‘Silk’ Hats from a Sheep’s Back: how 16th century craftspeople created legal luxuries

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New scientific evidence of trade in raw materials and finished goods for the knitted textile trade is emerging from a scientific study of more than 100 extant knitted caps from the 16th century. These long-overlooked archaeological data are being re-excavated from museum archives for analysis in innovative ways and made available for wider study online. The woollen caps are recorded in European collections as having been shipwrecked, deliberately concealed, preserved in peat bogs, or discarded as beyond use in far-flung locations across Europe – as far north as Denmark and as far south as Croatia. This paper reports the fleece’s journey from the sheep’s back to the sixteenth century citizen’s head based on a variety of evidence, including protectionist legislation, microscopic investigation of the materials used, and modern-day craft expertise. Not only the method of knitting but the choice of yarn, spin, ply, and surface treatments such as fulling, napping and shearing have been successfully
recreated, together with the specialist equipment required. Campaigns to protect the capping trade across Europe yielded clues to the proto-industrial settings in which the wool was transformed into a functional fulled fabric providing protection against the weather but also emulating the dress of the elite. Experimental archaeological work with comparative and contemporary craftwork has shed light on the processes required to create the mock velvet nap, which made these caps desirable to those prevented from wearing silk by sumptuary law. The use of x-ray micro-computed tomography scanning as part of an interdisciplinary framework of investigation has
shown new ways to explore the materials used to knit and finish the caps. These techniques build on pioneering work with fibre analysis in the 1980s, which identified wool but could not determine specific fleece types and more recent studies which differentiated between early sheep breeds. This new evidence explains how the sheep
fleece was crucial to the final appearance of the caps in wear. The knitted caps represent an astonishing body of evidence for the manufacture of ordinary men’s clothing and demonstrate the importance of knitting in creating an iconic item of lower-class dress in the Early Modern era.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationArchaeological textiles - links between past and present, NESAT XIII : Archaeolingua
EditorsM Bravermanová, H Březinová, Jane Malcolm-Davies
Number of pages10
Place of PublicationLiberec
PublisherArchaeolingua Alapitvany, Budapest.
Publication date2018
Pages187-195 & 339
Publication statusPublished - 2018

ID: 213171332