This story originally appeared on page 142 of the spring 2015 issue.
Story by Cassie Kaye
A hat is, arguably, the most noticeable fashion item a person can wear. Dating as far back as the third century B.C., and initially created to protect from the elements, hats soon grew to serve as a symbol of status and authority for men and a way for women
to preserve their modesty. Although their purpose has changed throughout the years, there’s no denying a beautiful hat is one of the easiest ways to stand out in a crowd — or, in the case of straw headwear, in a crowded beach or outdoor cafe.
Straw hats, in particular, are steeped in history. The term ‘milliner’ (someone who creates and sells hats), is thought to have originated from Milan, Italy, where the finest straws were braid- ed into brims as early as the 1700s. The South has its own rich history with straw hats. Straw bonnets have been popular with women since 1810; nearly every man in the early 1900s donned a boater hat and seersucker suit in warmer months; and, today, no garden party or beach vacation is complete without beautiful straw headpieces.
As with any item in the realm of fashion, not all straw piec- es are created equal. Gigi Burris, a sixth generation Floridian and 2014 CFDA Fashion Fund finalist, is a master milliner and knows exactly what differentiates high-end headwear such as one of hers (which can cost upwards of $350) from the mass-pro- duced piece one can buy at a corner retail store for $15.
Straw Type & Weaving Pattern
It all starts with the finest base materials — in this case, the highest quality straw. There are various types of straw used in millinery, including visca (a man-made straw typically found in mass-produced and low-priced summer hats), raffia (available in various grades and widely used in casual summer headwear), parasisal (a high-quality straw often used in more expensive hats and fascinators) plus others. The straw for these toppers is sourced from around the world, with some regions known for producing a higher grade than others.
“A lot of straw for these hats will come from China or Ecuador,” explains Burris. “But the best straw, globally, comes from Switzerland.” Historically speaking, Switzerland is known for producing some of the finest straw, used by milliners across the globe. In the 1900s, the Swiss town of Wohlen was at the center of the straw-making industry, specializing in both the hats themselves and the decorations and trimmings that make a plain headpiece unique.
Once the first-rate straws are sourced, they are often woven into a braid before the final product can be sewn together. There are various braiding techniques, such as a one-by-one or two-by- two pattern, but regardless of straw type and source, most are braided together by hand for use in upscale hats.
Aside from the materials used and weaving, it’s the construction method that sets an exceptional piece apart. Some of the most exquisite hats in the world are made entirely by hand, whether the plaited straw is stitched together or the entire hat is crafted by hand-weaving the straw into a particular pattern before shaping. A high-quality Panama hat, for example, can take up to 60 hours to sew from start to finish. Choice straw hats, such as Burris’, are sewn in a round and then hand-blocked on a wooden hat block. In this way the details, such as the tag, sweatband, wire and edge welting, are all added.
Local production is another aspect that makes a lavish piece so special.“So many people are outsourcing, so being made locally affects the price point,” Burris notes (her own pieces are made in New York City’s garment district and the alligator skins used in her designs are from specimens found in her parents’ Florida orange groves). “They’re made in-part on a specialized machine, and not many people know the techniques required to make these hats. The labor and manpower of these incredibly skilled artisans will affect the price as well.”
Spotting the Authenticity
When it comes to spotting a refined hat, Burris notes a few things to look for. “The design will set the piece apart from a cheaper product, but more than anything you can feel the difference in the straw,” she explains. Higher quality hats will have a tighter and more consistent weaving pattern than those at a lower price point. And if you’re considering purchasing your own straw sta- ple this spring, keep in mind larger hats with a wider brim will also carry a larger price tag due to the additional material and time required to craft them.
For those who plan to put their straw headwear to use this season, Burris has one request. “If you’re traveling, please wear your hat on the plane,” she says. “It’s a festive way to start your vacation, but it will also ensure the piece arrives intact. The hats are so fragile, and oftentimes we put them in our luggage and they get totally smashed.” After investing in a beautiful, hand- made straw hat, losing it to a rough baggage carrier is one tragedy that can easily be avoided.