1983-May-pg54-56_Sunbonnets, Part 1

1983-May-pg54-56_Sunbonnets, Part 1

This article came from the Chronicle published May 1983. Pages 50-51


(Part 1)

Author: T.Joan Rendell


Sunbonnets – once so common and now so difficult to come by – are a most interesting group of bygones needing not only to be rescued from oblivion but to be studied in some detail before they become completely unobtainable and disappear from sight.

There are, at the moment, considerable numbers of these bonnets hidden away in both public and private collections throughout the country. They are to be seen in the Midlands, particularly in the Canal museums, in Kent, Sussex, and other counties, but our concern in this study, describing a small private collection in the Yeovil area, centres mainly in the western counties of Somerset, Devon, and Dorset.

Sunbonnets as such seem to have come into common use among women farmworkers about 1840-50. Just before this period the prosperous merchants and manufacturers of the middle classes aspired to become leaders of fashion and their ideas of fashion was to express in their clothing a very sedate respectability. Hence, from the 1840s onward we find the bonnet replacing the more revealing hat. Rude health was considered unladylike, and a delicate pallor more fashionable.

Corded and caned close-fitting bonnets made of silk were worn by stylish ladies in London and Paris. In due course, probably after only a few months, the all-enveloping bonnet reached the country. Squires’ and parsons’ ladies adopted them and soon the farmers’ wives and daughters, and then the haymakers and milkers were copying them in printed cottons and ginghams and wearing them in the fields.

Partly because, at the beginning of this period, a pale complexion was demanded by fashion, and also because it, was found to be a most convenient and practical garment for everyday use about the farm, the sunbonnet began to be worn by women workers throughout the country, and with hardly any alteration in shape, it was in continuous use right up to the beginning of the twentieth century, and in isolated pockets, very much later than this.

From about nineteen hundred, the bonnet was adopted mainly for children. The writer remembers her mother making her a sunbonnet just before the first world war, when she was about nine or ten years old. It was not, to her disappointment, in the traditional. style. In 1925 they were being made. at Liberty’s in Regent Street for Country House children, and these were in the traditional pattern, but as simplified as possible, and by now no longer a worker’s garment. There are many ways of cutting and making sunbonnets. In the traditional styles, the bonnet consists of three main parts – 1, The Front or Brim. This is doubled to carry cording. 2, The Crown, covering the head. 3, The Curtain at the back.. The front is usually doubled under and stitched with cord casings and then the rest of the material continues to form the crown, which is either left plain or corded and tucked to match the front of the bonnet. Sometimes the crown is made separately and may itself be in two pieces with a decorated flat back piece. In every case the base of the bonnet is bound with a narrow piece of the material to neaten and anchor the cordings which are all drawn up to make the ruchings. There are usually draw-strings and the curtain and strings are attached to the band. There are, of course, many untraditional designs made, each a law unto itself.

There are two basic methods of cording sunbonnets. One is to quilt it, using double material, and the other is to make small tucks about an eighth of an inch wide in single material to hold the cord, which is then drawn up. These two methods are generally used in conjunction with each other. The front, round the face, is quilted, while the centre, over the head, is in single material which is very often carried to the bottom of the crown and gathered into the band and curtain. The back of the crown is sometimes added separately and quilted to match the front. A very popular variation is to put on extra half-inch tuck above the small one holding the cord, and when several of these are done Lind drawn up they make an attractive decoration of frills all round the bonnet. This can also be done in double material by making the half-inch tucks on the upper piece of cotton and then quilted close to the tuck. In this method the frills lie a little flatter but still look pretty. Elaborate bonnets like these were particularly popular with barge women. Probably they were also made for Sundays and weddings. There are many other methods of manufacture and cut, but a close examination of very large number of bonnets would be necessary to discover them all as most of them are likely to be home-made and the variations could be legion.

The Yeovil collection comprises eleven antique bonnets, two recently-made replicas, one worker’s cap, and a black silk bonnet:

1 Purple sprigged bonnet 8 Pink sprigged new bonnet
2 White twill bonnet 9 Brown linen bonnet
3 Very worn bonnet 10 White embroidered bonnet
4 Flat bonnet 11 Bonnet without curtain
5 Factory-made bonnet 12 Caned bonnet
6 Blue cap 13 Liberty bonnet, replica
7 Pink sprigged old bonnet 14 French bonnet, replica
15 Black silk bonnet.

The entire collection is from the West Country. We have four from the Wedmore district of Somerset, two from an antique shop in Dorset, and four from Devon. The Wedmore lot are known as ‘curtain bonnets’ and in Swell in Somerset as ‘sunbonnets’. The Dorset ones, from Bridport, were sold. as ‘milkers’, and in Devon they were called ‘kitty bonnets’, by the donor. It is probable that all these names, and others, have a wider application than in these counties alone.

Bonnet No.1 is the only Somerset one made of sprigged cotton. It is printed in a dark purple shade on a white ground, giving a pale mauve effect when seen from a distance. The bonnet was so soiled that the colour could not be seen until it was laundered, when it came up a most charming colour. It is made, as usual, with the front plainly quilted and the main part of the bonnet tucked, corded, and frilled in single material. The back of the bonnet is again quilted. It has a deep. double curtain, the under one being ten inches in depth and the upper one half the size. There is a bow at the back and short strings. It is sewn with a chain-stitch machine.

The second Wedmore bonnet, No.2, is made from a fine white cotton twill. The front is plainly quilted and the main part, as above, is tucked, corded, and frilled, but this time in double cotton which continues to the crown with the raw edge of the under-piece showing inside. The rather large loose crown is a continuation of the top layer of the material and is gathered on to an eight-inch deep curtain. It is finished with a bow and strings and is hand sewn.

The third item, No.3, is interesting. This milker, worn in Blackford, near Wedmore, towards the end of last century by one of the numerous members of the Tucker family, was very badly split all across the top of the bonnet where the milker’s head had rested against the flank of the cow. The strings also were worn into shreds and it appears, therefore, that they must have been tied under tile, chin when in use as they would necessarily have to be anchored for this kind of work. In photographs of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, showing lace-makers in particular, the bonnets were pulled down over ‘the face leaving the back of the crown rather high on the wearer’s head, making it essential to have the long curtain to cover the back of the neck. The curtain of this bonnet is 11.5 ins in depth. It is made in a soft cotton, with a small blue and white check. The cording is plain and closely spaced from back to front. A short uncorded section makes the crown which is gathered into the base at the back. It is lined with white checked cotton and finished with a bow, and sewn by lock-stitch machine.

The last Wedmore bonnet, No.4, is of a different pattern altogether. It is cut from an elongated half-circle of material. The long straight front turns under to make the brim and the curved part at the back is drawn up by strings to fit the neck, leaving a frilled curtain beneath it. The material is a rather thick white cotton with a small blue woven pattern and there are narrow strings. There are several variations of this one-piece pattern in the collection. This one has a wedge-shaped piece cut from the centre back, and a semi-circular cut about seven or eight inches from the rounded edge. The centre back is seamed and the curtain and crown gathered and then joined together. The sewing is by hand and the entire edge is trimmed with rick-rack braid.

The Swell bonnet, No.5, has obviously never been worn, and is quite clearly factory-made. Martyn C.Brown notes in his essay that there were factory-made smocks in Somerset at the end of the nineteenth century, and this dating could well hold good for bonnets as well. The crude cut and debased trimming seems to confirm this. Like the last item, this one is, cut from an elongated half-circle of material. It measures 25ins each way. The white linen lining is joined to the centre-front and the whole thing doubled under to line brim and crown. It is stitched round the base of the crown to hold the draw-strings, and when these are drawn up, the resulting six-inch frill forms the curtain. The front is closely corded and a separate pleated band is sewn round the middle of the bonnet; a bow with long ends and short strings are added. The whole thing is machined and the material appears to be some sort of zephyr in blue and white.

The second Swell. bonnet, No.6, is not a bonnet at all, but a blue cap with white spots. It is the Sister Dora shape worn by nurses during the first world war. There is a three-inch wide turned-back front and a gathered crown. Two very small woven tapes are sewn inside, each with a different number. This might indicate Institutional or factory wear and could have been worn, by a ward maid or a munition worker during 1914-18.

The two Dorcas bonnets, Nos. 7 and 8, are lovely things, both made of sprigged muslin. One of them is printed in a single tone of red, so delicately done as to appear to be two different shades of pink in a design of daisies. The other one is even more attractive and is actually printed with three different blocks in various shades of pink. The first bonnet seems to date from the last quarter of the nineteenth century because of the deep curtain and the short crown. It is made with frilled and quilted tucks and continues in single, corded, untucked material nearly down to the bottom of the crown, where all the fulness is gathered on to the nine and a half inch deep crown. This is headed with its own half-inch frill. A bow at the back has long ends and it is made on a long-stitch machine. The other bonnet is designed with delightful rosebuds in three different shades and is nearly new. It is altogether more elaborately made and from its appearance and newness is probably a wedding garment. The front is very closely quilted with no space between each cord, of which there are thirty-three. It continues in single material with both tucks and cords to the back of the crown. At the join there is a separately-made frilled and corded band sewn round the middle of the bonnet, and another upstanding frill round the back of the crown which is quilted and corded in another pattern. The curtain measures eight and a half inches in depth and is joined to the base with small stitches, The bow has long rounded ends, the strings are square-ended. Throughout the bonnet, the stitching is hand done and is extraordinarily fine. It is a lovely bonnet.

(To be continued)