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Saturday, 5 November 2011

Millinery Irons aka Flower Irons

Information courtesy Serena Dyer and Carole & Larry Meeker who kindly gave me permission to use their pictures - visit them below.

Miniature flower Irons

Leaf irons

I have been unable to discover an earliest date for the use of these irons; those I shal depict are, I believe, mid 19th century but considering the complexity of flowers on bonnets in the Long Regency and the flowers that decorated the dresses, especially after 1815, I would not be surprised to find they are from at least the Regency period.  Larry Meeker, who has a well respected antique business is of the opinion that they may not have been long following ordinary sad irons. The pictures below will show how prevalent was the need for artificial flowers.  Jane Austen records in her letters to her sister Cassandra that she paid 3/- for a sprig of artificial flowers for her bonnet in 1799 remarking that ‘flowers are much worn and fruit is still more the thing’  Jane Austen's Letters
-Jane Austen’s letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye.  I assume the fruit was made of wax

Some floral bonnets from January 1817, Ackermann’s Repository

Ball gown December 1815, Ackermann’s Repository

Godey’s ladies’ book 1846 [thanks Serena] gives a method of making flowers; here are the basic requirements.

The materials should all be kept ready prepared for use. They consist of white and colored cambrics, prepared thread stiffened and dyed green gauze, green raw silk, very fine yellow mohair, wires of different thicknesses, green and brown tissue paper, cotton wool, green cotton, gum water, flour, semolina, dyeing balls or saucers, vermilion, carmine, ultramarine, and indigo in powder. The requisite tools are a pair of pincers A; a lead weight to hold the reels of silk, B;half a dozen goeffoirs, or cupping instruments, C, of various sizes, from the dimensions of the head of a pin to that of a small apple; the veining tool, D; and a large cushion stuffed with bran: also a stretching frame for straining the cambrics. The muslin to be used is fine cambric, or clear Scotch cambric; let it be as fine and even as possible.

Godey’s goes on to explain how to make petals to mount after starching the fabric will without the use of the very specialist irons that were available.  With the specialist irons however the shapes of the leaves and flowers can be readily pressed into coloured or white starched muslin that may have extra colour added by hand, and be cut out around the shape, the starch holding it from fraying as well as helping to hold the shape in place.  Getting the iron to exactly the right heat to shape them without burning must have been quite a feat.

Large Flower Irons

More leaf irons


  1. VERY interesting..and much more friendly to animals, I would add, than the vpbird feathers that became the rage at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth..a pressed flower into some Muslim fabric doesn't hurt anyone,..except the hat maker, or course...

    can you share some information about who is making the hats?? What about wage labor among women during the regency period?? And there are hazards to hat making (I'm thinking of the "mad hatter" of the Revernd Dodgson"s
    imagination) that women face???


  2. The madness of the hatter was caused by mercury vapour which was used in the process of [I think] preserving the beaver skins of a beaver hat. this was purely in the making of beavers.

    The flowers and fruit for bonnets may have been made by a milliner, but there's an ambiguity here because some milliners were purely milliners, some haberdashers made hats, and so did some seamstresses. Some were made at home. I also strongly suspect that trims may have been made at appallingly poor rates of pay by piece workers being something a widow and her children could work on together.... Austen writes several times about making over hats, and buys trim separately, which was at a haberdashery in the example cited, and may have been made on premises or bought in.

  3. that's very interesting...because if you think about the larger context of the late 1700s and early 1800s, this is the period when the putting out system that began to play a role in undermining the guilds for textile finishing in the 1600s is giving way to pure industrialization...but millinery is one of the few areas where there is still a place for a kind of skilled labor that is, at the same time, gendered as female...which means that while a gentlewomen might do this herself, it was also possible she would delegate it to a seamstress...who would be appalling paid to work at home, as opposed to being appalling paid to work twelve or sixteen hours in a factory, right....???

    as for the mad hatters...if they are processing beaver skins, sounds to me like it was an unsavory line of work from start to's to natural textiles as oppose to furs we carve from the body of a fellow creature, eh???

    thanks for this!!


  4. How fascinating! Those flower irons are wonderfully intricate, I would love to have a go at using them, what fun. Thank you for the lovely post

  5. Thanks Piroska, I was totally mind-blown when I discovered these amazing tools - and I have to say I too would love to own some and have a go! Occasionally Victorian ones come up on ebay, so maybe we might both get a chance one day... I guess the secret is wiping them quickly to get rid of any soot, ash or other residue when you withdraw them from the fire, without burning yourself - I've done it with a flat iron but all those intricate folds would make it harder. I suspect flower makers may have used the hot oven in the range... I'd be tempted to use them at a lower temperature on hand painted silk stiffened and fray-proofed with wallpaper paste as I've cut and hand shaped individual petals with that medium for art projects.