Hey Sailor! Beanie

The Finished Product


Level of Authenticity: With a bit more research, I’d feel comfortable entering this at a Baronial level.

Special Acknowledgment: The information I relied on to make this hat came from an exhibit on 17th century Spitsbergen in the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), which I inexplicably didn’t visit myself when I had the chance.  Instead, I used pictures taken and provided to me by the wonderful Francesca Walton.

What: Knitted woolen cap.

Who/Where: The extant hats I based my hat on were found in the graves of Dutch whale hunters who died on or near Spitsbergen in the 17th century.  The Wikipedias tell me that Spitsbergen is an island in the Svalbard archipelago of Norway.  It’s so very remote that I basically had to include the entirety of the Northern Hemisphere in order to show where it is compared to other stuff.  For a baronial entry, I would want to have done some basic level research that didn’t come from Wikipedia about the history of the whaling station at Spitsbergen and the modern excavations that were done there.  For a kingdom entry, I’m not gonna lie, I would probably obsessively find everything I could that had been written about the station and the excavations because I am a big nerd and I like research.

When: The exhibit notes indicate the graves were from the 17th century, which could indicate that the hats dated anywhere up to 100 years out of SCA period

Why: The exhibit notes explain that each man wore an individualized cap.  They had to be so tightly bundled up against the cold that only their eyes were visible, and the different caps helped them recognize one another.


Materials:  The exhibit notes say that the material is wool.  The yarn I chose to work with was Berroco Ultra Alpaca, which is 50% wool and 50% alpaca.  Although by the 16th and 17th centuries, Western Europeans did have contact with the Americas, I’m not aware that Western Europeans would have been using any alpaca fibers at this time.  Alpaca does have different working characteristics from wool, although as a beginner to the fiber arts I’m not clear on what the differences are.  For a baronial level project, I’d want to be able to explain to my judges what the differences are like between working with 50% alpaca and working with 100% wool.  For a kingdom level project, I’d want to do quite a bit more research.  For example, the yarn I used was a modern worsted weight, which I thought looked more or less like the weight of yarn used in the exemplar hat.  At a kingdom level, I would want to have done research to find out what weight the yarn was, the number of plies, and which way it was twisted; and then I would want to have used a yarn that got as close to these characteristics as possible.  I would also have wanted to use a yarn that had the same fiber content as the extant hat, whether my research showed that was 100% wool or something else.  If the yarn was from a particular or heritage breed that is still available, I would also have wanted to see if I could get yarn from the same breed.  For this project at a kingdom level, I probably would not try to spin my own yarn unless I meant to enter the spinning and dyeing as a separate entry.

The extant hat I based my piece on appears to be in natural undyed wool, with stripes of black, pink, and turquoise.  The pink and turquoise are somewhat unusual and I assumed that the colours visible today are the result of dyestuffs fading either over the course of use by the hat’s owner or after burial.  For a kingdom level project, I would want to look for information on what dyestuffs might originally have been used in the hat.  Recall though that the exhibit notes indicated that each hat was different so the men could tell each other apart.  Since that’s the case, I’m comfortable at either level using colours of my own choosing.  However, I made sure to choose colours that could be achieved with inexpensive natural dyes, such as I believe would have been available to a person of lower socioeconomic station like a whaler.  I picked a yarn that resembled undyed sheep colour, plus yarns with colours that could have been achieved with madder (red) and indigo (blue).  Again, for a kingdom level entry I probably wouldn’t try to dye my own yarn unless I meant it as a separate entry, but I might try to find yarn that actually was undyed or dyed by hand with period dyestuffs.

Tools: I used US size 8 (5 mm), 8 inch/20cm double pointed wooden needles.  I am pretty sure that double pointed needles were used for knitting in the round in the 16th and 17th centuries, though before entering a competition I would want to have confirmation of this fact.  I don’t have information on what material period needles might have been made of, and I’d want to know that before entering a competition as well.  I have worked with wooden, plastic, and metal needles over the years and I don’t find they have an appreciable difference on the technique needed or outcome produced, so regardless of my findings I would feel comfortable continuing to use wooden needles.  For a kingdom level project, I would want to see if I could determine the approximate diameter of the needles used in the extant hat and proceed with that size if different from the size I chose for this project.

Techniques:  This time, knitting is the appropriate initial technique for this project.  There are plenty of extant pieces of knitting from the 16th century onwards and a visual inspection of the extant hats in the exhibit shows that they were knitted.  The hat I based my project on appears to be knit in plain stockinette stitch (while knitting in the round, knit every row), with the visual interest coming from the arrangement of stripes in various colours.  Although I intended my hat to be unique as compared to the extant hats, I based the arrangement of stripes on a particular selected hat to ensure I was not departing too dramatically from the aesthetics of the overall collection of hats.  Just as I guessed what weight of yarn to use, I guessed (this time with the help of my apprentice sister Johanna, who is much more knowledgeable about knitting than me) how many stitches to cast on and how to shape the crown of the hat, and I guessed about how many rows wide to make each stripe.  For a kingdom level project, I would want to get as much information about how the exemplar hat was shaped as possible, even if I ultimately departed from those baselines in the name of making my hat unique to me.  As a beginner knitter, I am faintly aware that there are different possible hand positions and methods of knitting, all of which lead to an end result that looks the same, though some methods appear to progress much faster.  I’m undecided whether I would want to determine and emulate the particular method used for these hats for a kingdom level project.

The extant hats all appear to have undergone a fulling process.  While it’s possible these are processes that could have happened to the hats while they were being worn or after they were buried, there is good information to suggest that knitted caps were habitually fulled before being worn.  At this time, I’m basing this statement on information presented by the Tudor Tailors at a workshop I attended in Chicago in July 2016, in a segment on the production of knitted woollen caps in 16th century England.  This is probably good enough for a baronial level competition but for a kingom level competition, I’d want to have some of my own research to back up what the Tudor Tailors told me.  At that workshop, we submerged knitted swatches in very hot, soapy water, and then pounded them vigorously with wooden mallets that had been specially made for that purpose.  They also presented evidence that sometimes substances other than soap were used for fulling, and that in many cases automated fulling machines were used.  When I fulled my hat, I put it in my washing machine on the hot setting with some tea towels and a full measure of detergent, then let it air dry.  This was a technique recommended to me by various modern knitters as well as suggested by the Tudor Tailors.  I think this is probably good enough for a baronial level competition, but for a kingdom level I think I would want to use the more manual method I tried at the workshop.

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