March 06, 2013

a lady and her fine hats

Pictured is Bernice McPhail and her friend Grace Mills at the train station in the 1950's.

When I purchased a few of the hats from the vintage hat series, the store owner also sold me a head form that she had acquired with the lot of hats. Upon further examination of the carved block of wood, I noticed that there was some writing on the bottom of it. ‘Bernice McPhail’ had signed the bottom, included her address and the year, 1964!  Who was Bernice McPhail? My interest was sparked….

A couple of weeks ago as I was putting together the first post for the vintage hats/giveaway, I remembered the head form and thought that it would be crazy if I could track down Bernice McPhail, ask her a little bit about her hats and where she learned the trade.  After a couple of hours of searching online, I was able to confirm that although ‘my’ Bernice McPhail had passed away in 2010 at the age of 96, she does have a daughter currently living in Texas.  As my search continued, I was able to confirm her daughters name; Mary Lee, and the town in Texas where she was living.  My initial contact was with a woman from a quilters group (after finding a picture of Mary Lee on her blog). I emailed her to ask if she knew ‘my’ Mary Lee and if she could put me in touch with her?  The woman was kind enough to forward me an email address, but indicated that she hadn't spoken to Mary Lee in a couple of years so she was not sure if the email address was still current…I drafted another email, explained who I was and that I was looking for a little information about the back story on Bernice and her hats.

Within 24 hours, I received a response that brought tears to my eyes and confirmed that the world is not such a big place after all…

Hi Stephanie:
You did well !!
Yes, Bernice McPhail was my Mother. She passed away 2 years ago at the age of 96 and she lived a happy life of quilting and doing crafts. She and her sister Avis Taylor, also deceased, made many hats. Avis taught millinery in the 60's and 70's. Mother started a quilting group at a local church, and taught crafts for the local Adult Education Program in Chatham, ON.  Mother was a member of the Chatham quilters and her hand quilting was exquisite.
They both  made and wore hats for years , when it was in fashion, always matching their outfits ... suit and hat or dress and hat (that was the fashion in the 60's & 70's , no slacks or pantsuits for them!) . They wore the hats for "dress up" , and of course, church and weddings. I received many of her hats while growing up. While she might have made a hat for a friend (to match her outfit), she did not sell them commercially. Hats were "very expensive " in those days; the purchased ones costing $35 - $65, and sometimes near $100! These crafters tried their hand at making them and found it a great craft to pursue. They also made matching purses and shoes all from the same fabric of the outfit.
The antique dealers were very interested in the hats when we closed the house on Queen St. I am surprised they are popular at all! I am a fiber artist and modern day quilter, but not a vintage lover ....I am pleased to think you admired Mother's work ... she was a busy gal.   Mary Lee 

A few of Bernice's hats.


  1. I really enjoyed reading the story behind these hats, I'm glad you looked into them. You always wonder there stories and what type of person fashioned these on there wardrobe. They're wonderful pieces!

  2. Nice! That hat was so cool! That was an awesome story. When we are buying some vintage things, we just don't care where they from. What you did was amazing. I had a good time reading this blog post. Keep it up!

  3. I love hats! I wish I couls easily wear them everyday


  4. Such a sweet story. I wish I had opportunities to wear dress hats. I have always loved the look