A fascinating assortment of vintage miniature millinery, including hats so tiny they fit in the palm of a hand, has been uncovered by museum experts and volunteers in Leeds.

This extraordinary collection, comprising tiny replica hats crafted by Leeds hatter John Craig in the early 1900s, is now undergoing meticulous conservation as part of a project at the Leeds Discovery Centre.

Originally fashioned to showcase the artisan’s skill and the diverse array of products available, these miniature hats encompass styles tailored for both men and women. Among the exquisite replicas are top hats, riding hats, gold-trimmed bicorne and tricorne hats, as well as feather-adorned creations.

The centre presently houses an estimated 200 items crafted by John Craig, who established his business in Leeds’ bustling shopping district of Park Row during the late 19th century. The shop remained a fixture there until 1936 before relocating to Wellington Street, where it operated until approximately 1947.

A 1927 leaflet praised John Craig’s commitment to quality, stating that he “commenced his business with the ambition of supplying good hats, and as the variety of shapes increased, [he] specialized in selecting for his customers the hats of the most suitable shape, giving especial care to the comfort of the wearer.”

Natalie Raw, Leeds Museums and Galleries curator of costume, has been working with a group of student volunteers from The University of York to document the extent of the John Craig collection and other objects stored at the Leeds Discovery Centre.

She said: “The quite remarkable variety of shapes, sizes and colours of hats in our collection shows the many different ways they have been worn over the decades, including practically as a status symbol, and sometimes as a flamboyant fashion statement.

“These wonderful miniature hats in particular demonstrate the skill and artistry possessed by one traditional Leeds hatmaker and the pride he clearly took in his work. It’s fascinating to think of each of them carefully and meticulously made in the workshop and then proudly shown to potential customers.

“We’re fortunate to have such an extensive collection to go through and it’s been so rewarding to find out more about the history behind these beautiful, stylish creations.”

Other remarkable examples of hats from the Leeds collection include a Tudor hat, which was found buried in mud in London and elaborate hats made from feathers of birds including peacocks.

In the 1500s the centre for the making of up-market accessories, including hats, was Milan, so merchants from the Italian city who sold such trimmings were known as Milliners. By Victorian times the word milliner had become only associated with hat design and making.

Leeds itself had a fiercely competitive hat trade, with records and advertising showing a number of emporia also established in Briggate and Boar Lane.

Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s deputy leader and executive member for economy, culture and education, said: “Fashion and textiles have been a key part of the Leeds story for generations, and played a pivotal role in establishing the city we know today.

“Having such a fantastic and unique collection which reflects that story so well is an incredible asset for Leeds and something which will ensure our city’s heritage is preserved for future generations.”

Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s deputy leader and executive member for economy, culture, and education, hailed the city’s rich fashion and textile heritage. He underscored the significance of preserving such a unique collection, ensuring Leeds’ storied past endures for future generations.

The Leeds Discovery Centre welcomes the public, albeit by appointment-only tours, providing an opportunity to marvel at these remarkable relics firsthand.