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Shaping Felt – By hand using steam

Felt is an integral part of millinery in much of the world. Shaping felt can be done on a hat block or by hand. This short tutorial with show you how to combine both to make a sculpted felt piece. You’ll need:

A felt hood

A small hat block

Blocking pins

A steamer or equivalent 

You may wish to read the article first as it may influence your choices.

Types of Felt used in Millinery

There are two common felt types used by milliners and hat makers. Wool and fur. Regardless of the type of felt, we use hoods to make hats. A hood or hat body is a basic shape that a milliner uses to make a hat. Hoods come in two basic shapes: cones (bell-shaped) and capelines (with a brim). Occasionally one can find flat felt, but it is rarely used in millinery. No matter what type of felt you use you can do similar things, however, fur felt is a lot easier to shape and we suggest using fur until you get used to shaping felt. 

Steam and Hand-Shaping Felt

The best way shaping felt is by infusing it with steam. Whether it’s for blocking or free shaping, steam is a must. If you regularly work with felt, it’s a good idea to invest in a steamer. A hat steamer is one option, but many people use steam generating irons or garment steamers to do the same job. Even a kettle or a saucepan with a hole in the lid can work if you are desperate. In this example, we used and depicted a Jiffy hat steamer.

When the water tank is full, it generates a steady flow of steam from the nozzle for about two hours. It’s the safest and easiest way to work with steam. If using an iron, don’t press the iron onto your felt; hold it about ten centimetres away and press the ‘steam’ button on the handle to release steam onto the fabric.

Jiffy J1 Hat Steamer
Jiffy J1 Hat Steamer

Steaming felt

Get your steamer started – it should only take a minute or so to start producing steam. The steam will be scalding hot, so don’t put your hands or face directly in its path! You might even like to wear gloves or safety glasses. Place your felt hood directly over the steam nozzle and get it well saturated with steam to prepare it for stretching over the hat block.

Then, pull the hood over its block as desired, and pin it in place with blocking pins. Once the hood is stretched and pinned, you can bring it back to the steamer again and soften it up once more, so that you can adjust any spots that didn’t stretch as smoothly as you would have liked.

shaping felt steam
Steam from the Jiffy steamer
Using a Jiffy steamer to steam a hood
Steaming the hood on the steamer
Blocking pins anchoring felt to a block
Blocking pins anchoring felt to a block
Steaming felt on a block
Steaming felt on a block

Free Shaping Felt

Once you’ve established the base shape of the hat, you can start to get creative. While your felt is still soft and saturated with steam, you can add pleats and swirls, creases and contours to give your piece a unique and stylish shape. Keep it secured on the block while you do this, so you don’t lose the base shape – otherwise, it won’t fit on your head afterwards. Some milliners like to secure the folds and pleats they’ve created by pinning them or clipping them in place. Small pegs, clips and similar can be handy. Just be aware they may leave a mark in the felt. If so, you can brush them out with a little steam, and a stiff-bristled brush.

When You’re Finished

When you have your felt shaped to your liking, you need to leave it to dry completely. Depending on the weather, overnight is usually sufficient. Then you may remove it from the block and continue with the head fit. 

Shaping felt by hand
Shaping felt by hand
Shaping felt using pegs
Shaping felt using pegs