The Sixareen Kep

Hello from Shetland, everybody! Wool Week is in full swing, and it has got off to a great start.
I thought you’d like to see the pattern we produced yesterday at the Shetland Museum — named and photographed by the workshop participants, and modeled here by the lovely Tania — the Sixareen Kep.

In the workshop I talked a bit about the way I tend to build up ideas and inspiration for a project, and I thought I’d share with you a little of the background to the design of this kep (cap). This was my starting point:


Stanley Cursiter, The Fair Isle Jumper (1923) Edinburgh City Arts Centre.

Some of you may remember this amazing portrait from the front cover of A Shetland Knitter’s Notebook, and I’ve also mentioned my fascination with it before here. What the sitter is wearing on her head is is a sort of fancy seafarer’s kep. I just love this hat – perhaps apart from the pompoms – and thought it would be an ideal use of Jamieson and Smith’s Shetland Heritage yarn, of which I conveniently had six balls – one in each shade.


(mmmm . . .tasty Shetland Heritage . . . )

The shape of Cursiter’s sitter’s kep also reminded me strongly of the Phrygian or Liberty cap — a symbol of freedom that’s perhaps most most familiarly associated with the French Revolution.


I thought I would like to make the main body of my kep red, rather than white, recalling the Phrygian cap.

Then I started thinking about the different kinds of head-covering worn by fishermen around the coasts of Britain.

These noble chaps were photographed by Hill and Adamson in 1847, just down the road from where I live, in Newhaven. The one on the left is wearing what I think of as a kep — the kind of tall ‘wursit’ hat that would have been familiarly worn by Scottish and English fishermen throughout the Nineteenth Century. While the Newhaven fisherman’s head-covering is evidently fashioned in a single colour, in Shetland, such hats would have been knitted in several bright shades:

In the words of Samuel Hibert, in his Description of the Shetland Islands (1822):

“The boat dress of the fishermen is in many respects striking. A worsted covering for the head, similar in form to the common English or Scotch nightcap, is dyed with so many colours that its bold tints are recognized at a considerable distance, like the stripes of a signal flag.”

The collections of the Shetland Museum abound with beautiful examples of such hats. These keps are knitted at typically tight gauges, and feature internal linings which would have made them incredibly cosy and windproof. With a little further poking around the Shetland Museum online archives, I found this description of some wonderfully elaborate examples, that were knitted up to an old design in the 1950s:

“Haaf hats were the type of hats worn by the crew of a sixareen at the haaf (deep sea) fishing, and were typically patterned with small geometric designs . . .The skipper of the boat wore a bright red cap, while the rest of the crew wore darker ones. This differentiated him from the rest of the crew.”

So with these resonances in mind — the hat in the Cursiter portrait; the red Phyrigian cap; the brightly patterned keps described in nineteenth-century accounts of Shetland; and the sixareen skipper’s red “haaf” hat — I knitted this:

My kep begins with a knitted-in lining, and the colourwork brim is knitted on 2.75mm needles. After joining the lining to the top of the brim, I went up a couple of needle sizes, knitting the main body of the kep at a looser gauge to make it drapey (as well as having great stitch definition for colourwork, because of the way it is spun, the Heritage yarn also drapes well). After knitting and shaping the body of the kep, I finished it off with a braid, made from 3 different coloured i-cords, which I plaited and joined together. Here’s the end result:

The workshop participants had a great discussion about what to name the hat — associations were made with Burra’s famous Papil Cross, the distinctive red geology of Ronas Hill as well as different aspects of Shetland seafaring. A vote was taken, and the name that won out was the Sixareen Kep.

So, the pattern for the Sixareen Kep is now available from Ravelry!

Many thanks to all who participated in the workshop: Victoria Wickham, Shelly Kocan, Tania Ashton Jones, Susan Freeman, Evelyn Mackenzie, Emily Poleson, Mandy Moore, Mary Pirie, Aileen Ryder, Outi Kater, Joyce James, Tori Seirestad, Charlotte Monckton, Ann Leibert, Mary Henderson, Monique Boonstra, Joyce Ward, Lesley Smith, Melanie Ireland and Jen Arnall Culliford.

47 responses

  1. Thank you so much for your lovely Sixareen Kep pattern. Shetland is an amazing place and full of inspiration – you mentioned Ursula Venables in an earlier post – (I love her books!) Will she be reappearing in any of your patterns?

  2. Dear Kate, I so appreciate all the echoes of inspiration in this kep. (Also, I am enjoying saying Kep, so different from my midwestern accent with it’s flat “a”, cap). You seem to be an open channel for historical knitters to participate vicariously in your knitting endeavors. Excellent!

  3. Wow! This is excellent timing (for me) because I have been planning a version of one of the fisherman’s hats for my brother, and have just started to knit the colourwork. I’ve never seen the colour photo – I’m going from a b&w photo in a Fair Isle knitting book, and now I’ve seen various nuances n the colours and design that I couldn’t see from my copy. And knowing more about the history of them is awesome (he likes traditional clothing and techniques). I’m hoping to put the pattern for my version on ravelry once I’m done.

  4. I love all the history I get from your blog posts. It’s like reading an article in Smithsonian magazine. Cool hat, too! My husband would love it.

  5. Amazing. I love the history lessons. I live in the United States, so it’s all new and wonderful to me! Someday when I have my dream visit, I hope I remember even a little.

  6. Wonderful cap! Love the historical resonances throughout. Have a continuing great time at Wool Week. My current reading is the new Real Shetland Yarns: A Collection of Woolly Tales and Memories, which I ordered from the Shetland museum, although I understand it’s now available in the U.S. from Meg Swansen at Schoolhouse Press–yes, indeed, I just looked and it is, along with (ta-da) Knit Real Shetland!

  7. Well Kate…thanks for the new dilemna…which hat to knit for our trip to Shetland/Scotland next yr….well…this one and the ‘Sheep Heid’ will now do nicely. One can never have too many hats! I absolutely adore all the added history you share!!! Can’t wait for your next tidbits…

  8. A Ravelry friend had this in her queue yesterday, even before your post here, so I’ve been waiting for the full story. I always appreciate the deep background you bring to your designs. I’ll be looking for the Shetland Heritage yarns in the US to make this beauty – pompons may or may not be involved.

  9. You talk about Shetland, is that the wool? I have Shetland sheep, people say that it felts easily to be spun. Does the yarn blend with another wool to to make it not felt? Do you have to spin in a special way? Anything will help! Thank you for your attention to my questions.

  10. i love to hear about your design process and see the pix of the sources from which you draw. a wonderful post, how nice to knit it in a workshop. love the cord, it’s jaunty but not cute.

  11. Hi,

    I have finally acquired a copy of the book Knit Real Shetland and look forward to more. In particular, your write up above about the Sixareen Kep is fascinating. Perhaps when you publish your next book, you might add some of the factual historical info along with it as you did above; it is very interesting.

    I showed my Father (born in 1930 – Toronto,ON, Canada) the pattern on page 20 – Pat Hill Waistcoat and asked him if he liked it. I love it. He looked like I had stuck a hot poker in his abdomen and said, “Are you being funny? That is what all of the war guests wore.” This gave me a chance to ask what and who were they. Children evacuated from the British Isles all had homemade knitted clothing to wear. Perhaps my Father did not have a knitted sweater as his Mother worked. My Mother wore knitted clothing and she was also surprised. In both cases, they were called War Guests. At the end of the war they went home. I know orphans were sent to Canada but did not hear of War Guests until I asked my Father if he would like to have a vest like this. Do you have any information on this subject? Thank you.

    Joanne

  12. I’m struck by how contemporary the fashion in the portrait looks, from the slouchy hat, to the big scarf, to the almost tunic length jumper. These slouchy hats, always in red, were also worn in Quebec by the coureurs de bois–one can be seen in the famous (for Canadians) painting by Frances Anne Hopkins titled, “Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall”.

  13. The first painting ” The Fair Isle Jumper”, is stunning. As always, I also love the way you work your interest in textile and fashion history into your designing. But I’d love your pattern MORE if it were much more slouchy like the one in the painting. I think it’s far more flattering to the face to have an organic frame of fabric, stylishly settled around the face, rather than a tight, head-hugging shape. Is it possible that you could write a second version of this hat that slouches out more ?

    Thanks, I love receiving your posts – they’re like little presents.

  14. Thanks once again for all the history. The kep is lovely and the lady in the portrait is stunning. You’re so inspirational!!

  15. Another winner Kate….. so very interesting to read about the history behind the knitting. Sounds like Shetland is a happening place this week and I am sending everyone a big cheer to have the best of times…. Also, a huge thank you for writing to us all in the middle of what must be the busiest time…

  16. What a great kep!! I love it and the history behind it. that is so important for me. Am going to ‘toast’ it and you Right NOW. Thank you.

  17. Lovely, just been looking at my Vibeke Lind book of Nordic Knitting, and the Faroese men’s hats have the slouchy top, fascinating. This is a glorious pattern, and I’ve always loved the Cursiter portrait. Colours and design are perfect, and so cosy. Think some of my family going to Glasgow, lucky things!

  18. It is so interesting read about your design process. The portrait, photos, and Phrygian cap are wonderful examples of inspirations for your cap. I love the historic references you include in your posts. Thank you, your posts are a joy to read!

  19. Kate: It’s such a work of art… and the added history with pictures makes it even more fascinating. I’ve just purchased your pattern and can’t wait to make my own. Thanks again for another amazing design with a magical post! Kudos to Kate!

  20. Beautiful, and all the story about it. I always enjoy reading you even though I do not know all the words you use. The colors lovely. Thanks, merci, gracias

  21. Absolutely “killer!” as we say in N.California ! I just love not only the historical references and shape, but the playful assymetric way it’s worn, extremely intrigueing, The colors are sharp, very inviting, delicious, and OH … but finally, your modern interpretation of the traditional ” XO” Fair Isle motif is so utterly clever, your personal touch, and yet vogue — the whole thing is just brilliant. Pure dead brilliant !

  22. I’m very happy with the yarn, I still haven’t got around to cast on. It was vèry nice to meet you in person. I’ve learned a lot from your workshop. I got to find me a real model!
    Also, I’m in love with the island. I probably will not get back to it anytime soon, but I’ve got lots of pictures to tie me over till I get there again.
    It is very kind of you to mention us in the pattern.

    Kind regards from the Netherlands!
    Monique

  23. Pingback: Gorros VI | La Maison Bisoux

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