This is a reproduction of an unfinished man's nightcap in the Carew Pole collection, one of the finest private collections of embroidery in Britain. I first saw a picture of this cap in Mary Gostelow's Blackwork, and made my copy from that picture and the accompanying description.1
The unfinished nature of the embroidery was useful; most surviving nightcaps are finished, and it is rare to have the opportunity to examine (even if from only one picture) a work in progress. The Carew Pole nightcap allowed me to see the layout of the cap pattern and how the embroidery was built up in stages, with the final steps of gilt thread highlighting on the motifs and the application of gold spangles to fill the remaining empty space.
Nightcaps are older than the 16th century, and continued to be worn well post period; there are some very fine embroidered examples from the 17th through the 19th centuries preserved in museums.2 The advent of central heating in the 20th century had a lot to do with them falling out of fashion, as they were primarily intended to keep out the evening chill. The Elizabethans believed the night air was unhealthy, so a nightcap was de rigeur not only for sleeping, but for any informal indoor time at the end of the day.3
The gorgeous embroidery skills of the period were often brought out on nightcaps, and judging by the number that have survived, the decorated nightcap was a popular item of apparel. It is quite probable that men of many economic levels had decorated nightcaps, though the richest gilt and polychrome silk caps were the province of the wealthy, and were most likely produced by professional shops (nightcaps were probably quite profitable to produce, due to their small size and great popularity).
loose spangles in gold and silver
While the word "amateur" seems hardly adequate to describe the work of Elizabethan domestic embroiderers, the Carew Pole cap is most likely an amateur piece.4 Not only was it saved unfinished (perhaps the person making it died?), it is monochrome silk and uses mimimal gilt thread, which puts it well within the skill range of most Elizabethan women embroiderers.
The original has two repeating motifs; a larger one of a stylized feather alternating with a smaller three lobed sprig. Each design alternates in rows from left to right, switching orientation on each level (facing left on one row, then right on the next). It is worked in green silk and gilt thread, and finished with gold spangles. The geometric fill stitch in the feathers alternates between two designs, and are designed to appear like the spines on a feather. Unfortunately, the picture is not detailed enough to see the exact stitches clearly; I could not find another picture, and the original is not currently on display.
The ground is linen, uncut, and the crown and brim are worked as a single piece, with the brim worked on the opposite side so that when it is turned up, both crown and brim will have the embroidery facing the same way, obviating the need for cutting. Only one quarter of the crown is completely fnished and mostly spangled.
A detail of the original, with the brim turned up, no fill stitches. The circles show the placement of the spangles, and the dotted line is the edge of the embroidery on the uncut linen. The design breaks up at the edge of each quarter of the crown; this is might be because the design was taken from a book like Thoman Trevelyon's design book of 1608. In such books, the designs are printed up as a section of brim, which is designed to repeat, and a quarter of the crown, which will be reproduced four times. Sometimes the designs won't exactly match when put together.
I didn't copy this idiosyncratic detail on the reproduction, and made the design move smoothly across the entire cap. Either way would be acceptable to the Elizabethan eye, as long as the overall effect was decorative.
I started my reproduction in 1999, and finished some time in 2000; this was my most ambitious embroidery project to that date. I recreated the pattern for the cap by marking out the original's dimensions5, then adjusting the width to fit my husband's head. The embroidery design was simple; since the motif repeats throughout the cap, I created a template of the feather shape and used it to trace out the design on the linen, flipping the template each row to get the reversed line. Once the feathers were laid out, I filled the spaces in between with the three lobed sprigs. Doing it like this ensured I didn't leave too much blank space between motifs.
There is no edging stitch on the original, but many nightcaps have one, and I like the definition it gives the cap. I used a tight hemming stitch around all the edges (including the point where the brim joined, though I wish I hadn't, as it looks a bit messy). I reversed the stitch for the brim, so that the "top" showed when turned. Once I finished the edging, I started the interior, using a double running stitch to outline the motifs.
Because the original fill stitches weren't clear in the picture, I made the fill stitches on the feathers using my own design, but kept to the idea of showing the horizontal feather spines. The center spine was filled with a speckle stitch, though I think now that a braid or chain stitch would have been more attractive. At the time I made the cap, I simply couldn't afford the sheer number of spangles used in the original, so mine are more loosely spaced. At some point, the cap will need the lining replaced (it cannot be washed, and the lining becomes soiled over time; using a lining means that it can be replaced and the embroidery remains unharmed), and I might add more spangles at that time.
Though the original, like most of its contemporaries, uses gilt thread, I did not use it in the reproduction. I'm not very experienced with gold thread even now, and was much less so back then. Another factor was the price; while gold thread is not terribly expensive, it was outside my budget back then - I used a scrap piece of linen scrounged from a friend, green silk thread that was part of a gift from another very dear friend, and just managed to scrape together enough cash for the spangles. These days, I have a job, and can afford all the materials I want, but it was different back then.
I didn't track my time on this project, but I would guess it took somewhere between 250-300 hours overall. I enjoyed it enough that I've made two other nightcaps since then, and have plans for a new one for my husband. Of all the things I've made, I would say this is one of the most fun - and since men don't get to wear much in the way of fancy embroidered gear, this makes a nice gift.
2. Some good examples of men's nightcaps from the 16th through the 18th century can be seen in the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; search using keywords "man's cap", "man's negligee cap", and "man's nightcap".
3. The V&A Museum, London. Search on keyword "nightcap" for information on Elizabethan nightcaps. The online collection has lots of useful information about various articles of clothing.
4. Elizabethan Embroidery, George Wingfield Digby, 1963. Chapter 2 has a good discussion of domestic vs. professional embroidery and embroiderers.
5. Blackwork, page 76. The original dimensions are 10x21' (with brim); my reproduction was 10x24".
Text and images copyright L. Mellin, 2000-2008, except where noted. All rights reserved.