Thoughts on 18th Century Caps

American. 1779 Savage Family
American. 1779 Savage Family. Princeton Massachusetts.

This post is a basic post about 18th century caps. If you want to see some solid research on caps go to Her research is AMAZING. It may be a little heavy for a beginner but be sure to peak at it no matter your level. When I first wrote this blog I was unaware that her research had been shared online.

It is hard getting into 18th century reenacting. I want to help make it easier for people. I am not an expert, but I put a lot of time and energy into researching and trying to understand life for the common person in the 18th century. This will be a series of posts with information for people starting out. My goal is to help people get their feet on the ground. 

I started as a part time volunteer at a historic site to get me out of the house, and to help the local community. Looking back all I see is that I was far from being accurate in my portrayal and had little understanding of all of the layers that exist in living history and reenacting.  Even now with all of the knowledge I have gained over the last few years I have found it all still can be very overwhelming. I still get things wrong, most of us do. The one thing that has changed is that my hot mess look now is intentional for the most part.

Everyone Makes Mistakes.

Most of us who reenact have those early awkward images. I happen to only have a few of those that I have not deleted. I wish I had more. Awkward images from my early days make it easier to share common mistakes people make. I am pretty comfortable sharing my mistakes. I actually find it much more difficult to accept my triumphs..

The first year of my living history experience.
The first year of my living history experience.

This is one of my first two outfits. They were both “short gowns”.  This early cap makes me cringe. A short gown with the draw string is not winning me any love. Despite the layers of wrongness,  I am going to focus on one thing at a time. I will eventually get to gowns and short gowns but I will start with the cap. One article of clothing at a time.

The cap screams “Please update your research.”  This is one of a few head gear mishaps I had early on. I am by no means an expert, but I like to think I have developed a basic understanding of what has to be considered when constructing a cap. I have to admit that I do get daring with some of my head wear, but I can share documentation and make an argument for what I am wearing on my head these days.

Common Issues

Surprisingly I notice that a lot of people choose to make their gear by looking at what others are wearing, and taking their word for how appropriate it is. It is funny that I say this and then post a blog about caps full of my own opinions. 

Sadly I am noticing that many existing cap patterns are misdated and from the end of the 18th century or later. Accurate dating has been found to be difficult and wanting on original pieces. One thing I have been hearing lately from people who have studied a lot of caps is that thinning the width of the bands that hold the caul may be more right for the 18th century. I have not done enough research to know if this is the case, but watch for future updates.

Choosing a Cap

So how do you decide what to wear? Firstly, be careful about the look you are trying to achieve. Try to find American portraits dating to the period you are attempting to achieve. In the colonies, English portraits can also be used for inspiration. Look at the level of society you are trying to portray. Be age, profession, and ethnicity aware when choosing a cap. I do a lot in the mid-atlantic, and there are things here that people in the New England states do not like seeing invading their area.

Purchasing Materials for Caps

The fabric on the first cap I wore was sheeting cotton. That is a complete no no. Although we can discuss all day the variety of fabrics used, and when and where. This is a guide for beginners. The best thing for a beginner to use on a cap is a nice light linen. 

Here are a couple of fabrics you can use for a cap. DO NOT buy the crap at JoAnn Fabrics. Another blog post someday may better cover that. The following are excellent purveyors of linen.

Caps and Construction

American. Cushion Head dress. She dates this fashion to 1760s.. Sketch by Lucy Fanning Watson in her journal concerning fashions of the 18th century. Currently at Library Company in Philadelphia PA

There is a lot of information on THIS page about constructing caps.

Many blogs have basic patterns and how to go about constructing caps. Here is an example.  It seems almost all of the free guides online have an issue in common.  They seem to skip a very important step that is in every original cap I have seen. The edges should ALL be pre-finished.


American. Round Ear Cap. Worn throughout the 18th century. Sketch by Lucy Fanning Watson in her journal concerning fashions of the 18th century. Currently at Library Company in Philadelphia PA

There should be no raw edges when the pieces start being sewn to one another. I always make sure that I finish all of the edges on all of the pieces of a cap BEFORE I stitch them  together. This makes it so that when I stitch the pieces together I end up doing something like butt stitching them using one of several techniques.

Cap seams have to be super tiny. Use starch and an iron. DO NOT use sizing. There is pump spray from Niagara that is a starch and not sizing. Walmart carries it where I live, or you can order it onĀ Amazon. Most of the products people call starch are actually sizing, so be sure to check. Sizing yellows linen.

Queens Night Cap
American.. Queens Night Cap. Dated to the Revolution and later. Sketch by Lucy Fanning Watson in her journal concerning fashions of the 18th century. Currently at Library Company in Philadelphia PA

Purchasing Cap Patterns

Patterns answer things like “How small are hems supposed to be?” (BTW answer for this on all things is much smaller than modern ones.) I meet a lot of people who start this hobby never having sewn before, and become amazingly good because they take the time to learn and apply themselves.

I have used several of the caps at The Golden Scissors for friends and family. My head is too large and I have a ton of hair so I make my cauls and size slightly larger than what comes in those kits.

Kannik’s Korner patterns are nice for caps as well. I tend to make changes to them. When I have worn them I have been told I look French. They are a little saucy looking. It appears that the perception is that the French have the ruffle connected while the British split it. I tend to fully split (or almost split) any ruffle, on the top front. When I do this I don’t get the French comment.

Finishing Your Cap

Trim your cap. I have seen evidence supporting trim at all levels of society. That ribbon whether tied on, or sewing on adds to impression. People always want to look like individuals, this is period appropriate. However in the hobby this innate human desire comes out in not so period appropriate forms. I will use bonnets as an example.

American. Hannah Choate Lathrop 1775

Occasionally at an event a large group of women all in same pattern black bonnets show up. No one wants to be an army of cultists when we are supposed to look like a group of civilians. Oftentimes what I would find happening is that at the next event I would see half a dozen pink, brown and checked bonnets. According to the records these are all anomalies. I do not think people should get rid of their colorful bonnets. However, I  encourage people to rarely wear them, and  when they make a new one,  be daring, take that black silk bonnet, and slightly alter the caul or brim and add some fun trims.

These are the differences that I can find in artwork, journals and newspapers. I try to reflect the general society and fashions of the masses in the period. Although we were not storm troopers all looking the same, the differences were expressed on those garments with nuances rather than how as modern people we seek changes. So when making that cap, make the simple changes Change the caul a little or add some trim.

Who Am I?

British Cap

This is how I approach all construction and most of the time all of my portrayal. What am I seeing in the region that is most often worn but under represented? White is the standard for caps. So, I add some trim. Often I go for the common but not so cute styles of garments, because of what I portray. I balance out the numbers using ugly as a boon. Everyone finds what they embrace, it becomes part of what you do and who you are when you put your kit on.

I am the working woman, who always looks a little disheveled because I am actually doing physical labor in my clothing all of the time. Being this person, I don’t fix my gear constantly. I adjust it for modesty, to keep from burning in the hot sun, when I am not in the middle of a job.

So with a cap, I want it to stay on when I am bending over constantly. The caul needs to hold all my hair in it securely, it cannot pull on my chin. So, large caul, I pin the thing to my bun or braid at the back of the band. I always have a way to tie it on or secure it, or it WILL come off. I like having a ribbon, but it has to be lightly tacked on and secured so it does not fall off and into what I am working on.  Just figure those things out for yourself anytime you make new clothing. Do it with these, practice your sewing technique, make a few caps, and figure out what you like and why, and work from there.

Me last season,. Cap pattern was based on research. I still seem to always have that look of anxiety when I don’t think anyone is looking. It works well for me when trying to portray the average woman in a period full of troubles, war and uncertainties.

Good Luck!

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