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RELUCTANT NOVICE

Stretch, Fold and Flatten : Part of you thinks headwear is only for golfers, farmers and royalty. But here you are in a Sherman Oaks hat-making class.

April 09, 1993|VALERIE J. NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wear a hat? In Los Angeles? In the '90s? As an adult? These are the nagging questions you wrestle with as you drive to the charming little hat shop behind a French restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks.

Part of you still thinks that hats are only for golfers, farmers and members of royalty. You haven't worn a hat (as distinguished from a cap) since you attended your uncle's wedding in Montana when you were 6.

That one wasn't exactly the height of fashion--a flat, light-blue tulle number affixed to your head with about a dozen bobby pins. You remember the pain, but you don't remember its being very pretty.

Yet the creative challenge and your quest for occasional touches of style have led you to sign up for a hat-making class given by an enthusiastic woman named Sandra Leko.

The surroundings are charming, dripping with quaint--antique lace here, handmade bows there, hatpins, old jewelry--and hats, and future hats, everywhere. A hat with bunny ears sits in the shop window, testimony to the Easter parade, the hat maker's Christmas, that once-a-year moment when hats by the thousands jump out of hat boxes and onto actual heads.

What strikes you immediately, however, is the eccentric swirl on the side of Sandra's head.

"This," she says, touching a beret-like invention with layers of dark blue circles, "is part of a collection of hats I just bought from a countess."

Uh-oh. Royalty. Next she'll drag out something with "LPGA" written across it, you fear. But a quick scan of the room reveals half a dozen women like you--mid-30s and up--and not one has a hat on her head.

So you put aside your self-consciousness and plunge ahead. Maybe hats will make a big comeback, and you'll be ready for it.

Tonight, you will make a travel hat out of straw, using an iron. You had visions of weaving straw together to form a hat fit for "Hee-Haw" but are relieved to find out the beginnings of the hat come pre-woven in something called a "hood."

Your teacher is nearly evangelical in her quest to teach hat-making--"there just aren't enough different hats out there"--and unfailingly supportive.

Modern hat-making is all about shortcuts, Sandra explains, folding instead of cutting and sewing, and that's where the iron comes in.

The first student steps up to the teacher, the travel iron and the ironing board, and you hear the students mumble a millinery mantra: "Stretch, stretch, fold, fold, flatten, flatten."

It has to do with stretching the hood, folding the edges of the brim, then squishing the hood nearly flat. The resulting travel hats do just that--they are versatile hats that travel well. Sandra helps a student zip one out in minutes.

These travel hats date from the '20s, and they've recently been revived in San Francisco, Sandra says, selling from $100 to $250 a pop, depending on how complicated the folds of the hat are. You'll pay $11 for the hood. With that kind of profit potential, you warm up to the idea of hat-making.

"Fashion show!" Sandra exclaims. The women stop to gush appropriately over a fellow student's just-finished straw hat. These women are taking the class because they want to make hats for themselves or start their own businesses. One woman with a shoe shop buys hats from other people and wants to cut out the middleman.

One student in particular, whom another student repeatedly refers to as the Tall Girl, looks pretty spectacular in whatever she tosses on her head. She's six-one. There's no competing with tall genes.

"You're next," Sandra orders, in her breezy, non-threatening way. You haven't felt this unsure of yourself since your first Lamaze class.

You step up to the ironing board, hood in hand, and give it a whirl. You twirl the iron around the bottom of the inside of the hood to make a flat top. It comes out a little off-center. It should fit your head. Then you try folding the brim all the way around, so it looks like a schoolgirl's hat.

Your folding's a little off too, but Sandra helps straighten it. You, she orders, are the sculptor, and these straw hat hoods are your clay.

Then your hat turns into the teacher's project as she takes charge, and with a few deft moves, folds two pleats into the top of the hat that allow it to lie nearly flat.

"I've never seen a hat do this before," she says with glee. Each hood has a mind of its own, and you have to go with what it wants to do--that's the difference between hat designing and hat making, she says. She's nearly jumping up and down at the way your hat comes out.

"Look guys, this is one of the expensive ones that goes for $250," she says. She plops the off-white travel hat on your head, leads you by the hand to the mirror and insists you admire your creation. You think that with a little netting you'd look like a beekeeper, but smile and say the socially correct thing. "Yes, it looks quite nice," before pulling it off your head and nervously playing with the brim.

As the others take their turn, Sandra preaches the gospel of hat making and wearing:

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