Jan 052013

Those who have met me, might notice I have a somewhat unusual taste in clothing. One thing I despise is having clothes that are heavily branded, especially when the local shops then charge top dollar for them.

Where hats are concerned, I’m fussy. I don’t like the boring old varieties that abound $2 shops everywhere. I prefer something unique.

The mugshot of me with my Vietnamese coolie hat is probably the one most people on the web know me by. I was all set to try and make one, and I had an idea how I might achieve it, bought some materials I thought might work, but then I happened to be walking down Brunswick Street in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley and saw a shop selling them for $5 each.

I bought one and have been wearing it on and off ever since. Or rather, I bought one, it wore out, I was given one as a present, wore that out, got given two more. The one I have today is #4.

I find them quite comfortable, lightweight, and most importantly, they’re cool and keep the sun off well. They are also one of the few full-brim designs that can accommodate wearing a pair of headphones or headset underneath. Being cheap is a bonus. The downside? One is I find they’re very divisive, people either love them or hate them — that said I get more compliments than complaints. The other, is they try to take off with the slightest bit of wind, and are quite bulky and somewhat fragile to stow.

I ride a bicycle to and from work, and so it’s just not practical to transport. Hanging around my neck, I can guarantee it’ll try to break free the moment I exceed 20km/hr… if I try and sit it on top of the helmet, it’ll slide around and generally make a nuisance.

Caps stow much easier. Not as good sun protection, but still can look good.   I’ve got a few baseball caps, but they’re boring and a tad uncomfortable.  I particularly like the old vintage gatsby caps — often worn by the 1930′s working class.  A few years back on my way to uni I happened to stop by a St. Vinnies shop near Brisbane Arcade (sadly, they have closed and moved on) and saw a gatsby-style denim cap going for about $10. I bought it, and people commented that the style suited me. This one was a little big on me, but I was able to tweak it a bit to make it fit.

Fast forward to today, it is worn out — the stitching is good, but there are significant tears on the panelling and the embedded plastic in the peak is broken in several places. I looked around for a replacement, but alas, they’re as rare as hens teeth here in Brisbane, and no, I don’t care for ordering overseas.

Down the road from where I live, I saw the local sports/fitness shop were selling those flat neoprene sun visors for about $10 each.  That gave me an idea — could I buy one of these and use it as the basis of a new cap?

These things basically consist of a peak and headband, attached to a dome consisting of 8 panels.  I took apart the old faithful and traced out the shape of one of the panels.

Now I already had the headband and peak sorted out from the sun visor I bought, these aren’t hard to manufacture from scratch either.  I just needed to cut out some panels from suitable material and stitch them together to make the dome.

There are a couple of parameters one can experiment that changes the visual properties of the cap.  Gatsby caps could be viewed as an early precursor to the modern baseball cap.  The prime difference is the shape of the panels.

Measurements of panel from old cap

The above graphic is also available as a PDF or SVG image.  The key measurements to note are A, which sets the head circumference, C which tweaks the amount of overhang, and D which sets the height of the dome.

The head circumference is calculated as ${panels}×${A} so in the above case, 8 panels, a measurement of 80mm, means a head circumference of 640mm.  Hence why it never quite fitted (58cm is about my size) me.  I figured a measurement of about 75mm would do the trick.

B and C are actually two of three parameters that separates a gatsby from the more modern baseball cap.  The other parameter is the length of the peak.  A baseball cap sets these to make the overall shape much more triangular, increasing B to about half D, and tweaking C to make the shape more spherical.

As for the overhang, I decided I’d increase this a bit, increasing C to about 105mm.  I left measurements B and D alone, making a fairly flattish dome.

For each of these measurements, once you come up with values that you’re happy with, add about 10mm to A, C and D for the actual template measurements to give yourself a fabric margin with which to sew the panels together.

As for material, I didn’t have any denim around, but on my travels I saw an old towel that someone had left by the side of the road — likely an escapee.  These caps back in the day would have been made with whatever material the maker had to hand.  Brushed cotton, denim, suede leather, wool all are common materials.  I figured this would be a cheap way to try the pattern out, and if it worked out, I’d then see about procuring some better material.

Below are the results, click on the images to enlarge.  I found due to the fact that this was my first attempt, and I just roughly cut the panels from a hand-drawn template, the panels didn’t quite meet in the middle.  This is hidden by making a small circular patch where the panels normally meet.  Traditionally a button is sewn here.  I sewed the patch from the underside so as to hide the edges of it.

Hand-made gatsbyHand-made gatsby (Underside)

Not bad for a first try, I note I didn’t quite get the panels aligned at dead centre, the seam between the front two is just slightly off centre by about 15mm.  The design looks alright to my eye, so I might look around for some suede leather and see if I can make a dressier one for more formal occasions.