the CHIP in 18th and 19th century chip bonnets and hats was actually made from thin strips of shaved wood. It was used by hat-makers in a similar way to braided straw, and so was sometimes called “chip straw” or “chip braid”. But it was still wood.
It could be plaited or woven just like straw. Once formed into a sort of basket in whatever shape was currently fashionable, it could be bleached or coloured, then trimmed with as much silk, lace, velvet, feather etc. as the milliner and her customer desired.
Silk bonnets sometimes had chip and wire sewn into the seams, creating a framework to give them shape.
Hat-makers and milliners used chip well into the 1900s. Like straw, hemp and other natural fibres, it was particularly well suited to sun hats and spring bonnets.
This explanation of how it was made is from the 1920s.
Chip braid is the only wood braid in general use…White pine and Lombardy poplar, and also the English willow…are used to make white chip hats…The young tree is split into sections and planed smooth…Another special plane of knife blades is then drawn lengthwise down the boards, scoring long, fine narrow cuts…A smooth plane takes these fine strips off, and a thin chip straw results.
This is what makes these straw braid sewing machines different from your household machine:
They are chain stitch machines (just one thread, no bobbin)
They have a special guide system for feeding the braid and holding the work in place
The needle and plate are all the way to the left to make working easier
They are set on a special table with a big cutout on the middle front so there is space for the hat as it grows, and for you to manouver.
Some of these special machines have additional special features that were designed and patented by their inventors to make the sewing of straw easier.
To start, there is a mechanism that Willcox called in his patent a “vibrator”, and that has been implemented by every manufacturer afterwards. The mechanism is used when sewing the “button” of the hat (where the hat starts with a tight spiral). When sewing this small spiral the operator of the machine is forcing the straw because the curve is very tight, without this invention the straw can get damaged as the presser foot is pushing down on the straw when the operator is pulling. and it is very difficult to keep the work flat. This “vibrator” contraption is a very clever invention that lifts the presser foot as the needle goes down, pressing down again as the feeder goes into action, thus allowing the operator to easily turn the work.
Another interesting invention is the lever that allows the tension of the thread to be easily changed to a tighter tension. This is useful because when one starts sewing the button of the hat (the center of the spiral) the stitch length shortens because of the tight angle at which one is sewing, that often causes loose loops on the underside of the work. Before this invention one had to manually change the tension, setting a tighter tension at the beginning and then stopping the work to set a looser tension as the work progresses. With this invention you can switch between a tigher and looser tension with the flick of a lever (without stopping the sewing). Below are the drawings and explanation for this invention.