“He Is Of No Account … If He Have Not A Velvet Or Taffeta Hat”: A Survey Of Sixteenth Century Knitted Caps

This paper was first published in the Dress and Textile Specialists Spring Journal, April 2011, and is reproduced on Knitting History by kind permission of Dr Malcolm-Davies.


The aim of the project reported here is to survey all the extant 16th century caps in British and other collections to determine typical features and characteristics with a view to producing at least one, if not two, patterns for reconstructing a Tudor cap. These will form part of a forthcoming Tudor Tailor publication with the working title The Typical Tudor, which will concentrate on the clothes of the lower and middle class. This paper is an interim report on the data collected from 2007 to 2010, during which The Tudor Tailor team undertook a detailed analysis of the knitted caps held in museum collections.

Literature review

For the purposes of this paper, hat is used as a generic term, whereas bonnets, caps and night-caps are specific types of headgear (Hayward, 2002, 1). Bonnets were often made of woven fabric or felt (either fur or unknitted wool), pieced or shaped to make a hat as is the one worn by Judge John Southcotte on his monument (1585) at Witham, Essex (http://www.tudoreffigies.co.uk/). Night-caps were usually to be made of linen, frequently embroidered as is represented in a miniature of Henry Fitzroy (Reynolds, 1999, 48). “Wool was also used for daywear by the middling and lower ranks of society” (Hayward, 2002, 2-3). The evidence suggests that caps were knitted, although a very specific form of 16th century headwear awarded to some appointed officials of the crown, the “cap of maintenance”, was made of fabric (Devitt, 2007). Tudor people seemed to regard knitted caps as suitable for, and indicative of, lower rank: “He is of no account or estimation amongst men, if he have not a velvet or taffeta hat” (Stubbes, quoted in Hayward, 2002, 2). The crowd pictured at a martyr’s burning in 1576 features serried ranks of spectators wearing what are probably knitted caps (The Burning of John Rogers, Museum of London, image no: 001445).

Despite its lowly status, Henry VIII did not eschew the cap completely. He ordered one cap in 1516/17 and another in 1523/25 along with the 54 hats and 49 bonnets ordered during the accounting years from 1510 to 1545 (Hayward, 2007, 97). It was in Henry’s reign that the knitted cap became a fashionable youthful accessory, according to John Stowe in his Chronicles of 1565: “the youthful citizens also took them to the New fashion of flat caps, knit of woollen yarn black” (quoted in Levey, 1982, 34).

The knitted cap seems to have been a ubiquitous item of headwear for men and women in the 16th century and not just at home. There was a vast export market too. A Basque seaman of the 16th century had a woollen cap with a natural white lining (Walton, 1987, 3) and the crossbowmen of Amsterdam in 1533 sport caps with the telltale tuft at the centre crown which suggest knitted caps (De Braspenningmaaltijd by Cornelis Anthonisz, Amsterdams Historisch Museum, inventory no: SA7279).

There are seven extant caps which were previously studied in some detail – mostly by conservators preparing the caps for display: Boticello’s work on the Cuming Museum’s pair; the Abegg-Stiftung’s work on those from the Biograd collection and a red cap at the Bern Historisches Museum; and Buckland’s report on the Mary Rose pair (Boticello, 2003; FluryLemberg, 1988, 328-333 & 222-231; Buckland, 2005, 31-35).

There is an absence of any written account of how a cap was made, despite clues as to some of the processes involved (Buckland, 2008/9; Thirsk, 2003). A statute of 1571 lists 16 processes involved in “capping”: carders, knitters, parters of wool, forcers, thickers, dressers, walkers, dyers, buttelers, shearers, pressers, edgers, liners, bandmakers and “other exercises” (quoted in Buckland, 2008/9, 41). Some of these processes may be safely assumed, such as carding and knitting, but the role of a butteler, presser or edger remains unclear.


Given the lack of contemporary insight into methods of making knitted caps, the need for a reliable method of reconstruction demands careful inspection of those that have survived to the 21st century. The period to be covered by the study was 1485 to 1603 but any relevant evidence 25 years before and after that period was included. Most extant caps are dated very imprecisely (for example, “16th century” or “1500 to 1600” are typical museum catalogue entries). There are a surprising number of relevant items in museum collections of which 93 have been examined and at least another eight await study. The items included in the study reported here (as of March 2011) include those at the Cuming Museum, the Museum of London, the Victoria & Albert Museum, The Mary Rose Trust, Platt Hall (Manchester), and the National Museum of Ireland (Dublin). This makes a total of 101 caps and linings, which, given the relative scarcity of any garments surviving from the 16th century, is a very large body of evidence. The first phase of the project was a scoping study to ascertain the population of caps available followed by visits to the main collections, and several return visits as missing details became relevant. All the caps were observed at close quarters, measurements taken, photographic records compiled and the provenance details logged in a data sheet.


There were 93 caps, partial caps, linings and partial linings examined in this phase of the study. This is sufficient a number for some general observations to be made about knitted caps in the 16th century. These are reported here as typical features (in relation to these extant caps but not necessarily in the context of all caps in the 16th century). A statistical analysis of the cap data provides some insights into average sizes and some indication of shapes but is necessarily imprecise in providing a comprehensive picture of knitted caps in the 16th century. Knitting is a very personal craft – each knitter’s idiosyncrasy is communicated in tension and style. More importantly, an examination of these caps provides an intensely personal and literal impression of the wearer. Caps, in the same way as shoes, take on the shape of the wearer, and, in common with clothes excavated from graves actually absorb elements of the wearer. Despite conservation, each cap gives a strong suggestion of the individual person who once wore it.

The caps analysed suggest five categories: brimless caps, single-brimmed caps, splitbrimmed caps, half-brimmed caps, coifs and linings.

The brimless caps are a head-hugging, hood-style of headgear (similar to a modern beanie cap). Of the three extant examples (all at the Museum of London), the head circumferences range from 22.5 to 28 inches, giving an average of 24.5 inches. Two have cut edges, although one has cast edges too. Stitches per inch range from 6 to 10, giving an average of 8.33. These caps are observable in Breughel’s works, such as Die Jäger im Schnee, 1565 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien).

The single-brimmed caps (of which there are four at the Museum of London) could be described as berets with brims. Two examples are very “puffed” in appearance and one has a loop on the top. It is noteworthy that they are both small having crown diameters of 10 and 9 inches and head circumferences of 13 and 11 ¾ inches each. The double-layered brims are only one inch wide. One has 3.5 stitches per inch and the other has 6.

There are 32 split-brimmed caps, which have both a brim and a (presumed) neckflap. Crown diameters range from 7 ½ to 11 inches (average 9.3 inches). The head circumferences range from 15 ½ to 24 ¾ inches (average 20 inches). Stitches per inch range from 6 to 11, giving an average of 8. This style of cap is worn by John More the Younger (c1527-8) in a drawing by Holbein (The Royal Collection).

There are 14 half-brimmed caps with crown diameters ranging from 9 to 11 inches (average 10.2 inches). The head circumferences range from 24½ inches to 21¼ (average 22.6 inches). The half brims are a (presumed) neckflap, which could be worn against the neck or folded up on to the back of the cap. They range in depth from 1¾ to 3 inches. The average was 2.29 inches. Stitches per inch range from 7 to 11, giving an average of 8.6. Again, this style of cap is illustrated by Breughel in, for example, Peasant dance, c1568 (The Royal Collection).

There are 16 examples of knitted coifs. The crown diameters range from 7 to 9 inches (average 7.8). The head circumferences range from 21 to 28½ inches (average 23 inches). Stitches per inch range from 5 to 8, giving an average of 7. Coifs are often worn by older gentlemen in contemporary depictions. Two examples sketched by Holbein are John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester c1532 and William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1527 (The Royal Collection). The combination of a coif with another style of cap on top shown in a Self portrait, c1505-1541, by Joos Van Cleve (The Royal Collection). Similarly, a split-brimmed cap over a coif is worn by Sir Thomas More, c1527-8 as sketched by Holbein (The Royal Collection). His coif is probably heavily felted wool, while his upper cap may or may not be knitted and felted.

There are 24 extant roughly circular linings, 13 of which are still inside their original hats. The crown diameters range from 8½ to 10½ inches (average 10 inches). The outer 24 circumferences range from 20½ to 38½ (average 29.3 inches). The linings are usually bigger than the crowns of the caps, necessitating a slit or fold to fit them neatly inside. Stitches per inch range from 5 to 14, giving an average of 8. This average is misleading as, in general, the linings are considerably chunkier than the caps. The cut circumference edges have often rolled up where they sit against the turn of the crown edge to the brim. Some 16th century caps had silk linings (there is an example at The Mary Rose collection). The inside of a cap is visible in Breughel’s The payment of tithes c1620 (sold at Christies, London, July 2009).

Typical features

All of these caps were, in the main, knitted in the round on more than two needles. The most likely number of needles was five, as it would be difficult to achieve all the features with four needles. There are some parts, such as brims and earflaps, which were probably worked on two needles. The main construction method is stocking stitch.

Even close examination of the caps makes it difficult to determine for sure to what extent the caps’ external and internal edges were cast off or cut. As far as this study was able to ascertain, most (61 per cent) of the caps have some cut edges and this is true of all the linings’ circumferences. A third have at least one cast off edge (30 per cent). The felting/fulling process ensured that the stitches did not unravel.

The majority (71 per cent) caps have some part of their construction which is double layered. However, this was largely determined by the style of the cap: coif caps are all singlelayered, while split-brimmed and half-brimmed styles tend to be double-layered – usually at the brims, although some caps have double-layered crowns. None of the linings are double layered.

More than half of the split-brimmed and half-brimmed caps (78 per cent) have some sort of extra lining or facing to their brims (that is, other than a separate circular crown lining). It is noteworthy that a few of these have been conserved with the facing on the outside of the hat. Examination of the 46 extant items in these categories suggests that these facings should be turned inside and so at to be invisible when the cap is worn.

Nearly all of the caps are shades of brown today but show evidence to a greater or lesser extent of having been black or red originally. All the linings appear to have been red. A red cap is depicted in A village festival (Breughel, 1600, The Royal Collection).

Several caps have the suggestion of a tuft at the crown centre. Not all the centres are intact, although a good number are very well preserved. One has a serpentine row of stitches at the centre crown. The caps may have been knitted from the crown out towards the brim or from the outer edge of the brim towards the crown (Maeder, 1980, 227) or both methods of knitting may have been employed. There are ridges of stitches inside (and in some cases on the outside) on a good number of the caps where the knitting is turned to create the second surface of a brim, earflap or other feature.

Recommendations for further research

Some consideration must be given to where these caps are in their journey through time. There have been suggestions that some of the finds were from a cappers (or other) shop and that the caps were new awaiting sale. However, most do show evidence of having been worn and some of having been almost, if not completely, worn out. Were they discarded in something close to their current state? They are perhaps too similar in their current appearance for this to be the case. Caps might be discarded at different states of deterioration, suggesting the extant caps would have a less homogenous appearance. Were they awaiting repair at some cap version of the cobblers, a second-hand clothes shop or even a pawnbrokers? Some of them seem rather too intact for that. A later stage of this research project will look into these issues.

Knitting represents only one stage of the construction of these caps. There is further work to be done on the fulling and/or felting processes used to create the velvety pile which remains on some of the caps. Where two surfaces have been preserved close together (such as between two brims), a plush pile is observable. A bright red cap at Bern Historisches Museum was described as being of red velvet in its original catalogue entry before conservation in the 1970s: “This is a reasonable mistake, because in the process of manufacture the wool was teasled and clipped” (Maeder, 1980, 227).

Did the caps lose their pile through wear or during the time they lay undiscovered in the mud? The preserved pile between the brims could suggest either. It is likely that the bald state of the yarn today represents the degradation of the pile over the centuries. A modern reconstruction must therefore be based on the materials, dimensions and styles of the originals plus a finish which currently can only be glimpsed in their most hidden parts.


There is a surprising and welcome wealth of material available for the study of typical caps worn by ordinary men in the 16th century. They offer sufficient data for typical features to be identified and a profile for appropriate typical caps to be reproduced with confidence.


The author would like to thank the following people for their enthusiasm, expertise and help in the preparation of this report: Kirstie Buckland, Hilary Davidson (Museum of London) and Susan North (V&A).


Boticello, J (2003) The conservation of two Tudor knitted woollen flat caps, undergraduate thesis, Camberwell College of Arts
Buckland, K (2008/9) “A sign of some degree – the mystery of capping” in Text, St Albans: The Textile Society, 36, 4045
Buckland, K (2005) “Woollen caps” in Gardiner, J (ed) in Before the mast, Portsmouth: The Mary Rose Trust Ltd, 31-35
Buckland, K (1979) “The Monmouth Cap” in Costume, 13, 1-15
Devitt, C (2007) “‘To cap it all’: the Waterford cap of maintenance” in Costume, 41, 11-25
Flury-Lemberg, M (1988) Textile conservation and research, Bern: Abegg-Stiftung, 328-333 & 222-231
Hayward, M (2002) “‘The sign of some degree’?: The financial, social and sartorial significance of male headwear at the courts of Henry VIII and Edward VI” in Costume, 36, 1-17 Hayward, M (2007) Dress at the court of King Henry VIII Leeds: Maney
Maeder, E (1980) “The restoration of a 16th century Swiss mercenary soldier’s costume in the Historical Museum, Bern, Switzerland” in Pertegato, F (ed) Conservation and restoration of textiles: international conference, Como 1980, Milan: CISST, 224-228
Thirsk, J (2003) “Knitting and knitware, c1500-1780” in Jenkins, D (ed) Cambridge history of western textiles: 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 562-584
Walton, P (1987 – November) “A 16th-century Basque seaman buried in ‘russets’” in Archaeological Textiles Newsletter, 5, 3

Jane Malcolm-Davies