TV and film would have us believe that nobody in the 19th century wore a cap aside from maids. Which is a lot of people, but they’re not the ones getting screen time, sadly.
I get it. By today’s standards, caps are frumpy and unsexy. Directors don’t want to hide actors’ faces, and costume designers don’t want to ruin the effect of an elegant gown by plopping something that looks like half a chef’s hat on top.
But, I say, let’s just embrace the cap. Most women—including fashionable ones—really did cover their hair during the day in the earlier part of the 19th century, whether it was with a cap, a kerchief, or a headwrap. For info on Black women’s use of headwraps, you can search for one of Cheyney McKnight’s interviews or articles on the subject.
Sources for day caps include The Workwoman’s Guide and the many, many extant examples in museums. There are so many beautiful caps out there! Granted, the ones in museums are fancier than those typically worn, but they give an idea of basic shapes and modes of decoration. Here is a lovely whitework-embroidered cap from the Met:
Interestingly, The Workwoman’s Guide has two separate sections on caps. Although the text doesn’t explicitly say so, the first section focuses on caps for lower-income women and servants, and the second focuses on caps for middle class and wealthier women:
If you’d like to construct the kind of day cap worn by fancy ladies in the 1830s, you can check out this really lovely one by The Sewphisticate.
My goal with my own cap was to create a “Sunday best” cap for a working woman in the late 1830s. So I chose a basic shape that the Guide describes as “particularly suitable for day-caps for young servants, or night-caps for any age or station” (Plate 9, Figure 20). I squared off the brim ends, though, and removed the ruffle. Ruffles were the most common cap embellishment at this time, but…I hate wearing ruffles. And plenty of extant caps don’t have them.
I’d write a step by step tutorial for how to construct one of these; however, Sew Historically already has a really good one here. Although they describe it as a mid-Victorian cap, it’s also appropriate for working women in the Romantic and early Victorian periods. I will add a few suggestions, though:
- Absolutely make a mockup to ensure you have the right fit and shape. I made three.
- Before making the whip gathers on the crown piece, divide the length of the edge to be gathered into quarters. Mark them off. Then calculate what 1/4 of your finished brim length will be. Make each marked section of whip gathers that length, so that the finished edge of the crown piece will match up exactly with the brim length. Using four lengths of thread and tying them off as you go makes this easier as well.
- For a comfortable fit, test the angle of your cap ties before permanently attaching them.
Rather than ruffles, I decided to embroider the cap with whitework, which was also a popular form of decoration at the time. It’s so elegant! And for a woman of little means, cotton embroidery would have been more affordable than adding lace. However, it DID require a huge investment of time, so my imagined 1830s woman might have risen early every morning for a month in order to finish a project such as this. If she was single and lived in a boarding house or with her parents, she might have been able to complete it during rare free hours on Sundays.
My pattern is the Hearts and Dots Border from Romantic Recollections, which RR sourced from an 1816 periodical. I can just imagine a woman saving this pattern in a trunk, only for it to be discovered 20 years later by a daughter looking for inspiration.
100% please embroider your cap pieces before you cut them out. Just trace the outlines of the pieces onto the fabric, and leave enough extra width around them for the embroidered parts to fit properly within a hoop. You will save yourself a world of difficulty. I was initially concerned that my delicate fabric (Nainsook cotton from Burnley and Trowbridge) and satin stitches would warp from the pressure of the hoop, but they relaxed just fine with some light steaming—no wash or heavy pressing necessary.
My single strands of DMC cotton embroidery floss are only sort of accurate for the 1830s, since floss wasn’t a thing until the 1840s. However, other forms of stranded cotton thread were common at the time. I didn’t use any stabilizer, but was really careful about not making my stitches too tight.
In addition to the embroidery, I’m also pleased with the neat little corners on my brim and ties, and have a separate entry on how to make corners like this.
In short, I love love love my cap.
Pattern: self drafted based on The Workwoman’s Guide
- sheer Nainsook cotton from Burnley and Trowbridge
- Gutermann Sew-All thread
- DMC cotton embroidery floss
- kitchen twine for the drawstring at the back (the kind you tie roast chickens together with. You can use something nicer, but I didn’t.)