Line Drawing by JKM
Line Drawing by JKM
Line Drawing by JKM
Line Drawing by JKM

Millinery and Hat Making Inspiration Through Film and Theatre

JK Millinery Costume Millinery

The world of Theater and Film inspired me as a child. Watching movies and theatre productions made my imagination come to life. I was always intrigued by costumes, especially when the character wore a hat. Theatre productions like Ipi Tombi and movies like, Hello Dolly and My Fair Lady, and TV shows like Bonanza and The Waltons left me itching to know how hats are made. There seemed to be a SECRET behind their production.

I was always fascinated by the Cartright Boys. Each one had such a distinct style but as a child, my favorite was always Horse. When I started styling cowboy hats for the movies…. these were the boys that inspired me. When I figured out that Horses’ hat shape was the base shape of all the other shapes, I felt like I had broken a secret code.

The Waltons and Little House on the Praire symbolized Natural Living… The cotton and linens were beautiful. Both shows also had a General Store which fascinated me. The shopkeepers’ kids were always spoilt brats but that’s who I wanted to be….then I could make things to sell in my shop, I thought.

Hello Dolly was the first time I saw what the inside of a hat shop would look like. It was magical. The ladies that ran the shop were my kinda gals…fun strong and mischievous characters.

Higher Education

Although I was intrigued with costumes, I never actually made the decision to become a Hat Maker. I focused my higher education on the business side of Fashion. After school, I traveled to London and completed a BA degree In Fashion Merchandising. After graduating I started working at Fenwicks of Bond Street as a Trainee Buyer.

Selling hats at Camden Market

Camden Lock Market & Wholesaling to Harrods Of Knightsbridge


I soon realized that the corporate world was not for me. I quit my job and started painting T-shirts which I sold at Camden Lock Market. In the first winter at Camden, I experimented with painting wool felt hats. This was really the start of my hat-making career. My designs were original and I had never seen hand-painted hats before, so I decided to take my collection to Harrods of Knightsbridge. That was how Harrods became one of my first wholesale customers. One of my designs which was a 4 x fish pattern swimming around the crown of the hat was taken by another trader who sewed the fish design rather than painting it. That hat became the number one selling hat in Camden for a few years. It was my original design but I did not receive any form of remuneration. This was the first time my designs were ‘adopted’ by another but it would not the last. I learned that unless I could master the ability to make my own patterns and sew a hat, I would forever be at a disadvantage.

London College of Fashion – Hat Making Training

After the initial excitement of my painted hat collection, I felt that I should learn how to block my own hats. I enrolled in The London College of Fashion and did a course on how to block a Fur Felt Hat. I was not inspired at all and almost lost my love of hat-making.

What I should have done was focus on smaller trims and pretty things. I am certain that had fascinators been around in the early 1990s, that is the way I would have focused.

Move To Cape Town South Africa

In 1996 I moved to Cape Town and was headhunted by a hat factory. I worked as the Head Designer of two Hat Factories in Cape Town. Mass production and the sad state of the factory and its workers in South Africa were heartbreaking. I learned a great deal from the ladies and gentlemen in the factories. I learned about hat-making and politics from women and men who had worked their whole lives, doing the same job.

Wardrobe Styling for Theatre and Film

After leaving the hat factory, I entered the film industry in Cape Town back in 2001 as a Wardrobe Stylist. It didn’t take people long to hear that I could make a hat. The world of Film and Theatre opened up all the career opportunities in the headwear industry for me. I was not yet a Milliner, however, the work I was given was Millinery work. There was no one that I could go to and ask advice from so I had to figure the design and production process out myself.

Mercury Poisoning – Falling Down The Rabbit Hole

At the age of 36 I was asked to replicate 6 Hero Hats for the movie, King Solomons’ Mines, starring Patrick Swayze.

I used old fur felts that had been sold to another factory by my previous employer. I was surprised that my previous employer had such a large amount of fur felts which they did not use. I had to dye these fur felts and that was the beginning of my horrific journey down the rabbit hole. I had poisoned myself with large amounts of mercury fumes and I would continue to poison myself with each new job that asked me to steam and buff old fur felts from costume houses around the world.

From age 36 to 46 I experienced what it truly means to be a Mad Hatter. It was frightening and debilitating. My ability to relate to anyone became impossible and my once cheerful disposition now turned poker-red mad.

For 10 years I tried to continue working, not understanding what was negatively influencing my abilities. I pushed myself to attend 2 Hat Exhibitions in Dubai and travel to Taiwan to teach a Millinery course to 60 university students.

I created the Mad Hatters Tea Party – teacup hats, cupcake hats, cherry pie hats. I had no idea what was wrong with me but my creativity during this time was overflowing.

Mercury Madness is NOT a Syndrome or a Fairytail

I believe the South African hat factories imported the poisoned mercury fur felts that the western workers had refused to work with within the 1950s/1960s. One of the factories I had worked for still had shelves of boxes which contained hundreds of fur felts. As the head Hat Designer I looked through everything. I was told to stay out of the fur felt stock room and the blocking room. This made no sense to me at the time. When they sold their business in the early 2000s, they sold off all of these fur felts too. I was now working as a wardrobe Stylist. Since I had worked for them previously, I knew what stock the new owners held. I went to this new factory and sourced from these fur felts when I worked on movies. I had also worked with old fur felts from costume houses which added to my continued levels of poisoning and to top it off I had 13 amalgam fillings.

South African factory workers did not have the same rights as their British and American counterparts. I dread to think about how many were literally mercury poisoned to death, without family or friends, understanding their demise. The blocking room would have been equal to a gas chamber. Blockers are especially susceptible to high fumes from heated lackers and dyes. Brushing the felts can also produce large amounts of fibers that are inhaled unless the proper precautions are taken.

I share this side of my journey because any student who is interested in hat making should be made aware that there are still dangers to our industry and precautions should be taken. I would not wish the 10 years of mass mercury poisoning and the 6 years of mercury chelation treatment on anyone.

Blocking fur felts use to be one of my favorite aspects of hat making. Sadly I no longer work with them because I have no idea how the fur fibers are fused to the wool felt. Mercury was used in the bonding process previously. Today, Russia, and Poland are areas where fur felts are still manufactured but I do not know under what conditions the workers are facing.

Self-Diagnosed at 46 Followed by 6 Years of Medical Supervised Mercury Chelation


Indoor craft market hat display


At age 46 I self-diagnosed myself and found a doctor who knew how to help me. He understood the implications of my poisoning and knew how to treat me. I think most people thought I was trying to create a wacky Brand image as a Mad Hatter. The truth is I lost my ability to walk, talk, think, function, remember, and my anger levels were hitting the sun and just as hot.

Starting from the Beginning – Back To The Craft Market

At the same time that I had diagnosed myself, I opened a small market shop at theWatershed, Waterfront in Cape Town. Having my own retail space was a game-changer for me. It allowed me to simply create whatever I wished. Unfortunately due to Covid, I felt it would be wiser to close until things return to some sense of normality.

I have not been able to confidently, stand out in the public since my mid 30’s, due to my illness. I completed my 6 years of chelation treatment as we started into Lockdown. In the first year of Covid lockdown, I started to reprogram my brain and I felt the connectors slowly start to work in a fluid functioning manner. The feeling of joy and happiness slowly started to reappear. Life is a BIG drag without any joy, my friends!

Before I fell down the rabbit hole, I had a dream that I could create a library of hat-making tutorials. I had already published my first Ebook and was on my way. I am now taking back that dream.  Sixteen years later my hat-making and millinery knowledge have greatly increased. I am now over 50 and more than excited to start teaching again.

I hope that my website can offer you some inspiration! Feel free to contact me via Whatsapp on +27 83 739 3079 with any hat-making or millinery queries.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story!

Jacqueline Kolbe