|By David McCormick
Today, labeling one a blockhead suggests they are stupid or dense; but an earlier, now obsolete version of the term defined it as, “a piece of wood in the shape of a head, used as a block for hats or wigs.” In the millinery trade, the term blocking refers to shaping material onto a mold, to form the body of the hat. Hat blocks are the molds used in this process. They are usually carved from wood, but you can also find aluminum examples. Hat blocks have been used for more than 200 years.
Early wooden millinery molds or blocks were made perfectly round. That worked well if the hat was to be worn atop a wig. This would be known as a wig block or mold. But, by the early 1800s wigs were beginning to fall out of fashion. Blocks now became more complex, having to conform to the true shape of the wearers’ head. So, block-makers became adept in woodcarving techniques to create their hat blocks. This in turn translated into many different styles of blocks, which changed as fashion did, over the years. Although some millinery molds for hats were still made from a single wood block, a number were constructed from several separate pieces. These pieces could be assembled in different configurations to achieve different styles and sizes. These multi-piece examples were called “puzzle blocks.” Millinery forms have their own vocabulary that is self-explanatory; crown blocks, a form for making the top portion of a hat; a brim block for just that, making the brim of a hat. And, in many cases headblock stands were used. These offered a more stable platform to create a hat. Without one, it would make the process very difficult.
For more complex millinery forms, a milliner might put together a separate brim block and a crown block, to create a unique shape. Cowboy hats and fedoras are created, using a combination of two blocks. The crown is blocked first, and is then inserted into the brim, which is then blocked. A three-piece puzzle block is employed in making an ascot shape. The center piece is first pulled out, and then the back and front pieces. This keeps the shape of the hat from stretching.
Wooden blocks gave way to aluminum blocks in the 1940s. Aluminum could be used with an electric-powered heat source which helped shape the hat. One was offered on eBay for $99.
With several millinery-mold makers, turning out hundreds of designs, one would suppose there were thousands of the old-wood block forms available. But, not so. Over time, many molds became worn and were thrown out; actually, in some cases, they were used as firewood. As with all things, hats eventually went out of fashion.
Some original wooden examples demand higher value due to their artistic qualities. Wooden hat molds can be found ranging from $30 to several hundred dollars.
A number of millinery mold makers made their marks in the industry. Riva Marchesi was a hat mold maker located in Paris. The company shut its doors in the 1960s. Two Italian artisans, originally from Florence, who settled in Paris before World War I and formed the company. They were the perfect match to make their efforts successful. Riva was a wood carver and Marchesi was a sculptor. The talented pair were mold makers to famous haute-couture fashion houses such as Dior, Givenchy and Lanvin. William Plant & Company was located in Manchester, England, until they ceased operations in 1976. Their contents are now on display at a museum in Stockport. Boon & Taylor was originally a major wood block maker based in Luton, England, later becoming Boon & Lane. Today, they operate making both wood and metal millinery hat molds.
For American hat blocks, whitewoods are most commonly used. European hat blocks are constructed from soft woods. And, in Australia, hard woods were employed in creating hat block molds. But, the most prized hat blocks are from the Kauri tree found in New Zealand. It produces high quality, long-lasting wood which is ideal for hat molds or blocks. This wood is less commonly used today, and Kauri hat blocks are most favored for their quality.