Saint Begge’s hairnet

Saints and reliquaries

The extant hairnet, or head covering of Saint Begge, belongs to the Diocesan Museum in Namur Belgium. It is not on display, but photographs can be found in the Belgian Art Links and Tools database, (BALaT for short).

Saint Begge (or Begga, Begue) herself lived in the 7th century in Heristal, Belgium, and is an ancestor of the Carolingian emperor Charlemagne. She founded several churches and worked as an abbess. She was canonised pre-congregation, i.e before 1588.

According to BALaT, the hairnet is dated to 1201-1301, but these dates are labeled under “uncertain”. There isn’t much additional information available, except size, materials and technique. We don’t even know how it ended up in the Diocesan Museum.

There is another hairnet from the same period, belonging to Saint Brigide. This hairnet is dated more certainly and resides inside a reliquary chest with supposedly the bones of the saint and other pieces of clothing. It’s possible that Saint Begge’s hairnet was also made for reliquary purposes and to cover the skull. The manufacturing area is Western Europe and in comparison the Saint Brigide net is from Spain.

I’m comparing these two nets because of their similarities, if not in outlook but in use, date and place of origin. Saint Begge’s hairnet is missing the gathering band, so that style was copied from  the other saint. Also the dark green colour of the net has been borrowed from Saint Brigide.

Hairnets as decorated as the Saint Begge’s were worn by royalty and aristocracy in the high middle ages. They were worn with a barbette (band covering the chin and cheeks) and fillet (stiffened fabric crown). In medieval Paris aristocratic women bought materials such as silk and metallic  yarn either to work themselves or to commission items from. Extremely fine hairnets were probably made by professionals selling to churches and nobles. A netters guild was founded in Paris in 1258 and the majority of members were women.

The extant net

I’m working on the basis of the pictures and measurements given in BALaT. Most  measurements are mine based on these. The term eye is used when measuring the whole square in the netting. This can change size according to how it is stretched. That’s why the term loop is used when measuring the yarn’s length around the gauge, this is one round or half an eye horizontally. Loops are measured from knot to knot and that distance does not change while stretching the net. Knots also take their own space depending on how thick yarn is used. The knot is similar to the sheet bend knot used in fishing nets, but too small to say which variation was used.

In the information given, the height of the net is 22 cm and the width 26 cm. In most museums the piece is measured on the block, not flat and I’ll treat these numbers as such. Other hairnets in the same collection are smaller. Saint Begge’s hairnet is large enough to fit a modern adult head. The materials are mentioned as silk and metal yarn. Silk is the primary material in all extant hairnets and possibly the reason they have survived for so long. Metal yarn like silver guilt yarn was bought together with silk.

Colours of the extant net are just approximates as the colours in the picture could be distorted. Age has also done its work on the yarns. The net itself seems to be of light brown colour and the same colour can be seen in slightly later hairnets in the Museum of London collection. The two-ply yarn is very fine, S-spun and Z-plyed as in most hairnets. Netting is a technique that affects friction in the yarn and filament yarn would break. Embroideries are done with silver gilt yarn, and plyed silks in varying thicknesses in white, light yellow brown, grey white and beige.

Round hairnets start at the top with long loops, casting on half the amount of loops and are worked in a spiral until an increase round is made, doubling the amount of loops. The top loops in the extant net are 18 mm long, compared to the size of the net itself that has 25 loops in 1X1cm square (approximately 4 mm loop worked around 1,5 mm knitting needle). After the increase round in the extant net there are 15 perfect zigzag pattern repeats that are 20 eyes wide and one adjusted repeat. This means the net has c. 325 loops in one round and that the net was begun with c. 163 long loops. 

After the long loops c. 18 rounds of small netting is done. The increase round is made by knotting in the previous round and also between the loops, close to the knot. This increase method is common in medieval hairnets. After the increase round the net has c. 120 rounds, these can be counted with the help of the embroideries.

The hairnet has four bands of embroidery. The first is different from the others, situated above the increase round, a round of zigzags made in long arm cross stitch with silver gilt yarn. The zigzags are mainly 13 loops high. It isn’t perfectly symmetrical as it has been once adjusted to get the ends of the embroidered lines to meet. This adjustment and a separate pattern is a common practice in embroidered hairnets as it is difficult to continue the pattern the same after the amount of eyes has doubled. The hairnet from Marburg and from the same time period has the same increase and zigzag pattern with the same stitch at the top.

The three lower bands are identical and symmetrical to each other. For example the same adjustments to get the pattern to match can be seen on two bands and they are exactly in the same rhythm. Symmetry or matching patterns wasn’t always done or achieved as can be seen in another hairnet from BALaT, this time embroidered all over with hooked crosses. One whole pattern repeat is 42 rounds (21 eyes) high and 20 loops (20 eyes) wide.

The zigzags that form the basis to the pattern are made with long surface darning stitches, three on top of each other. In places where the hairnet has disintegrated you can see that the embroidery is actually done in short implements, going back and forward three times. This yarn is white, S-spun and Z-plyed and thicker than the yarn used in the netting.

Inside the squares formed at the top and bottom is a small darned square in greyish white. Over the top square sits a small wingless bird mainly in surface darning with looped details in beige yarn. Over the bird is a small darned square in the same colour as the net. In the valleys between the zigzags are two coloured trees both in darning and interlacing resembling a tree pattern in another hairnet of the same period. The trunk is in lighter yellow brown and some details are picked out with silver gilt yarn.

There is no gathering band to be seen in the Saint Begge hairnet, so the style and pattern is borrowed from Saint Brigide’s hairnet. This band is flat loop braiding in two colours, white and red, with five loops. In the same hairnet c. ⅔ of the net is gathered and sewn onto a band. The rest of the net has bigger loops made with doubled yarn and made into every second loop. A cord is run through these loops for adjusting the net.

There are netting needles from the 15th and 16th century found all over Europe, northernmost from Tartu, Estonia. Gauges are not identified but as they could be made of wood or bone, they are now disintegrated. Netting post, where the work is attached during netting, is presented in a 1470’s painting where Saint Mary is embroidering and her handmaiden is netting. A frame or tool is needed to work the embroideries, but not a stretcher frame as the hairnet is a tubular piece.

My interpretation of Saint Begge’s hairnet

The extant net is very fine work, with one of the smallest eye size, over 22000 knots and the thinnest yarn in extant nets. A reproduction of it would be incredibly slow and demanding for an amateur netter like me. This is why I’ve come to the conclusion to make my interpretation in a 2:1 ratio. The eyes are approximately the same size as the MoL hairnet number 145. 

The gauge is a 2,5 mm wooden knitting needle, giving me 8 mm loops. According to experience, approximately 10% of loop size is used up by the knot. This makes about a 4 mm half a loop measured from knot to knot (c. 6 ¼ loops in 1X1cm square). Used yarns are also thicker, but still pure silk yarn with the same structure as in the extant net. The colours are different, borrowed from Saint Brigide’s hairnet.

The netting is dark green silk (50g = 460m). Embroideries are done with slightly thicker silk yarn (50g =300m) in colours easily available. Silver gilt yarn is a Japanese vintage yarn, with silver foil wrapped around a viscose core, giving it the similar structure as used in the extant net. 

Netting is made with cut lengths of yarn and the yarn needs to be continued at regular intervals. The method is up to the netter. Some use knots, but they always leave a little tufts in the work. Here the yarn is continued by sewing the ends together with a needle. This thickening can be seen in the netting.

Work is done with a number of loops that fit in the pattern repeat (20X20 eyes) and its adjustment. Therefore the net is cast on with 82 long loops using a 9 mm flat gauge and these are the only loops not doubled in size. Before the increase round, 9 rounds were made and after increasing  to 164 loops, 43 rounds were netted. Lastly, 22 bigger loops, going around the same gauge twice, in doubled yarn were made in every other loop.

The embroidery is worked under tension as the patterns will distort and pull without it. A wooden darning disc underneath keeps the net straight and square.

In the extant net the upper silver zigzag made with the long arm cross stitch is 13 eyes wide, mine is 6 eyes wide with some adjustments to get the ends to meet. The lower part of the pattern is drawn from the original net with some adaptation. As the net is worked in 2:1 ratio, it can fit only one band. The distinct zigzag pattern is made in surface darning, going back and forward three times over the straight part of the pattern, typically five eyes in length. Turns are made by going around a corner crossing. 

Surprisingly, the bird’s body is of similar surface darning as the lower zigzag, without interweaving, resembling tabby weave. The feet are interlaced loops and the head done in long arm cross stitch. “The leaves” of the tree are made in surface darning resembling tabby weave, “the silver branches” in long arm cross stitch, “the trunk” in interlacing and “the foot” in the same surface darning as the leaves. The squares above the bird and inside the zigzag loops are done in darning.

The gathering band is a flat five loop braid in the same silk yarn as the netting and embroidery, in green and white. This braid is 0,5 cm wide and 46cm in length and sewn onto the smaller loops that comprise ⅔ of the loops. The net is gathered into the shape of a pouch. Two silk cords are attached to the ends of the braid and woven through the bigger loops. These cords adjust the size of the net itself.  The crown is drawn together with a cord.

Bibliography 

Crowfoot, Elisabeth & Pritchard, Frances & Staniland, Kay 2001: Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450. Boydell Press.

Dransart & Bennett & Bogdan & Ryder & Thomas 2012: Perth High Street Archaeological Excavation 1975-1977.  Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee.

Farmer, Sharon 2017: The Silk Industries of Medieval Paris. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Nutz, Beatrix 2019: Nets – Knots – Lace: Early 16th century headdresses from East Tyrol. Archaeological Textiles Review No. 61.

Rammo, Riina 2016: Silk  as  a  Luxury  in  Late  Medieval  and Early  Modern  Tartu  (Estonia). Estonian Journal of Archaeology 2016.

Roseberry, Anne 2021: The History and Construction of Netted Hairnets in Medieval Europe. Compleat Anachronist Issue No. 192.

Wyss, Robert 1973: Die Handarbeiten der Maria. Eine Ikonographische Studie unter Berücksichtigung der Textilen Techniken. Verlag Stämpfli.

Internet resources 

balat.kikirpa.be/object/10059796

balat.kikirpa.be/object/10069240

http://balat.kikirpa.be/object/10832

balat.kikirpa.be/object/11031389

catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=263

citedantan.jimdofree.com/2020/02/04/la-cr%C3%A9pine-ou-filet-%C3%A0-cheveux/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ladypetronilla/8075011696

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