The Monmouth Cap

It’s the time of year when fuzzy hats, toques, beanies, and other headgear are getting a workout for those of use that still have to be outside (or are just sick of being inside for so many months).

Every winter seems to see a new trend. A few years back it was bun hats (Ravelry link). In the 1920s fair isle was the ticket. But what about before that? No, not the Victorians (though they are famous for their love of hats) but further–What about the Tudors? Renaissance? The Middle Ages?

The Capper’s Act of 1488 was designed to protect the wool industry in England, on which hundreds of thousands of lives depended*. The act stated that imported hats were illegal, and that wool caps had to be worn any time a man was outdoors.**

“… all [males] above the age of six years except some of certain state and condition, shall wear upon the Sabbath and Holydays, one cap of wool knit, thicked and dressed in England, upon the forefeiture of 3s 4d …” Wives “were constrained to wear white knit caps of woolen yarn, unless their husbands were of good value in the Queen’s book or could prove themselves gentlemen by descent…”

The 1571 Act for the Continuance of the Making of Caps

These caps were largely hand knit and then felted to make them waterproof, and therefore suitable for England’s dicey weather and work out of doors.

At the center of all this was Monmouth in Wales. The Monmouth area was famous for its wool, meaning it was one of the areas which benefited most from the Capper’s Act. The style of hat developed in this area became one of the most popular articles in the entire country and was widely exported. The name came to mean any hat in this style, not just hats knit in the area, though other areas also developed their own variations which gained popularity, such as the Scotch Bonnet.

So how were these hats made? What was so special about them?

For starters, and one of my favorite aspect of making Monmouth caps, is the double-layer brim. Starting at the brim, the hat is knit upward, usually in stockinette stitch though occasionally with added ribbing. Some later hats have a row of purl stitches to create a nice neat fold where the brim is turned up and stitched into place to keep the ears nice and warm. If you choose to knit your own, keep in mind that this means the brim will be less stretchy than we are used to with modern beanies.

The crown is knit for about 5-6″ before being cast off. The tail of the yarn is used to tie up the open end at the top of the hat. This creates a “button,” the purpose of which has never been fully understood.

Once knit, the hat would be fulled or felted to make it warmer and waterproof. This fulling process can shrink the hat by up to 30%, so that’s another thing to keep in mind if you want to knit your own.

These hats were quick to make, were best when knit out of coarser, oilier yarn (as opposed to the softer, cleaner yarns that were sold to make cloth for the nobility), and were extremely versatile. When war broke out (as it often did) and the men were conscripted, the hats could be worn under ill-fitting helmets, protecting them from heat, cold, and abrasions (one theory is that the “button” was also related to these helmets, either helping them to stay in place or adding another barrier between the head and the uncomfortable metal).

Another unusual feature of these hats is that as the brim was being knit, a small loop was included in the cast on, the purpose of which is also not fully known. Would it be looped onto the button, creating a turned up brim on hot days or other times when having thick wool on the forehead would be hot or a hindrance? Was it intended to hang the hat on a belt or hook when not in use? Or was it some other use entirely?

These caps were popular with soldiers and sailors, and were even given as gifts among the nobility. When the Massachusetts Bay Company set out to form a colony, they placed an order for the caps for the colonists and sailors. The caps could range in price accordingly.***

The hats were typically brown or red, but could come in other colors as well, and were usually a solid color. If you’d like to make your own, this pattern (Ravelry link) closely follows the original specifications (this pattern (non-Ravelry link) isn’t quite as close).

These hats launched the cottage knitting industry in England in the 1400s, before knit stockings were common, back when woven hose were still the most common form of legwear. This created the basis for the sock knitting industry that would take over in the latter part of the period. The cottage knitting industry would feed millions in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland through the 1800s and even into the early part of the 1900s. They were a fashion trend that lasted roughly 300 years, and their contribution on Western textiles can’t be overestimated.

*I’m consolidating a lot of history, politics, and economics here. For more information, please see this paper by Kirstie Buckland, which was one of the main sources I used for this post.

**As always, the rich side-stepped this law, but for the middle class and below, wool caps were de rigeur.

***For more on the pricing of the caps, see this article by Jennifer L. Carlson

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