Forgotten Craft: Niello

As I explore my home country afresh I enjoy the little surprises in places I thought I knew. One of these discoveries came in a demonstration of niello work at Booz goldsmith workshop in Schaephuysen, a village near the German-Dutch border.

Niello is a technique to create black inlays on engraved or etched metal, especially silver. The word also describes the mixture used to achieve this effect, and its orgin is Latin nigellus, a diminutive of niger ‘black’. You may have come across the term in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, where he depicts a lot of the finer weapons and armour as decorated in niello.

For the demonstration at atelier Booz, Peter Booz’ journey woman Lena Hollweg prepared some silver pendants as a base to decorate. The niello needs to be applied to a groove of some kind, so it is usually an effect added to engraved or etched metal. But in this case, Lena decided to create a more minimalistic look with bolder shapes. She cut out two circles from a silver sheet. From one she cut out a crescent moon and, using the other circle as a base layer, soldered the two layers of silver together.

The niello powder is made up of copper, silver, sulphur and lead. The sulphur reacts with the silver in the niello mixture, sulphurising it and turning it black. Mixing it with ammonia solution lowers the melting point of the powder so that the niello melts before the silver medallion can. Journey woman Lena applies the crumbly substance to the groove until it forms a mound so that it can sink in while melting. As Peter Booz heats the silver pendant, dross forms on the surface and Lena carefully lifts it off. Once the metal has cooled, Lena files all unwanted black traces off the surface.

Such a simple technique with so much design potential – hope I’ll get to try my hand at it some day!

Goldsmith and owner Peter Booz and journey woman Lena Hollweg having fun in the workshop.

Goldsmith and owner Peter Booz and journey woman Lena Hollweg having fun in the workshop.

Chapeau du Matin with a twist

The process of shaping a straw hat it is a bit different from the way felt is worked: you cannot use as much moisture otherwise it will damage the structure of the straw and permanently destort the weave. So instead of a steamer, a damp cloth and an iron do the trick. A cotton ribbon and a few pins hold the shape until it's dried and cooled off. Again, a dressing helps to retain the shape.

To add a twist to the classic shape of the block, I decided to lift up and fold the back of the rim. The effect was a nice upward slope to the edge that allows me to tilt the hat back slightly. A wire is inserted into the the rim to add a bit more structure to the curve.

The opening in the fold serves to pull through a band of fabric that will stay in place without stitching it to the hat. I like variety and now I can easily insert a fabric with a new pattern or colour to match (or contrast!) my outfit.


Felt Desire – hatmaking course

Decisions – the boon and bane of the creative mind! Hats suit me but not knowing which style to choose I always hesitated to buy one. So when my colleague Rita Hasenfratz, hatmaker and milliner at Theater Dortmund, mentioned her hatmaking course I signed up for the perfect opportunity to have a hat and learn a new craft.

The process starts with selecting a rabbit felt cone hood, i.e. a pre-shaped hat base made from rabbit hair. Red seemed like a good choice for winter – goes with darker colours and my favourite lipstick. The next decision is picking a hat block. I picked the one below because it looked like an interesting challenge to shape the hat with all these crevices.

The cone is softened up by the steamer and then pulled over the block. There is a lot of steaming up and pulling at this stage – you want to make sure the material stretches over the block somewhat evenly. Then there is a lot of massaging out of kinks and irregularities while trying to mould the felt into the shape of the block, stretching over the protruding tip and pushing it closer into the dents. Drawing pins help to keep the areas that have been successfully shaped from moving around again.

Probably the part that took the most time was getting all the excess material and folds on the bottom inside to shrink back in and sit nicely. Again, a lot of steaming and massaging. Once that is achieved the hat can dry. Then a dressing is applied on the inside to ensure the hat retains its shape even in the rain.

Finally a grosgrain ribbon matching my head measurement is stitched to the inside of the hat. The seam is positioned in the back, should I forget which way round to wear my hat!