I love making hats! One Summer day, I had an idea that I could make a hat by coiling twisted strips of fabric. It worked better than I expected, because to my surprise, the hat took on the shape that I molded it to, almost as if it had wires in the brim. I can style it as a cowgirl hat, by folding up the sides. I can put a wave or dip in the brim, fold up the whole brim, or just flip up the front.
I made it using some scraps of heavy, stable upholstery fabric. Quite a few of my projects start out with upholstery scraps. I love using things that would otherwise be thrown away, and I was very fortunate to know an upholsterer who was kind enough to save up fabric scraps for me. My Ironic Tote Bag was made from scrap upholstery fabric, and so were my Lego Block Pillows. (I made a free printable PDF pattern for the Lego Block Pillows, if you want to make your own!)
I also used upholstery scraps to make several different interchangeable hat bands and fabric flowers, so I can change the look of the hat and swap out the flowers to match my outfit.
If you’d like to sew your own sunhat, grab some fabric and follow along! You can speed up the process by starting with cording or even cotton clothesline, instead of cutting and twisting fabric. (Be sure that the clothesline you select doesn’t have a metal core in it, because you won’t have much luck sewing through that! This clothesline is pure cotton and I’ve sewn through it very successfully.)
The texture, weight, stiffness, and shape-ability of your hat will vary depending on the properties of the material you select. For example, I made a hat with an autumn theme (pictured above) using the same method and a soft chenille fabric, and the resulting hat was much softer to wear, but the brim wasn’t as moldable. When I used clothesline, the hat was incredibly structured and didn’t want to bend or crush at all. So this is a very serendipitous process, but it’s also a lot of fun, especially if you’re using scraps that would otherwise get thrown out.
You are likely going to see both sides of the fabric when your hat is done, unless you twist and sew VERY carefully (and who’s got time for that?), so I chose a fabric with identical right and wrong sides. You can use a print (the autumn hat was made from a print), but you won’t be able to distinguish a pattern in the final product, just the colors that make up the pattern.
The total amount of fabric I used was 1,200 linear inches of 1″ wide strips, which works out to about 3/4 yard of fabric. (Yes, I used 100 feet of fabric strips!) But you may use more or less fabric than I did, depending on how thick your fabric is (you would need more of a thinner fabric), and how wide you want the brim of your sunhat to be.
I also used:
- A good quality sewing thread that matched my fabric.
- A size 16 sharp needle. (It might be called a size 100 regular, depending on where you live, or it may be sold as a denim needle or jeans needle. These are all the same thing.)
- A hand-sewing needle.
- Smaller scraps of upholstery fabric in contrasting colors, to make a hatband and some decorative fabric flowers.
- A large button to attach the interchangeable fabric flowers to the hatband.
I cut my fabric into 1″ (2.5 cm) strips using a rotary cutter. I cut the strips on the straight of grain (from selvage to selvage) instead of on the bias, because I didn’t want the strips to be stretchy. The length of the strips depended on the size of my scraps, so many of them were quite short, but it doesn’t matter, since they will all get joined together as we sew the hat.
I attached the strips of fabric to each other as I went, by using a second, spare sewing machine that I set up behind my favorite machine. The one in the back (that’s Kenny) was set to a medium-width zigzag stitch, and his only job was to join the strips of fabric to each other. My favorite machine (the vintage one in the front, also named Kenny) was set to the widest zigzag stitch and a 2.5 mm length (about 11 stitches to the inch), and that’s the machine that joined the coils of fabric to each other to form the actual hat. When the strip I was adding to the hat got too short, I just stopped with the needle down, flipped the tail end to the back, and Kenny attached another strip.
If you only have one sewing machine, you may decide to join a bunch of fabric strips together first, and roll the resulting long fabric strip around a cardboard tube or something to keep it under control. Or you might stop sewing the hat, change the width of your zigzag, join a new strip, and go back to coiling the hat. Just do whatever works best for you.
No matter how or when you join the fabric strips together, you will want to use a diagonal seam so that the joint is less visible, and easier to sew over. I’m demonstrating the diagonal joint using contrasting fabric so you can see it better. Overlap the strips like it shows in the pictures, and sew them together using a medium-width zigzag stitch.
You will need to twist the fabric strips as you go, which you can do by hand of course…
But if you’re like me, you might get slightly bored and wonder if you can use an electric drill instead.
I chucked a metal hook into my beat-up cordless drill. (Never underestimate the power of chucking weird things into your drill! I’ve used my drill for so many crazy things this way.) I cut a small snip in the end of my fabric strip, stuck the hook through the hole, and spun away. The drill definitely saves time, but it doesn’t twist the strips as evenly as you would by hand, and it will probably be easier to use a drill if you haven’t joined all of your fabric strips together ahead of time. The hole in the fabric strip will get cut off when I join the next strip of fabric to it.
Whether you twist by hand or with a drill, you don’t want to twist the strips so tightly that the twisted cord tries to kink up on itself when there’s a little bit of slack in the cord. It will be much easier to control the cord if it’s not twisted crazy-tight.
To form the actual hat, you will need to sew your cord into a coil. When I made my first hat this way, I didn’t think about whether or not it mattered which direction I coiled the cord, I just started coiling it counter-clockwise and stitching away. But it does matter. See how as the hat got bigger, the crown and brim and everything started to get squashed by the sewing machine? It’s much more difficult to rotate and sew the hat if you coil your strips the wrong way.
Coil your hat clockwise, so that the strip you are adding is always to the right of your needle. This way the hat will be formed to the left of the needle, out where there’s plenty of space for it to be happy and free like a little bird. I coiled the strips in the correct direction when I made my next hat (the autumn-themed one), and it worked much better.
To start the coil, I left a little tail that would be caught in the stitching later, and then folded over about 1.5″ (3.75 cm) of the twisted fabric strip. Starting with a small fold instead of coiling it into a circle means that the hat will end up with a slightly oval shape, and it will fit your head better because human noggins are a little bit oval and not perfectly round.
Start sewing in the center, making sure that the needle is catching the previous coil when it swings left, and the new coil as it swings right. (Yes, it’s vice versa in the picture… remember that I coiled this hat in the wrong direction!) Keep rotating the coil around and around as you sew, adding to the hat until you have an oval that’s about 4″ (10 cm) across.
Lock your stitches and take the coil out of the machine. Is the coil perfectly flat, like a coaster? Or does it cup slightly? This will depend on how much give your fabric has, your tension settings, and your sewing habits. But you want the hat to start cupping at this point. You might be able to keep going just the way you have been. But if your coil is flat, you need to start pulling on the new strip as you add it. Keep a slight, constant tension on it with your hand, and this will cause the hat to develop a curved shape.
You want the hat to have a more gentle curve near the top of the crown, and a sharper curve as it gets closer to the side of your head. If you aren’t sure whether your hat is shaping up right or not, take it out of the sewing machine and put it on your head. If it flares out too much, you need to pull on the fabric strips more as you add them. If it’s too tight, you’re pulling too much. Your noggin will be your guide on this journey, and remember: When in doubt, try it out.
When the crown is large enough for your liking, you can start to form the brim. I wanted to start making the hat brim when the crown came down to 2 finger-widths above my eyebrows. But of course it depends on your preference and the style of hat that you are making.
To make the brim, you will need to start sewing the coils to the side of the crown. I strongly recommend sewing the first two revolutions by hand, since you won’t be able to form a sharp angle with the cord underneath the presser foot.
Take a hand needle and a doubled length of thread, and start sewing the coils to the side of the crown, like it shows in the picture. You will probably want to use a thimble, and maybe a gripper (or rubber gloves) as well, to help grab the needle and pull it through all of those layers. Sew it tight and secure, because the rest of the brim will be held up by these first two coils, and you don’t want it to be floppy or loose.
When you have hand-sewn coils for two complete revolutions around the crown, you should be able to fit the hat brim under your presser foot and finish making the rest of the brim. Just add as many coils as you want, until the hat brim is as wide as you’d like it to be.
If you find that the brim is wanting to curve down, into too much of a bell shape, you might want to keep some tension on the completed part of the brim as you add new coils. This will have the opposite effect as when you kept tension on the coil you were adding, when you were making the crown curve down on purpose. But your hat brim might be flat all by itself, without needing you to pull on any part of it. It all depends on your tension settings, how much give your fabric has, and your sewing habits.
When the brim is the size you want it to be, just cut the last strip at an angle, twist it tightly, and zigzag it down to the brim in the back of the hat.
Now, you can make a hat band or two. This one is made from more scrap upholstery fabric, in a fun blue cheetah print. Measure around your hat, right above the brim, and add 4″ (10 cm) to this measurement. Cut a strip of accent fabric that long by 2.75″ (7 cm) wide.
Fold the strip in half, with the right sides together, so that the long edges are meeting. Sew down the long edge, so that you have a tube. (I’m using a zigzag stitch to keep the cut edges tidy.)
Now turn the tube right-side out, using a safety pin or bodkin to help you work the end through. Trim the hat band so that it’s 1″ longer than the circumference of the hat band (measured right above the brim). The reason I make the hat band longer to start out with, and trim it later, is because the ends often get stretched out or messy when I’m turning the tube right-side out.
I zigzagged over the two cut ends of the hatband to keep things neat, and then folded the two ends together with the long seam on the outside. Stitch the ends together, using a 1/2″ seam allowance. Press the seams open, and flip the long seam to the inside of the circle so that you can’t see it on the finished hat band.
I attached a large silver button to the hat band, right over the place where I joined the ends together. This covers up the seam, but the button is also how I attach the interchangeable fabric flowers that I made to decorate the hat! You just pop the flowers on and off, and the button becomes the center of the flower. That way, you can easily swap the flowers out to match your outfit, or just to change the look of the hat.
I did not attach the hat band to the actual hat. It has never fallen off, and since I swap out the hat bands, I didn’t want to stitch the band to the crown. But of course you can if you want to. If you do want to sew your hat band on, I would recommend hand-stitching it from the inside of the hat, through only the back layer of the hat band tube. That way, you won’t be able to see the stitches from the right side. You should be able to work the needle in between the coils of fabric, so that you’re only really stitching the hat band to the thread that holds the coils together. It will be much easier to push the needle through if you’re not stitching through the fabric coils, and the thread will hold the hat band on just fine. There won’t be much stress on the hat band itself, so you don’t need to make a crazy-good seam. Just tack it in place.
The fabric flowers are very easy to make, and I used (of course) more scraps of upholstery fabric. They are so cute and versatile that they deserve their very own tutorial! They can be attached to flip-flops, headbands, totes, purses, etc. Or make a whole bouquet of them, and attach them to stems or branches in a vase! Keep an eye out for the fabric flowers tutorial, and you can also subscribe to my email list to make sure you don’t miss it!
That’s it, I hope you enjoyed the tutorial! Have fun making your own convertible sun hat, or pin this idea for later. Happy sewing!