A Short History of the Monmouth Cap

By Jennifer L. Carlson


“Your majesty says very true: if your majestie is remembered of it, the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps; which, your majesty knows, to this hour is an honourable badge of the service; and I do believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Davy’s day.”

Fluellen, Henry V, Act IV, Scene 7

The Welsh town of Monmouth lies on the river Wye, fifteen miles north of its mouth into the Severn.  From there, the Wye flows the Bristol Channel, an easy downstream course for exporting goods to the known world. About an equal distance to the north of Monmouth, in Hereford, lay Archenfield, a rye-growing region on the Welsh border.  In the first part of the fourteenth century Archenfield became noted for its Ryeland sheep, a breed which produced wool of exceptional felting quality.

Monmouth's lucky position between a supply of excellent wool and a means of ready distribution perfectly situated the town to become the center of a knitting industry. A Hundred Court record from 1449 lists surnames such as Hosier, Dier, Glover, Lace, Cardmaker, and Capper. The roll of Englishmen who fought at Agincourt includes a Thomas Capper, and that surname name appears again and again in Monmouth records for the two centuries following Agincourt (Buckland).

The local knitting industry produced several kinds of knitted goods, but became best known for its caps, which were produced on a huge scale and exported, not only to the rest of England and Wales, but also to the continent. The heyday of the Monmouth cap was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Only a few years after the accession of Henry VII, the Capper’s Act of 1488 forbade, on penalty of a fine, the wearing of foreign-made caps. Capmaking so flourished under the Tudors that cappers came to occupy such municipal posts as bailiff, burgess, and juror.

Competition developed in other parts of the realm. The cappers of Bristol, themselves competitors of those in Monmouth, petitioned to the court of Star Chamber in 1529 that the London cappers were a threat to the wool industry of Bristol, from the carders and spinners to the knitters. (Isca Morrismen)

A statute from Elizabeth I’s reign, dated 1571 and titled “An Act for the Continuance of the Making of Caps” lists fifteen crafts related to their production. It also required “… 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…” (Ibid)

Though gentlemen’s wives were exempt from the cap act, gentlemen did not disdain to wear them. In fact, the earliest mention we have of a Monmouth cap by name is in 1576, in a letter from Lord Gilbert Talbot of Goodrich Castle to his father, the ninth Earl of Shrewsbury, accompanying a gift to the Earl of “a Monmouth Cappe.” This reference indicates that not only were the caps popular enough to have their own name by then, but also that they were fit gifts for the highest noblemen in the realm.

Unfortunately for historians, the style was so widely fashionable that Lord Gilbert felt no need to say more about it, least of all to describe it. From various gleanings in other sources, we know that they were knitted in the round, with a “button” on top. Some sources claim brown was the predominant color, but at least one record of red Monmouth caps does exist.

Despite cramming a legislated covering on every middle- and lower-class head, the 1571 statute failed to keep Ryeland wool in England and was repealed in 1597. With the trade essentially deregulated, foreign markets could now legally tempt English wool merchants with offerings of greater profits than to be found at home. Shakespeare’s Henry V first hit the stage in 1599, coinciding with the zenith of the Monmouth knitting industry. Ryeland fleeces had now become too dear for the purses of local manufacturers, and the Monmouth cappers slipped into a decline. Long by this time, however, other towns had been producing “Monmouth caps, the name indicating its style rather than its point of origin.

Though Monmouth’s star had started to dim, the caps continued popular for at least another century. Captain John Smith, a leader of Jamestown Colony and leading figure in the Pocahontas story, wrote an instructional pamphlet for the benefit of English colonists, and a Monmouth cap is near the top of the list of items for one’s kit (The Things the Pilgrims Brought). In the 1620s, the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s sponsors ordered Monmouth caps as part of the outfitting of one hundred men heading for the New World. The caps are described as “thick, warm, fulled by hand- and foot- beating and much favored by seamen.” Some of them, at least, were red in color (Macdonald, p.3).

Although their civilian popularity waned over the years, Monmouth caps continued to be regular military equipment for both the army and navy throughout the seventeenth century. Military lists dated 1627 and 1642 call for supplying caps for soldiers and sailors. Throughout the seventeenth century, caps appear in lists of naval slop clothing.  “Slop clothes” was the contemporary term for ready-made clothing issued to sailors, with the implication of cheap or inferior make. Since 1800, the cap appears only in reference to gear worn by sailors.

Calculating the real cost of caps over time is difficult. For their last voyage to the West Indies in 1596, Francis Drake and John Hawkins paid over 40 pounds for thirty-six dozen caps, at a cost of about 2s 6d each. Twenty years later, though the caps were now a slop item, the price had risen to 3s 6d each. Inflation may explain the difference in prices, with the former being more costly for its time than the latter. I leave that puzzle to historical economists. As an aristocrat’s accessory, however, the price remained quite high: in 1637 Lord Conway purchased a cap costing 11 s, which is still well above any other prices mentioned. (Isca Morrismen)

If sorting out costs versus modern cash value is a stumper, so is saying with certainty what the caps looked like. Contemporary accounts are of little help, save to say that they were warm and “well-fulled” which, in the case of knitted goods, means felted. The Nelson Museum and Local History Centre has in its collection what some claim is the only extant example of a genuine Monmouth cap. Pictures of this cap can be found at http://www.isca-morrismen.com/monmouth.htm and http://www.gtj.org.uk/en/item1/7998.  Although one picture depicts what appears to be a taller cap than in the other picure, counting the stitches and noting the placement of the decreases in the crown will show that these two photographs are of the same item. *

I have also examined a reproduction, knitted by Kirstie Buckland for Al Saguto, Master Shoemaker at Colonial Williamsburg. According to him, Ms. Buckland made his cap by studying one in a private collection. It favors the Nelson Museum cap in proportions, but is made of a finer yarn and with a different gauge than the Nelson Museum cap.

Both examples, however, have certain features in common: they are knitted in the round, have a hemmed brim, a purl row for turning, a loop at the edge of the brim, and a “button” on top. The buttons on the Monmouth and Nelson examples are small, no more than a few stitches cast-off upon closing the crown. Ms. Buckland’s reproduction, however, has a semi-detached floret about two inches wide for its button, as if the cap were sprouting a baby beret. Some records indicate Monmouth caps might have been used as padding under a soldier’s helmet, and this floret of a button would help in that function.

What follows is my own redaction of a pattern, based off the Nelson Museum example. I recommend reading Ms. Buckland’s Costume 13 article, and visiting the websites I have mentioned here.

 

Jennifer Carlson

 

* I wish to thank Mr. Andrew Helme, Curator of the Monmouth Museum, who brought it to my attention my misapprehension that two different caps existed in Monmouth, and assisted me in correcting the error. 

Bibliography:

Bradberry, Sarah, pattern copyright 2004 http://www.knitting-and.com/knitting/patterns/hats/monmouth.htm

Buckland, Kirstie. “The Monmouth Cap.” Costume 13. 1979. pp. 23-37.

Casglu’r Tlysau website for Welsh cultural history http://www.gtj.org.uk/en/item1/7998

d’Aquitaine, Genevieve, n.d. http://polaris.umuc.edu/~jthies/sca/knitmonmouthcap.html

Isca Morrismen Monmouth Caps http://www.isca-morrismen.com/monmouth.htm

Macdonald, Anne L. No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting. New York; Ballantine Books, 1988. She cites The Record of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, excerpted in Earle’s Two Centuries of Costume in America.

Shakespeare, William. Henry V. Act 4, Scene 7.

“Things the Pilgrims Brought” MayflowerHistory.com, copyright 2004-2005. http://www.mayflowerhistory.com/History/voyage6.php


The Pattern:

All the knitting sources I have read assert that the purl stitch developed rather late in knitting history, and is either not period for SCA purposes, or only very late period. The “purl” row, however, is crucial to putting a crisp fold in the final edge of the brim. My own theory is that, after working the back side of the brim, the knitter turned the work around and knitted one row in the opposite direction, then returned to the original track, thus creating the turning row.

For the sake of fit, I decided to make a higher-crowned version than the cap in the Monmouth Museum, to make sure it is deep enough to cover the ears when the brim is turned down, and still cover most of the head with the brim up.

I do not claim my pattern is better or more accurate than anyone else’s. It is only my interpretation of photographs and a reproduction by an expert of a surviving example not generally known to the public.

The web has several sites by knitters who have redacted the Monmouth Museum cap. After studying their patterns and comparing the results with the pictures of the Monmouth original, I some assumptions made by the patterns, and decided to redact my own. An excellent picture of the Monmouth Museum cap can be found at http://www.gtj.org.uk/en/item1/7998.

The original is knitted in the round of a thick, 2-ply yarn and a gauge of approximately 1 stitch per centimeter. We cannot know if this is the typical gauge or even the typical yarn, since there aren’t enough surviving caps to study. However, since we know the caps were made for gentlemen as well as the lower orders, it’s safe to assume that finer yarns were used as well as the coarser ones. If you do use a finer yarn, you will have to calculate the gauge and adjust the pattern accordingly.

I have recreated this in two different gauges: This red cap, my first attempt, is made of a double strand of vintage worsted from a thrift store and American size 8 needles.  Please note the loop is in the wrong position on this cap. The loop should be at the edge of the brim, not where the hem of the brim meets the crown. I was still trying to work out the pattern when I made this one. It also has just a suggestion of a “button” on the top.

This dark blue cap was made in the same gauge and needle size with doubled strands of Bernat Lamie brand merino wool (available at Hobby Lobby)

This gray-green cap most closely approximates the historical example, and my pattern is for this item. I used Lion Brand Quick ‘n Thick on 4 American size 10 needles. Quick-n-Thick is a synthetic yarn, but it produces the correct gauge. I have not yet found a woolen yarn of sufficient thickness to copy the original. The pictures show it from the side and back, showing the loop, and with the brim turned up.

Materials and equipment:

1 skein Lion Brand Thick & Quick yarn

Set of 5 double-pointed American size 10 needles

Measure off 2-3 yards of yarn and make a slip knot. Cast on 60 stitches and distribute them across three double pointed needles. Save the fifth needle (if your set has one) for hemming the brim.

Move the slip knot from the beginning of the first needle to the end of the third to join the needles into a circle (ok, it’s a triangle, but you know it will knit up as a circle).

Row 1: Knit, finishing the first row by knitting together (ktog) the last cast-on and the slip stitch.

Rows 2-9: Knit. Between each row, move the yarn tail from back of work to front, or to the back, so that you “weave” the tail up the work as you go.

Row 10: EITHER turn and knit one row in the opposite direction, or Purl one row.

Rows 11-19: Knit. Do not weave the tail anymore. Leave it so that it hangs to the outside at the purl row.

Make the tail loop: if the tail is not on the front side of the work, pull it through. Either finger crochet or make an I-cord (see below) between 3 and 5 inches long, depending on how big you want your loop. If you are knitting with two yarns, you have the option of making a lanyard the desired length (see below).

Take the tail in through to the wrong side of the band and finish it off.

Close the headband (this is the trickiest part). You may find this works easier if you use the fifth knitting needle to position the cast-on stitches. The following pictures illustrate how the headband forms as you “seam up” the folded band.

I find it helps to thread a needle (white here for demonstration purposes) with a dozen or so of the cast-on stitches to control them better.

Fold the edge up into the circle.

Row 20: pick up a cast-on stitch from your 5th needle and Ktog the first stitch with the first cast-on stitch; repeat to end of row.

As you go, the brim will “seam closed,” and look identical on either side.

You have now knitted a hemmed brim. The purl row will now be the new edge of the brim.

Rows 21-45: Knit

Row 46: Knit 4, k2tog; repeat

Rows 47-49: Knit

Row 50: Knit 3, k2tog; repeat

Rows 51-54: Knit

Row 55: Knit 2, K2tog; repeat

Row 56-58: Knit

Row 59: Knit 1, K2tog; repeat

Row 60: Knit

Row 61: K2tog; repeat

Row 62: K2tog; repeat

Continue to decrease until you have only 5-7 stitches left. Cast off to create a small “button.” Break yarn and work tail through the knitting wrong side of work

To make an I-cord: using the tail yarn, cast 4 stitched onto a double pointed needle. Instead of working in the normal way, start knitting the stitch FURTHEST from the working yarn. Slide stitched to other end of needle, and repeat. This will knit a round, r-stitch cord.

To make a lanyard: separate the two yarn tails. Using a knitting needle or crochet hook, insert into the stitch next to where the tails emerge, come up and catch one of the tails, and pull up a loop. Pull a loop of the second tail through the first, then close the first. Pull a loop of the first through that of the second and close the second. Continue in this manner (kind of like an alternating chain stitch) until the lanyard is the desired length, then finish off. Take the ends through to the back of the work and weave them through the knitting, in opposite directions, to anchor the loop.

For casting on, some knitters recommend a temporary cast-on (looping over a piece of string which is later removed). I prefer to use a continental cast-on, illustrated here. It’s extremely elastic, makes a very even edge, and if you’re ever knitting something that begins with ribbing, you can actually cast on “knit” and “purl” for make a really tidy edge.

  1. Make a slip knot about 2-3 yards from the end of the yarn. (You’ll have to do some guesswork as to how long to make the tail – each cast-on stitch will take about ” of yarn, and you’ll need enough left over to make the loop.)
  2. Loop the tail around your thumb and hold it down with your 3rd and 4th fingers. Loop the skein-side yarn over your forefinger.
  3. Move point of needle to the outer strand of the loop over your finger and insert into the loop from the outside.
  4. Bring the point toward your thumb and down into the thumb loop.
  5. Pull the thumb loop through the finger loop.
  6. Slip loop off your forefinger and pull up the slack.
  7. Reposition the yarn around your fingers and repeat.

This will produce a “knit” cast on row for knitting in the round. To make a “purl” cast-on in this way, pull the finger loop through the thumb loop.


A Short History of the Monmouth Cap, by Jennifer L. Carlson, Copyright 2005, 2008
This page was last modified 7 September 2008