Warm and waterproof headgear was always a basic necessity in countries where weather was changeable. Examples of early knitting are known about from Peru and from Syria dating from the 3rd century A.D. It is likely that the knitted 'bonnet' or hat originates in 16th century Europe and may well have made its way into Scotland through clerics returning from study at continental universities.
Early textiles in general do not survive in any quantity but
several early examples of knitted bonnets, in excellent condition,
have been found preserved in the silt and mud of the banks of the
River Thames in London. These are retained in the Museum of London.
The National Museums of Scotland has at least one early Scottish
In Scotland the earliest knitters were not women but 15th century craftsmen - Bonnetmakers. Dundee's famous bonnet industry had developed earlier than most and to such an extent that a trade guild had been formed by 1496 to promote the craft and regulate standards. Sadly no example or even an image exists of an early Dundee bonnet - all the evidence to be had exists in the written word. Over a hundred-year period, incorporations of Bonnetmakers and Dyers were established in Aberdeen, Perth, Stirling, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stewarton in 1590 and Kilmarnock in 1646.
The craftsmen worked exclusively with wool and may have produced a variety of other items of apparel like stockings, gloves and nightcaps but it is the production of bonnets for which they are famed. Bonnets were flat in shape and were similar in style to a French 'beret' or Scottish 'tammie' or 'Tam o' Shanter'. They were not neat little items of headgear. They were large, round, serious, non-frivolous and heavy, made to keep out the Scottish weather. Vanity was never the issue. A man would wear his bonnet inside and outside, from morning till night. It became part of the character of its owner, developing its own characteristics and shape. In Dundee it is recorded that 'Bothy men' would keep their horn spoons inside the rim of their bonnet ready to use at the next meal! It is fun to speculate on what else may have been secreted inside the headgear!
Originally bonnets were blue. Local 'skin' wool was used which was dyed with woad or scabious plants with urine used as a mordant. Later indigo was introduced and occasionally they were dyed a russet / brown colour. Black was worn by clerics, merchants and professional men and was considered more respectable. This was probably due to the fact that producing a good quality black dye was a more complicated process, therefore more expensive. Inevitably the higher the cost the higher the standing of the owner. Blue bonnets were worn by ordinary working people such as servants, agricultural labourers and soldiers.
The wool was heated in urine and dye, often in small dye houses located at the backs of houses, then rinsed in baskets in the river until the water ran clear and the wool was sweet smelling. Afterwards it was dried and spun into yarn. Bonnets were hand knitted on three wooden 16" needles which produced a circular garment without seams. One of the pins was tucked securely into a leather belt that was worn around the waist. The equivalent now would be a circular metal and plastic knitting pin which allows the yarn to be knitted round and round creating a cylinder shape. The whole process was originally done at home but later wool was sent to mills for spinning.
The bonnets were then waulked or milled to raise the nap then sheared. This thickened and helped to waterproof the bonnet.
Perhaps because of the relative simplicity of the tools needed, there was a need to keep the number of people employed in the trade to a manageable level since many were keen to take up the craft. The trade guilds produced sets of rules that had the effect of keeping the industry within certain families. One rule was that no daughter of a bonnetmaker was permitted to go into the trade unless married to a bonnetmaker's son. Another kept strangers to a town from joining or taking up the trade. There were strict rules on the quality and standard of the goods being produced. Trade could on occasion be slow. The craftsmen met and agreed prices and if necessary withheld bonnets for up to several weeks called 'Idlesetts' in order to maintain market prices. In Stewarton 'Sichters' or sighters were employed to check the standard of the work being produced and it is said that if the work was not up to expected standards the goods would be forfeited and burnt!
Prior to the eighteenth century, troops did not wear standard uniforms and since almost every man had a bonnet even if he owned very little else, this would have been worn if he were called to bear arms. At this time although bonnets had been the archetypal headgear of the Scottish working man for over two hundred years they were still occasionally referred to as French bonnets. In the Scottish Highlands gentlemen wore feathers in their bonnets attached with silver ornaments. The poor adorned theirs with sprigs of heather or leaves. It has been suggested that this is where the idea came from for the regimental cockade, first worn in the mid 18th century by the Jacobites. But, in fact, Montrose had issued blue ribbons to be attached to blue bonnets in 1639 in order to identify his own non-uniformed troops.
Bonnets developed into a variety of shapes like the 'Glengarry' and the 'Atholl' for various military regiments. The large bonnet was purchased, then shaped, pressed, blocked and stitched into shape by tailors and kilt makers.
Stewarton took over the lead in manufacturing bonnets during the 19th century due to success in securing government orders for the armed forces. Today there is one survivor of this industry in Stewarton, Mackies. This was one of the original companies from the 17th century which is still making headgear for military use and for the fashion industry. Although everything is now produced by machine, Stewarton or Kilmarnock bonnets can still be made to order. Skipped woollen caps are still made and many a man still feels his head bare unless he is wearing his 'bunnet'.