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How to Make a 13th - 14th Century
Silk Hairnet

Cat. 105, St. Truiden
Cat. 105, St. Truiden

 

Features of extant hairnets from the 13th and 14th century:

They were made in the round, with the meshes worked in a spiral.
They have longer loops at the crown, joined with a knot at the top of each mesh.

Problems in producing a net with these features:

Netting on a stick produces long starting loops, but not a round net.
Netting on a foundation loop makes a round net, but no long starting loops.

Possible solution:

My method not only produces a round net with long starting loops, but also the alternating-loop crown closure seen on one of the Museum of London nets.


Cast-on the first side of the net

casting on 1a

 

Make the first half hitch by going over the dowel, leaving a loop in front. The side of the loop connected to the shuttle should be behind the gauge. Continue through the loop and tighten.

casting on 1b

 

Make a second half hitch the same way, but this time the loop will be entirely in front of the gauge.

casting on 2a

 

Insert the netting shuttle between the dowel and the gauge from back to front, between the previous two stitches, leaving a loop.

casting on 2b

 

Hook the back of the loop with the shuttle to bring it around to the front of the gauge. Continue pulling the shutttle through this loop to complete the knot.

Continue making and knotting loops until you have half the number of loops on the gauge as needed for the crown of the net.

Tips:


Cast-on the second side of the net

casting on 3

 

Turn the work around and make another row of loops in between the first set.

Slide the netting needle under the dowel, and over both gauges (front and back layers). Make two hitches around the dowel and a knot, as before.

(The gauge in the back layer isn't visible in this picture.)

Continue netting between the previous loops back to the starting point.

Tips:

casting on 4

 

When finished casting-on, carefully remove the gauges.

Keep the layers separate by following along behind with a blunt needle threaded with a string.

The string will travel in a circle around the corner and back to the starting point.


Tie a sheet bend knot

step 1

 

Step 1:

Bring the thread down in front of the gauge, across the fingers and around the ring finger.

Go back up behind the fingers and back out to the front above the gauge and across the previous thread.

Hold a loop with the thumb and carry the thread in another loop above the mesh to be worked.

step 2

 

Step 2:

Continue back down, behind the gauge.

From left to right, go under the loop on the fingers, under the gauge, and over the back of the loop that's behind the gauge.

Enter the mesh to be worked from back to front, making sure to also go through the large loop above the mesh. (This loop will be behind the shuttle, and remain entirely behind the gauge as well.)

step 3

 

Step 3:

Pull the shuttle through, catching the loop of thread traveling off the back of the shuttle with your little finger.

As soon as this loop is secure around your little finger, you can let go of the loop being held by the middle two fingers.

step 4

 

Step 4:

Bring the gauge under and against the mesh being worked. This is your chance to make certain your mesh stay a consistent size.

Tighten steadily and remove your little finger.

Notice that the loop on the little finger is entirely behind the gauge.

step 5

 

Step 5:

Grasp the thread with your fingers and pull tightly.

A well formed knot will contain a nip of mesh inside it.

While still holding onto the thread from tightening, bring it down, wrap around your middle fingers and you've already started the next knot.

Tips:

  • Don't tighten the knot until you're sure it's right. It's terribly hard to unpick them!
  • Check that the knot will tighten where you want it - directly beneath the knot above, with the side knots parallel.
  • Check that the loop on the little finger is behind the gauge. (See picture in Step 4) It's very easy for the gauge to enter this loop, which will prevent the knot from tying correctly.
side knots parallel

At the start of the first round or two of netting knots, you'll notice that you have to move down to get to the next row of loops to be knotted. This difference from one row to the next will quickly even out into a smooth spiral.

Work across one side of loops, and then switch sides (or turn your work) to continue netting the other side. As the net grows in length, it becomes easier to keep the front and back layers separate. Turning the corner at the ends becomes easier as well.

  net in progress

Increasing

Many extant nets (possibly more than not) begin with half the number of meshes, and then have a round of increasing after a few centimeters of work, thus doubling the circumference. Fewer meshes at the crown would help this area to fit more smoothly.

Here are two possible methods of increasing. Both get the job done, but with a slightly different look to the pattern produced.

Increase 1:

Increase 1

This is fairly straightforward, and is taught on many netting sites. You simply net twice in each loop as you come to it. The second loop produced this way is smaller, and collapses to look like a little line.

 

Increase 2:

Increase 2

This method is a little trickier to tie, but keeps the round of loops looking more consistent. Net into the loop as usual, then into the loop in between - in the round above.

When I first prepared this handout, I was starting to doubt my earlier conviction that Increase 2 was the method used for medieval hairnets. I had pictures of several different nets with increases, but they just weren't detailed enough to be absolutely certain how the increases were worked. Since then, I received a much better picture of one of the German nets (thank you, Filipia Capriotti!) which clearly shows increases being worked into the round above.


Putting it all together

Materials:

  netting stand  

I use two upright posts (much like a medieval tablet weaving loom) to support the dowel at a comfortable height for working. I put a bench in between the posts, so I don't have to move it when changing sides. I hang small shears and other tools on the posts.

  Bodlian MS Douce 144

Estimating the dimensions:

The number of starting loops (meshes) determines how big around the net will be. To get a general idea of how many loops to start with, I counted the meshes in two of the Museum of London nets. #399 began with at least 84 meshes for the crown section and increased to 168 or so for the main body, with a 3mm gauge. #145 began with 135 loops without increasing, and had a slightly larger gauge of 4mm.

The depth of the net is easier, since you can stop when it looks right. Extant nets range from 10.6 cm to 16.5 cm from crown to edge. The larger measurements are more common. I found 11cm to be too small for a modern adult head.

Mesh size:

The nets I have numbers for range in gauge between 1.25mm and 9mm, although 2-4mm seems most common. The netting shuttle has to fit through the hole, so for the tinier mesh a blunt sewing needle may have been used. This means more joins.

Joining more thread:

At some point you're going to have to attach more thread. The extant nets don't provide much help, although I'm sure they had to do this, too! I tried several possibilities before settling on my current favorite (#4).

  1. Tie the old thread to the new and continue netting. The problem I found with this is the knot gets caught up in the loop it needs to slide through.
  2. Hold the two threads together and net with them both at the same time for a few knots. I just can't get the hang of this one.
  3. Use the new thread to make a netting knot in the next mesh. Tie the tails of the old and new threads together under the mesh stick to complete the loop between. The next round down will knot right over this join.
  4. After making the last netting knot with the old thread, cut it off close to the knot. In the same loop, make another netting knot with the new thread, cut off the tail and continue netting. I started doing this once I realized it was nearly impossible to pick out a tight knot made with fine silk. This is my favorite method, and so far I've had no trouble with joins coming undone.

Color and other decorations:

Color is not out of the question, although undyed seems to be very common as well. Three of the seven nets from St. Truiden are described as being netted with colored silk - pink/beige, green, and red. A really unusual German net has alternating bands of white and green, with different mesh sizes for the bands! Some surviving nets are described as brown, but this is probably the result of being buried in the ground rather than an indication of the original color. I believe the nets were meant to be seen, and brown would blend into the hair too much.

Many of the surviving examples were also elaborately embroidered in colored silks. Birds, crosses, swastikas and other geometrics were popular motifs. The green and white example from Germany has 38 heraldic shields on it. The shields were embroidered separately and then appliquéd onto the net. Embroidering on net (called lacis) is an entirely different topic, and not one I'm covering here.

Finishing the crown:

If you want to keep the alternating-loop crown closure of #145 at the MoL: Thread a blunt needle with your closing cords, and slide the net off the dowel, picking up the loops one at a time in the order that they come off. Either tie one end of the cord to the other, or perhaps knot the ends to the net itself snugly enough to shape the crown, and you're done. This is the only example like this that I'm aware of, but so many other nets are missing the crown closure that it's hard to say if it was at all typical.

 

alternating-loop crown closure

To make a circular closure, slide the net off the dowel and open it up. With a blunt needle and your closing cords, pick up the loops in a circle like a drawstring. Pull snugly to shape, and tie the ends together.

 

circular closure

Tiny silk ribbons or bundles of silk threads (dyed or not) are all suitable for the crown closure.

Soak the completed net in water - wash it if you think it needs it. Then block it over a head shaped form. This really makes a difference. The silk seems to relax and take to its new shape so nicely after it's been wet.

Finishing the bottom edge:

Some nets have a fingerloop braid stitched to the bottom edge (5 and 7 loop braids, 2-4mm wide). They often appear to have been dyed, and are sewn to the bottom edge with a matching thread. Another net had a brocaded, tablet woven band trimming the edge - perhaps 5mm in width.

In addition to applied trimmings, some nets are netted differently at the bottom edge. A net from the Museum of London (#145) was made with wider loops at the bottom by netting only every other mesh. A St. Truiden net (Cat 107) has much longer loops worked with a double thickness of thread, while another (Cat 102) has a braid (or cord) stitched in a swag to every 5th mesh only along the back.

net from the Museum of London (#145)

 

Damage patterns and other details on the London net make me believe that these braids were only stitched to the front portion of the net - about 2/3rds of the way around. The ends of the braids (now missing) were probably left long and unattached, and were threaded through the bigger loops at the back to adjust the net on the head. (My recreation of this is to the left.)


Wearing a hairnet:

It's my opinion that these hairnets were meant more as decoration than a practical method of controlling loose hair. Illustrations I've seen show hair that is carefully arranged in side braids or buns beneath the net, just as it would have been without. If a circlet and veil was appropriate, or a barbette and filet, then these were worn in addition to the hairnet. The few exceptions to this are exceptions, themselves. The "bathhouse babes" from the Wenceslas Bible wear their hairnet like a cap, with their hair hanging loose beneath, and Phyllis "tempting " Aristotle wears a simple net with no other head covering. The context of these pictures leaves me with the impression that a hairnet worn alone wasn't quite respectable. More images of hairnets from 13th and 14th century sources would be very welcome!

 

Peterborough Psalter
Women defend their castle while wearing hairnets with various combinations of circlet and veil. From the Peterborough Psalter, c. 1300