Skip to content
  • Open today 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission

Christine Waring, milliner, 23 October 2015

CATRINA VIGNANDO: Good morning everybody and welcome to this lovely spring morning. It is so exciting to see so many beautiful hats in the audience. It’s a real pleasure to host and present this Landmark Women this morning and to introduce Christine Waring, a very well-known milliner here in Canberra. The main feature of the morning, it is my great delight to introduce Christine Waring. I’ve worked with Christine a couple of times in my role here in development. She has done a great deal of work here at the Museum in the past and has participated in a lot of community programs where she’s been involved with teaching children how to make hats.

She’s a professional milliner. She has an inner city studio in Canberra and she has become one of Australia’s leading milliners. Not only have we had the pleasure of working with her here at the Museum she’s also renowned across the country for her beautiful hats that she will talk about and that you can see displayed so fabulously here in front of us. It’s lovely to have physical objects. I know the Powerpoint is always the way that we do things but to actually see these beautiful hats in the flesh is really exciting. Christine has also brought some raw materials from which the hats are made. She will talk a bit more about those processes in her talk.

Christine has not only worked with people in Canberra but also presented her hats at hat festivals internationally. She has made hats for famous people some of whom include people like Marlena Jeffery, the wife of the former Governor-General Michael Jeffery. She’s made hats for Kate Carnell and for Senator Kate Lundy, just to name a few people that we might all know. She has also designed hat collections for Perri Cutten, the Australian designer label. You can see she has certainly been working extensively, and her field of work is well regarded by many.

Christine is also a lecturer and teaches millinery at CIT. She conducts a lot of workshops within the community, and certainly our involvement with Christine here at the Museum has been with the work she’s done with our workshops with children and adults. In fact, it was about this time last year that we had our fundraising dinner for women in racing and Christine was a generous participant in that program. Without taking up more of your time, let me hand over to Christine who’s going to delight you with information about her career and her beautiful hats. Thank you. [applause]

CHRISTINE WARING: Thank you, Catrina, for the lovely introduction, and thank you all for coming. Thank you for inviting me to be part of your Canberra Landmark Women’s event. It’s very thrilling and I feel honoured to be taking part.

Today I am going to start by telling you a little bit about myself and how I got into millinery.

First of all, I just wanted to say that I was born right here, in this ‘hospital’, a long time ago. So I have a soft spot in my heart for this place and for Canberra. My mother was born in Canberra too, so I really feel like I really belong in this place.

Back in the late 1970s, when I was at home with three young children, I was always interested in fashion. So my husband encouraged me to go and do the fashion course at the CIT, which was called Canberra TAFE or just Tech back then. I did the whole fashion course, and millinery was the last unit. I like it so much I did four years of millinery. Back then, as Gabrielle knows, it was more a trade course, like an apprenticeship, and we used to go to Tech all day.

When I finished all that training, I thought, “What am I going to do now?” I wanted to use all my fashion experience so I started a business in 1988 making clothes. Initially I was designing and manufacturing skateboard wear because I had these young sons that were into skateboard clothes and were destroying their clothes.

I was just finishing off my millinery and I started getting a few orders for millinery and people were asking me to do millinery things. So I decided to teach it and run a few workshops. I began to develop a real passion for millinery. It was just a natural extension of my abiding interest in fashion. Also, I loved the idea of sculpturing smallish things from a range of raw materials.

I used to do a lot of felt making in the early years. This involved taking the famous raw merino wool from the Southern Tablelands, felting it up and making all sorts of little, stylish, warm hats.

And of course, when I finish creating a hat, it’s a great thrill to see people walking around in it with a big smile on their face. Other sculptors don’t see that.

When I started my business, I set up a studio at home. And then I thought now I’ve got to get out and market my hats and get repeat clients. So I started off selling my wares at the Old Bus Depot Market. That was just a new market then, for people who made things, with no imported stuff on sale. Everybody’s wares had to be handmade.

That was an important stepping stone for me. I picked up lots of clients. Through that I met lots of people and was able to run workshops. I wrote articles for magazines and then I was able to work almost exclusively from my studio.

Then TAFE asked me if I would I teach millinery there, so they trained me to teach adults at TAFE. That was another lovely adventure in my life, and I’m still there teaching millinery. I’m the oldest teacher in the building. It’s very enjoyable and I love going there.

I work with a lot of community groups here in Canberra. For example, I teach with the Majura Women’s Group and the Brindabella Women’s Group. They’re groups of young mothers that meet every week with their children, and I run one-off workshops with them. I was ‘artist-in-residence’ with the Brindabella Women’s Group for six weeks at one stage. I also had a long connection with a francophone women’s group here, the Accueil Club, despite not being able to speak French. They’d often just forget…

I’ve done lots of lovely commissions around Canberra including with the National Museum. You will see when we have our morning tea I have profiles of some of my work there in little folders. I was involved with the Dressed to Kill exhibition with the National Gallery - I can’t remember what year it was – where we had to make hats to match all the famous designers in the world. We got to meet Vivien Westwood and had that big party on the bridge. That was pretty exciting.

I’ve also done lots of work with CMAG (Canberra Museum and Art Gallery). During 2013 I was commissioned to recreate the head-wear worn by Marian and Walter Burley Griffin to a 1928 fancy dress party in Sydney. Their head-dresses were all made out of reeds and cardboard. That was part of CMAG’s 2013 exhibition about sustainability at CMAG. I was also involved in programs here, at the NGA, that year. The National Capital Authority also commissioned me to make a re-creation of Lady Denman hat she wore to the naming of Canberra in 1913. That’s still on display in the little exhibition they run at Regatta Point. That was pretty exciting too. NCA recently had me make period hats for their exhibition at Blundells Cottage too.

I have done lots of interesting things over the years. Through my millinery lovely things just happen all the time and being linked through the Australian Millinery Association to hundreds of milliners has allowed me to get to know lots of fabulously talented and nice people. Every week somebody will ring up about something. I’m very lucky to be in this industry. It’s about dressing up for big, interesting events in peoples’ lives. It makes everyone happy.

One of the biggest thrills in my life was taking part in a hat festival in France in 2004. There’s a place called Caussade, near Montauban in the south of France. It’s where they made all those straw boater hats for centuries. The straw is milled there and turned into straw braid. A lot of the materials that we use today still come from those straws, and it’s a centre of hat making in Europe. They have this big festival every year where lots of  milliners from Europe and elsewhere gather together for a week in the square at Caussade, showing what they do. You get your own tent and you have to demonstrate aspects of hat making. We all ate in the courtyard of the adjacent 13th century monastery, serenaded by minstrels.

I couldn’t take lots of hats with me so I said I’d demonstrate felt making. So there I was, felting away in 35-degree heat. They weren’t familiar with felting. I had all this Australian merino wool with me. I wasn’t planning to sell; it was more a demonstration, and I was representing Australia. But people wanted to buy these woolen hats, despite the heat. I’d finish them, wet, on the hat-block and would say to buyers, “Come back at 6 o’clock, when it is dry”. They went off with their little felted beanies and cloches.

It was a wonderful experience to be with these other European milliners and to watch things being made in traditional ways. It started on Bastille Day. When I arrived there, a big medieval festival was happening and everybody was dressed in 16th-century costumes drinking wine. I just felt I went back in history. So that was exciting. To stay with a French family on a farm for the week was just lovely too.

Making hats for different commissions and for different people has also been really exciting for me. I regard all my clients and ladies that wear my hats as famous. You’re all beautiful. I do a lot of race-wear, and at the moment I’m very busy with the Melbourne Cup. There’s a thing in Canberra called the ‘Canberra Face of Racing’. A young girl is chosen to represent Canberra racing. She’s got to go to all the functions for the race course and speak and she’s got lots of other duties. So I sponsor her, and she wears my hats. She appears on covers of magazines and things so I get a lot of promotion. It’s also lovely to work with all these beautiful, dynamic young women.

My inspiration for all my designs? I just love the history of hats and the evolution of head-wear: how it has developed down the years. I’m still using some very old techniques. I’m always gathering inspiration from everywhere - I see hats in old lamps and lamp shades. I look at things and say,  “there’s a hat design in that”. Or I see useful shapes or squiggles in nature or architecture. My inspiration comes from everywhere.

But a lot [of inspiration] comes from costumes.

Today when I am designing for people they will come with their dress. I try to pick up something in or about their outfit. We’ll go from there. We’ll find shapes and colours that fit. Everybody has a different body shape - tall, small whatever. There are different hats that tend to suit different people. So we go through a process of deciding what suits you and how comfortable you feel. Many clients will come and say, ‘I hate hats. But I’ve got to wear this dress to this. I just want a little thing’. Then they get caught up in the magic, become confident and often go home with a great big thing.

The trends for this year include what you are seeing here. Hats (as opposed to ’fascinators’) are coming back in, which is really nice for me. For a while big hats went out and all the little sculptured pieces came in, which I like doing. I can see little one here, a white fluted one,  that I made for her friend a couple of years ago to go to Derby day in Melbourne.

This season the boater is very big and also the big 1970s hats. The 1970s is making a bit of comeback. I can see somebody up the back that’s got a hat I designed for you, didn’t I, to represent the big loop that’s outside here [at the Museum]. It’s so thrilling for me to see these hats I made a long time ago come out of the cupboard for someone to wear and make someone a bit happier.

I’ll just talk about some styles, and I might get some people out of the audience to come and try a hat on – about five of you. Then I can tell you how best to wear a hat and what suits you.

This little one here is pink parisisal, and it’s worn dipped like this. It suits this lady very well - good proportions. If you want to do a little modeling; have a little walk around.

This one here is made of sinamay. This one is made of a parisisal straw, which is this [holds material up]. So this is called a parasisal capaline. I start making the hat with this.

The black Dior-style one is made of a fibre called sinamay: it’s banana fibre. It comes in meterage and then you block it over the wooden block shape you choose, and put it all together.

With this little one here, I actually make these pedals out of this braid here. It is a glossy Swiss braid straw. I sew it all into a big piece and then I cut petal shapes out, wire it and make this vine. So it’s pretty involved, but I’ve loved doing that over the past year or so. It’s a technique I’ve developed and I run workshops on it.

I forgot to say that I also teach at millinery conventions. These [conventions] happen every couple of years in association with the Millinery Association of Australia that I belong to. I have developed this [method]. I’m always looking to develop new techniques and programs for people to learn.

There’s a boater at the end, and that’s my little old boater block that I bought in the UK a long time ago. It’s a favourite. The boater is made from another straw which is called a buntal mat. It looks like a placemat. It’s just all woven straw. You wet it and block it over the block and wire it and trim it.

The little one next door with the white loop is made of the parasisal. It’s a good one. I like to use everything up, all my waste materials, in my workroom. It has a bottom piece that I sculpted in wire with a little twist on the end.

That’s one made from one of my little favourite blocks: a two-piece block, so you have to block it in two bits and then put them together.

And this lovely lady has some handmade flowers that are made from stiffened fabric. It’s called French flower-making, where you use little tools that have little brass balls on the end and you heat them up. You can make any sort of flower. This is a chrysanthemum, and somebody can have that today. You can put that on a headband or on your coat or dress. That’s made of a silk dupion in a hounds-tooth pattern.

This one here is an old straw. You can feel all these later. It’s called paribuntal and they are beautiful polished straws. A lot of people will probably remember them. But you can’t get them any more - or they’re rare. They block up and they have a beautiful sheen. Just superior quality compared to this available today – there’s no comparison.

When I first started we used to use the parisisals but they were for your yard hat and this paribuntal straw was for your good hat. But now all we can get is parisisal..

These little flowers here, I will bring them down. They are made of the sinamay, that gauzy, banana-fibre material. They’re little petals that are wired and hand-painted. You can make leaves and trims for your hat. It’s pretty exciting.

I am happy to take questions, if anybody wants to ask one.

CATRINA VIGNANDO: Does anybody have questions for Christine?

CHRISTINE WARING: Do you girls want to parade around, my lovely models? [applause] You can see the girls hats on this side are fairly feminine and the ones on that side are  fairly structured. It all depends what sort of mood I am in on the day, but most of them have a sculptural aspect to them. There’s also a lot of hand sewing in millinery.

QUESTION: [inaudible]

CHRISTINE WARING: That was a good question. This one that I called the Dior-style, was made from sinamay. You can also make it out of a solid straw and use it as a sun hat and get sun protection. Whereas you don’t get much sun protection with this; it’s purely a fashion hat. A lot of mothers-of-the-bride or groom like these because they’re good in photos. They don’t put shadows on your face.

QUESTION: You talked about these hats down here, did you make those; or do you buy them like that and cut them up to make the other hats?

CHRISTINE WARING: No, this is what I buy and this is what I start with. These are the materials for hat making. This is called a capaline, and then you can get a shape. This is in a parisisal straw. They’re my materials that I get. I don’t make these. I don’t weave them.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about how you get from a big thing like that to a little one?

CHRISTINE WARING: For this one here, I would use a parasisal straw but a hood, and the hood is shaped like a hood. I block the first bit here over the block, wet it and set it, and then cut all this off. Then I use that trim there. I double it and sew it and wire it, and then start twisting it. It’s pretty good. There’s no wastage in it. I am into using everything up, all the materials used, in one go. I do run a workshop on using scraps from your workroom to other milliners. It’s my no-waste policy on materials, because millinery materials are expensive.

Often people will say, ‘It’s expensive, my finished hat.’ But by the time you get your materials and your time, it just all adds up. You never really get all your time back because there’s a lot of hand sewing. And talking. The materials are getting more expensive. Every year when I go to do my ordering, the prices have all gone up. There are less suppliers in Australia so you have to go overseas with the added cost of postage. It’s getting harder. There’s nowhere in Canberra now to buy anything. You can’t even get millinery wire or the grosgrain ribbon any more. It’s all cheap and nasty nylon stuff.

QUESTION: I have a quick question: my problem is a very large head. We had seven years living in England, and I had to wear hats for so many things. I’d walk in to a hat shop and say, ‘What’s the largest hat you have?’ They’d look blankly at me and then they’d find something and it would sit up on top of my head. Obviously you have to cope for all sizes. Is it a machine that stretches them or is it you just steaming them? How do you make a hat fit?

CHRISTINE WARING: If you came and I measured your head, I have blocks for all sizes of heads. Almost all my blocks are in inches, especially the old ones. A smallish head is between 21 inches to 21 and a half or three-quarters. That’s about 55 centimetres. Then an average is 22 inches to 22 and a half, which is 56 to 57 centimetres. Then the larger head, which is 59 to 61 centimetres is 23 to 24 inches. We usually fit in those sizes. I have blocks in all those sizes - not necessarily in my fancy blocks but standard blocks - square crowns and round.

So I can make a hat to fit your head size. I do have a hat stretcher that sometimes it works where you steam the inside. You might take the headbands off and trims and stretch it out on my head stretcher and then replace your trims. I do that a lot. I have a hat stretcher that like a big solid block shaped in a dome which winds out.

There are not many hat shops left in Australia. They would always go 22 to 22 and a half. People’s heads seem to be getting bigger. I think everybody is just getting bigger, aren’t they? When you look back at costumes the waists were tiny things and everybody was smaller. It’s all our rich food.

QUESTION: Thank you. I think I will be coming to see you.

QUESTION: I’m interested in the suppliers. When I did millinery I always had to go to Sydney to Brown Brothers in St Leonards. I got some beautiful stuff there, but the felts were very expensive. Even 20 years ago for a lapin fur I had to pay something like $35 for a capaline. Do you get the good quality felts or do you have to make your own? What do you do now, Christine?

CHRISTINE WARING: No, we can still get the good quality felts, but they’ve gone up to $60 or $65 now, even up to $80. To make a felt like these felt capalines - and Gabrielle is talking about these beautiful peach bloom ones which were called velours; this is straight fur felt not a wool felt - they’re now about $60 before you start. If you get a velour, which is beautiful like a peach bloom over your felt, they’re more. Some of those lapin ones you’re talking about, they’ve gone up to $120 before you even start. It is ridiculous, as Wendy knows too. The hoods, which are the smaller ones like this that I’ve made my hat out of, they’re up to $45 to $50 now. That’s before you start making it into a hat.

Browns are now called Hatters Millinery, the place that Gabrielle was talking about. I still support them. They’re one of Australia’s oldest millinery suppliers and about a third-generation business. But now they’ve gone online and don’t have a shop any more. Everything is online now. It’s really hard to get the colours off the computers, but this particular company will send you out samples. I’ve been dealing with them for a long time so they’re supportive of me and help me. I always get my things in the mail the next day. There’s hardly any place that you can go into now where you can touch things and feel them. It’s getting harder and more expensive.

QUESTION: We see the Queen in gorgeous hats and lots of eminent people, and very often they’re remodeled. I’ve actually remodeled some of my own hats. Do you do this? Is this a practice that is still continued?

CHRISTINE WARING: Yes, I remodel hats. I get a lot of requests for remodeling hats. If I can do it, I will. It might be a bit ‘last season’ or a few seasons ago, but you can reduce the brim edge, change the trim, give it a refresh and a new size. Size is a chemical agent you put on to make the hats stiff after you’ve blocked them. You want them to keep their shape so you use this chemical called size, which back in the old days was what sent them all mad because it had mercury in it. That’s where the mad hatter reference came from. Most of them worked in dungeons down underneath buildings where there was no ventilation. You still have to be really careful. With the size we use now, they’ve put some perfume in it. It was really potent before, so you knew it was bad, but now it smells dangerously nice.

I have to keep telling my students to put a mask on. We use ventilator machines at CIT. ‘Oh no, it smells so nice; it’s not hurting me.’ [But I insist it could be harmful]

I do a lot of revamping and re-trimming - and not only my hats. People may come with another person’s hat or a hat they’ve bought somewhere else or sometimes I give them hints on how to re-trim it themselves.

QUESTION: Obviously your week in France fascinated the local people. I’m just wondering if what you yourself got out of it? Did your experience in that week change your future designs in any way?

CHRISTINE WARING: Oh yes. I made a lot of connections there. I’m still friendly with a person in Italy. I made a lot of good contacts and friendships. They’ve come out here and if I go away again I have more people to look up. I was invited to other things through that. I was introduced to new materials that hadn’t come to Australia and that they had over there. We were invited to go behind the scenes into their hat making factories. I saw a lot of stuff that goes on in the production of hats as opposed to model millinery, which is what I do.

The experience was fantastic, especially the materials and the contacts of where to get materials. Some of them were kind enough to show me how to actually work with it. There was a material called - I call it Paris cloth- but it’s called gin sing here. The suppliers get it. I haven’t got anything made out of it today. It’s hard to block but it’s a nice swirly stiff fibre fabric, which was really unusual. It was exciting to find that. When I came back in 2004 to Australia I took part in a thing in Melbourne and I made all these turbans. Everyone would say, ‘Where did you get that?’ That was really good too because then I had something new for my collection that year that absolutely nobody else had.

QUESTION: You talked about body proportions and hats. What’s a real fashion no go?

CHRISTINE WARING: I think on short people or smaller people - not being rude - and especially those with a smaller frame, putting on a great big hat like this it makes you look like a little mushroom. Back in the 1990s when Princess Diana really revived hat wearing and fashion, those hats were in and some of them had the big beefeater crowns - everybody wanted them. You’d see all these little people stuck under these hats and you’d say ‘Just let me reduce the brim a bit.’ They would say, ‘No, no that’s the fashion.’

Or else a really tall person who is quite big: if you have a tiny little hat then it’s the wrong proportions. But then they’d say, ‘But I don’t want a big hat because I’m going to be inside.’ You can have the little base but I always run up a feather or a quill and then your eyes are drawn to those two long points and it gives the illusion of a bigger hat and balances the proportions of your shape out. So big hats on little people and small really tiny hats on bigger people.

QUESTION: Do you do much work on the conservation of hats in museums but also wedding hats? For example, I have a wedding hat circa 1976. When does that work become not viable?

CHRISTINE WARING: I do restoration on hats. When I was involved with the 1913 thing with the National Capital Authority, they wanted to represent political landmarks in Canberra through fashion and costume. They got a lot of hats from different eras, and I had to restore all of them. I have done restoration on old hats. I do have a collection of old hats myself where I have not interfered with the fashion but I’ve just repaired them and re-blocked them.

I do a lot of old wedding hats. People will come with their mother’s or grandmother’s headpiece that they want to incorporate into their wedding hat or headpiece or they just might want parts of it. Yes, I love doing that, because it’s exciting working with brides. I do a lot of bridal wear. Once a girl came to me with her mother’s feather bouquet from the 1970s, it was in a big plastic bag that had been up in the garage since the 1970s and not opened. I opened it and it all disintegrated and was all over the place. I had feathers stuck everywhere. I just had to retrieve some. She wanted a headpiece for herself and for the bridesmaids. I enjoy doing that.

QUESTION: Can I carry on with the theme of the feathers because I’ve always adored Australian birds and I am always blown away when people come from overseas and rave about them. Sometimes I don’t think we appreciate them. Have you ever done a collection that features Australian bird feathers? I am not encouraging hunting. I am just thinking there are so many beautiful colours and combination of colours. I wondered if any of them have inspired you to do a creation around Australian birds.

CHRISTINE WARING: Not so much Australian birds, but I have a bird that is made out of all just feathers. We made a bird shape and it’s got a big tail feather. I wore it on my head to a Melbourne Cup do one year. I’m tall so I couldn’t get it in the car. I felt like Big Bird when I walked into the racecourse. Not with Australian birds - but that’s a good idea.

CATRINA VIGNANDO: We might look at drawing the questions to a conclusion up here, but please feel free to continue your questions with Christine downstairs in the members’ lounge where we will be serving our morning tea. As Christine said earlier, we have some folders that give you an overview of some of the work that Christine has done and that she talked about this morning.

Before we go, we have a very important task which is to offer our prize for the breakfast. Christine has also very generously offered to give a prize of the flower that she mentioned earlier, so we have two prizes to give. First of all, I’d like to invite Christine to nominate the winner for the members’ breakfast prize for the Encounters preview. Who do you think? We thought best hatted person for the morning.

CHRISTINE WARING: It’s really hard because there’s some I have made.

CATRINA VIGNANDO: I don’t know whether that counts.

CHRISTINE WARING: I can’t pick them, can I?

CATRINA VIGNANDO: I don’t know; it’s up to you. I would have to say this lady with the little blue hat. There’s a few here I’ve made.

CHRISTINE WARING: You are very well coordinated and you look lovely. Did you make your hat?

LADY IN BLUE HAT: There’s a bit of a story. I work with aged people and when I walked in to the Tuesday group they were making hats ready for Melbourne Cup, which I am doing with my group next Thursday. On the table was this and two other beautiful hats that belonged to one of our other workers. I texted her later and said, ‘Could I borrow one of your hats because I want to wear one today.’ I couldn’t find the one I wanted to wear in the house. I think I have loaned to somebody and it hasn’t walked itself back here. So it’s actually a borrowed hat. But I was really taken with it. When I put it on myself I liked it. If she would sell it to me, I would buy it from her but I doubt she will.

CHRISTINE WARING: That’s lovely.

CATRINA VIGNANDO: Congratulations. Our next prize was the lovely flower that you have made that you wanted to offer to the best dressed.

CHRISTINE WARING: Again I can’t pick someone in mine - I am thinking that lady up there with the red hat, lovely coordinated.

LADY IN RED HAT: I have altered it to suit the top. It was actually a hat with a fawn trim. So I got a bit of bias binding and just trimmed around with the red to match the top.

CHRISTINE WARING: That makes it all the more special. Thank you for coming, especially those ladies that are wearing hats I made, and everybody else in their beautiful outfits.

CATRINA VIGNANDO: If you could all join me in thanking Christine. I am sure you agree with me that it’s been a real pleasure and so special to see the craft of hat-making continuing and the passion that you shared with us about the nature and the history of hat-making.

I would like to also mention that there is a small display of hats by Andre Pellissier on display on this floor in the Journeys gallery. Andre Pellissier was a French milliner who came to Australia and brought those traditions of hat-making to this country. It’s lovely to see and understand more of that tradition. I also really love the sharing of hats, that borrowing and sharing hats is also a lovely aspect of this fashion of hat-making and hat donning. Thank you so much for looking so beautiful this morning. Please come down and join us for some morning tea in the Friends Lounge. [applause]

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007-19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 05 November 2015

Return to Top