One of the great sadnesses that those interested in the so-called Silly Hats of the 1400s must deal with, is that there are no extant examples of these hats. There are hat-related shreds of material, wires, and so forth, but mostly we must draw conclusions from illustrations made at the time, or read costume histories. As a result, my theories here are, I believe, solid for an educated guess, but feel free to come to your own conclusions and methods.
The hats, and how they were worn
There are two related styles that I believe were constructed out of similar materials: the pointy-cone hat (with or without veils and wings) and the truncated-cone hat (also with or without veils and wings). Both were stiff, covered with ornamental fabric, and held onto the head using something other than a chin strap. When veils were worn, they were white or cream, stiff, and usually nearly transparent. You never see the hair. The "butterfly" type seems to be based on the truncated-cone shape, rather than the full pointy version -- there are some illustrations where you can see the end of the truncated cone through the veiling, but I have not yet seen one that shows a full cone through the veils.
Costume historians and costume hobbyists have many theories about how they were kept on, ranging from hatpins through hair-buns under the hat (this is the method I use), to a special "hairband" thing that may have been changeable from hat type to hat type. For SCA purposes, I encourage the hatpin method; if you have short hair, you might end up needing to use a chin strap, made as invisible as possible.
What is it made from?
So how do you make one of these? The simplest method is based on some reasonable "educated guesses."
We know that around this time, some men wore fancy, woven straw hats -- the Arnolfini Wedding painting by Van Eyck, 1434, shows the groom in a black straw hat; look at the very top on a good reproduction, and you can see the weave. Some were wearing shaped felt hats. Van der Weyden's Portrait of a Lady from 1460 looks as if the hat is actually some sort of uncovered basketry.
We know that these hats needed to be both stiff and lightweight. Janet Arnold's book about Elizabethan costuming shows how many corsets were constructed with reeds bundled up as the stiffening. Why not use reeds for stiffening hats at an earlier age? They are lightweight, easy to shape, easy to obtain. Most of my hats are basketry, although stiff wool felting is another strong, light contender for material.
Using woven straw or baskets is what is generally termed "conjecturally accurate." This means that the materials are all ones that the medieval people had access to; they had the skills to make them; they used something like this in other areas of life (baskets, men's hats); and there are no examples that directly conflict with the use of the material or technique in this way. Of course, with hats of this period, since we have exactly Zero extant examples, it's very hard to say what they really did.
Making a truncated cone:
The great thing about this working theory is that you can get basket or woven-straw cache-pots for houseplants in the right sizes for a truncated-cone hat, at any garden store or at rummage sales. Using these as a base produces a lightweight hat which will flex to your head, and help hold itself on based on that flex. Sure, you'll get a few odd looks, putting baskets on your head in the store, but once you get them covered, you'll be pleased with the results.
If you go shopping for a basket in order to make this sort of hat, you will have two types of materials to choose from. Flat grasses, woven tightly into plant cache-pots, or thin, flexible, brown reeds, usually in larger loops and weaves. Be certain that the size is large enough to fit over your head at your hairline, and down the back of your head behind your ears, and does not fall off too easily when you move your head. It will need to be a bit loose, to give you some room for the fabric and lining you will cover it with.
Take your basket home, take out any plastic lining that might be inside of it. Dust it off or wash it if needed, and let dry. Mark a line on the outside from the open side to what used to be the flat bottom (and will now be the flat top); using this line as a position-marker, slowly roll the basket across your covering fabric, making marks every few inches, so that you can cut out a piece of fabric which will fit smoothly to your hat. This will look like a thick arc of fabric. Add seam allowances, and cut out. Also cut out a circle that is a bit larger than the top of the hat. The covering fabric can then be sewn together in a angled cylinder. Sew the round bit for the top of the hat to the narrow end, so that you have a cover which will fit smoothly over your straw basket. It can be pulled over the hat like a strangely-shaped pillowcase, and basted to the basket, folding over the edge that will go against your head, to the inside, so that it looks smooth. The lining works the same way.
You may make a small black velvet loop for over your forehead if you wish, but not all of these hats have them.
Wires and veils:
You'll notice that we cannot see any way for the veil to be supported in the picture from the Roses Tapestry. I have a couple dozen pictures of this sort of hat, and all of them seem to be held up by magic. This is a darn nuisance for those of us interested in an accurate recreation! The support may be hidden by the veiling, or left out of the pictures for aesthetic reasons. Simple starching of the veils would not allow the heights these rise to.
The easiest way to get this shape seems to be wires, positioned like ant antennae. The double set of veils in the Roses Tapestry would require two sets of these, one higher than the other. One or more rectangular veils are folded over these in an 'M' shape, and pinned to the wire. Some butterfly hats seem to have only one layer.
The Roses Tapestry women seem to have versions of these at least two feet high. I would advise making a smaller one first, and putting larger wires on after you get used to it.
Find a thin coat hanger, and cut off the hook and the twisted neck, and shape it into a smooth V. Bend the "antennae" over, halfway up (see fig 2). The point of the wire V gets sewn to the flat back of the truncated cone. A coat hanger will produce enough wire for a foot high version.
As mentioned, most veils are probably of very thin and transparent silk, although I have heard it argued that linen can be made "nearly transparent." Both ironed linen and natural silk can attain the stiffness shown, although I'm not certain that linen would be able to be as stiff as silk when you consider the yardage needed for some of the butterfly veils, because it is heavier. Stiff polyester organza would also work, and is the best choice if you're not somewhere that you can get silk. To get the right shape, you can use tulle or netting -- drape it until it pleases you, and then use it as a pattern to cut your real veil. For my rather short version of a butterfly hat I needed a piece of thin stiff silk two yards long and two feet wide.
The veil is draped over the wires, pinned down to the hat in the valley between the wires making an "M" shape. Use a straight pin on each wire at the bend in the wire where the fabric folds over it, to anchor the veil to the wire. You could baste this if you prefer. A pin where the veil touches the side of the cone, near your temples, will help keep it stable without making it look too tensioned over the wires.
The veil will fall oddly in the back unless you put in at least one pin to be sure the folds cover the top/back of the cone. Don't give in to the impulse to pin it down everywhere -- it needs to have some movement, and if the fabric is stiff, it will fall in the shapes we see in the medieval illustrations.
Some of the thin veils appear to have either fold lines or seam lines painted on; if you have to make your veil out of more than one piece of fabric, that's ok. The veil itself rarely goes below the shoulder or mid-upper-back level; all the fabric is suspended above.
Keeping it on:
My version of this hat stays on with little coercion from me. I can take it on and off at will. However, you may want additional security. The best idea, if you have hair at least a few inches long, is to make a little ponytail on top of your head, braid it, and pin it down with hairpins securely. Use the best hatpins you can find, speared through the hat, to anchor the hat to this small bun. The hat should stay on without the pins as you walk, but the hatpins will help if you feel like bending or turning around. You'll want to hold the hat if you're out in the wind -- it is like having a sail on your head.
Note on the photos of my hat:
The veil should be stiffer -- this one's been through a lot without a re-ironing. The front edges will be much straighter after an ironing.
I hope you enjoy your new fancy hat. Do feel free to contact me at at the mail link below, or check elsewhere on my web pages for more pictures of these most fascinating hats.
Further reading about cone hats (see the general Further Reading page for other items):
Great illustrations of period paintings and illuminations:
Sally Fox and Belle Tuten, The Medieval Women: An Illuminated Calendar -- multiple ISBNs, as they come out yearly. Unfortunately can not be bought once calendar-season is over, but lots of SCA folk have them and save them. Truncated-cone pictures can be found on these pages: 1/92, 12/92, 3/96, 6/97, 7/97, 12/97, 3/98, 6/98 -- which has a good enough version of the Arnolfini that you can see the straw hat, 7/98, 7/99 -- this one has a ponytail coming out the *top* of the hat! , 11/00. The medieval costuming articles on my web pages have many scans from this source, if you do not have access to it.
For pictures, diagrams, and descriptions of some items which have been
dug up from this time (lots of fascinating stuff):
Geoff Egan and Frances Pritchard, Dress Accessories c. 1150-1450: Medieval finds from excavations in London, ISBN 0-11-290444-0; pages 291-296 for headwear.
Reeds as used in costume, extant garments, and general techniques
for 100 years later than these hats:
Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c.1560-1620, ISBN 0-333-38284-6
For an overview of this era with lots of drawings, the following book
is very useful. However, be aware that some of his conclusions seem
to be utterly unsupportable from the references for them that he gives;
before taking anyting as gospel, look up his source. With that caveat,
it's a good book to look through for inspiration before going to more narrowly-focused
Herbert Norris, Medieval Costume and Fashion, ISBN 0-486-40486-2. Note that this is the 1999 Dover Edition, which claims to be an unabridged version of his 1927 book Costume & Fashion, Volume 2: Senlac to Bosworth, 1066-1485.
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