Pat Milchuck’s shop in Paxton is crammed with capelines, the straw hat bodies Milchuck will shape into her creations. There are rows of ribbon, baskets of artifical flowers and feathers, containers of vintage jewelry, rolls of sinamay (a mesh fabric).
There’s the Pfaff sewing machine Milchuck has been using for more than 40 years, a serger and a steamer.
And there are the finished hats in pink, turquoise, ivory and black, netting swooping off the broad brims at an angle.
Milchuck hopes some of these creations will find their way onto the heads of Kentucky Derby fans.
She is a milliner and owner of Simply Pat’s Hats. She has sold her handmade hats at her shop for the last five years, and this spring some of her Derby hats will be carried in four Von Maur stores.
“I’m on top of the world that my hats are going to be in Von Maur stores,” Milchuck said, calling herself a big fan of the department store.
Her hats will be sold in Von Maur stores in Normal, Louisville, Ky., Atlanta and Alpharetta, Ga. She sent three shipments, at the beginning of February, March and April.
Von Maur designated the colors for the hats it wanted: black, ivory, natural, turquoise, pink and navy blue for the first order, and those colors plus black-and-white and red for the subsequent ones.
Milchuck began work on the hats in late December at her shop in the State Street Mall along Illinois 45 in Paxton.
One of the natural-colored hats has a wave of sinamay fabric along the brim, and another is decorated with ribbon lined with rhinestones.
A flamboyant turquoise “screamer” features pleated material extending from the hat's brim and standing up in waves behind the hat’s crown.
One black hat is decorated with black-and-silver covered wire, and another has pieces of black-and-white-patterned fabric on the brim, looking like the petals of a flower.
One of Milchuck’s most interesting creations is her “Mat Hatter” hat (not one of the Derby hats going to Von Maur). The purple top hat has a curled feather, vintage jewelry and a purple ribbon scrunched along a wire. Details, such as two small bands of material around an edge on one side of the brim, are what make the creation her own.
Milchuck comes to such creative work naturally. Her grandfather immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe and worked in tanneries here, making leather clothing. Her mother was an excellent seamstress, sewing dresses for her six daughters.
Milchuck’s mother steered her daughter toward dressmaking school, even though Milchuck had other, more adventurous plans. She’s grateful to her mother, though, because she loves her work.
Milchuck graduated from the Warzecha School of Dressmaking in Buffalo, N.Y., where she learned the “old European” style of dressmaking, with lots of handwork.
Milchuck established a clientele in New York, designing dresses, winter coats, purses and hats for them. She did bridal work too – not only the dresses and headpieces, but also decorations.
When she moved to Paxton, she began sewing for clients out of her home, then got a shop downtown. She gave up her shop a few years after her husband’s death in 1994, but she missed designing.
Milchuck thought she’d focus on hats, and she opened her current shop in 2008.
To create a hat, Milchuck first puts a capeline or hood – the basis for a broad-brimmed or small-brimmed hat, respectively – onto a wood block and begins to shape it, using steam to help.
“I spin it around and keep shaping it, until I get the head size I need,” Milchuck said.
Once she determines how deep she wants the crown, she ties a string around it, then measures and pins the capeline evenly and lets it dry.
Milchuck uses a stiffener to help the hat hold its shape. She adds a peterscham sweatband inside the crown of the hat, and she stitches millinery wire into the brim to hold it firm so it doesn’t droop.
Then she’ll add a headband around the outside of the crown and embellishments such as netting or sinamay, flowers, ribbon, covered wire, feathers or jewelry.
Becky Prina of Paxton, a retired art teacher for the Hoopeston school district, is Milchuck’s assistant and is learning the craft of making hats. Prina does the shopping for fabric, flowers and ribbons that might be used in making the hats. She buys at fabric stores, Hobby Lobby and Prairie Gardens.
The women hunt for vintage jewelry at a Galesburg antiques mall. And early this year, Prina made a trip to Chicago to check out a fabric warehouse and upholstery warehouse.
She was the one who found the name of a contact at Von Maur and encouraged Milchuck to try to get her hats into the store. A Von Maur buyer requested a portfolio, and Milchuck sent one with photographs of her hats.
Von Maur then requested she come to the store headquarters at Davenport, Iowa, for an interview. She met with a store official in October, then later got word they wanted some of her hats.
Clothing designers are showing more hats these days, Milchuck said, and she thinks they will become a greater part of our wardrobes again.
Her favorite hats are those she creates from felt, and she plans to put together a portfolio of felt hats and see if Von Maur will put some of them into their stores.
“I absolutely love felt, because I can shape and cut it and do such tremendous things with it,” she said.
She says handmade hats are superior to those made overseas and sold in the mass market.
“You get a really good product when you go to a milliner,” Milchuck said.