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How Darwin’s ‘cunning boy’ became a world millennial teacher

When the borders of the Northern Territory isolated the world due to COVID-19, local milliner Belinda Osborne had an idea.

She was inspired by the challenges experienced at the time and envisioned a headdress that captured the beauty trapped within her home turf.

“We weren’t so much locked in, we were locked in, we were caged in something that is quite beautiful,” said Ms Osborne.

He had just five days to make the piece and submit it in time for Australia’s premier millinery competition, the 2021 Myer Millinery Award.

With 12-hour shifts in her studio, Darwin’s milliner measured and cut hundreds of intricate feathers to create a lattice headdress that could be placed on the wearer’s head and confined within.

Belinda Osborne spends her time making a hat to think about what she will create next. (ABC News: Che Chorley)

It was worth the effort. Her piece, Forever Bound, won first prize in the coveted competition and made Ms. Osborne an overnight household name in millinery circles nationally and internationally.

“Winning was a huge achievement for me, it’s an absolute dream for a milliner in Australia,” she said.

His big win quickly filled his order book and from his Darwin studio he now special orders for clients in the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland, Singapore and Dubai.

A milliner holds up a colorful hat in her study.
Belinda Osborne’s piece ‘Forever Bound’ won the prestigious Myer Millinery Award in 2021. (ABC News: Che Chorley)
Model wearing winning piece
Belinda Osborne took five days to make this winning piece in 2021.

Growing up with the scents and colors of the mountain its greatest influence

The 42-year-old credits her childhood growing up on a five-acre block outside Darwin for inspiring her art and where it has taken her.

“Growing up with the local fauna and flora that is specific to our area has really influenced a lot of my designs,” he said.

“I try to incorporate as much of the territory into my designs as even if you don’t see it, I can see it.”

a girl hangs upside down on a swing
Belinda Osborne playing in Humpty Doo in the 1970s.(Supplied: Belinda Osborne)

Growing up an only child, Mrs. Osborne’s life in the bush was lonely and free.

He grew up in rural Darwin long before developers moved there, and when houses in Humpty Doo were few and far between.

“We could ride bikes or horseback riding down the street with our friends…it was absolutely wonderful,” he said.

When she wasn’t playing outside, Belinda said she was indoors “doing crafts” with her mother Joan, known around town as “Darwin’s curtain lady.”

“I did art all through school…my mom was sneaky, so I was definitely a sneaky kid, she was always up to something.”

a hat is being made on a bench, it's round and colorful
Belinda Osborne has made hundreds of hats in her Darwin studio and has customers all over the world.(ABC News: Che Chorley)
a woman selects red feathers from a drawer
Belinda sources her materials from all over the world.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

After finishing school, Belinda worked in fashion, studied interior design, and worked in NT public service for nearly a decade.

But her passion for millinery never wavered and she continued to make hats for people, as well as care for her young son and work full time.

“In the beginning, the orders were really only coming very close to the time of the Darwin Cup or the Melbourne Cup… so it was very intense for the four weeks leading up to both events,” he said.

When she turned 40, Ms. Osborne decided to take a leap into the unknown, leaving her secure government job to take her millinery to the next level.

She estimates she’s made hundreds of pieces during her 15 years as a milliner, saying she “gets into a zone” when she’s making them.

a designer sketches a print of a hat in a notebook
Milliner Belinda Osborne said it can take months to make a piece from scratch.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Mother and daughter’s shared passion comes to light in surprise reveal

Belinda Osborne said she’s put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into her work and admits some pieces can be hard to pull apart.

She said the “strangest thing” in her millinery career was discovering that her mother, Joan, was also a talented milliner in Adelaide in the 1950s and 1960s, but she never told anyone.

“She said ‘are you making hats and millinery?’ and I said ‘yes I am’ and she said ‘I was a milliner’ and lo and behold, we’ve never had that conversation before.”

a little girl poses for a photo with her mother.  They are both happy.
Belinda Osborne with her mother Joan in the 1970s.(Supplied: Belinda Osborne)

Belinda said that her mother went on to teach her millinery techniques that were used in the past.

Joan died just before Ms. Osborne’s millinery work began to gain attention and she wasn’t alive to see her big win in 2021 and break onto the world millinery stage.

However, he said his mother continues to influence his designs, even appearing in his pieces from time to time.

“She was a bit of a material hoarder, so I have some of her boxes of stuff with me,” he said.

“Every once in a while a hat might need a little special item and I’ll go and put a little bit of it in there and I know she’d be so proud.”

This story is part of a special Born and Raised series, celebrating the work of notable Territorians.

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