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Meet the Irish milliner making the cutest matching headpiece and mask sets

by Erin Lindsay
05th Aug 2020

Katie Earley began her own business after working with huge industry names like Philip Treacy and Shrimps London

As we all get used to making masks part of our outfit anatomy for the summer, there’s no reason we can’t express our sense of style and be safe at the same time. There are dozens of Irish businesses around the country giving us fashionable and fun options to wear as part of our Covid uniform, and one that has really caught our eye on Instagram is Earley Hats.

Run by milliner Katie Earley, the business creates charming matching headband and mask sets in summery gingham, as well as fabulous handmade hats, with such attention to detail. Earley, who was initally educated at NCAD before furthering her education in Sweden, has worked under world-famous Irish milliner Philip Treacy, designing hats for Valentino Couture and Royal Ascot. Her pieces are hand-crafted and one of a kind, using traditional hat-making methods and techniques.

IMAGE sat down with Katie to find out more about the inspiration behind her creations and her plans post-Covid-19.

When did you start your business, and what was the idea behind it?

I started my own business at the end of 2018. I had worked in fashion since 2012, and interned with millinery brand Moody and Farrell in 2013 in London, and fell in love with the process. I decided to go back to study millinery for two years at the Tillskärarakademin tailoring school in Gothenburg, and then worked for designers Philip Treacy, Shrimps and A Child of the Jago. By 2018, I felt I had gained the experience and learned the skills to realise my own ideas in a brand.

I’ve always loved the idea of beautiful, hand-made hats as everyday items — not just as something you wear to a wedding, or to the races. I looked at what was on offer, and I felt there was space for hat-making which prioritised vibrant, wearable pieces made with traditional, sustainable materials like wool felt and straw.

You’ve worked with such big names and on big projects in the past — what was your favourite experience of freelancing as a milliner?

There’s been quite a few, but my favourite experience was working for Philip Treacy at his studio in London, where I made hats for the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. There were weeks of preparation and long days working alongside Philip — and in the run up to the big day there were a couple of all-nighters!

The hat on which I worked most was a floral headpiece for actor Charlotte Riley — wife of Tom Hardy. With Philip’s supervision, I constructed the hat by hand-stitching each flower individually to the sinamay base, making the wire head frame, and attaching a crystallised veiling to the piece.

I watched the Royal Wedding live, completely exhausted — but was so elated and proud seeing Charlotte Riley arriving to Windsor Castle looking amazing in the hat I’d made!

Tell me a bit about how your business focuses on sustainability in your hats?

The business is committed to promoting buying less and buying from local small businesses. I also believe in paying more for high quality craftsmanship that will last a lifetime and helping the campaign for slow fashion.

The materials I use, like wool and fur felts, are sourced from sustainable factories that are either in or very close to Ireland. The natural straw materials I use are completely biodegradable and are a by-product of the food industry. I strive to produce very little waste in the production of the hats by using all the scraps and leftovers in other ways; for example, the off-cuts from blocking a felt hat are used to make felt feather decorations. I only use water-based felt and straw stiffeners instead of chemical ones that are damaging to the environment.

All the packaging for the hats is recyclable and sourced from eco-friendly Irish suppliers. I’m always trying to replace materials I use with sustainable ones — I have recently replaced using petersham ribbon inside hats with up-cycled leather scraps from the textile industry.

Where do you draw your creative inspiration from?

There’s no clear thread through the things I’m inspired by. When I was studying fashion, I took inspiration from kitsch elements, like avocado and rose pink bathroom suites, and fabrics and ornaments I’d find in bric-a-brac shops. Certainly the colour palette from these sources continue to inform my approach today.

Craft has also been a significant influence on me. I have a huge appreciation for the skills and materials found in straw-braiding, embroidery, basket-weaving and pottery, and learning from these skills and materials enter my work.

I love the sculptural aspect of millinery and I take inspiration from the process of working with hat-blocks and carving foam moulds. I always look for interesting and unusually-shaped hat blocks online, which determine the final shape of the hat.

At the moment, social movements I feel strong about are part of my making: sustainability influences my design, as does feminism, especially hat-wearing feminists from history. There are a lot of pop culture and film inspirations too — Winona Ryder and Erykah Badu are the two that spring to mind right now.

The matching headpieces and masks are gorgeous — did you have to think on your feet when Covid-19 hit about how to adapt your work?

Yes, that’s exactly what happened. If anything, I felt more creative in lockdown, and when I saw that a lot of designers were using their skills to make masks I thought it could be a great chance to make something useful that could relate to millinery also. I reflected on the fact that people could not try on my hats in person, so I designed headbands that can be worn by anyone with any size head, so they are a perfect partner for the masks.

Seeing people wearing face-masks everywhere can be a grave reminder of the reality of what’s happening in the world, so I wanted to make the masks and matching headbands in bright summery colours to make them an attractive and hygienic accessory that people will be happy to wear often.

During the boredom of lockdown, I learned new embroidery stitches and decided to use those new skills in my millinery work. I added embroidery to the masks and headbands to give my masks personality. The headbands also have a practical use, as you can attach the mask to the headband for extra comfort when worn for long periods of time. Necessity is the definitely the mother of invention!

My Spring/Summer 2020 lookbook was photographed during the lockdown in my home. It’s a celebration of everyday objects and clothing, which can give us pleasure even in isolation. Rather than being seen as frivolous, hats and fashion give us a sense of fun and escape during these times. I also wanted my masks and headbands to show that even in crisis, we can turn to fantasy and indulgence to get us through.

How has it been seeing people across Instagram wearing the masks?

The response to the masks has been amazing! Seeing people sharing their photos wearing the masks and matching headbands is so exciting and motivates me to keep creating. I never thought I would be designing and making masks as a new fashion accessory. It’s so nice to see that I am helping to promote the wearing of masks and in turn keeping people safe. There are a lot of great masks for sale right now so I’m delighted to see that people are choosing my design and are getting enjoyment from wearing them too.

What’s next for you this year, what kind of work can we expect from you?

I’ve got a lot of orders for the masks and headbands — so there’s plenty to be getting on with there! I’ve got a new colour coming next week, with some new embroidery too, and I’ll be releasing more colours over the summer.

I’m thinking a lot about how people are shopping now, and I’m encouraged by the support that local shops and designers have received during Covid-19. I’d love to see this pattern continue, and I want people to understand just how much of a difference you can make if you buy local, and certainly in fashion, buy less.

My brand is all about buying high quality, but sparingly, and I want people to return to me with repairs and alterations — rather than just going out and buying something new.

Towards the end of summer, I’ll be starting into my new winter collection, working with as many recycled materials as possible, and I’m always looking around for new hat-blocks to bring in unusual shapes to my range. I’m planning to have that out by the autumn.

I’m also expanding into bridal headwear, and along with bringing my colours and shapes to the market, I’m experimenting with using veiling, and modernising this very traditional aspect of the bride’s outfit.

Teaching is also an important element to my work. I’m planning on holding workshops to teach hat-making across the country.

You can find out more about Katie Earley’s work on her website, where you can also buy a matching mask and headpiece set for yourself

Read more: ‘Maskne’ is a real thing: Here’s how to stop face mask breakouts

Read more: Opinion: ‘Why aren’t we taking face masks seriously in Ireland?’
Read more: Helen Cody showed us how to make a face mask at home in six simple steps

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