A Perth hair-net

Oh, I wish I could see a colour picture or just a better picture of this hairnet. That might happen someday and I’ll adjust my version according to it. That’s the magic of research. But for this project, let’s go with a small, black and white picture. You can get a free subscription to the Scran site and read more about it. The picture is very small indeed but you can see that the hairnet is a flat piece, either cut or broken from the tubular shape. It has geometrical embroideries that in the picture look to be of the same colour as the net itself.

I was fortunate enough to see a copy of the book Perth High Street Archaeological excavation 1975-1977, Fascicule 3: The Textiles and the Leather ( publ. 2012). This book actually mentions three hairnets from the excavation, one being plain but two embroidered. The other has these fantastic long beaked birds and the other has diagonal crosses and that one is the subject of this article.

The hairnet, or hair-net as they like to say, was found in the 1970’s while laying foundations for a store along the Perth High Street in Scotland. But what is fascinating that this and the bird hairnet found with it, are the first embroidered hairnets found from medieval Britain. They are dated from the 14th century and were probably imported from Germany. The geometrical one does resemble the German Marburg hairnet from the 13th century quite a lot. This fantastic opus anglicanum embroidery from the Victoria and Albert museum collection shows an ecclesiastical set of images of the Virgin Mary. In most images she is wearing a hairnet. And according to the archeology book mentioned earlier it is believed that this is the way the net was worn by noble women, with a barbette and filet. Apparently only women of the lower class wore just a plain hairnet.

This is me, lower class woman with sunburnt face… But the golden colour really shows the pattern against my copper hair.

The extant net

On the Scran site the dimensions are mentioned as 330x430x25mm, and it most likely refers to the dimensions of the whole flat, curved piece, because I really doubt any hairnet would be 33 cm high. Or just 43 cm wide. There are obviously pieces missing from the sides. If we consider that 330x430mm are the dimensions of the image, after some measuring the net would be c. 186mm high and the netting size 3,5 mm (12X12 loops on a 5 cm square). It would be made on a 2 mm round gauge stick. The bird hairnet found on the same site is pictured with a 5 cm measure stick in the book Perth High Street Archaeological excavation. It has a smaller loop size than the geometrical hairnet (17X17 loops on a 5 cm square).

It’s difficult to count the amount of loops per row as they are either bunched up or missing, but quickly guesstimating there’s probably 70-90 long loops at the top. These long loops are about three times longer than the loops in the net itself. The amount of loops was typically doubled so the net itself has 140-180 loops. Rows are easier to see, I would say the net consists of 14 rows of loops at the top, an increase row made in the previous row and approximately 53 rows for the bottom. The net is made of very fine 2-ply silk and the size of the netting is quite small.

The tiny picture I’m basing these ideas is black and white. So, it is possible that the embroidery is done with a different colour but in the same hue as the netting. We certainly have extant pieces of more or less colourful embroidery, like in the Marburg hairnet. But this time, just for a change, I’ll be making the embroidery with the same yarn and colour as the net.

Looking at the embroidery, we can see a few things quite plainly. You can count how many empty eyes are around the motifs and across how many eyes the crosses are embroidered. It has only two different motives, a bigger and a smaller diagonal cross. These are in three rows and the rhythm of the motives is precise lengthwise, small following a big embroidery. One pattern repeat is approximately 18 loops wide, but this differs quite a lot. 

But the rows of neat embroideries aren’t symmetrical from the top down. In the first line of embroideries the bigger cross is right against the increase row and the second line staggers between the embroideries of the first. In the third line the pattern rhythm is the same as in the first but it is lower. After the third line there is quite a lot of empty space before the gathering band. I have a theory that the embroideries follow some sort of internal symmetry, but not necessarily when it comes to their placement. For example, it was easier to not count the loops so diligently and just divide the hairnet into six sections which had their own repeat going. The distance between the sections varies. Netting is forgivable after all.

The overall effect is a bit higgledy piggledy for modern taste, so feel free to bring some order to the hairnet. You can either take the closer staggered rhythm of rows one and two, or the more open rhythm of rows two and three. I netted the hairnet first to a suitable size and then decided to go with option number one, fitting the embroideries to the space.

The gathering band is a flat braid, made of silk and in fingerloop braiding with seven loops. Colours are undistinguished in the black and white picture. I went with the same colden coloured silk yarn that I used on the net. The cross embroidery technique doesn’t float on top of the net as medieval style linen embroidery would and using another colour yarn would give a very different result.

My hairnet

As I started my hairnet before I knew it would become an embroidered Perth hair-net, it is made with a ⅛” flat bone gauge stick giving me a third bigger loop size (9X9 loops on a 5cm square) than in the extant net. My net has just 110 loops. The crown has 8 rows instead of 7 and 36 rows after the increase instead of 130. But at least the increase row is similar. (Remind me someday to tell you my little trick with increasing in the upper row.) The shape is very similar to the plain hairnets found in London, which you can read about in my article Museum of London hairnets.

After the hairnet was finished, I embroidered the patterns using a darning disc as this technique has served me well before. The gathering band is a fingerloop braid from the same yarn as the net, in a classic seven loop flat braid. It was sewn down in the same technique that I always use and isshown in detail in my article Chapter 6: Finishing a circular net. These days my braids are shorter, reaching just from ear to ear. The fitting in the back is done with twisted silk cords.

Most embroidered hairnets are very small work, done on incredibly small netting. They are so fine, it might be impossible to ever reach that level without working your eyes out. But you can be inspired by the extant hairnets and make bigger nets and bigger embroideries, just like I did in my version of a Perth hair-net.

Embroidered diagonal crosses

As the basis of the pattern, I decided to use the Maltese cross embroidery. From what I see, it looks identical to the extant embroidery. In the book Perth High Street Archaeological excavation there are some technical drawings that support this idea. The embroidery style on fabric can be seen in the 17th  century in Switzerland where it was called Hexenstitch. But the same kind of interlaced embroidery on netting is found earlier (ahem, Marburg hairnet). Today, this type of embroidery is called kutch work in India, maltese embroidery in Malta and marash work in Armenia. It would be nice to draw a chronological line of how the influences travelled from the far Orient to Central Europe, but I’ll leave that for now. 

As the embroidery style is still used in folk costumes, you can find actual and good tutorials. I love that! The ones I used most are by an Indian embroiderer, her basic tutorial on Maltese cross for the small motif and the double Maltese cross for the bigger. You can skip over the part where she lays down the grid, as we already have that in the netting.

My approximate pattern placement is much tighter and one third shorter than in the extant net, you see it in the picture below. The patterns themselves are the same, made with the silk yarn held double. You can often see that the embroideries are made with looser and thicker yarn in other hairnets from the same period. 

After drawing several versions of the patterns and trying to figure out how to place them, I decided to just divide the number of loops (110) with the approximate amount of loops (16) in my pattern. Oh, how I wish I had had either 96 or 112 loops. But as I didn’t, the pattern needed to be fudged a little. Easiest way was to mark the centre of each pattern repetition with a piece of yarn and go from there. I first embroidered the bigger crosses on the bottom row, then estimated the placing for the bigger crosses on the top row and added those. Lastly I added the small crosses in between. This technique gave me a placing pattern fairly close to the original hairnet.

One technical thing I’ve come across with net embroidery (sometimes called lacis) is the weaving in of the yarn tails. There’s not much where to do it on the wrong side and it easily slips through to the right side. It helps if you minimise the amount of tail ends. I do this by using yarn doubled with a loop at the end and attaching this loop to the beginning of the embroidery. I also continue yarn by sewing rather than leaving tails. When I have to weave in the ends, I do it with a very sharp and thin needle, one yarn at a time or I might split the yarn if it’s thick. The stitches run through the yarns on the wrong side so they can’t move about. 

And lastly, a huge thank you to Sue The Silkeswoman for letting me see the book! 

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