The last thing to make my little midshipman uniform complete was some sort of hat. I had planned on making a bicorn hat but, whilst I was waiting for the millinery supplies to arrive, I decided to make a sailor’s tarred hat for “undress” or casual/work attire. Many sailors wore these hats for dressing up smartly, but a midshipman would wear an officers bicorn for dress occasions.
Sailors of His Majesty’s Navy wore a variety of headwear to protect them from the cold, the sun, and the rain. The sailor’s tarred hat was generally made of leather and was coated with black tar to make it waterproof.
It was trimmed with black and gold ribbon, the ends trimmed with gold fringe, and the ribbon was often embroidered with the name of the ship that the sailor belonged to.
After looking at few pictures and extant items online, I referred to the patterns in one of my books called From the Neck Up, by Denise Dreher. This book has a pattern for a sailor’s boater hat, which gave me a basic pattern to work from. The pattern was adjusted a little to fit a child.
My hat was made from the following materials: cardboard (the sort used for dress slopers and hat mock-ups), PVA glue, tissue paper, florist wire, gesso, acrylic paint, spray lacquer and ribbon.
Step One: Cut out the cardboard, adding “seam allowances” or extra bits for joining the pieces. The tip is a circle shape, but it is actually slightly oval to match the actual shape of the head. “Seam allowances” are added around the outside of this piece. The side band is a long rectangle, and “seam allowances” are added to the short ends of this piece (about an inch). The brim is a circle shape with a circle cut out of it, but is once again slightly oval to match the shape of the head and tip. This means it is important to distinguish the front/back of your pieces so that they go together correctly. “Seam allowances” for the brim are added to the inside of the circle.
Step Two: Glue the pieces together with PVA glue. I started with gluing the tip (circle) to the side band (rectangle). The “seam” edges should be snipped, folded in and then glued to the inside of the hat. You can glue the side-band piece together at the “seam” at this stage as well.
In order to increase the stability of the cardboard hat, I glued some tissue paper over the top of the “seam” edges. This meant that the “seams” would be held from both sides.
Step Three: I glued the brim onto the side band next, with the “seam” edges snipped and glued to the inside of the hat. I added tissue paper on the inside of the hat again to strengthen the seam.
At this stage I noticed that cardboard doesn’t always behave very well with PVA glue, as it absorbs the moisture and can go a bit wrinkly. At this stage I decided to bend some paper-covered florist wire into the shape of the brim’s outer edge and glue it on. I covered the florist wire with more tissue paper. This helped the edge of the hat brim be a bit more sturdy.
Step Four: I painted the hat all over with gesso.
Step Five: I painted the hat all over with black acrylic paint (two coats). Once this was dry, I sprayed two coats of clear gloss polyurethane over the hat.
I imagine that you may be able to purchase a black gloss paint in a spray can, which might neatly combine this step! The polyurethane does give the hat a little bit of protection from moisture during use. The last thing I wanted was a sweaty forehead with a black line smeared across it!
Step Six: Then I attached some ribbon around the hat. I could only find gold and white striped ribbon, so I hand sewed some thin black ribbon onto the white parts to more closely resemble the traditional ribbon of this era. I sewed a little bit of gold fringe to the end of the ribbon to complete the “streamers”. Remember to fray-stop or melt the ends of your ribbon!
The ribbon was attached with some double-sided craft tape. I did add a little bit of black elastic to the underside, as the hat wasn’t deep enough to sit properly on my son’s head, so it was a bit more practical to have something to hold it on.
My son really wanted me to embroider the name of a ship onto the front of the ribbon, however we were running a little short of time. I am also pleased to announce that the hat survived its first whole weekend of wear, which I was initially concerned about! It’s not completely accurate, but it worked well for what we needed it for.
I would love to add to this midshipman’s costume by making a bicorn hat, for dress occasions. – coming soon!
The Making of a Midshipman – the first post in a series.
Sources and Relevant Links
Image Source: Royal Navy Uniforms: Sailor’s Shore Going Rig – by The Dear Surprise
From the Neck Up: An Illustrated Guide to Hatmaking, by Denise Dreher
Making an 18th Century Tarred Sailors Hat, by Jas. Townsend & Son – Youtube video tutorial