Wimples & Haps

Head coverings of any kind had obvious uses throughout time: protection from the weather – whether it be sun, rain, snow, sleet, or wind. But they also had other significance.

For instance, in Europe in the early Middle Ages, it was considered unseemly for a married woman to show her hair. They wore wimples, generally of woven linen or fine wool. The archaic meaning of wimple (Old English wimpel related to Old Saxon wimpal, Middle Dutch wumpel) was “to lie or cause to lie in folds or pleats.”

Above is a picture of actor Dame Eileen Atkins portraying Queen Eleanor in Robin Hood (2010); she is wearing a wimple (pic source). Hmmm … it certainly made it easy for a man to figure out whether a woman was “available.” Well, maybe not; Queen Eleanor was a widow. (Question to British bloggers: Can widowed British queens remarry?!)

(For those of you who want to teach your children about “wimples,” go see the new Pixar/Disney film “Brave.” There’s one scene where the main character, “Merida,” is formally dressed and wearing a wimple! Perhaps your daughter or granddaughter will be more intrigued with the wimple than my granddaughter was.)

In Piecework’sFrocks, Cloaks, and Pumpkin Hoods” (Jan/Feb 2005), author Aimee E. Newell notes that “[i]n New England in the early 1800s, … married women, … always wore a linen or cotton head covering, generally white.” Outdoor hats were put on over these coverings. (Click here to see more paintings by Ethan Allen Greenwood of New England ladies wearing white head coverings.)

In the 1960s and 1970s I saw Catholic nuns wearing full habits with large black and white wimples. (Picture from The Nun’s Story.) I haven’t seen a nun in a full habit for a long time. Yet women in many cultures wear head coverings for a variety of reasons. For instance, married Somali women wear head scarves called shash, while unmarried or young women do not have to. Traditionally, Greek Orthodox Christian women wore the mandili. To cover their hair, married Orthodox Jewish women commonly wear a snood, mitpachat or tichel (scarf), or sheitel (wig). Muslim women wear hijabs, but among Muslim Turkish-Cypriot women, young women wear bright red hijabs, married women deep scarlet, and older women dark brown. (Hmmm, so “dark brown” color signified the wearer was officially “old” but what did it say about her marital status?! How would an older man know whether the older woman who caught his eye was available?!)

According to Martha Waterman, “Because so much of costume history has focused on upper-class fashions, the humbler knitting of the past remains largely undocumented.” One of the “humbler knitting” of years past is the hap.

Haps were the everyday shawls knit from the coarsest wool on the Shetland sheep and worn by the women of the Shetland Islands; the finest wool (from around the sheep’s neck) was used in making the Shetland knitted goods for export. The word “hap” comes from Scottish and an eastern English dialect meaning “to cover up or wrap warmly” (a verb) or a “covering of any kind” (a noun). (Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book {originally published in London in 1932}, points to the difference between genuine Shetland shawls and shawls merely knit with Shetland wool.)

Haps were usually of dark color (good for not showing stains and mends), square, sturdy (hence the garter stitched main center part), with some sort of lace patterned border (e.g., Old Shale aka Feather & Fan – pic from The Walker Treasure Project).

After filtering for “hap,” I perused 91 pictures on the Shetland Museum Archives & Photo Library. (This site is definitely worth a visit!) I chose the picture above because not only is the woman wearing a hap, but she is carrying a “kishie” filled with peat while knitting and caring for two small children. (Wonder Woman has nothing on this lady.)

Something to remember: The fancier, whiter, more ornate and more delicate the head covering – whether a wimple, shawl or hap – the less likely they were to be worn by the non-upper class women. Such head coverings would take more work to keep clean, repair, and prepare for wearing and, as such, necessitated servants.

(For more on traditional Shetland lace, you may want to take a peek at Heirloom Knitting and/or Jamieson & Smith. Be sure and look for Sharon Miller’s Shetland Hap Shawls – Then & Now, available through either of those two sites.)

As for me, I wear lots of hats and scarves but, to date, no wimples or haps. But I have two very fat cones of a beautiful laceweight Shetland from Jamieson & Smith that I bought some 10+ years ago. Into my queue goes a hap for me – one with a garter square center and Old Shale border, knit in one piece. I can do without a wimple.


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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22 Responses to Wimples & Haps

  1. Thank you for your kind words about my blog!


  2. Pingback: Knit like a Shetlander…kinda | needle & spindle

  3. marji says:

    Now THAT would take talent!


  4. Thank you! I used to be a college prof, and one student wrote in her/his evaluation that I made learning about municipal bond financing fun. 🙂


  5. marji says:

    What a wonderfully informative post! Full of information but not dull. ‘Tis a miracle, to be sure! ;P


  6. Ahhh, I did not know! My knowledge of British royal history is pretty weak. 🙂


  7. Widowed British queens certainly have remarried in the past (Catherine of Valois, Catherine Parr). I’m not sure how much this has been an issue in the recent past, to be honest.


  8. Thank you! I will follow all the rules later this weekend. 🙂


  9. Karen, I really like reading your blog. You put so much work into each post! I am passing on my Beautiful Blogger Award to you. Thanks for all of the effort you put in. A link for the rules, http://fattoriafiberworks.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/the-beautiful-blogger-award/. Thanks again!


  10. I’m a scholar (by education and previous career) so I tend to approach my posts like prepping for lectures! Hopefully the topics are more interesting to the reader than public policy and administration analysis was to my students!


  11. Hm, that could be a marketing point but now I’m thinking of those awful towelling snoods that appear now and again. I’ll stick to my Western hat for bad hair days, it’d actually get less looks! Thanks for such a well researched and written article. 🙂


  12. Well I guess a benefit of a wimple is that it covers unwashed and/or unstyled hair. 🙂 That said, I would undoubtedly draw very odd looks were I to don one and walk around town!


  13. However you call it, a scarf, shawl or hap has a myriad of uses but I’m definitely a fan of the warmth and comfort! And I’m with the dark colours too. Wimples don’t appeal to me either, uncomfortable and daft looking comes to mind. 😉


  14. Thank you for reading the blog. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!


  15. I like dark colors because they won’t show coffee spills! 🙂


  16. whatzitknitz says:

    A hap-a-log sounds fun! I don’t have cowboy boots but I do have yarn and pattern from the Barenaked Yarn club for a hap. Now I know I will be starting with the darkest color in the middle cause I ain’t no upper class women and I don’t have no servants ; )


  17. Summer Larson says:

    I’ve never been much of a history buff, but you make these posts so interesting! Thanks, Karen.


  18. Ahhh, thanks for bringing all this to my attention as well as providing the links! Interesting that the color of the Bollenhut’s wool pompoms the distinguishes married/single but not widowhood while the Schwaelmer Tracht ladies’ hats mark all three marital statuses. I am impressed by what must be a determination to wear the Bollenhuts – hats that weigh 2 kilos (4.4 pounds)! Also many thanks for mentioning the Schwalm! I didn’t know of its connection to the Brothers Grimm story. (I read more about it at http://www.puppentour.com/rotkapp.htm).


  19. streepie says:

    Thanks very much for that very informative post. Most of the German traditional dresses/costumes come also come with different hats or covers. The pompons of “Bollenhut” of the Black Forest (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bollenhut) are red for unmarried women, and black for married women.
    In the Schwaelmer Tracht (of northern Hesse – http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schw%C3%A4lmer_Tracht) – the dress of Little Red Riding Hood – girls and unmarried women wear red hats, married women green hats and widows black hats.


  20. Curls & Q says:

    Do we have to wear black cowboy hats for a Hap-along? Very good idea! 😎


  21. Wait until you visit the Shetland Island archival website … it is AMAZING! Maybe we should have a Hap-along!


  22. Curls & Q says:

    Over the top! 😎 Will be checking out your links ASAP! Thanks for the wonderful information!


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