What Cap Should I Wear? What the Rev War Camp-follower had on her head

I began this incredible odyssey many years ago with the question, “I am a camp-follower in the American War of Independence; which cap should I be wearing?”

Table with caps on display in the sun.
My table full of caps, at the Fair at New Boston

Saines wearing 18th C clothing, with caps on display.
This is me at the Costume Society of American Symposium in 2016. I didn’t realize I was so completely grey!

So, here’s the easy answer: You can choose between 2 caps: one with a ruffle under the chin, and one without.  These are commonly called a “lappet cap” (ruffle under the chin) and a “round-eared cap” (ruffles curve around near your ears).

See the Glossary for more definitions.

I base this answer on a sample set of about 300 portraits of American women, and the more than 100 caps I have examined in museum collections in America.  I am chronicling this research over time with this blog, so you can see what I am seeing.

I’m also basing this on an assumption that camp-followers would not be seeking the latest styles because their circumstances demanded practicality and frugality.  Assumptions are dangerous things, of course, and no one that I know of recorded that sentiment directly, but it is supported by what we know of their difficult lives, documented in many sources.

Note: I would, however, fully expect visiting officer’s wive  to wear the fashionable piles of linen and lace that arose around 1775 and grew larger over time.  (More on that over here…)

American cap styles are more restrained in general than French styles, of course (oh, those French!), but they are also more restrained than even English styles.

What should my cap be made of? 

The finest linen you can afford. Because linen of the era tended to be finer than ours, our lightest handkerchief linen (2.0- 3.0 ozs) is a good match.  And, of course, the richer your persona, the finer the cloth should be.

Does it have to be white?

Yes. Every artifact is plain white. There are a few examples of colored caps or cap covers in European paintings, and a few examples of a black kerch over a white cap in America. I am aware of only one American cap that is made of patterned cloth.

Do I have to sew this by hand?

Yes, you have no choice because HA caps cannot be made on a machine. There are no hidden stitches.

Should I make the ruffle out of lace?

Only if you are an officer’s wife.  Lace was so very expensive, camp-followers shouldn’t include it on their caps.  What you can do, though, is make the linen ruffle from an even lighter linen than the rest of the cap.  This is common enough.  And, just like our WAI predecessors, maybe you can afford just 1/4 yard of that exquisite stuff to add to your cap.

Should I wear a ribbon?

YES! We should all be wearing a plain silk ribbon tied in a bow over the headpiece.  These can be pinned on so washing is easy. Depictions of even the meanest women of our era include a ribbon around her cap.

Can I piece it together from scraps?

Yes. I’ve seen caps pieced in all different places: the top of the headpiece and along the ruffle is common, but one cap has 3 pieces just in the caul.

Can I re-purpose used linen?

I say yes to used linen because we shouldn’t be as clean or tidy or new looking as we usually are.  Also, linen shirts from the second hand store are a really good source of finer linen than we can get easily by the yard.

1750 portrait of Mrs. Pemberton by Wollaston. © Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence
Nice example of lappet cap with lace ruffles. Portrait of Mrs. Ebenezer Pemberton 1750 John Wollaston, American, fl. 1733-1775 Artstor IAP

I hate having something under my chin! 

I know, honey, but you got used to stays, didn’t you? Lappets are a little more common than round-eared caps, and are underrepresented in reenacting, I think. So, yes, make yourself a lappet. And you can leave your lappets lose; there are a few examples showing them worn that way, but it is not the norm. (And only the French pinned them up.) 

Where can I get an HA pattern?  

I keep going around on this question…

I’ve bought and tried just about every pattern out there. The most common problem is the caul is just too big (and I have a large head). Another common problem is directions adapting caps for machine sewing and muslin cloth. Ouch.

I’m still saying Kannik’s Korner 6602 is the closest for the round-eared cap. It also includes really good directions and documentation.  But her sources are a smidge later than AWI.  I recommend starting here, but making the small size caul.. . . .

Also, the split ruffle is, of course, characteristic of the fancy caps, so save that for your not-a-camp-follower outfit. I’m actually having second thoughts even about the shape of the ruffle on this pattern, as all the ruffles I’ve seen on cap artifacts are straight strips. And, you’d want to make the headpiece straight, not curved.

For a lappet, you could start with Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor, which isn’t the most common 3-piece construction, but is at least verifiably accurate, really easy to make, and free on Google. Still, it’s 1789, but I have seen one dated earlier.

Rural Pennsylvania Clothing has a lappet that’s pretty close, but the headpiece is too wide, and there’s a button on the tips, so definitely later.  Someone made commercial patterns of the caps in that book, but you can just use it straight from the source.

….I see a need for patterns that copy common construction for our era…  well, that’s a project for another day….   WAIT, I DID THAT! I made a lappet pattern that is an average of all the lappets I saw.  Enjoy.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_20210110_224752337.jpg

I didn’t make a round-eared cap pattern because so far we only have 2 that are probably 18th C, and both are very late.  So there’s not enough evidence here to find an average so to speak, and the 2 examples are too late anyway.  I could create a pattern that looks like what we see in portraits, but that’d be cheating because it wouldn’t be based on artifacts.

Here are some things we do not see in the American portrait evidence for 1750-1775:

  1. Caps that cover the face, or ruffles long enough to fall down the chin or into the eyes.  Reenactors frequently wear too big a cap, pulled too far forward.
  2. That very old BAR pattern that has a paddle-shaped, double-layered headpiece. I’m still trying to figure out where that came from.  If an original exists for it, it is a rarity and should not be used.
  3. A lot more round-eared than lappet caps. In both the portrait evidence and the artifact evidence, lappets outnumber round-eared caps. My current count is 21 lappets to 2 round-eared caps among artifacts, and about 50 lappets to 48 round-eared caps in the original portrait set.
  4. No tightly gathered ruffles down the front of the lappet.  The ruffle of a lappet is gathered only at the turn around the tips.
  5. No “butterflies”.  These are the caps with stiffly starched wings riding high on the head. One portrait of an American child has this. No adults.
  6. No ships, no birds, no turkey butts, no 3 foot hairdos, nothing from Versailles.  No evidence of this craziness exists for American women in portraits or artifacts.
  7. Gehret’s Rural Pennsylvania Clothing has a cap with a simple rectangular headpiece on a gathered caul, with strings under the chin, on Pg. 68.  This cap is only seen early and late in the century, and not during our time period.  Too bad! I made a bunch of these!

version #5. Still needs portraits

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