Thursday, January 17, 2013

How to Make a Leather Top Hat

Making a top hat is a somewhat time consuming, but also very rewarding, experience.  Not only will you learn a good deal about construction and assembly, but you’ll wind up with a hat fitted to exactly your head measurements – which makes for a more pleasant wearing experience overall!  Plus by the time you finish, you will not only have a truly original hat, you’ll really value it from having made it yourself.

These instructions are based on making a leather top hat.  They can be largely followed for using other fabrics or materials, though the supply list would vary accordingly.


  • One roll of 4/5 oz leather – this will give you a hat that is sturdy but not too heavy
  • Bendable ruler, at least 2’ in length (and ideally 3’)
  • Metal ruler or straight edge
  • Rotary or box cutter 
  • Leather scissors
  • Leather dye in the color of choice for hat
  • Sharpie, pen, or other tracing pencil
  • Safety beveler
  • Draft puncher, 1/8 or 1/16th 
  • Mallet (to pound holes with above)
  • Cutting board (to place below leather as you punch your holes
  • Awl thread
  • Large darning or needlepoint needle (dull tip, not sharp!)
  • Drafting calipers, set to a half inch
  • Water sprayer bottle
  • Small binder clips

Making the Brim Pattern:  
Take the flexible ruler and measure your head exactly.  Measure at the place you intend your hat to sit.  Shape and mold the ruler to fit your exact head shape, and hold it like that.
1.  Trace inside of ruler onto tracing or butcher block paper.2.  Add ½” for seam allowance INSIDE this circle.  Use calipers to measure exactly ½” all the way around.  Draw seam allowance.
3.  Determine how large of a brim you want, and measure out.
4.  Trace out brim on the outside of the circle, in the width you want your brim.
5.  Cut out brim.
a.       For men, if you want a flat brim this is the same size all the way around the brim.
b.      For men or women, if you want a folded or curved brim along the sides, add a bit more width on each side, making more of an oblong circle – the extra length is needed when you go to curl the brim up.
c.       For women, if you plan on wearing a scarf around your hat with the tails draping off the back, you will want to extend the extra width around the back of the hat as well, to allow a decent platform for the scarf to drape down. 

 Gents or Ladies Flat Brim 

-          Cut approximately 1 to 1½” evenly all around the head measurement 

 Ladies Brim with Folded Sides and Tail Scarf

-          Cut approximately 1 to 1 ½” at front and 2 to 2 ½” around sides and back


 Gents or Ladies Brim with Folded Sides 

-          Cut approximately 1 to 1 ½” at front and back and 2 to 2 ½” around sides 

Making the Sides Patterns:
6.  Determine how tall you want the crown of your hat to be.  Remember to be measuring from wherever you want the hat to sit on your forehead!  If you are just making your first hat and want a reasonable height without being too tall, shoot for around 4-5”.

                        Stovepipe Instructions
a.       If you want a completely vertical, “stovepipe” style top hat, take the circumference of your head as measured in step 1 and add an inch for seam allowance. 
b.      Determine the height of your crown, and add an inch for seam allowance.
c.       Draw a rectangle to these measurements (circumference of head plus 1” as the length, and height plus 1” as the height.)
d.      Cut out one rectangle.  This is your crown pattern.

Angled Crown
a.       For a slightly angled crown, then you will draft and cut a slight trapezoid shape, with the sides each tapering in slightly.  Be cautious, as you may not want too steep an angle!  You can angle your crown inwards or outwards, depending on your style preference. 
b.      The bottom width of your trapezoid will be HALF the circumference of your head plus 1” seam allowance.
c.       The top width of your trapezoid will be either slightly larger, or slightly smaller, depending on if you want a crown that angles slightly inwards or outwards.
d.      Determine the height of your crown and add 1” seam allowance.
e.       Cut out two trapezoids.  (For the pattern drafting stage, you only need to cut out one and then trace it twice onto the leather.)
Hourglass Crown
a.       If you want a hat crown shaped like an hourglass, then you take the circumference of your head as measured above, and divide by four.   Add 1” to this for seam allowance.  This will be the bottom length measurement.  (This hat pattern requires four pieces.)
b.      Determine the height you want for your crown, as above, and add 1” for seam allowance.
c.       Determine if you want the top width to be the same as your head circumference or larger/smaller.  If the same, use the same number in step 11a, above.
d.      Determine how much you want your hat to curve inwards from your crown, and divide by 4.  (So for example, if your head circumference is 24” and you want your hat to be 4” narrower at its center crown, then you would take 24”-4” to get 20”.  Divide by 4, so in this case 5”, then add 1” for seam allowance.)
e.       Cut four hourglass-shaped pieces, based on the measurements above. 

Making the Top Pattern:
7.  If you are making the stovepipe version of the hat, use the head circumference measurement and shape from the bendable ruler, and trace onto paper.  Add half an inch all the way around for seam allowance. Cut one. 
8.  If you are making the trapezoid version of the hat, angled slightly inwards or outwards, then take the measurement of the top width, double it (since this was cut based on two pieces for the sides), and trace that measurement on the outside of your head circumference.  Add ½” seam allowance with the calipers, and then cut one.  
9.  If you are making the hourglass version of the hat, take the top width of your pattern shapes, quadruple it (since this was based off four pieces for the sides), and trace that measurement on the outside of your head circumference.  Add ½” seam allowance with the calipers, and then cut one.
Cutting Out Your Leather:
10.  Now that we’ve drafted our pattern pieces, it’s time to begin cutting the leather!
11.  Lay out your pattern pieces on the leather section, with the rough side facing up towards you.
12.  Before cutting, make sure to look over the smooth side of the leather and place your pieces on the leather you want in your hat.  If there are any marks or imperfections you want to avoid, then do not mark out your pattern pieces in that section!
a.       If you are doing a stovepipe hat, you will have three pieces – one crown, one brim, and one top.
b.      If you are doing an angled crown, you will have three pieces but need to cut TWO crown pieces for a total of one brim, one top, and two crowns.
c.       If you are making an hourglass crown, then you will finish with SIX total pieces of leather cut – cut one brim, one top, and then FOUR crown pieces.  Just trace out your pattern piece four times.
Sewing the Pieces Together 

13.  Next, it’s time to prepare the edge of the leather for seam allowances and sewing.  You will want to take your beveling tool and run it across EACH edge you will be sewing to thin down the leather along all of your ½” seam allowances.  So, this will include the inside edge of your brim, the outside edge of your top, and then all four edges of your crown pieces. 
14.  BE VERY CAREFUL!  Beveling tolls are very dangerous and have a very sharp blade!  Use all good rotary cutting rules, making sure to always keep your thumb in when pulling the tool towards you to avoid injury if you slip.
15.  Exert a fair bit of pressure, but not too much – your goal is to thin the leather along the sewing edges enough to make it fold nicely, but not so much that you cut all the way through the leather.
16.  Now it’s time to begin assembling and sewing them together.
17.  Take your draft puncher, and punch along the height side of your crown piece(s).
18.  Thread the awl thread through your needle, and cut off a generous length.
19.  Sew the crown together, with the pieces overlapping.  (The ½” seam allowance will overlap one section on top of the other.)  You should be sewing so that the smooth side of the leather (the outside of the hat) is facing you when the cylinder is complete.
a.       For the stovepipe, simply match the two sides together to form a cylinder, and sew using a running stitch going up and then back down.
b.      For the angled crown, sew piece A to piece B on one edge, then B back to A on the next edge to form a cylinder.
c.       For the hourglass top hat, sew the four pieces together.
d.      For added embellishment, you can use a cross stitch to form large Xs in place of the running stitch.
      20.  Now comes the tough part – sewing the crown to the top.  The good news is, this is the toughest part of hat construction – so once you’ve done this, it’s all downhill!
      21.  Take the water bottle, and liberally douse the top oval with a good spritz of water, to soften (but not soak) the leather.  Working along the ½” seam allowance, begin bending the leather edge inwards, towards the rough side and away from the smooth side, at a 90 degree angle.
      22.  Once you’ve finished, spritz the crown of the hat along the sides to dampen slightly, and fold inside out so the smooth side of the leather is now inside the cylinder and the rough side is facing outwards.
      23.  Once the crown has been turned inside out, take your binder clips and use them to attach the top (with the smooth side facing down, or into the cylinder) to the crown of the hat.  I recommend clipping it in four points – not so many clips you damage the leather, but not so few that the leather pieces can wiggle around or slip.
'     24.  Take the cutting board and place it beneath one of the now clipped edges.  Next, take your mallet and draft puncher, and begin carefully punching holes along the two top edges – one along your top’s seam allowance and going right through to the top edge of the crown’s seam allowance.
      25.  When you have gone all the way around, stitch the two pieces together using the awl thread and needle, with the same running stitch used when attaching the crown pieces.  You may want to take small breaks, as this can be a very tricky process.
      26.  When you have finished sewing the top to the crown, knot off your thread. 
      27.  Soak the entire crown and top fairly generously with the water spritzer bottle, then CAREFULLY turn the hat outside in, so that the smooth side of the leather is now on the outside, facing you.  Both the top and all the pieces of the crown should have the smooth leather side exposed.
28.  Next, we sew the brim to the crown.  Place the crown top-down, so the top is sitting on your workbench.
      29.  Punch holes along the inside edge of your brim’s seam allowance for sewing holes.
      30.  Take your brim, and with the rough side facing you spritz the inside edge seam allowance with water.  Bend at a right angle towards you.  (In general, you want the smooth side of the hat facing downwards, away from the crown.  While this might seem counter-intuitive at first, it will make sense when you begin molding and shaping the hat – this allows the smooth side to be more exposed for hats where the sides are folded up, since unless you are very short people will not be looking down at your brim.)
      31.  Once you have the sewing edge folded, place the brim down over the crown bottom, and with a pen or Sharpie first mark a specific point on each piece (I use the back since it will be easily hidden) – this allows you to match both pieces up exactly again while sewing.  Next, carefully make a dot on the crown at each point where you punched a hole in the brim, along the seam allowance of the two pieces.
      32.  Next, remove the brim and carefully use the draft puncher to punch out holes on each of the dots/places you marked from the brim holes. 
      33.  Reattach the brim, and hold the two pieces in place using binder clips as with the crown and top.
      34.  Sew your brim, along the inside edge, to your crown.
Finishing the Hat
     You’re nearly completed!  The final steps in the top hat making process is to mould, and then dye, your beautiful new hat.
      35.  To begin moulding your hat, liberally spray it with water.  You’ll want it to be fairly wet, though not soaking – spray it thoroughly until the leather seems more flexible.
      36.  Shape your hat into the desired shape. 
a.       For stovepipe hats, there may not be much shaping involved, other than trying the hat on to make sure it fits your head properly.
b.      For folded brim hats, you will want to work the leather along the sides, curling the brim up towards the top of the hat, until you have the desired look and shape that you want.
      37.  Once you’ve gotten your hat into its proper shape, either put in the oven at VERY low heat (for gas stoves, turn to the lowest setting and then when the oven reaches that heat, turn it off.)  You can also use a blow dryer to remove most of the excess water.  If you’re willing to wait a day or two, you can leave it out to dry on its own as well. 
      38.  Once the hat has dried, fit it again to make sure the fit is correct.  If not, repeat steps 42 and 43.
      39.  Now it’s time to dye.  Using the dye color you chose, start rubbing the leather dye onto the leather in small, circular motions.  Depending on the depth of color desired, two coats of dye may be required.
      40.  Allow the dye to dry thoroughly.
      41.  Finally, take your leather waterproofing spray, and spray the hat thoroughly so the color affixes and will not run in bad weather.  
      42.  Allow to dry thoroughly.
      At this point – you have a beautiful, custom-made leather top hat!  Feel free to enjoy it as it is, or to embellish or decorate as you wish. 
a.       You can use the draft puncher to add a few more holes along the brim or edges and hang chains or other fobs, or use a riveter to add various brass or copper embellishments. 
b.      If you want to add a ribbon trim along the lower crown and/or feathers, the sky is your limit!  Tuck in any feathers or other mementos (my husband is fond of playing cards) into the ribbon along the base, on the side of the hat.
c.       Finally, if you want to attach a scarf, simply take a long and narrow length of cloth and wind it along the front of your hat, leaving the edges or tails trailing down the back of the hat.  Knot into place, and voila!
If you've managed to make it this far, huzzah!  I do tend to be wordy - which is good for teaching hand-on, and bad for blogging.  However, if you'd like the Word document version of these instructions, please feel free to email me at  All I ask is that you credit me as the author if you distribute them!  Thank you.

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