To become a milliner, you need basic sewing skills, lots of creativity and imagination, and the ability to think in 3D. You need to be very co-ordinated, and if you have strong hands and fingers, that will save you some pain.
People skills are essential, because you can only go so far if you cannot understand what people want.
When Kim Fletcher studied millinery, there was no proper training and she had to pay for private instruction. Today, there are good courses worldwide. In Australia, there is a four-year programme at the Kangan Institute (TAFE course) in Victoria. In England, the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (where Alexander McQueen studied) and the London College of Fashion - among others - offer millinery workshops.
Also, a good milliner never stops learning. The introduction of new materials and techniques means constantly staying informed.
Don't go into it for the dollar value. How much you earn depends on how you work. Fletcher's hats are labour-intensive because she likes each one to be unique. Their prices range from HK$1,860 to HK$4,000.
How many orders you have also depends on the culture of your country - if people have a habit of wearing hats or not.
Fletcher makes most of her revenue from the Melbourne Cup horse race in Australia in September each year. She starts work on the collection in March. There can be more than 2,000 hats at the event.
The Hong Kong market is a tough one. Even though races are popular, it is not common for ladies to wear hats. So most local orders come from advertising companies and private commissions for special events.
Fletcher used to work in administration. After giving birth in 1990, she sought to find a balance between motherhood and office work until she saw a newspaper ad for a millinery course. She thought she would give it a try and was hooked.
She finished her course in 1993 and sold hats on weekends at handmade products markets. After two years, she got a studio space, and four years later, she opened her own shop in Melbourne. But it was only two years ago that she was able to become a milliner full-time.
Long-term work prospects
One option to get big is to do wholesale with big distributors such as supermarkets. But Fletcher did not choose this path because she thinks there should be as many hats as there are personalities.
It is not enough that a hat is pretty, if it is wrong for the person, they will not feel comfortable wearing it, and will not buy your hats again.
Another way to get your name out there is to make hats for celebrities. Fletcher made one for operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti. It is also a good idea to look for new markets at home and abroad. Fletcher visits Dubai each year before the Dubai World Cup horse race to provide race-goers with headwear. Having a website can also help your business expand worldwide.
Where to apply
At millinery shops and websites. Fletcher has one full-time assistant, two recently graduated part-time milliners and one training student (www.kimfletcher.com.au).
A day at work
In the morning before she opens the shop at 10am, milliner Kim Fletcher picks up the materials and fabrics she needs for her hats. During opening hours, she works on orders and attends to her clients. The clients often bring their dress and shoes and hope to buy a hat to match. Because most people don't work very well with concepts, it can take time to work out what the client really wants. They might want the colour of one hat and the trimming of another so Fletcher needs to mix and match.
Fletcher assigns the different tasks to her team and everyone gets to work on different parts of the hats. They use hat blocks, wires and steam to shape the products. There are usually six hats being made at the same time.
During peak periods like before the Melbourne Cup, Fletcher might have to work until 11pm.