September 9, 2016

Choosing and Using Free Vintage Hat Patterns

For today's guest post (while Tony and I continue our exciting holiday to Edmonton), I'm sincerely honoured to have none other than my good friend Tanith Rowan - whose incredible millinery work you may remember from such CV posts as this & this - sharing some of her vast, inspiring knowledge on how to select and use free vintage hat patterns with all of you.

Even if you're not a sewer, if - like me - you go weak in the knees for old school chapeaus, chances are this delightful guest post (which I want to sincerely thank Tanith - be sure to swing by her beautiful Etsy shop - for writing) will be right up your alley.

Vintage magazines and newspapers are one of my favourite places to find inspiration and information, and I love researching hats this way. While doing so, I was stumbling on the occasional free hat pattern, and I was keen to try them out.

After my first attempt went quite well, I wanted to do more, and started a project to make and review the free patterns I found on Trove, the online database of the National Library of Australia. So far I have completed six hats and am working on my seventh right now. It hasn't been easy, (in fact, it has been extremely frustrating at times!) but I'm getting better at working through the maze of brief and vague instructions, pattern drafting and mysterious terminology.

So what have I learned about using free vintage hat patterns? Below are some tips for working through each stage of the process, but overall I've found that the most important things are to be willing to experiment and to trust your common sense and experience.

(1939 Doll's Hat )

Finding and selecting your pattern

I have been specifically searching one online archive database but there are many other places to look. Using a search engine may turn up some good results but it can sometimes be hard to narrow the search to what you want. Searching on Pinterest is often good, because it is a place where people often share free pattern resources, and you may find people have boards specifically for free vintage patterns or even free hat patterns.

The best terms to search for will depend on where you are searching. If you are using Pinterest, for example, the pinner will often have used descriptive terms for the pin or the board, so searching for “free vintage hat pattern” will get you somewhere, and modern terms like “DIY” and “tutorial” will yield results too.

When searching a database, the terms that come up will be those from the original article, so although “pattern” is still good, also consider “instructions” “directions” “how to” “make at home” “make this hat” and so on. Once I started to find patterns, I looked at what expressions they were using in the title and text, and added those to my list of search terms.

If you already know what era you are looking for, use this information to guide your search. You can include the decade when using a search engine or Pinterest (although keep in mind not everyone knows what they are talking about), and a database may have an advanced search option to narrow down the results to a specific date range.

With a style in mind, try searching for that too, and try multiple options if the style has a few names it might be known by.

(1949 Pixie Hat)

When choosing a pattern to try, keep in mind where and how you will wear the hat, and with what (unless, like me, you are making hats for the fun of it and as a learning experience). Some of the hats you will find are distinctly dressy, others more casual, some very wearable with modern clothes, other distinctly “vintage”.

The reality is, that I wouldn't wear many of these hats myself, and maybe that is true for you too, so be critical and sensible about your style and wardrobe needs. I adored the 1949 pixie hat, but I honestly wouldn't wear it as is. I'm still working on tweaks for that pattern, but one thing I did was scale it down – it makes an adorable toddler hat!

Also look at the images critically. How accurate is that illustration likely to be? How much of the appeal of the photo is in the styling and how much is the hat itself? How will it look with your hair and make-up (or not) and outfits? The 1954 scarf hat really has nothing going for it without the whole look being in place, and the illustration for the 1934 “Vagabond Beret” had an illustration that led a lot of people to think it would look completely different!

(1949 Pixie Hat for a toddler)

Drafting Patterns

One of the more frustrating parts! Many will be on a grid for you to enlarge, which is slow but at least allows accuracy. If you don't care to draw up a 1-inch grid, you can find and download 1-inch grid paper online and print it out. Just make sure they print at the true size. I usually start drawing with the key points and straight lines, then draw in the curves.

They are often hand drawn in the original diagram and rarely symmetrical, even if they probably should be! You can choose to fix these things up if it matters to you. It bothered me a lot when I started and now I'm embracing asymmetry a bit more.

Without a grid, you may need to use a bit of mathematics. If that isn't your strong suit – just ask for help! A bit of knowledge about the measurements of circles will go a long way. Hopefully all the necessary measurements are given, but you may sometimes not have every detail and just have to do your best to make it look like the original! As I said, it's frustrating.

(1954 Scarf Hat)

You may need to adjust the size. For the 1954 scarf hat, I ended up making three versions because it was so small, and then I just assumed my changes would be enough. It would have been worth doing a bit more checking on the pattern before continuing.

One way to do this, which I tried with the 1934 “Vagabond Beret” to save myself heartache, is to draw the stitching lines on to your pattern, I.e. measure the seam allowance in from each edge (and now is a good time to mention that they rarely tell you what seam allowance, if any, is included).

Measure the head-size part of the stitching line and compare it to your head measurement, remembering to include some ease (approximately 1 cm should be sufficient) and to measure your head where the hat will actually sit.

(1934 Vagabond Beret)

Modern vs Vintage Materials

Luckily a lot of the hat patterns available will be for sewn fabric hats, and although they might use unusual fabrics, you can usually look them up online and find out what type of modern fabric is equivalent.

One thing that often comes up is sparterie or esparterie, which is a stiff foundation material traditionally made from willow. There are modern versions of sparterie being made, but I haven't personally used them, and I generally substitute millinery buckram instead. If you aren't sure what to use, try something and see!

The earlier the pattern, the more likely it is to use materials that are unusual and unknown to most of us now. Earlier patterns also seem to be the least detailed and make the most assumptions about your skills and knowledge of millinery and sewing in general. I generally find that patterns from the 1940s onwards make a lot of sense to me, but sometimes I can't make head or tail of earlier ones.

(The 1953 Scarf Hat almost beat me)


Be ready to use some trial-and-error!
Vintage patterns, especially those squeezing into a small space in a magazine, are not going to give you a lot of detail. If, like me, you are used to working with modern patterns that spell everything out, an instruction that simply says “join brim to crown”, might be intimidating. This is common, and even more so for attaching trims. The instructions often finish with fabulous sentences like “Trim with veil and a feather.”

But you know what? It's because it doesn't really matter how you do it. I'm definitely someone who wants to know the “right way”, but the right way is the one that you like, that works, and that is neat enough to meet your own standards.

(1953 Scarf Hat)

Read everything through before you start. Firstly, it will prepare you for those vague instructions and secondly it will help you make a good fabric choice. In the 1949 pixie hat pattern, for example, the fabric for the brim had to have some stretch or give, because the construction process involved stretching it over the buckram brim to fit. I had to start again on that one because I didn't check that detail and my fabric wasn't able to stretch.

Be prepared to make a first test version, especially if you want to use an expensive fabric. The size of a hat doesn't have to be far off before fit is a problem, and with vague instructions, it is all too easy to make a mistake.

Remember to trust your common sense and your own judgement. When in doubt about what you are supposed to be doing, keep the end goal in mind, keep looking at the pictures and nudge things in that direction when necessary!

Have patience, and if needs be, throw it across the room and leave it there for a week.

(1954 Butterfly Cap)

I hope I haven't made it sound like a dreadful task that no one should attempt.

Despite the difficulties, there are some great patterns out there and working them out is an adventure with big rewards.

♥ Tanith


  1. These hats are gorgeous and I admire the skill it takes to make them. Great post.

  2. Lovely vintage hats, Jessica! I especially love the butterfly and the pixie ones! I hope you are doing well, and I hope you have an amazing weekend. :)

  3. I've made a few hats and have two free hat patterns on my site one 1920s, one 1930s. I've also made hats from patterns. I even have my fictional character make a hat for her outfit in my upcoming sequel to The Girl in the Jitterbug Dress!

    I can't wait to hop over and check out your patterns! Winter is coming and I tend to wear most my hats in the colder months. Thank you for all your tips and hints I'm still fairly new at this hat-making business!

    1. You are welcome, Tam! I'm glad you found the tips helpful and good luck with your hat-making :)

  4. "Have patience, and if needs be, throw it across the room and leave it there for a week."

    Best advice ever, and should be applied to multiple things lol.

  5. This is great. I want to add to my vintage style hat collection, but finding what you want vintage can be hard. So this just might help me buckle up and make my own!


  6. I so admire those who can make hats! xx

  7. Great post Tanith, with some really helpful practical advice! I am tempted... x

    1. Thank you Porcelina, I'm so glad you liked it. And really, sewing hats from patterns isn't any harder than making clothes - just start with a good pattern!

  8. Those hats are so lovely and unique, well done to the maker!


  9. Thanks for sharing Tanith, I definitely want to try some of these out. . . if I ever have the time!!
    The Artyologist

  10. Such beautiful hats and great tips for making them! I made one hat with the intention of making more, but it never happened. Maybe with less time to devote to sewing garments, I should think about hats again.

  11. Thank you each very much for your fantastic comments on Tanith's wonderful guest post. I wholeheartedly appreciate them, as I'm sure she does as well.

    I can't thank each of you enough for your support of my guest bloggers' posts while we were away. We're home from Edmonton now (as you may know from Monday's post) and I look forward to jumping into life and blogging as usual once again - especially with fall, my favourite season, mere days away.

    Big hugs to all of you!
    ♥ Jessica

  12. I admire your talents, Tanith! Great tips too, for any sewer/maker interested in vintage patterns.

  13. Great tips, lady! I've never tried to make a hat, but you make it sound so straight-forward (if not exactly easy) that I'd love to try. I've got a friend who would absolutely die if I made her little girl that pixie hat. Hmmm.... Not a bad idea for a Christmas present!

  14. Such a helpful set of tips and it was good to see all these hats together. I often have at least one project in the naughty corner, waiting until I can face looking at it again!

  15. Thank you very much, Karen, Jessica and Kate-Em, for your lovely comments on this guest post. Hats are really at the forefront of mind lately, too, as - on top of enjoying and feeling inspired by both wonderful posts from Nicole and Tanith here about them - I was fortunate to pick up some new ones for myself while in Edmonton and have already (this week) also purchased a new mid-century topper that I'm planning to have star in a Christmas season out this year.

    Many thanks & happy Friday wishes to each of you!
    ♥ Jessica