you take the ribbon out, you should be able to stretch the hat and steam it. Without the ribbon, it may give enough without steaming. You could fit the ribbon to her head, stitch it, then set the hat back on, and stretch it to fit? Then maybe you pack it densely with plastic bags and steam?

    Unless Barbara say this is crazy talk!
  3. claireshaeffer

    claireshaeffer VFG Member

    Thanks, we'll try that unless Barbara provides something contrary. C
  4. Rue_de_la_Paix

    Rue_de_la_Paix VFG Member


    Resizing a hat can often be a tricky business, even for a professional milliner. Even if you successfully stretch the crown to fit her head, it may warp the brim which is hard to get "right" again. Also, the crown is narrower at the top than the bottom, and so stretching it by hand (without a block) may also warp the sides of the crown. Your hat is a true Panama, and so check to see if it was blocked in 2 pieces, with the brim and crown blocked separately and then the crown and brim sewn together. If it was, then stretching it more than a tiny bit will probably break or pop the connecting stitching and create a much larger problem to fix. Often a hat can still be stretched without that happening, but it should be done on an electric hat stretcher which heats up and applies equal pressure all around at the same time, with heat. If you did it on a stretcher then the ribbon may not need to be removed. There are still a handful of hat shops in California that still offer this service. I will think of the names. Or you could try steaming it yourself (be careful of burns) and then placing it immediately over a hat block and applying gentle even pressure with your hands, smoothing it to stretch the straw fibers. Repeat the process until the hat is stretched enough (or the threads pop! :no:). Let the hat cool on the block. OK, now you ask...where do I get a hatblock in her size? If she has a truly big head as you say, this is not so easy. Larger size hatblocks are usually for men and are in great demand and very expensive. So, you could use a substitute such as a large metal bowl or pot, marking her head circumference on the bowl somehow. This should work. Some use aluminum foil to cover the pot or bowl, but I have not tried this. Panama is a very strong straw but so thin and light colored so make sure there is no chemical reaction that may darken the straw's color. Do not put a damp straw hat in a microwave to steam it, as some people might suggest to you! It will cook the straw and harden it. That can work for some types of fur- felt hats, but I do not recommend it at all.

    Does the hat have a fedora crown or is it flat on top? A fedora can be trickier than a round or flat top.

    If it were my hat I would separate the crown from the brim by picking out the stitches, and stretch each separately. Remove the ribbon of course. They have to be the EXACT same size or when you sew them back together or...well they won't fit! Of course, even I would be hesitant to attempt this feat. It is not a favorite thing to do. And I do not have the right size hat blocks, my largest are size 23. They do make sleeves you can put over the increase the size, but now we are getting into another area and more expense.

    If you stuff it while steaming, use paper, not plastic as that steam is very hot.

    I have never heard of using the ribbon to resize a hat, I am not sure what that means. The best case scenario would be if you could, as Hollis suggested, take out the headsize ribbon and try to gently stretch the hat by hand. If only a few of the stitches pop, it probably would not harm the hat. You could also make a small cut in the stitching in the back of the hat, but this raw cut may get larger over time and is not the best way. I have done that on a few inexpensive hats as it is the fastest and laziest way.

    If you replace the ribbon, make sure it is millinery grosgrain ribbon as regular grosgrain won't work and it does not stretch or swirl to the shape of the crown. But you probably know this from your hat making days!

    May I ask, what is her headsize?
  5. claireshaeffer

    claireshaeffer VFG Member

    Barbara, that is really helpful and interesting. I'll have to check on her head size.

    It's a fedora style and she wears it even though it's a bit small.

    Since I no longer have a source for petersham, I'm using millinery ribbon which is similar but not quite as crisp.

    Many thanks for your comments. C
  6. TangerineBoutique

    TangerineBoutique VFG Member

    I've helped countless people stretch their vintage hats without a block, it's unconventional but it works. If the ribbon is real rayon millinery ribbon with a ribbed but not fixed edge you do not need to remove it, it will stretch, UNLESS the hat is quite tight then you should remove it and replace it with another at the end of the process. Straw stretches very well even if it is a two piece hat. No one wires the inside crown edge anymore so you should not need to worry about that.

    Fire up the tea kettle then aim the steam at the inside ribbon area of the hat, make sure you constantly rotate the hat and watch out for your fingers. After a minute or two put the hat on the persons head who will be wearing it. She will need to pull it down without forcing too much and it will feel tight. Make sure you wait a few seconds so the inside is not uncomfortably hot. Make sure the front and back are "true" on the head and as Barbara said watch out for brim warping, if the brim warps too much it will need to be steamed or even "ironed" out but that's another process. It's best to stretch in a couple stages rather than try and stretch too much at once. The hat needs to stay on the head for at least two hours, just tell her to go about her business and try to forget she has a hat on. The fibers of the straw and ribbon have been softened and the heat and the rigidness of head will gently stretch the hat. If the hat is just a little too small, once might be enough. If the brim warps just a bit you will probably be able steam it back. The straw will have a memory of it's original shape. That is why the hat needs to stay on the head as long as she can stand, the straw needs to loose it's "memory".

    The beauty of this process is that you get a custom fit. If you need to replace the ribbon just use the new crown size. I swear by this and have never had any disasters, since you are a couture level seamstress I'm sure your intuition will help with the subtleties of the process. Best of luck!


    PS I once had a woman with sensitive skin do this and she could not stand the feel (it was a fur felt hat) against her forehead so we took a strip of thin cotton and used it as a buffer which made it more tolerable
    sewingmachinegirl likes this.
  7. Rue_de_la_Paix

    Rue_de_la_Paix VFG Member


    I have heard of this way. and it sounds like it might work for some hats. However, it always made me wonder...the straw and ribbon may be slightly softened, but the threads which connect the ribbon to the hat will pop or break, and the other set of stitching/threads which connect the crown and brim can also break. It is those 2 sets of threads and stitching that I would worry about. And the brim on a fedora has always warped when attempted to stretch any hat more than 1/8", and the crown loses its proper "slant" proportion and can dimple or rumple. Fur felts have a LOT more give, they are a completely different animal, you can stretch them a great deal, over 1" or more on many felts. Some felts will even stretch to several inches, ....but straw is a stable plant fiber and does not like to be stretched. With a Panama, losing the shape can be difficult to get back. As you said, the brim wants to "remember" when it was married to the smaller size crown. Felt brims can be more easily reshaped, straw can be hard to get back.

    As far as I have heard, this process you describe works on some hats but only if the hat needs to be stretched 1/8", to maybe a maximum of 1/4". Any more than that and the hat will warp or threads will pop.

    Of course, if the hat is made in all 1 piece (as some hats are) then your method works better.

    Of course, your method I have heard is used by some successfully. I just would hesitate to use it on an expensive Panama. But that's me, and I don't say anyone who does that is wrong. As a matter of fact, I hope it does work and I am wrong!


    I have a wooden ring (screw type) hat stretcher she can borrow, I can mail it to you Claire. I may even have a spare. She can wet or steam the hat and insert the stretcher and leave it in when she is not wearing the hat. She can try this but my stretcher only goes to 7 3/4". How big is her head? Even if she uses Melody's method, she can still insert the stretcher and leave it in for a while afterwards.
    sewingmachinegirl likes this.
  8. TangerineBoutique

    TangerineBoutique VFG Member

    That's a great suggestion Barbara, about the ring stretcher, they are wonderful for maintaining size. As for ruining an expensive hat I totally agree, if the hat is too small I would take it apart and re shape it IF I had the proper blocks. However, 90% of the time I end up stretching hats because they are snug, seldom needing more than 1/2". I don't stretch buckram based hats, leather OR a heavily sized felt, they do warp terribly .
    Natural straw and fur felts stretch well for me. I have used this method on many types of hats including many types of straw (panama too). I agree straw is less forgiving than felt but adequately malleable when steamed, if it wasn't it would not mold well over blocks which it does. I also agree that stretching in increments is the way to go no matter how you stretch a hat. I have two mechanical hat stretchers with 2 pc. rounded metal crowns and always stretch in stages with them. My cut off is 1/4" that works for me. If the stiches pop that hold the crown to the brim then you restitch which is simple to do . To stretch in stages on the head is easy. You pull the hat to where it feels snug but not warping. The next time pull a bit lower. I'm usually able to stretch satisfactorily in two stages, on a rare occasion three. I know I need to replace the ribbon if the stitches pop that hold ribbon to crown. Also if it takes three stages I know the ribbon should be replaced.

    As far as the crown warping that only happens if you try to stretch too much but having said that I find stretching on the head actually helps to keep the crown in better shape because it is being stretched more 3 dimensionally. Fedora tops do pose a unique issue if you try to stretch them too much. The sides can begin to "bubble" which means reshaping the crown over a proper block. Still a fedora can take some stretch without that happening. A mildly warped brim can usually be pressed and steamed out. Straw lends itself very nicely to that. The exception is if there is any kind of deep curve that was created over a custom block.

    I can only speak about my own experience. I am very cautious and have never ruined a hat yet (knock wood) but all the points you made are good to keep in mind.
  9. Rue_de_la_Paix

    Rue_de_la_Paix VFG Member

    My secret is out! :hysterical:

  10. TangerineBoutique

    TangerineBoutique VFG Member

    Darn and all these years I've been tediously stretching hats!!

    On another note... now I'm obsessed with being as accurate as possible about stretching straw, Barbara brought up many good points and my advice was coming from a place of working experience, forgetting there are exceptions that need mentioning.

    As I was falling asleep last night I realized I forgot to mention that vintage straw might be dehydrated and very delicate so any kind of stretching must be done VERY carefully and the straw needs to be hydrated before handling. Sometimes just misting or spritzing with water a few times over a couple days will do it but depending on the level of dryness this might mean taking off all the trim so you can spritz or sponge the whole thing, letting the moisture sink in. Also I tend to lightly mist the inside of the any straw with plain water before steaming. Stretching a delicate older straw is not a simple thing to do, and there will be cases when it should not be done at all.

    To be safe, before you decide to stretch any vintage hat on your own I think it's probably a good idea to ask an expert (VFG is a good place to start) if there might be any problems particular to that hat.

    OK I feel better now


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