How to Reblock a Straw Hat

The world is full of straw hats. They are almost never the size and shape you’d like them to be. (That’s a known effect of the Law of Universal Irony, along with how the thread already in the needle is never a color that will work for your current purposes.) Fortunately, reblocking a straw hat is pretty gosh darned simple. You will need:

  • a straw hat
  • a bowl of warm water
  • a head block
  • your hands
  • optional: pins, T pins, tape measure, craft foam, and hat sizing/matte sealant spray

My boss at the college theater has been pretty great about telling me I can use any work I do there as blog fodder. Unfortunately, I’m not to great about Getting Around To Things(tm). These photos are of the process I used last spring to make the hats for the two female bluebirds in The City Mouse and the Country Mouse. You’ll want to do some basic prep on your hat first. If it has a band sewn into the inside, remove it. Ditto on price tags, decorative elements, etc. Be careful about anything hot-glued on – the glue likes to take chunks of the hat with it when removed, unless you’ve got a very light hand with a razor knife.

Sacrificial hats, ready to reblock. I have two because I'm making a matching set.

Sacrificial hats, ready to reblock. I have two because I'm making a matching set.

Gently introduce your hat to the bowl of warm water.  The straw will become more pliable as it becomes wet, and will start to lose shape.  You might have to turn it round and round in the bowl to get it evenly wet.

Gently introduce your hat to the bowl of warm water. The straw will become more pliable as it becomes wet, and will start to lose shape. You might have to turn it round and round in the bowl to get it evenly wet.

The wetted hat, compared to an original model.  The wetted hat has gone sort of cone shaped, as it was when it was originally woven.  This is good, because it's ready to make into another shape.

The wetted hat, compared to an original model. The wetted hat has gone sort of cone shaped, as it was when it was originally woven. This is good, because it's ready to make into another shape.

In a perfect world, you will have a full range of sized hat and head blocks at your disposal. I don't, so I'm using a cheapy styrofoam wig head (you can get them at beauty supply stores). It's 22", which is mighty small. I've padded it out with craft foam - just pin it into the head. I don't want to use batting or felt, because they hold water and are too squishy. Try to avoid lumps, which will show in the final hat.

In a perfect world, you will have a full range of sized hat and head blocks at your disposal. I don't, so I'm using a cheapy styrofoam wig head (you can get them at beauty supply stores). It's 22", which is mighty small. I've padded it out with craft foam - just pin it into the head. I don't want to use batting or felt, because they hold water and are too squishy. Try to avoid lumps, which will show in the final hat.

The hat must remain wet and pliable for the rest of the shaping, or it will tear, splinter, and generally not become a hat.  Place the hat onto the head, and tug gently but firmly until it's sitting evenly like a proper hat being worn.  You're stretching the hat to accommodate a head and shaping the crown (top bit) in this step. I find that a sort of thumb-massage motion works well for getting any weirdness out of the shape.

The hat must remain wet and pliable for the rest of the shaping, or it will tear, splinter, and generally not become a hat. Place the hat onto the head, and tug gently but firmly until it's sitting evenly like a proper hat being worn. You're stretching the hat to accommodate a head and shaping the crown (top bit) in this step. I find that a sort of thumb-massage motion works well for getting any weirdness out of the shape.

Optional, but recommended: you may wish to insert T pins to keep the hat from moving on the head when you start shaping the brim. The pin goes between the straw, not through it!

Optional, but recommended: you may wish to insert T pins to keep the hat from moving on the head when you start shaping the brim. The pin goes between the straw, not through it!

Use your hands to shape the brim. There's no need to be normal, or even symmetrical, in this process. I'm using T pins to hold the straw to the shape I want it to dry in - you can see one coming through the straw by the ear region. (Remember, nothing says you always have to push pins all the way in.)

Use your hands to shape the brim. There's no need to be normal, or even symmetrical, in this process. I'm using T pins to hold the straw to the shape I want it to dry in - you can see one coming through the straw by the ear region. (Remember, nothing says you always have to push pins all the way in.)

Here's the pair of freshly reblocked hats, drying on the table.  Once they're completely dry, you'll remove the pins.  Voila! Hat accomplished.  It's a good plan to spray the inside of the hat with hat sizing (a highly toxic spray that causes 16 kinds of cancer in Californian lab rats - use a ventilated area).  In a pinch, you can use any matte spray sealer inside the hat - you're really just trying to make the straws stick together a little.

Here's the pair of freshly reblocked hats, drying on the table. Once they're completely dry, you'll remove the pins. Voila! Hat accomplished. It's a good plan to spray the inside of the hat with hat sizing (a highly toxic spray that causes 16 kinds of cancer in Californian lab rats - use a ventilated area). In a pinch, you can use any matte spray sealer inside the hat - you're really just trying to make the straws stick together a little.

Mind you, I feel that an undecorated hat is a sin. The finished hats were edged with bias tape made from quilter's cotton, with bands of a contrasting bias cut cotton.  The feathers are ostrich plumes that I airbrushed with acrylic paint and trimmed.  (Yes, you can do that. The feather just won't move as much, which is fine here.)

Mind you, I feel that an undecorated hat is a sin. The finished hats were edged with bias tape made from quilter's cotton, with bands of a contrasting bias cut cotton. The feathers are ostrich plumes that I airbrushed with acrylic paint and trimmed. (Yes, you can do that. The feather just won't move as much, which is fine here.)

One last shot of the hats, because I like to show off. And yes, I did airbrush stripes onto the yellow feathers.  Cool, right?

One last shot of the hats, because I like to show off. And yes, I did airbrush stripes onto the yellow feathers. Cool, right?

There’s a couple more things you should know about working with straws. Firstly, it’s really really amazingly super important, not to mention crucial, to have keep the straw at the right shade of damp. If it’s too wet, it’s a bother to work with. Let it dry out too much, and it cracks. I re-dunk the hats in water periodically – sometimes the whole hat, sometimes just the bit I’m currently fussing with.
Secondly, there’s a zen to straw hats. They are, by design, entirely woven on the bias. That’s how they work – just like with a bias cut of fabric, if you pull it will get longer and thinner. It you squoosh it neatly, it will get shorter and tighter. (Remember those silly little woven tubes called Chinese handcuffs? Your father might have conned you into sticking one finger from each hand in, then laughed when you tried to pull your fingers out and couldn’t because the thing git tighter the more you pulled, and maybe after a while your mother got tired of the crying and made him show you that you get them off by pushing, not pulling? I mean, not that I speak from experience or anything…. But if I did, I would tell you that straw hats are just like that.)  There are some situations where you will find that no amount of coaxing will make the brim on your sacrificial hat small enough to work for the brim you want to have.  (Avoid this situation if at all possible.)  If that happens, you need to fold the straw sharply where you want the brim to end. The kicker, here, is that you don’t want to break the straw, so be gentle, but firm.  As you do this, the straw will tend to want to flare, so you’ll have to keep working to enforce the shape.  You can use binder clips (and a little craft foam to avoid marks on the straw) to hold the fold in the edge.  Once the hat is well and truly dry, you’re going to sew the edge, and 1/4″ from the fold, to hold the straw in place.  Then you can trim the straw about 1/4″ from the stitches.  But really, honestly, you never want to do this.  It’s really quite annoying, persnickety, and generally promotes foul language.
Thirdly, if you need to pad out a styrofoam head, you should use a tape measure and check the size of your own head (or the target head for the finished hat) and make sure that you pad the form out to that size. (Hey, thanks, Captain Obvious!) I mention this primarily because I find it impossible to eyeball this process, and I’m generally pretty good at that. Also, if you’re padding the head out anyway, you can insert something to give shape to the crown – like the top of one of those cheapy plastic hats you get at party stores. Oh, right, and if you’re making a hat for yourself, feel free to block it on your own head. After all, it’s just the size you need, and you probably don’t have to go searching through a cupboard to find it. You might look a little goofy, wandering around with a wet hat on your head, but I’ve done it several times and ended up with perfectly good results.
Finally, I’d like to caution you against doing this with those crazy old 60’s straw hats with the straw that’s sort of puffy-chunky. (I realize that’s a weird description, and there’s probably a technical name for what I’m talking about, but the truth is that if you ever see one you’ll be like, “Hey! It’s puffy-chunky! I get it now!”) The substance used to make those guys is weird, and I’m not sure it’s entirely natural. It utterly collapses when wet, and doesn’t completely recover it’s former puffy-chunky glory.  There will be some straws that just won’t reblock.  Straw is (supposed to be) a natural fiber. It’s grass. Too many years of neglect, dry air, and temperature extremes can cause it to splinter apart.  There’s no salvation once that happens.  (Although, you know, on the right character….. I’m not saying you should never throw garbage away, because I firmly believe in routinely culling the crap, but, you know, sometimes a broken down hat is the best starting point for a character that’s supposed to look disreputable or just plain poor.)
So, I hope this inspires at least a few people to refuse to accept bland, mass produced straw hat shapes, and try making something fun!

14 thoughts on “How to Reblock a Straw Hat

  1. apalca hat says:

    i like the hat from which product hat was made

    5 years ago | Reply

  2. DOROTHY REDMOND says:

    where can i purchase straw to block hats

    4 years ago | Reply

  3. DOROTHY REDMOND says:

    WHERE CAN I BUY STRAW FOR BLOCKING

    4 years ago | Reply

  4. missa says:

    Hi, Dorothy,

    For “real” millinery, I buy straw bodies through Judith M ( http://www.judithm.com/shop/?page=shop/browse&category_id=09eaf256943292b9d4d9eacca6910018 ). For theater and just tooling around, you can usually pick up old hats at a resale (ie, Goodwill) for cheaps.

    4 years ago | Reply

    • missa says:

      Hi, Carolina,
      Without a block of some sort, it’s going to be hard to do much with the hat. Fortunately, your head makes a pretty good hat block. ;) You can wet the hat again so you can change the shape, and use your head to get the crown into some sort of shape, then wet just the brim and let it dry flat on a table. It won’t look perfect, but it will come out basically hat-shaped. (I’ve done this with straw hats that got rained flat at faire.)

      3 years ago | Reply

    • missa says:

      I wouldn’t. You’d have to do something to seal the edge so the straw doesn’t fray out.

      If you have a straw hat that is made of a continuous strip of braid stitched around in ever-expanding circles, you might not be able to do much with it. Cutting and binding would be your best option, especially if it’s the very narrow braid. I have two tricks: run a fine bead of hot glue just inside where you plan to cut to keep the straw together while you work, and immediately machine-bind it with bias tape. If you use a contrasting color, you can make it look fairly intentional.

      Woven straws are remarkably malleable when they’re wet. You can stretch the parts that you want longer. Most or all of a woven straw is on the bias, so as you stretch one area, another will change shape as well.

      Good luck!

      1 year ago | Reply

  5. HSF #1 – Make Do and Mend A New Hat | A Modern Needle Through Time says:

    […] hats. After a bit of searching for how to’s I found a marvelously helpful post by the Semptress on how to reblock a straw […]

    8 months ago | Reply

  6. Linda Matthews says:

    Thanks so much for your entertaining and informative commentary. I have a number of paper hats. They are nice hats that do not look like paper, but that’s what they are (the paper is made into a woven product and then woven and stitched together). One is an extremely wide brimmed cap. It had faded to look old and ugly so I used a large black magic marker on it and it now looks new! Also the odor immediately dissipated. It has lost it’s shape, now somewhat droopy. I’d been toying with the idea of buying some spray starch or similar….I guess I’ll try the water method instead…and keep the starch idea in mind if it’s still not up to snuff in the stiffness catagory. I washed a paper hat once and it lost all it’s shape, but it regained it’s integrity. Also can you use a hair dryer on it when it’s wet? I understand that this is not the type of material you are working with, but any ideas or insight may prove helpful. Thanks again, Linda

    6 months ago | Reply

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