14th century silk ribbon hairnet

This is a fascinating extant hairnet made with silk ribbons! Wish I knew more about it, but it hasn’t slowed me down before. This article is therefore about how I start researching a project, where I find my answers or more questions and finally how I made my version.

The best image and information comes from the Düsseldorf museum database where it is the other hairnet with the illustrious Rhine shield net. And they also have in common the fact that they were bought from an art dealer and thus all their provenience is lost. All we know is that this comes from the Lower Rhine region and is from the end of the 14th century. It’s made of narrow silk ribbons that form into diamonds with flowers made of parchment at the intersections. These parchment flowers might have been blue and possibly the base for bead embroidery. The circumference is about 26 cm. 

My mathematician of a husband calls the netting pattern algebra, I call it magic! In the 14th century algebra had traveled from Arabian scholars to European universities and monasteries. But it was mainly studied by men. This is what baffles me! The numbers and ratios in the hairnet are not obviously symmetrical nor obvious in any other way. I needed a calculator, compass, the Pi and some serious drawing to figure out that the pattern is very sophisticated. Maybe it’s just a system of trial and error, but the result is wonderful.

Questions, quanderings and guess work

Has someone tried their hand on this already? And where did their research journey lead them? There is a 15th century style ribbon hairnet made of soutache ribbon, but the shape is flat compared to the pouch shape of the hairnet under research. Would this have been a part of a headdress? A tighter hairnet beneath or a cloth cap maybe.

What does circumference 26 cm mean? We can see in other pictures that the hairnet fits a mannequin head. Is this measurement taken from above? You can’t spread it out flat like many knotted hairnets, because it’s not knotted and it still has its gathering band. If I choose to think that this circumference was measured from the headband, over the crown and back to the headband, it would mean that the height of one side is 13 cm. It’s not a bad size, but still quite small.

How narrow are the silk ribbons? This needs to be estimated based on the only measurement we have, i.e the circumference. They seem 2,5-3 mm wide with a bit of unevennesses, that could be just wear and tear.

How long are the silk ribbons? If we work with the measurement of 13 cm for the height, one length is approximately 17,5 cm from crown to headband. This means c. 9 meters of continuous ribbon is needed. Later it actually becomes clear that the ribbon is in couple of pieces, at least today it is. 

With what technique were the bands made? It doesn’t look like lucet braid, because it’s too flat. It doesn’t look like fingerloop braiding because it’s too dense. It could be tablet woven, possibly in a brick pattern with just two yarns per tablet. Or it could be woven on a rigid heddle like simple plain weave cloth. They have found tabby woven ribbons from 14th century London that could have been imported. Modern silk soutache ribbon could work here, but I found it too thick. Commercial silk ribbon is much too thin. After making a passable mockup with 3 mm wide polyester satin ribbon in off white, I came to the conclusion that it would work too. It’s readily available, cheap and comes in many colours.

How are the parchment flowers made? The pictures aren’t detailed enough. We can basically estimate their size, 2-3 mm wider than the bands. They seem round, with five or six pearls sewn in a circle. They might have been blue originally. This could be easily done by dying or painting. My friend who does calligraphy on a masterful level said that the pieces could have been painted with gouache colours. I was given parchment bits and bought gouache. If you’re not as lucky with your friends, you can buy some parchment quite cheaply. I still needed to find out if this type of decoration was a common thing. They resemble belt mounts cast of bronze or tin. You can buy wonderful reproductions still. The metal mounts are quite big compared to the small parchment flowers. And maybe small, flat flower shaped beads could be used here too.

How do they figure that there might have been pearl embroidery on it before? Does it show in an imprint or a shadow in places where the flowers have fallen off? Or is the beadwork done on the parchment backing and the beads were removed or fell off? Beadwork was sometimes done on parchment, cut off and sewn into place on a vestment or wall hanging. Typically this was reserved for clerical purposes. Wonderful examples can be found on Medieval beads.

What can we see today? 

The colour is apparently reddish brown, quite dark. Maybe the silk yarn was dyed some fashionable colour. There are 22 ribbons that are folded double at the crown. These are opened up into 44 individual ribbon ends that form the diamonds.

The ribbon loops at the top are gathered into a ring with an unseen cord. There are nine intersections that form nine visible rounds. It looks like the ribbons are not woven over-under-over-under. Most the ribbons going from left to right are under and most of the ones going right to left are on top. The intersection rhythm is divisible by nine and as we see later, it’s not just an arbitrary number.

Some of the ribbons plainly are cut and end or begin at the head band, but some are just folded around it and go back towards the crown. It seems that there’s a rhythm that was used until the length of the ribbon was used: 

  • a ribbon starts at the head band, 
  • goes to the crown and is folded down, 
  • it comes back to the head band and is folded up or cut.

In one picture you might see that the band was also continued at an intersection. The embroidery would cover this bit, so it’s a very good idea.

Now quite a lot of algebra! After looking and counting and drawing and more counting I found out that the threading of the hairnet is actually very sophisticated. You start pinning the ribbon in place in the neck, skip 4 pins in the centre and pin in the 5th then follow this rhythm: 

  • skip 8 pins in the head band and pin on the 9th,
  • skip 8 pins in the centre band and pin in the 9th.
  • Continue zigzagging this way up and down and you’ll see that you’ll go around the whole head four times. The ribbon should end at the place where you started.
  • In the centre pin ribbon first on the outer point, then direct it straight to the inner point, fold, pin in place, come back to the outer point and pin in place. Then continue to the head band following the curve of the head.

I made two pattern pieces to ease this phase and bit further down you can find instructions how to connect the points using numbers and letters.

Is the hairnet symmetrical? Because it seems that in some places the ribbons cross just before the ribbon around the head and in some places it comes to a point. This could also be the result of conservation, because in another picture with a black mannequin head you can see a bright white cotton ribbon tied behind the head. The same ribbon is used for the head band, it seems fitted like a cap. No ties can be seen.

There are parchment flowers on about half of the intersections. Their placement indicates that some have fallen off and that probably all the intersections had flowers at some point. No flowers on the ribbon around the head.

How is the construction made? Probably made on a head shaped object, like a hat block, bowl or a helmet. I made a mannequin head (Lucy Airhead as we call her) out of a balloon, glue and paperstrips, the last layer is made from unbleached cotton. There’s a fun tutorial for making mannequin heads. It is just a tad too big, but this gives me ideas how to make the net adjustable. Maybe a fitted cap over a real head and placing the pins ever so carefully could work too. Styrofoam head can work too, especially if you pad it out to your measurements. I would still advice covering the styrofoam with decoupage or masking tape so you push pin into it without crumbling.

Working the ribbon

My first idea was to weave the ribbon on a rigid heddle. But a year later, with less than third made, I decided to try something else. I did try out the weaving using green Maharaja silk, but the original might have been made of finer yarn. Nine strands gave me a 5 mm wide ribbon and seven 4,5 mm wide ribbon, so 5 strands gives me a ribbon approximately 3,5 mm wide. The resulting ribbon is very hard with the weft showing more than the warp. It’s almost like made with metal yarns, it’s so malleable. Timewise, it takes about an hour to weave 35 cm. So I’ll just leave that to the side and maybe finish it later.

Enter new ribbon design! When I was making the Tartu hairnet, I noticed that the flat plait with four strands might work for this ribbon hairnet too. It’s not the ribbon type in the extant piece, but this plait is a lot quicker to make than weaving the heddle band. The plait style is borrowed from a 15th century Estonian hairnet and has four strands with two yarns each. It’s a simple flat plait of four, but you still need to make 9-10 meters of it. I used four bobbins packed tightly with silk yarn and needed to continue yarn once. I stepped the places where I continued yarn by sewing them together. The only problem I had was that the silk yarn kept slipping from it’s knot, so my friend, who is par excellence in bobbin lace, suggested that I use a double knot. This worked and just five nights later my ribbon was done. This plait is just a little too wide compared to the ribbon in the original hairnet. Next version will be made tighter and narrower with finer silk.

Plait of four tend to spiral and silk tend to slip, so for a polished finish the ribbon was calendered. Calendering means in this case that the ribbon was pressed with a medium hot iron 15 seconds. Try out your iron before pressing so you don’t burn your ribbon. It’s supposed to only flatten, press the plait in form and give the silk a shine.

Working the ribbon base

Starting with the measurements of the net block. The circumference of my head is 59 cm, but Lucy’s is a bit bigger, 62 cm. From forehead to the nape of the neck  both measure 36 cm. With these measurements being so close I’m happy to use Lucy as the base for my net.

Pattern piece B. Take care to print or draw this in the same size. The whole circle is only 6,6 cm wide.

Use my pattern pieces if you wish, it makes working the netting so much easier. Print out the top of the head piece (B) in correct size (according to the centimetres in the picture) and cut along the broken line. This pattern doesn’t need any adjustments, it will work on any size. Make the head circumference piece (A) next:

  • Measure around the head, quite low on the forehead and neck. Then cut a 2-3 cm wide strip of paper with the same length.
  • Divide the length with 22 and mark these places on the strip paper with letters from A to V from left to right. Tape the ends together to form a circle.

Pin the strip of paper around the head tightly, halfway between points V and A sits on the centre neck and halfway between points K and L is at the centre front. Measure from A to L over the head and place a pin in the middle point. Repeat from point G to Q. Use these pins to find the top of the head and pin the top of the head piece (B) in the centre. Line number 1 with point A and number 12 with point L.

Now it’s just a game of connecting numbers with letters. Take your time and if you skip something or just cross somewhere weirdly, undo and try again. 

Get lots of straight pins, at least a hundred. You’ll use them to pin, shape and attach the net. Especially in the centre, where you need them to manoeuvre to a forced shape. Take a look at pattern piece B and make sure you find the outer solid line and inner solid line. 

Leaving a short tail, pin the start of the whole 10 meters of ribbon on point A. Keep the ribbon flat and follow slightly the curve of the block to the outer solid ring on number 5, pin lightly. Take the ribbon up the straight line to the inner solid ring, fold over and pin. Come back to the outer ring, keep the ribbon folded and remove the first pin and then place it over the doubled ribbon. All centre pinnings with numbers are done this way. Now take the ribbon to point J, fold over and pin in place along the bottom line of your paper strip. All circumference pinnings with letters are done this way.

Continue joining numbers and letters, making the centre according to the instructions.

The whole sequence starting with A: 

A – 5 – J – 14 – S – 1 – F – 10 – O – 19 – 

B – 6 – K – 15 – T – 2 – G – 11 – P – 20 – 

C – 7 – L – 16 – U – 3 – H – 12 – Q – 21 – 

D – 8 – M – 17 – V – 4 – I – 13 – R – 22 – 

E – 9 – N – 18 – A

You can see a pattern emerging and maybe there’s no need to follow the sequence after the first round. When you come back to point A, cut and tie the ribbon, leaving a short tail for sewing.

Take some time to go over the ribbons and try your best to achieve symmetry. Depending on the shape of your block, the ribbons will sit a bit differently at the front than at the back. Sort out the centre especially, because that is the focal point of the net. The setting of my ribbons is a bit different from the extant hairnet, where the diamonds are all almost the same size.

Before you take the net of the block and start the embroidery, put the drawstring in place and attach the crossings. Take 80-90 cm of the same ribbon and slide it in between the folded loops on the letter points, leaving the extra ribbon for tying the net. Attach the crossings in any way that feels good, pinning with oodles of small safety pins probably works. I darned the crossings in place with thin white linen, making a small backstitch in places where two ribbons meet or at the circumference.

After darning or pinning it’s time to remove the net from the block. Treat it gently, but you can try it on carefully. Before embroidery, sew the circumference crossings. I took very fine silk thread close to the light purple colour of the plait and sewed with tiny invisible stitches. Crossings on point A and V I are sewed into loops so the headband can be adjusted. Point A needs a bit more care as it has two ends of the plait. Do your best to sew the end into the plait and cut the extra off.

Parchment sequins and beads

Unfortunately the pictures I have from the internet and the museum site aren’t very clear nor zoomable. This makes trying to figure out the embroidery pretty difficult. The text says “small blue parchment leaves possibly with pearls”. In the pictures you can see in most of the crossings a round base and maybe a bead or two. The base seems to be about the width of the crossing. The headband has no embroidery.

My version has natural coloured parchment sequins 5 mm in diameter. These were cut out with a leather punch. Maybe they could be a bit bigger, but the leather punch made it so much faster than hand cutting. The beading is done with size 11 silver guilt seed beads, three to a sequin. They are simply sewn with purple silk thread coming up from the centre, picking up a bead and then going down over the edge of the sequin three times. At the same time the crossings are also sewn in place. You’ll need 198 sequins and 594 beads.

You could simplify the work by just sewing the crossings on the block and maybe adding a bead while you do it. This is the slow bit of this hairnet, do choose a method that pleases you and your schedule. It took me two hours to darn the hairnet and almost six hours to sew the sequins and beads. Lastly remove the darning stitches and run a fine silk cord through the loops at the top, tying it loosely with a box knot.

Wearing the ribbon hairnet

This hairnet sits particularly close to the head. The way it’s constructed means that there is almost no give in the net, compared to netted hairnets. I recommend taking measurements for the block with the hairdo you mean to wear underneath it. My block is centimeters bigger than my head and even bigger compared to my model head Anastasia. This actually works out and creates the ease needed. For my head the net is too small, so next version needs to be bigger, with either a bigger block or just deeper.

In these pictures Anastasia has its long and thick hair in a simple crown braid. The net is placed over it and tightened. Imagine adding a circlet, maybe false braids at the temples and a sheer silk veil. That would look so so so good.

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