Claire Barnier -Creating Beauty out of Chronic Illness

Welcome back to the ‘Meet my Peeps Guest Series’.  Today on the blog, Claire Barnier, Melbourne milliner extraordinaire, ex-medical professional, social support network administrator and vintage babe, is going to share with us her passion for millinery. Sometimes, passions grow from gardens fertilised through hardship.  Claire won’t dwell on her health issues in her piece below. In her writing and her life, she prefers to focus on the things that bring her joy.  Here she is, a girl I have great admiration for.  I give you the ubertalented, Claire Barnier:

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Hi there, my name is Claire, I’m 30 years old and I have Dysautonomia.  I also have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, Common Variable Immune Deficiency, Endometriosis and Adenomyosis.  Taken individually my medical conditions are not nice, but could be relatively manageable. All together they are not much fun at all.  They like to impact on each other and no one condition likes to be forgotten about for long.

My health has been pretty crappy for as long as I can remember but I always recovered, eventually, more or less.  Then 11 years ago (exactly 11 years ago this month) I got sick and pretty well stayed sick.  I had my biggest break from it for a year when I finished studying nursing and began my graduate year but the stress placed on my body from shift work and frequent infections pushed me over the edge again.  By the end of that year my body decided it had had enough of being pushed to the limit and crashed big time; I am still waiting to recover.  If I had known then that I had an immune deficiency my choices may have been different.  If just one of my ENT specialists had thought to check my immune function in all my 20+ years of struggling with chronic and recurrent sinusitis I might not be where I am now; sitting on the couch in my pajamas writing on my computer like I have most days for the last 2 months since I came down with this latest sinus infection.  But ‘what if’s will get you nowhere.

Instead, I focus on what I can do. Being out of action so often through the years has forced me to stay in touch with my creative side; to stretch my imagination and find things to keep myself entertained when I haven’t been able to go out as much as I would like.  So I have dabbled in a few different things; some, like sewing and millinery, have stuck while others haven’t quite so much!  Basically I just love to make things.  I love making things so much that I recently decided to start a blog about it!

I took up Millinery two years ago when I tried out a short course at CAE (the Centre for Adult Education) run by Lynette Lim of Love Lotus Millinery.  Before the course was finished I had decided it was my new passion. My new friend Nikki and I signed up for an information session about a year-long Millinery course at a Melbourne fashion school to be taught by Serena Lindeman.   The course gave me the key to enter a world I had previously only glimpsed through the keyhole. Subsequent classes with Serena at her studio have helped me explore this world even further.

True Millinery is an art form and Milliners are artists.  They make wearable magic out of felt, straws, plastics, silks and fabrics and many, many other materials.  When it comes to millinery the only limit is imagination; even gravity can be defied (and frequently is!).  Milliners create jaw-dropping sculptural masterpieces, practical but beautiful everyday pieces, delicate flights of fancy that steal your breath away and everything imaginable in between.  Millinery is an art for those in touch with their imagination (Australian milliner Richard Nylon is a great example of this) and Australia is a fantastic place to be studying it – we have some of the best Milliners in the world and many are willing to share their skills with those who are eager to learn.

Millinery requires patience.  I thought that living with chronic illness had taught me patience but boy was I wrong!  Illness taught me a form of reluctant acceptance; patience is something quite different.  Hand blocking felt with scalding hot steam and stretching it down over the block again and again to get the perfect, even fit or blocking straw with squirts of sprayed water – making sure the grain is even and the shape is smooth, sculpting freehand and seeing an imagined shape come slowly to life in your hands, wiring a brim and then covering that wire, tooling each individual petal of a silk flower with heated irons and then assembling the flower petal by petal and hours of hand stitching – all brings a new meaning to the word ‘patience’.  And then there’s the muscle pain!

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Millinery also requires dedication – particularly when it comes to time and finances.  Once you begin to learn about hats you increasingly appreciate the work that goes into what you see around you and gain a better understanding of worth and quality.  Millinery materials don’t come cheaply; neither do the tools it takes to make a hat or the know-how; it all takes its toll on your wallet.  Hats take time to make, so much time – more time if they are made well and of course the more intricate the hat design the longer it takes to make.  Very quickly you see that charging $500+ for a well-crafted hat doesn’t seem so ridiculous after all.

Millinery also takes its toll on your hands, more so in the beginning, but then your hands get tough, just like your mind gets tough from its lessons of patience.  You learn to work through the pain, frustration and the countless stabs from needles and pins because you know that when you finish you will have made something beautiful that you can look at with pride (or never want to see again and gladly pass on to its new owner).

Learning Millinery has taught me a lot and brought so much joy to my life – and of course new friends!  I have met some lovely, creative and highly talented people through Millinery.  One of the other things I love about Millinery is there is always something new to discover; a new area of expertise, a new technique, a new material, a way of doing things you hadn’t thought of before and there are so many places to learn around Melbourne.  We are truly lucky here.

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You can find Claire’s blog here and her millinery website here.  Go say Hi!