Cap

Cap

Knitted wool and felting
Possibly London, England
Early 16th century
Museum no. 1566-1901

This cap was part of lot 89 of the sale at Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge on 19 November 1901 of the collection of the late Mr James Smith of Whitechapel. It was originally found (along with eleven others) in an old house in Worship Street, City of London.

In England, the manufacture of caps was of sufficient importance to merit control by Act of Parliament from 1488 onwards. The 'Cappers Act' of 1571 stated that every person above the age of six years (excepting 'Maids, ladies, gentlewomen, noble personages, and every Lord, knight and gentleman of twenty marks land') residing in any of the cities, towns, villages or hamlets of England, shall wear on Sundays and holidays (except when travelling), 'a cap of wool, thicked and dressed in England, made within this realm, and only dressed and finished by some of the trade of cappers, upon pain to forfeit for every day of not wearing 3s. 4d.'. This act was intended to keep domestic production alive, as caps were outmoded by this date and there was a danger that a fall in demand for them would have a detrimental effect on the makers. This cap is fairly small, and, as a result, it has always been assumed that it belonged to a boy. Evidence from drawings of the 1530s by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) suggest that this assumption may not necessarily be accurate. In these drawings the rounded caps worn by adult men are relatively small, worn off centre, on the side of the head rather than resting on top of the head. Nonetheless, the head for which this cap was intended was not large. An alternative explanation of its size is the possibility that it might have shrunk over the hundreds of years of its existence. There is however no obvious sign of shrinkage.

Knitted or felted caps were designed to be warm and waterproof, some protected the neck, some had ear flaps and many were trimmed with ribbons to imitate expensive silk versions. Wealthy Londoners would have worn European fashionable bonnets/caps of silk velvet decorated with ostrich feathers, aglets and brooches. Knitted caps were heavily felted so that their surface texture imitated velvet. Wool absorbs colour easily, so many caps were dyed in strong colours, such as red and black which were fashionable at the time. A large number of 16th century knitted caps, most of highly fashionable shape, have been discovered in Greater London in the early 20th century during building works. The context/location of the find and the fact that the caps themselves were knitted suggest that they were not intended for the upper strata of society, but rather for the middle classes.