The Evening Class;Mind and body;Features and arts

26th November 1999 at 00:00

No one wears more hats than the royals, so who better to instruct beginners in the fundamentals of hat-making than Dawn Bassam, director and designer at Philip Somerville, the Queen's milliners? Ms Bassam, who also made hats for Princess Diana, enjoys working with students at the London College of Fashion because she believes traditional skills must be passed down.

By the end of this one-term course (three hours a week), each student will have made a felt hat, a straw hat and a beret or baseball cap. The designs can be as outlandish as they like, but the methods are strictly traditional.

This evening, the second lesson, students are learning to stiffen and block the basic unshaped "hoods". They paint the felt with a chemical stiffener, dry it, steam it and painstakingly pull it into shape over a wood block the size of their head (in the trade, this job is often done by men as considerable strength is required).

Ms Bassam spices her instruction with fascinating snippets from the world of millinery. The reason there were so many "mad hatters" in the old days, for instance, was because the mercury used in felt-making scrambled their brains.

Hat design, she explains, is all to do with balance, and the bigger the head, the easier it is to get the balance right. Princess Diana's head measurement was 60cm - three centimetres more than the average - which is why she wore hats so well. Students are encouraged to develop "hat awareness" by trying on cheap and expensive hats in shops and checking how far the standard of workmanship affects the price.

Although some students go on to study intermediate, advanced or period millinery, most just want to be able to design and make their own hats. "As a married orthodox Jew, I have to wear hats for religious reasons, so I want to be able to have some fun with them," says one.

Nicki Household This beginner's millinery course runs at the London College of Fashion, 20 John Princes Street, London W1M 0BJ. Tel: 0207 514 7566. Cost: pound;235

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