Hats off to Carrie

A Gutter Guard coup

A Gutter Guard coup

Caren Stevenson is a woman of courage and hope, showing the power of pursuing a creative vision in spite of difficult and traumatic hurdles along the way. She has made a name for herself in the millinery industry in a few short years, a reward that HT writer, Gay Liddington, feels is extremely well-deserved.

by Gay Liddington

I pondered over writing this story and how I might do justice to the life of a woman who has experienced a great deal of injustice yet prevailed.

Caren (Carrie) Stevenson presents as a montage of terrors and triumphs, couture and catwalks.

New Zealand born Carrie was bullied at school, subjected to domestic violence in her adult years, is a survivor, activist and protector of children.

Carrie’s parents worked in the fashion industry. Her father a drafter, cutter and pattern maker and mother a seamstress.

Her interest in sewing began around the age of seven when Caren’s mother presented her with a toy metal sewing machine. The child made dolls clothes and by the time she was 12 created her own outfits using the likes of Simplicity and Vogue patterns.

As a teenager, Carrie watched films that stimulated her interest in fashion.

“I adored movies starring Audrey Hepburn and loved anything Mary Quant. It was iconic fashion but also the make-up, hair and the 60s shift dresses got me.

“Even though I told Mum and Dad I wanted to follow their footsteps in the fashion industry they were adamant saying there would be no jobs. They said I had to be a secretary.”

Carrie’s secretarial career gained her positions at the university, Press News and the Labour Court. Her shorthand skills were in high demand. However, a career lacking in creativity caused the young woman to be easily bored, a disposition that led her to Australia in 1986.

After a time, Carrie became pregnant. She returned to New Zealand and began life as a sole parent.

“Then I married and found myself in a domestic violence situation. He nearly strangled me to death. I shut my eyes and said, please God don’t let me die today. Eventually he was arrested and jailed for other offences so I made my escape.”

Carrie’s next relationship took her to Western Australia. While pregnant with her fifth child she again found herself in an unsafe situation. The young mother fled.

The family of six settled in Toowoomba, was allocated a housing commission house and stayed for seven years. Feeling stagnant and stuck Carrie decided it was time to move on. Family on the Sunshine Coast was the drawcard.

“After applying for 11 houses I finally got one at Little Mountain. I was there a year then moved to Maleny and haven’t looked back since,” said Carrie.

To support her family, Caren Stevenson took up the position of cleaner at the Maleny State School and River School. Then, out of left field her life took another turn…a path she wholly embraced.

“Through Girl Guides I met a woman who used to make hats. She mentioned hat blocks and a lady in Beerwah who wanted to pass on her skills. I was curious.

Caren Stevenson with her girls – a new life in Toowoomba 2002. Rachele holding baby Mya. Front: Catriona on Mum’s lap, Olivia and Sheree Image supplied by Caren Stevenson

Caren Stevenson with her girls – a new life in Toowoomba 2002. Rachele holding baby Mya. Front: Catriona on Mum’s lap, Olivia and Sheree
Image supplied by Caren Stevenson

“In 2012, Hat Academy online put me on a new path and it grew from there.

“I’d never been to the races and didn’t know you could win ‘Fashions on the Field’ prizes like cars and holidays from wearing hats. I realised there was this whole world where women pay a lot of money for a hat that’s different from anyone else’s. It was a revelation.

“Since then I’ve studied couture and learnt from top milliners.”

Caren Lee Millinery specialises in bespoke, upcycled and new millinery using traditional methods. This innovative designer is on a fast-track to become a coveted milliner and stylist.

“A highlight was at the Caloundra Cup where model Sheryl Lea wore my winged headpiece. One of the judges was Miss World Australia 2015, Tess Alexander, who sought me out wanting to buy that hat.

“Competing against leading milliners we had a major win at the Ipswich 150th Anniversary Cup 2016. Two pieces made the final judging of Fashions on the Field. One took out first prize in the vintage category.

“Model Inessa McIntyre wearing a peacock hat creation was our Queensland Fashions on the Field state finalist for 2016. I was honoured to be chosen to design her outfit to wear at the State Governor of Victoria’s Melbourne Cup Gala,” said Carrie delighting in her successes.

Accolades for Caren Lee Millinery are too numerous to mention. However, in September of this year she will participate in ‘Radiant’ through RAW Artists a network of artists that spans the globe. The event will be held at The Met in Brisbane.

Locally, Carrie supports Vintage Calendar Girls, a charity fundraiser for cancer. She donates hats for the photo shoots and auction.

Materials used by Caren Lee range from local peacock feathers to Gutter Guard from Bunnings. Scraps of lace, braid, silk and leather may develop into flamboyant flowers or a tasteful trim. Whatever the case Carrie could be named the bower bird of millinery.

“I once found a beaded designer top at an op-shop. No garment is safe, it may become a hat or a skirt. It’s all about how you put an outfit together. I have made leather flowers and hand coloured them to match the flowers on a skirt.”

Caren Stevenson, milliner, mother, grandmother, can only be described as a woman who fought and won. A woman of flair and substance. She overcame great obstacles to live her passion and is aptly described in this quote by Joshua Graham:

I survived because the fire inside me burned brighter than the fire around me.