The knitty-gritty of those strange hats

Blå basker, Österrike, 1360-1370

Blue bonnet, Graz, Austria, circa 1360-1370

A (very) long time ago, I came across  the picture to the left. At the time I thought it pretty strange as I thought it resembled of one of those French berets. You know which ones I mean. The ones with a little teet in the middle that all baguette Frenchies wear, along with that striped shirt.

It seems those berets are knitted and then fulled to make them sturdy and compact and when I found that picture I was my first thought. The problem was, back then I didn’t have any knowledge about knitted stuff in the 14th century; I was told that knitting was ”invented” in Europe during the 16th century, and I am pretty sure I was not alone in thinking this was the case. I dismissed the picture as artistic license or a variant of a felted cap of some kind. And that was that. I forgot about it all.

Since then, I have learned that knitting has been around in Europe for quite some time. I have understood that when it first made it’s entrance, it was used for smaller things, like gloves, pouches and perhaps even bonnets. There is a knitted fragment from circa 1100 in

Stickat fragment, Schloss Gottorf, ca 1100

It looks like a piece of chewed moss, but allegedly it’s one of the oldest knitted textiles in Europe. It’s from circa 1100 and is on display at the Landesmuseum Schleswig-Holstein/Schloss Gottorf. Photo: Viktoria Holmqvist

Landesmuseum Schleswig-Holstein/Schloss Gottorf, and according to textile archaeologist Klaus Tidow (Die spätmittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Wollgewebe und andere Textilfunde aus Lübeck, in Lübecker Schriften zur Archäologie und Kulturgeschichte, Band 22, Bonn, 1992) there are evidence for knitting in Lübeck at least as early as the 13th century (Tidow also presents evidence for kind of a ”boom” when it comes to knitting in the 15th century; almost 4% of the textiles discovered in 15th Lübeck strata is knitted. Compared to 13th century conditions it is a significant raise from the 0,64% knitted textiles which were discovered in those strata), and who isn’t familiar with the knitting Madonna of master Bertram van Minden’s Buxtehude altar?


Knitting Madonna of the Buxtehude altar (detail), northern Germany, circa 1400-1410


There are several other examples of knitting Madonnas and also other evidence for knitting; for example, Isis Sturtewagen mentions early 15th century knitters from Bruges in her thesis All together respectably dressed. Clothing and fashion in 15th and 16th-century Bruges (Unpublished Phd dissertation, Antwerp university, 2016). This is, by the way, a very fascinating read. Be sure to stick your nose in it if you are the least bit interested in textile history. In short – during the late 14th/early 15th centuries, knitting has been around for several hundred years.

So, all things put together, I started thinking about knitted hats again. I believe it started a new when I started working on organizing all my pics and ran across this old goodie:


Grabower altar (detail), northern Germany, circa 1380-1390

They are pretty similar, the blue one and the red one, aren’t they? I think so. And I thought I was on to something and I started looking. It led me to these:

But who says these caps are knitted? Couldn’t they be sewn hats, made from ordinary fabric? Did they even knit hats back then? Well, yes, they could be sewn hats (some of the examples above are probably sewn hats, even though it is kind of hard to tell) and yes – they did knit hats back then. Let’s return to Isis Sturtewagen’s thesis. She looked at the guild of the bonnet or cap makers in Bruges, which existed already in the 14th century. At least since the early 1400s the bonnets and caps they produced were knitted (possibly earlier, but solid evidence lacks for the 14th century). In Bruges the bonnet makers were small entrepreneurs, who directed the whole production process. The first stages of the production were taken care of by women: the spinsters and knitters. Male workers took care of the fulling and dyeing (Sturtewagen, 2016). Isis will also be talking a bit about knitted caps in her lecture during the upcoming Battle of Wisby this August. Don’t miss it!

And then – my pièce de résistance!


The so called cap of Saint Denis, France, 14th century – a real find! It doesn’t look much like the above pictures, it’s made from mussel silk/byssus, but it is still knitted and it is from the 14th century!

This is why I decided to have my own knitted cap made. It is – as you could certainly guess – knitted, and there after fulled.


A beauty, isn’t it? Not the beast wearing it, but the bonnet itself. And doesn’t it quite look like the bonnet in the first pic above?


21 reaktioner på ”The knitty-gritty of those strange hats

  1. It’s adorable.
    If you had read Irena Turnau’s book ”Hand knitting before mass production you would have known about the French 14th century knitter’s guild, which made knitted caps, long before Isis’ wonderful thesis though. And then you could have been knitting for years, since that book came out in the 90s 🙂


  2. I just love your research and your blue hat!
    I know of a childrens hat/coif from Randers here in jutland Denmark. It is knitted with very fine needled, with 4 like on the Madonna picture and very Well preserved. In is in the exhibition and is dated to the middle ages (no precise date).

    • Good question. I have no idea whatsoever, as it was my enthusiastic and very friendly wife that made the knitting. Perhaps you could have a closer look at the cap of St Denis? It is said to be knitted with so called ”stocking stitch”. Another alternative would be to have a look at the Monmouth cap. It is late in comparison, but perhaps you could get a few pointers?

  3. Very interesting! There is also an Italian source, a chronicle from 1388 (Chronica Placentinorum, G. De Mussis), that says that old men wear hoods, and over these hoods wear beautiful caps (”biretae”), not woven or sewn, but ”made with the needle”, that has been interpreted as knitted.

  4. There are also several knitted fragments dated to the late 14th Century from the London digs (see Crowfoot, Pritchard & Staniland, Textiles and Clothing c. 1150 – c. 1450, p. 72-75). They are wool, in stockinette stitch and are not fulled or brushed. However, they’re too fragmentary to determine what garment they originally were from.

  5. I recomend, apart from the book that Eva mentions, Richard Rutt – a history of hand knitting. Published in the late 1980’s.
    There is also a paper somewhere on the interner about a 13th century mitten find in Estonia.

  6. Have you seen this

    a hat I found on pinterest. It is of later date but very similar to som of the pictures above.

  7. Very interesting article, but:.
    Les français ne portent plus de bérêts depuis longtemps!!!
    Frenches wear no more berets for really long time!!!!!, and when, they were not alone: spanish, Belgians, Italians, Scotish etc… wore this kind of hat to. It was considered as comfortable and easy to brush for outdoor working. The ”french beret” is called ”bérêt basque” in french (from this land between France and Spain borders) and seams to have been a medieval survivance. The textile was made with steamed wool just like other kind of hat.
    The teet is for me only a fashion effect.
    Your article make for me an interesting demonstration about internationality of clothing fashion.

  8. Pingback: Hats -do’s and don’ts | Exploring the medieval hunt


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