It was the 1960s when one of Meyriel Edge's instructors in a 3D art course took notice of her talent and suggested she utilize her skills by training in millinery. "I was working in clay at the time, and he said I should go into hat design," she says. "I thought that was about the stupidest thing I'd ever heard — I just laughed." Half a century later, the joke is on Edge who now spends her days making elegant headgear in Charleston.
Until now, the gift shop within the Gibbes Museum had been Edge's primary outlet for head toppers, but due to the museum's renovation that began on Aug. 30, Edge is now trialing a virtual shop on Etsy, MJMillinery. The shop is populated with already created designs, but she also takes custom orders, like the hats she's made for entire bridal parties, accessories for the Royal Ascot horse race, and even a hat for an American woman lucky enough to have been invited to meet Queen Elizabeth herself.
But the path to successful hatmaker wasn't all royal aspirations. The Wales-born Edge, retired from a 24-year career teaching art at Ashley Hall and has spent her life immersed in the arts — as both a teacher and a potter at Middleton Place. She still accepts painting commissions to this day.
But it was Ashley Hall that circuitously led Edge back to millinery. The school's professional development program allowed the artist to supplement her art training each summer, leaving her with a portfolio of creative abilities like fresco making and silverpoint drawing. Forever chasing new forms of art led her to an educational plateau though. "It was difficult to find something I didn't actually know. I knew I was going to be in the UK at one point, so I looked at The London College of Fashion because I knew they did accelerated, intensive courses — and there was millinery," she says. Since 2003, Edge has traveled abroad to learn from revered creators like Dillon Wallwork and Bridget Bailey whose hats top the heads of British royals, as well as American pop royalty like Lady Gaga.
Intensely process-oriented, Edge insists the finished product is just the tip of the artistic iceberg. "The block-makers are really the people that should get the accolades," she says. "Without the block, the milliners couldn't make a hat, but has anyone ever heard of that?"
An art form all their own, blocks are essentially hat-shaped sculptures that can range in size to accommodate the average 22-and-a-half-inch head, as well as the pin heads and melons that walk among us. Often made of wood, different-shaped blocks allow the hat-maker to choose the forms the crown and brim will take. Edge gets her vintage blocks from eBay. Material, often felt or straw, is then molded to each block and allowed to dry before crown and brim are hand-stitched together to complete the hat's shape.
Felt, for example, requires intense steaming and stretching by hand. "Felt by itself is quite strong, but if you steam it and get it hot and damp, it becomes malleable and you can make it go into all sorts of amazing shapes," Edge explains. "It might take an hour, just continuing to work on the shape. You'll probably want to go and have a drink in the middle — because you're so hot — but once it's tight on the block, you let it dry for half a day, or maybe overnight, and that becomes the shape."
Besides felt, Edge makes hat bases with leather and sinamay, a commonly used woven material similar to straw. Sinamay's fibers can be pulled apart and manipulated to create sprays of color or twisted into wispy details. Inspired by nature's organic shapes, Edge may accentuate the toppers with "silk paper," a material she creates using strands of silk built up until it reaches a paper-like thickness. Then she'll tug at the edges and thin it out, allowing for a roughed-up gossamer effect.
For Edge, once again, it's all about the process. In fact, she prefers a hand-stich over a sewing machine any day. "When I was learning, I had this lovely lady who shouted at everyone that their stitches were too big," she recalls. "They had to be what's called 'stab stitches.' It means it goes in and comes out almost at the same place. If you look at a hat, a really good hat, you'll see these tiny stitches and that's what you're paying for," Edge says.
Though Americans aren't wont to include hats in their formal wear like the Brits, Edge thinks more women should take a page out of the Kate Middleton fashion playbook — sure, for her business, but also for a hat's transformative nature. "Every woman seems to think she looks awful in hats. I used to, too. When I did that first course, our instructor made us all stand up and put on a hat. To most of us she said, 'Ugh, take it off. Now stand up straight, look elegant. Now, put it back on.' And it's all about that," Edge explains. "I think it's a confidence thing," she adds. "It's a pity. I've had a few parties and I've made people wear them, and once everyone else puts one on, everyone loosens up. I think Americans need that."