Judges take hats off to Carolyn

17:00, Jul 16 2013
HEADS UP: Master milliner Carolyn Gibson has been creating headwear since the 1960s.

A hat can turn heads and make its wearer feel like a million dollars. There's something about headwear that had award-winning master milliner Carolyn Gibson hooked from the start. Reporter Jess Lee sat down with Ms Gibson to see why the hat is back on top.

Carolyn Gibson has seen the hat industry go through its ups and downs but millinery will always have its place, she says.

The master milliner has just bagged another award for one of her creations at the Brisbane Millinery Convention this month, making a clean sweep of the Mystery Hat Competition.

It is a trade that has seen her go from an apprenticeship in Christchurch at the age of 15 to creating hats for the New Zealand Opera Company and international costume designers.

"My mother said to me, ‘Carolyn, hairdressers are a dime a dozen, but there won't be very many milliners'."

In fact, she did end up working as a hairdresser for more than a decade but she remains one of the few master milliners practising today.


It was the larger than life hairstyles of the 1980s that put a cap on the number of hats being sold and forced her to learn a new trade.

"No-one could put a hat on that.

"The hairstyles really killed the hat industry for a while."

The younger members of the royal family have secured the hat a place on the 21st century head, she says.

During her four years of training in the early 1960s she learned every aspect of millinery including the intricate art of wiring, beading and soldering bridal headpieces.

She continues to pass on her tricks of the trade to novice hatmakers from her Mt Albert store Le Chapeau.

It is really important to pass on the traditional methods she was taught all those years ago, she says.

"I won't teach a fast way of putting anything together, it goes against the grain. You have to know the rules to break the rules.

"The comment I often hear from people is ‘gosh, no wonder hats cost so much because they take so long'."

Young designers are hankering after more opportunities to learn the art of hat-making, she says.

"It's a very old trade and it's terrible that it's dying out.

"But we are trying to revive it and it is being revived, but we need more exposure in New Zealand."

A basic hat can take as little as three hours to put together while her more extravagant creations take three weeks.

She prefers a "real" hat to a smaller headpiece.

"I like a hat that makes an impact. The hat should carry the outfit rather than finishing it off."

There is a hat for every head, she says.

"It's like a pair of shoes - if you think you can't wear them you just haven't found the right one that fits yet."

Central Leader