Monday, July 21, 2014

HSF #13--A Coppergate Cap

Because I was planning to be away on vacation for most of the week of July 14, I needed a quick project (again!) if I was going to participate in the "Under $10" challenge.  It took me a while to decide upon one that fits in with my interests, but I finally hit upon one I find very satisfying.

Recently, I managed to obtain a copy of Penelope Walton's (now Penelope Walton Rogers) book on the textile finds at the Coppergate site in York, England.  The book has been out of print for years and the cheapest copy I have ever seen on the market before now was priced at nearly $200.00 USD.  So I was pleased when ALibris, acting on a wish list reminder I'd left years ago, sent me e-mail about a copy that was available for about $33.00 USD after including shipping costs from Germany. In reading the book, I was particularly impressed with the precision of Walton's description of the silk cap found at Coppergate.  I knew I had some unused silk purchased for another project in more than sufficient quantity (about a yard and a half), so I decided that a Coppergate cap would be my $10 project.   I almost finished the cap on July 14, but because we were scheduled to leave for vacation early on the morning of the 15th, I didn't quite manage it.  However, I was able to finish it today, so now here it is, along with my ruminations on making and wearing the cap.

The completed cap
Cap inside out, showing the inside seam
I wanted to make the tie strings from the same silk used for the cap--but realized, in the nick of time, that it would be nearly impossible to tie such a slippery silk securely to itself.  The worker who made the original cap must have come to the same conclusion, because Walton detected vegetable fibers consistent with linen at the points on the cap where the tie strings must have been sewn.  I could have used some of my leftover white ramie for the tie-strings, but I wasn't able to find it after a quick search--and didn't have the energy or time to make a more intensive search for it.

I attempted to use the dimensions of the original cap--roughly 23 inches by 7 inches.   This piece of fabric produces a very shallow cap compared to the one I made previously.  It occurs to me that the original might have been for someone with a much smaller head than mine, but it's also possible that the overall effect shown in my pictures was the intended one--without additional evidence, it is impossible to tell.  In addition to the shallowness of the cap in generaly, sewing the curve along the back of the head was problematic.  Walton said that the cap was sewn up in the back with a curve ending at a point about two inches (50 mm) from the rear corner, but when I did that, my cap still had a small, nubby point, and not the smooth curve over the top of the head shown in Walton's sketches.  So I re-sewed the seam a few more times until I got a curve that better approximated Walton's sketches.  As a result, I had two points to fold aside inside the cap, not just the one Walton reports on the original (see photograph above).

Since the original cap was not found in a grave, there's no evidence about how it may have been worn.  I came up with three ways (see photographs below). One is to tie it under the chin.  A second is to tie it under the chin, but with the edges of the cap tucked behind the ears, and the third is to tie it at the back of the neck, under the occipital bone.  In all three pictures, I am wearing the cap with my hair fastened into a bun just above the nape of my neck.  That hairstyle gives the cap the most flattering shape; the problem with the cap forming a "point" at the top of my head was more obvious and less attractive when I did not do this.

All three methods look pretty similar in wear, though I prefer tying the cap in back because it hides the darker linen tie-strings and produces a slightly more becoming position of the front corners.  With or without a bun, however, this cap is much more attractive than my last attempt to make such a cap with the tie-strings fastened directly to the bottom corners.  The higher location for the tie-strings is also consistent with Walton's finding of linen fragments and indications of tie-fastening-stitches about 5-6 inches from the lower corners of the original cap.

One final note:  Walton's sketches show a series of wrinkles while the cap was in wear, parallel to the line of the shoulders.  My design fits too closely over my head to produce such wrinkles.  Could it be that the original was that much shorter (or longer) than the head of the original wearer? Or perhaps the fact that the original seems to have been made of a less slippery silk in a different weave (tabby) made the difference.  I may have to make another cap to see whether I can come up with a theory on this subject.

THE CHALLENGE:  #13 -  Under $10

Fabric:   A rectangular piece of fine white silk twill, about 23 inches by 7 inches, purchased long enough ago that I don't remember the price (but a piece small enough for this project would have been well under $10).  Also some scraps of natural-colored linen, from the fabric I bought for the bog blouse project, to make into tie strings.

Tied at back of head
Tied under chin, in front
Pattern:  I  followed Penelope Walton's detailed description of the nearly complete silk cap found in the Viking age levels of the Coppergate (York) dig, from her book The Archaeology of York:  Vol. 17: The Small Finds, Fascicule 5: Textiles, Cordage and Raw Fibre from 16-22 Coppergate pp. 360-363  (York Archaeological Trust 1989).

Year:   Approximately 975 CE, according to Penelope Walton. 

Notions:  Gutermann brand silk thread, in white.

How historically accurate is it?   Mostly. The pattern, even down to the size of the rectangular piece of fabric used to make the cap, is based on Walton's description of the actual find.  I incorporated a selvedge along one long edge in cutting the rectangle, like the original, and hemmed the piece all around with a rolled hem using silk thread, like the original, and the original has vegetable fiber remains in the right place to suggest that it had linen tie strings.   I also took care to place the tie-strings in the approximate location suggested by Walton's examination, and tried to sew the back seam curve in a similar position.  However, my silk fabric is a 2/2 diagonal twill, not a tabby, and it's a balanced weave, unlike the original (though it's roughly comparable in fineness to the original).  The original was not tested for dyes, and is now a golden brown, though Walton suggests that an undyed silk likely would have been a pale gold, not white, in color.  (Some of the photographs make my cap look gold, even though the fabric is snowy white; the photographs showing the cap in wear give a more accurate impression of the color.)  So about 70%-80%.
Tied under chin, behind ears

Hours to complete:   About 3 hours.  The original had a rolled hem on all four edges (even though one was a selvedge), and that hemming was the slowest and most finicky part of the job, and not just because I'm inexperienced at doing rolled hems.  The technique I learned for rolled hems requires you to crease the edge, a little at a time. With linen (and ramie, where I first tried it out) this is easy, because the fabric will stay creased once you've creased it.  Silk won't, though it may retain the mark of the crease for a bit while the fabric unbends. That means you have to grip the fabric by the fold while you're putting the stitch through it, and repeat the entire crease/grip process for each individual stitch, which is exhausting.  Also, I found it difficult to place the stitches so that the raw edge is completely curled under and hidden.  (It didn't help that my fabric had a fringe of loose threads extending a few millimeters beyond the selvage area.)

First worn:  For the photographs accompanying this post.

Total cost:  $0.00; I've had the silk fabric and thread for years, and I'd acquired the linen as part of a different project.  


  1. Lovely! Yours is far more flattering than just about every other reproduction of this cap that I've seen.

    1. Thanks! I think the difference is that most of the caps sew the tie-strings on the corners--which results in a really graceless look. (I wanted to take photographs of the cap I did years ago for comparison, but I couldn't find it quickly either.

  2. You look great! BTW, if you - or anyone following your blog - are interested in reading about similar examples of caps from Dublin, there's an interesting book on the subject 'Viking Age Headcoverings from Dublin' by Elizabeth Wincott Heckett.

    1. Thanks for reminding me about Wincott-Heckett's book; I do have a copy, but I haven't looked at it in a while. My recollection is that most of the textiles she discusses are unshaped scarves, rather than caps, though. (Wincott-Heckett deduces that these were used as head covering from the fact that several of them had a human head hair still caught on them.)

      At some point, I should dig up my copy of Wincott-Heckett's book, make scarves in the sizes she specifies, and see how they look when draped in some of the ways she suggests.

  3. Now, hopefully Blogger doesn't eat my comment this time... It's great! It's very interesting to see a real one, worn by a real person. Like you I think it looks most attractive tied in the back.

    1. Thanks!

      Blogger eats my comments too, which I find positively insulting. :-) For me, that tends to happen only when I use Chrome, so I've accessed Firefox to write this comment.