Creating the right look for a character on the stage is one of the tasks of a costuming department in a theatre. When creating a hat for a character, a felt hat must have the material draped over a form, or hat block. The hat block must be able to accept pins to hold the material in place, as well as stand up to the heat of the steam to mold the material. The hats themselves may curve under the block, so a complex hat block has to be disassembled in order to remove the finished hat. The Drama Department at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a few hat blocks that came from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, but they are worn from use and, perhaps, not the right size for current actors. Furthermore, the making of a hat block using “traditional” woodworking techniques is becoming a lost art. But one student at UNC Chapel Hill is working to revitalize the art using digital technology.
During a graduate class in millinery at the UNC Chapel Hill Drama Department, Athene Wright became interested in using digital fabrication techniques to recreate hat blocks. Under the direction of Rachel Pollock, Craft Artisan and Lecturer, Athene took on the task of creating a digital file of a crown block with a conical tip. She worked with Brad Erickson at the UNC Makerspace to create a 3D model of the hat by taking multiple pictures from different angles, and stitching them together in a software to create a 3D rendering of the block. She then 3D printed the file, adding a wooden base because the ABS plastic of the 3D print would not hold up when pins were pushed into it. More information and the files can be found at Athene’s website and Thingiverse post and on Rachel Pollock’s blog, La Bricoleuse.
In her blog, Rachel mentioned that another student, Candy McClernan (MFA ’13) used a more traditional technique to reproduce the same hat block by draping the original with plaster bandages, then filling that with a two-part rigid foam. While this technique does recreate the original, it is more difficult to modify the size to fit the head of a different actor. Once there is a digital file, however, the size and shape can be modified on screen to fit different actors and a prototype generated before the final shape is committed to a more durable material.
Athene’s quest to create digital files had another purpose. It’s one thing to recreate a hat block itself, and another to create a new block from an existing hat. You can’t make a physical cast of the hat without ruining it, and you can’t recreate the hat without the block. Athene fell in love with a hat from the 40’s that perches at a jaunty angle on top of the head—so, she again drew on the services of Brad Erickson at the UNC Makerspace to create a 3D model of the hat. Using a 3D scanner, they created an .stl of the hat, and Athene brought it to the studio for machining a prototype in foam.