How to Make an 18th Century Cap

by
Sue Felshin

Last updated 3 Mar 2016

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This page explains typical construction of 18th century caps. Using these instructions, you should be able to:

Contents

The Short Version

If you are an experienced seamstress, this may be sufficient instructions for assembly: Use ~3.5oz white linen for a coarse cap or finer linen for a fine cap. Cut one crown on fold. Cut one band on fold, or two if your band is in two parts. Cut and narrow-hem each ruffle (if any). Make a narrow casing (1/4″) at the bottom of the crown (omit if crown is round) and run narrow white woven tape "strings" through it. (We modern people would call these "laces" or "ties", but in the 18th century, people said "strings" when they meant any flat tapes or round cords used to tie things, such as petticoat strings, apron strings, etc.) Narrow-hem the band all around. Attach the crown and ruffle to the band using either the hem-and-cord method, the whip-gather method, or narrow pleats; it is often helpful to skew the fullness of the crown toward the top of the head for a more flattering look. Gather or pleat the ruffle to either the front of the band only, or the front and sides; for a lappet cap, use pleats, and go all the way around to where the band meets the crown. "Narrow-hem" means as narrowly as possible, no more than 1/4″, preferably 1/8″, or if you have really fine linen, you may be able to manage 1/16″ or even 1/32″.

The rest of this page describes how to make a cap in gory detail. All instructions allow for 1/4″ hems and seams. If you have good, fine linen, you may be able to use narrower hems and seams; adjust these instructions. If you are using a commercial pattern, it probably calls for 1/2″ or 5/8″ hems and seams; either adjust the pattern (preferably), or adjust these instructions.

Now, on to the detailed instructions…

Parts Is Parts

A cap consists of two or three parts.
  1. the crown, or caul
  2. the band, or brim
  3. the ruffle(s) (optional)

The Crown, or Caul

The crown forms the back of the cap.

The crown is an arch shape. Sometimes the arch is bowed out; sometimes it is so bowed that it turns into a circle. The curved part of the crown is gathered or pleated, either all the way around or just at the top, to fit the band of the cap. The straight bottom of the arch is folded up and hemmed; usually it is folded up enough to make a casing for cap strings. If the crown is circular, there is no casing, and the cap must fit the head just right (you can stitch little tucks at the back to make it smaller).

Here are some possible crown shapes:
Arch Bowed arch Circle

The Band, or Brim

The band forms the front of the cap. ("Band" may not be a correct 18th century term.) It is a ~rectangle that goes over the top of the head and down toward the ears. Sometimes it goes down so far at each side that it forms "lappets". The band can be shaped by dipping back at the ends, at the center front, or both, and if the ends form lappets, they can be curved all around. Sometimes the band dips so far back at the center front that it breaks into two pieces. Some fancy caps have more complex bands which are not described here.

Here are some possible band shapes:
Plain band
Shaped band #1
Shaped band #2
Shaped band #3 (two pieces)
Lappet band

The Ruffle (Optional)

The ruffle is a long, narrow rectangle. Sometimes it is shaped (rather like the band can be shaped; in this case, cut the front edge straight to make it easier to hem and do the shaping at the back of the band). You can omit the ruffle if you want a very plain cap and you can use more than one for a fancy cap. The ruffle can just go along the front of the band, or it can go along the front and continue around the sides to where the band meets the crown. You will generally want anything you gather to be about one-and-a-half to two times the length of the area you want to attach it to; you can do this with a cap ruffle, or for a plainer cap you can use a shorter ruffle that's only a little longer that the area you'll attach it to.

Possible ways to attach a ruffle:
Ruffle in front
Ruffle around front and along sides
Ruffle around lappets

Fabric

Fiber

If at all possible, use linen. If you can't get linen, use cotton. (See Notes: Why Use Linen?.)

Color

White, or if you can't get white, a very pale off white (not modern yellowy cotton muslin). Most caps were of plain fabric (ordinary "tabby" weave), but a few were white-on-white patterns like checks or stripes or perhaps spots. We don't know of any non-white caps. (See Notes: Non-white caps.)

Weight

Finely woven or very finely woven. The ruffle(s) can be more finely woven than the rest if you like. Linen of a 3.5 oz weight would make a coarse cap for a lower class woman. If you can find 2.8 oz linen, that will make a nice cap for a lower class woman or an ordinary, everyday cap for a middle class. These days it's hard to find finer linen than that, so for a really fine cap, use cotton organdy or even silk organza, or make do with 2.8 oz linen. If you find very lightweight "handkerchief linen" being sold on line, get a swatch if possible, since some linen is lightweight due to a coarse, open weave, and that won't give you the body you need for a cap.

Prewashing

Prewash your fabric so it won't shrink after you make the cap. This is especially important for linen—if it shrinks a lot the first time, you might want to wash it a second time. To prevent fraying, machine-zigzag the cut ends of linen yard goods before washing.

Cutting the Fabric

If you aren't sure your cap will fit, you can check it first by making a "muslin", which is a practice version, and adjusting the pattern as necessary. See Notes: A Muslin.

Assembling Your Pattern

You will have various pattern pieces depending on what sort of cap pattern you have (or have created). You should have a band pattern piece. If your crown is a circle, your pattern may merely say what size circle to cut; if so, see Notes: Making a Circular Pattern. Otherwise, you should have a crown pattern piece. Since cap bands and crowns are symmetrical, you probably only have a half pattern piece, with a fold line marked. If the crown is an arch, the straight edge at the bottom of the arch should be marked with a line for the top of the casing. If your fold line isn't marked on your crown, mark it now—it's the longer straight edge. You should have ruffle pattern pieces or directions of what size ruffle(s) to cut.

Laying Out the Pattern Pieces

If you want to be careful with your fabric or aren't sure you have enough, lay out your pattern pieces on your fabric before you start cutting, to find the most efficient way to fit them. If you aren't worried about having enough fabric, I would skip this step to save time.

Your band and crown pieces are probably for half the piece, with a fold line marked (or for a two-piece band, to be cut out twice). A one-piece band pattern should indicate this by saying "cut one on fold" and a two-piece band pattern should say "cut two". Remember to allow for this when laying out the pieces. The crown should say "cut one on fold". Some commercial cap patterns direct you to cut two band pieces (or four for a two-piece band) so that the band will consist of an outer layer and a lining layer that will enclose the raw edges of the back of the ruffle and the top of the crown. You should omit the lining layer; see Notes: Lined Band?.

Some examples:
Shaped band
Shaped band (two pieces)
Crown

If you want, you can draw pattern pieces full size (unfolded) on paper so that you can play with all the pieces at once.

If your pattern pieces don't fit, see if you can piece the fabric. It's very authentic! Start with the ruffle. Can you fit part of the ruffle in one place and part in another? Remember to add extra seam allowance when cutting out pieces that will be pieced together. Or if you have a good selvedge, if possible butt and whip selvedges in order to piece the ruffle or other pieces.

Cutting the Ruffle

If you're not sure if you have enough fabric, cut out the ruffle last, in case you have to piece it.

If you will be hand-sewing the ruffle, cut it a 1/4″ or more narrower than called for if you will be using a very narrow hem (1/8″ or less).

Cutting the Band

Cut one on fold, or if you have a split band, cut two.

Cutting the Crown

Cut one on fold, or for a circular crown, cut out the circle. If you didn't make a circular pattern, you can cut the circle directly using the instructions for making a circular pattern or any other method you are familar with.

Sewing Your Cap

Band

Narrow-hem the edges of the band piece(s): Turn the edges under 1/4″, and then 1/4″ again (up to 1/2″ is okay but 1/4″ is better; if you have fine linen, try for an even narrower hem). Press. If you're using linen, you should be able to finger-press rather than having to use an iron. Hem with whip stitch or running stitch.

Casing and Strings

Make the casing in the crown. (If your crown is circular, omit this step.)

Casing style #1: Eyelet at center
Make a tiny eyelet (by hand) or buttonhole (by machine) at the center of the casing area of the crown. Turn under 1/4″ (or less) along the straight edge of the crown and press. Fold this edge up to the height of the dotted line marked on your crown pattern (if unmarked, fold it up a little farther than the width of your strings) and press. Stitch close to the edge of the fold with hand running and/or back stitch, or whipstitch, or machine straight stitch. Run "strings" of narrow woven tape from each edge of the casing to the center and out the eyelet or buttonhole. Stitch down the ends of the casing, catching the ends of the tapes. If you also want the cap to tie under your chin or at the back of your neck, you can either use longer strings, and have them come out the ends of the casing as well as run through the casing to the buttonhole, or you can put separate strings on the band.
Casing style #2: Holes at ends
Turn under 1/4″ at the ends of the casing area of the crown. If sewing by machine, turn another 1/4″ and stitch. If sewing by hand, whip or zigzag over the hem to prevent fraying. Turn under 1/4″ along the straight edge of the crown and press. Fold this edge up to the height of the dotted line marked on your crown pattern (~1/2″) and press. Stitch close to the edge of the fold with hand running and/or back stitch, or whipstitch, or machine straight stitch. Run a single narrow woven tape string through the casing so that it comes out both ends. This string serves both to gather the casing and to let you tie the cap under your chin or behind your head. You can gather the crown the desired amount and stitch the strings at each end of the casing, or leave them free so that you can change the gathers (in which case you might want to tack the string down at the center of the casing so that it can't pull out).

Final Assembly

In order to assemble the cap, you will pleat or gather the crown and the ruffles (if any) to the band. There are three ways you can do this:

  1. The hem-and-cord method: Narrow-hem the edges that you will be gathering. Run a fine cord through the hem, using the hem as a very narrow casing—crochet cotton works well, anything from, say, #10 to #50. Stitch down the cord at one end. Pull up the fabric along the cord to gather it. Stitch down the other end of the cord to hold the gathering. Whip-stitch the gathered edge to the band.
  2. The whip-gather method: Do a web search for "whip gathers" to find instructions.
  3. Pleats: Narrow-hem the edge, pin in pleats, and whip-stitch the pleated edge to the band

Unless you are whip-gathering, narrow-hem the ruffle like this: Turn 1/4″ (or less) twice, press, and stitch. If hand-sewing, try to use a really narrow hem (1/8″ or less turned twice) and sew with either whip or running stitch—if you do this, cut your ruffle a little narrower since the hem will take up less fabric. If machine-sewing, use a plain straight stitch or your hemming attachment. Hem the ends of the ruffle, too.

A cap crown often looks nicer if you put more fullness at the top of the crown. You can just wing it. Or if that doesn't work for you, then mark the band at the center and quarters. Mark the piece you're gathering/pleating at the centers and a bunch farther away from the center than the quarters—say, mark at the end, about 1/5, center, about 4/5, and other end. Align the pins and gather or pleat.

If gathering, push the gathers closer together around curves to prevent cupping and pull them farther apart along straights to make up for using extra fabric on curves. If using pleats, put in deeper pleats around curves and fan them.

Press the cap, pressing all seams neatly.

Machine Assembly

The above instructions mention how to make a casing by machine and how to machine-hem pieces, but there is no way that you can attach the crown and ruffle(s) to the band by machine and have the cap look properly 18c. If you absolutely, positively can't do the final assembly by hand, then here's what to do: Cut a second band piece (or two extras if you have a two-piece band). Hem the band and make the casing as described above, and do the final assembly like this:

Run two rows of gathering threads around the curved edge of the crown, or all the way around for a circular crown. Run the gathering threads as close to the edge as you can manage; 3/16″ and 5/16″ is ideal. If you will be pleating your crown, omit this step.

Hem all but one long edge of the ruffle(s) (if any). Run two rows of gathering threads along the unhemmed edge of the ruffle, as for the crown. If you will be pleating your ruffle, omit this step.

Pin the crown to the outer layer of the band, right sides together, pulling up the gathers, or pinning in tiny pleats. If your crown is arched, you can make the gathers even all around, or you can push them to the top; whichever you prefer. If your crown is circular, make the gathers even all around.

Pin the ruffle to the outer layer of the band, right sides together, pulling up the gathers, or pinning in small, regular pleats. Fan pleats around curves, adding extra depth to the pleats at curves if needed to prevent cupping.

You have already pinned the crown and ruffle to the band. Add in the inside piece(s) of the band, wrong sides together with the outside, seam allowances folded in, so that all the raw edges (bands, crown, ruffle) are enclosed in a "band sandwich". Machine-topstitch with plain straight stitch.

Press the cap, pressing all seams neatly.

This isn't authentic, but it won't show much, especially if you wear a ribbon over the band.

18th Century Caps

Here are some 18th century caps to give you an idea of what yours should or could look like:

Walton, Henry, 1746-1813. Plucking the Turkey, exhibited 1776. On the Web at the Tate. Cap of the "dormeuse" style with two ear-shaped band pieces, wider toward the bottom—very popular in the Revolutionary War era. In this case, a shaped ruffle (narrower at the peak) is attached to the band pieces. This fashionable version of the dormeuse is designed to be worn over fashionably high second-half 1770s hair. If you want to look like a fashionable mid-to-late 1770s woman, this is a good choice. You can wear this cap even without high hair—just make a smaller version of the cap.

The Drowsy Dame, published by Robert Sayer, 1769. The British Museum, 2010,7081.982. On the Web at the British Museum. Very common and entirely unremarkable style for a common woman. Suitable for 1750s–1770s, and probably a wider range. If you want to look like an ordinary, practical woman who doesn't waste her time on trendy clothing, this is a good choice. The ruffle is barely gathered at all, except at the peak where it is gathered or pleated several times. Three neat pleats at center front of the cap ruffle is a particularly mid-century style (or 1740s?), but this cap is less neat, perhaps because it isn't following that style, or perhaps because the woman is not a neat dresser.

Morland, Henry Robert (British, 1716-1797). A Lady's Maid Soaping Linen, circa 1765-82. On the Web at the Tate. Common cap style for young women, with close-fitting caul and with lots of hair exposed. This is a well-dressed lady's maid (or a model posing as one).

Morland, Henry Robert (British, 1716-1797). A Laundry Maid Ironing, circa 1765–82. On the Web at the Tate. This is a well-dressed lady's maid (or a model posing as one). Short lappets pinned up. Not a very common 1770s English style, but is sometimes seen, especially for servants. Very common as French style.

The Wife's Fortune Told. The British Museum, 2010,7081.1443. On the Web at the British Museum. Detail of maid. Common, unremarkable style, somewhat like a dormeuse but without the distinctive curving of the band pieces.

The Jealous Maids, 1772. The British Museum, 2010,7081.1181. On the Web at the British Museum. This style with lappets coming down to a point under the chin is generally a 1740s–1760s style but is common even in the 1770s for women of forty or older who still dress in the style of their youth, and moderately common for servants.

The Pretty Maid with her Apron before the Candle. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.12026. On the Web at the Yale Center for British Art. Lappets hanging free like this are not a very common style in the 1770s but may sometimes be seen. The Morland painting on which this print is based may have an earlier date.

The Grinning MATCH, a humourous SCENE at a Country FAIR, 1775. Library of Congress, LC-USZC2-6227. On the Web at the Library of Congress. This style—with the band curving down to cover part of the cheeks, and coming down rather far at the sides and in back—is more of a German style, but we see it in this print on a presumably-English country woman.

Winter, 1762. P. Mercier inv. & pinxt. Mercier fecit. Lewis Walpole Library, 762.10.1.1. On the Web at the Lewis Walpole Library. A rare back view of a cap. Probably a lappet cap with the lappets pinned up, which would make sense give the fairly early date of 1762.

THE UNFORTUNATE DISCOVERY, 1777. From an Original Picture by John Collett in the Possession of the Proprietors Printed by Bowles & Carver No. 69 St. Paul's Church Yard, London. Publish'd as the Act directs (erased). New York Public Library (BM4614A Satyr p.13). On the Web at British Mezzotint Satires in North American Collections. The chambermaid wears a very ordinary cap.

Notes

Why Use Linen?

First, it's more authentic. Linen was cheaper than cotton in the Revolutionary era and was more common for caps. Second, any not-too-coarse white modern linen is authentic, but many modern cottons aren't—modern "cotton broadcloth" just doesn't look right, somehow—so you don't have to be as careful when buying linen. Third, linen makes a better looking cap because linen has more body than cotton. Fourth, linen is cooler to wear on a hot day. Fifth, linen is easier to work with, especially if you are sewing by hand. You don't need to press seams into place with an iron—you can just use your fingers. It really is a pleasure to work with. Linen is more expensive, but for the small amount you need for a cap, it's worth it. The generic 3.5 oz linen that you can buy online isn't the world's best quality, but it's good enough, and the price is pretty reasonable.

Non-white Caps

People sometimes point to the "pink cap" worn by La Belle Chocolatière (also known as Das Schokoladenmädchen), by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1745. But that's actually a cap cover, not a cap. See the bit of ruffle peeking out from under at the front? That ruffle must be on the "real" cap, almost entirely hidden by the cap cover. (Available on the Web as The Chocolate-Girl in Mark Harden's Artchive, and as the Chocolate Girl at Wikipedia.) The PA Gazette mentions a small proportion of checked and striped caps, which are almost certainly white-on-white.

There are a few black caps, although many are worn over white caps. These are fancy dress items and their use is restricted (just widows?).

We know of no colored artifacts.

Lined Band?

I don't know of any 18th century cap artifacts where the band is doubled (i.e., lined), although I have to say that I know of very few cap artifacts of any kind. These instructions explain how to machine-sew a cap with a lined band as a make-do measure for people who can't hand-sew.

No Doubled Ruffle

Please don't fold a double-width ruffle in half along the long edge to save hemming it. We've seen a lot more ruffles than cap bands (we've looked at shifts and shirts as well as caps), and none of the ruffles have been doubled, so even though we're not sure about lined cap bands, we're pretty confident about the ruffles. Many ruffles are hemmed with a very narrow (1/16″) hem which is folded twice and stitched with running stitches. If we ever come across an example of a doubled ruffle, we'll update this page, but don't hold your breath.

A Good Selvedge

Historically, people wove a continuous weft back and forth across the loom. Modern industrial weaving machines frequently cut each pass of the weft, leaving a narrow fringe along both selvedges—awful. Or sometimes the fabric has a wide, thick selvedge (about a 1/2 inch wide), where the threads go to the edge, come back, and are cut off closely at the inner edge of a very dense selvedge. This is good enough for the body of a garment, but not good enough for public view on a cap. I've never seen a good, continuous-thread selvedge on store-bought linen, but sometimes some of the better sutlers carry it—if it matters to you, be sure to ask about the selvedge if you're ordering by mail.

Making a Circular Pattern

More detailed instructions forthcoming. For now: Tie a string to a strong pin. Tie a pencil to the other end of the string, at the length of your circle's radius (half the diameter). Put paper over a corkboard or corrugated cardboard. Stick the pin in the middle. Trace around with the pencil, keeping the pencil upright and the string taut. In lieu of a string, you can pin a cloth or plastic tape measure to the board.

A Muslin

A muslin is a practice garment that you make to check that your pattern works before you cut out the real fabric. It's called a muslin because it is made out of cheap fabric, which was traditionally muslin (which used to be made of linen and is now cotton). You can use muslin or any cheap fabric—holiday prints on post-holiday sale are usually great deals. Use a stable fabric, not a stretchy one. Poly-cotton or even 100% polyester broadcloth is fine for muslins. You needn't bother to pre-wash the fabric. Follow all the directions for cutting the regular fabric, but don't bother to hem any edges neatly. (Remember to cut off unused hem allowances if this will affect the muslin.) If you're just fitting the crown, you can skip the ruffle, but if you're deciding whether you like how the cap looks on you, then it's important to include the ruffle (if any). Run gathering threads by machine or hand, pin or baste pieces together, and try the muslin on. Adjust the pattern if necessary.

Eyelets By Hand

Push an awl through the fabric to make a small hole (~1/4″) without breaking any threads. If you don't have an awl, improvise with a knitting needle, pencil (graphite on your fabric, yuck), or something. If it's hard to get the blunt point of the knitting needle through the fabric, start the hole using a fat sewing needle or embroidery needle, and then switch to the knitting needle to expand the hole. Secure the thread with a knot in the thread or by taking a couple of tiny stitches one on top of the other. Whip the eyelet with somewhere between half a dozen and two dozen stitches, depending on how fussy you are. Run the needle under some threads on the back to fasten the end of the thread, and cut it close. If you're making two eyelets close together, there's no need to cut the thread; you can carry the thread across the back to the next eyelet.

Woven Fabric Tape

Use 1/8″–1/4″ woven fabric tape (linen or cotton, tabby woven or twill) for cap strings. If you can't get this, improvise with heavy string.

It can be hard to find woven tape in your local sewing store. Several sutlers carry woven tape. Wooded Hamlet stocks an extensive selection, and some other sutlers have excellent tapes as well.

Threading a String Through a Casing

Thread your string through a bodkin and run it through the casing. If you don't have a bodkin, use a thick needle with a blunt tip and an enormous eye, or use a small safety pin.


Copyright © 2001–2016, Sue Felshin. All Rights Reserved. Feel free to link to this page. You may not reproduce this document or any portion thereof without my express permission, with the following exception: individuals may print this document on paper, reproduce it on paper, and distribute these copies to individuals for non-profit purposes provided that you reproduce it in full (including this notice) and print or write the URL (http://people.csail.mit.edu/sfelshin/revwar/caps/making-caps.html) on each printed page of each copy. Non-profit organizations, for-profit organizations or individuals, and those wishing to reproduce this document in whole or in part by any means other than paper printing, may contact me to request permission.