Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Thrum Cap

Hollywood is not the source upon which to base a study of period clothing. Costume designers each have their own ideas about melding artistic license with historical styles. At their most successful, these artists create a coherent atmosphere in which no single aspect of the background costuming interrupts the foreground action or seems incongruous. Thus, the minute choices choices they make are lost to the viewer. Most of the time, that is. Watching Master and Commander the other day, I noticed a unique cap in one of the later scenes, shown to the right in this screenshot. As it turns out, this odd piece is in fact a representation of a style that was especially popular among seamen for several hundred years in the Age of Sail.

The "thrum" cap was a knit cap with a fringed or fuzzy appearance. This pile was created by attaching to the caps strands of yarn or thrums - the ends of warp yarns left after a length of fabric was cut from the loom. The caps were often felted after knitting to make them even softer, warmer, and more water-repellent - the ideal cap for a sailor. Thrum caps were already popular by 1600, when Cesar Vecelli included this illustration in his Habiti Antichi e Moderni ("Ancient and Modern Dress"), reproduced in John Tincey, The Spanish Armada, 2000.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Elizabethan England, you might have heard the popular song "The Ballad of the Caps."
The Monmouth Cap, the Saylors' Thrum,
And that wherein the Tradesmen come;
The Physick lawe, the Cap divine,
And that which crowns the muses nine;
The Cap that fools do countenance,
The goodly Cap of Maintenance.

Any Cap, whate'er it be, Is still the sign of some degree.

The Souldiers that the Monmovth wear,
On castle tops their Enseignes rear:
The Saylors with their Thrums do stand
On higher place than all the land.

Any Cap, whate'er it be, Is still the sign of some degree.
Thrum caps appeared in America as well. On October 13th, 1737, shoemaker Peter Saunders advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette for his runaway servant Thomas White. White's head was shaved by he wore a thrum cap and a felt hat. The style also presumably lent its name to the Thrum Cap Shoals off Halifax.
While I have found no examples of extant thrum caps, a surprising number of other knit caps have survived from the 17th and 18th centuries. Peter the Great acquired a tall, brimmed knit cap at the Dutch East India Company shipyards in 1697 which is now housed at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. A round cap with a knit body and brim was dredged from the New York waterfront sometime in the 1970s and is now owned by a private collector (it can be seen in George Neumann and Frank Kravic's Collector's Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution). A very similar cap was recovered nearly intact from the wreck of the HMS DeBraak (1798) and is now owned by the State of Delaware. A unique fringed pattern-knit cap was recovered from the HMS General Carleton wreck off the Polish coast (1785) and can be viewed here: Several other Monmouth-style caps survive in English collections, including a round one with turned-up brim recovered in pristine condition from a late-17th-century Shetland gravesite in 1951. Period illustrations and these few surviving specimens give us an idea of the variety of the working man's knit cap. And, once in a while, Hollywood takes notice.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, well done.
    Thank you.