Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Weekend leisure: Hats off to her

Master milliner Carolyn Gibson shares her expertise with novice hatmakers. Helen Twose writes.

Master milliner Carolyn Gibson adds some finishing touches to one of her creations. Photo / Natalie Slade
Master milliner Carolyn Gibson adds some finishing touches to one of her creations. Photo / Natalie Slade

The exquisite hats on display in Carolyn Gibson's Mt Albert hat shop Le' Chapeau have caused millinery devotees to literally swoon with delight.

For one customer, the excitement of a trip from Australia to select hats for her two daughters to wear to the races proved too much and she was left recovering, prone on the workroom floor, awaiting medical attention.

Undeterred, she had the ambulance make a quick detour to a cash machine and several large gold hat boxes containing Carolyn's creations were loaded in alongside her as she headed to hospital for a check-up.

But it's not just customers looking for a unique, handcrafted hat who Carolyn caters for.

If you fancy making your own headpiece for a wedding or the racetrack, Carolyn will give you all the techniques needed during a 12-hour course held over either two Saturdays or several weekdays. Or for a hen's party with a difference she can help the bridal party create something beautiful to wear on the wedding day in a few hours on a Saturday.

Carolyn will teach any hat style, including felt, as well as those special tips and tricks needed to create a professional finish.

Her own training began in the early 60s, two days after her 15th birthday, when Carolyn started an apprenticeship with Christchurch firm Ascot Millinery. Four years later she was a master milliner and continued her millinery career in the "big smoke" of Auckland. The trend for big hair that saw hats fall out of fashion had Carolyn switching to hairdressing. She kept her hand in, occasionally teaching fashion design students and creating mother-of-the-bride headwear for the bridal salon she opened.

Then, in a move she describes as her "last kick at the cat" Carolyn opened Le' Chapeau nearly three years ago. She runs the courses, preferably one-on-one, over the business's quieter months between late March and October.

"There are a lot of people out there who would really love to make a hat. I don't teach them anything that I think they can't handle," says Carolyn.

In Carolyn's workroom the day Weekend Life visits, millinery student Anne Somers-Edgar is putting the finishing touches on a hat she will be wearing to her niece's Sydney wedding. A dozen delicate pink silk flowers Anne has handcrafted are ready to embellish a cute black pillbox-style hat.

"Usually I supply all the fabrics except if you have got something special that you want to make it with, then you bring it in," says Carolyn.

Anne wanted a particular shade of pink for her flowers but after not finding an exact match in Carolyn's stash or the fabric shops she rifled through the racks of her local second-hand shop looking for a garment to cut up, much to the horror of the shop assistants. She generally wears a hat to a wedding and with several more to attend this summer Anne says she will be back for further classes. Sitting alongside Anne is student-turned-intern Alison Abumerhi, whose passion for hats has become a new career.

"Basically it changed my life, it truly did," Alison says of her first hat-making class nearly a year ago, in which she made a 1920s-style cloche.

"Oh, that was the most beautiful hat," says Carolyn. "She did such a fine job."

Carolyn herself prefers to wear a "proper" big hat.

"It's an image-maker," she says.

"I always like to think a hat tells a story. It's not just something you found at the local $2 shop and bunged on your head, it's actually the story of the whole outfit."

More info:

Le' Chapeau Millinery courses run from late March to October.

$220 for a 12-hour course, held over two consecutive Saturdays or during the week. Includes all materials needed to make a hat.

Contact Carolyn Gibson, ph 021 231 1581.

- NZ Herald

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