Milliner Deanna Gibbons, people have told me, is much in demand, and very busy making her elegant hand-blocked hats for Barney’s New York. So I hope for little more than a brief, formal interview as I climb the steep redwood stairs to her studio, perched atop a tall, narrow house on Alabama Street.
But Gibbons greets me warmly at the door of her fairy-tale studio in the sky, and laughs as she leads me through its hats, hand-dyed ribbon trims, quaint vintage mirrors, antique millinery sewing machines, and then shelves upon shelves of her revered wooden blocks in the shape of every imaginable hat.
Brushing aside the idea of a formal interview, she proposes to do some custom work for clients and at the same time teach me how to block hats. So my journey into this venerable craft begins.
Spraying liberal amounts of water onto what looks like a lumpy gray felt sack, and then slipping this onto a wooden crown block, Gibbons explains her process. “Felt is a compressed fiber. The great thing about it is that you can give it a totally new shape.”
Wielding a steamer fitted with a tank of water and a hose, she says, “I’ve always liked the felt when it’s steamy. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s so malleable that you can stretch it into all these different forms; it’s just amazing.”
She steams and shapes it. “If I steam it enough, I’ll be able to cut this nicely off the block,” she says. “After it dries. It’s going to be a day or two.”
Gibbons has a deep sense of connection to the materials, the blocks, and the people who have worked them. Her spring hats for Barney’s, for example, are made of hand-woven panama straw from Ecuador. After blocking each hat, she shapes each broad brim differently, into a unique, graceful sweep. She must, she says. “This is so dictated by the weaver; the way they wove it, how heavy the straw is, how much straw they used.”
The block also demands respect. Finding the felt she is shaping a little too short to stretch completely over the brim block, she murmurs, “I could make marks and stick pins into the block, but you know blocks are tools, so….” And she finds another solution. Many of Gibbons’ blocks are carved by professionals, while others are vintage blocks from as far back as the 1920s. This particular block, her husband carved.
Many of her hats end up on performers. Gibbons has done costume hats for the San Francisco Ballet, the Opera, and the American Musical Theater in San Jose. And she still remembers the excitement of making two hats for Benjamin Bratt for the film “La Mission”: “You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the filming if you lived in the neighborhood. I was with friends when we saw the lowriders go by with Benjamin Bratt in the car, and I’m like: Hey! I made that hat!”
Gibbons says few hats have the “fantastical” theatricality of the “giant, giant” ones she created for productions of “The Merry Widow” and “My Fair Lady.” Yet my lesson in hand-blocking makes me appreciate how any expertly hand-crafted hat can imbue the most ordinary clothes on the most ordinary day with a tint of drama and glamour.