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The Humble Hummel Bonnet
by Matthew Newsome ©2005
published in the Scottish Banner, November 2005

Last month we examined what a Scotsman wears on his feet – the kilt hose.  This month we are going to the opposite extremity and taking a look at what a Scotsman wears on his head.  Specifically, I want to discuss an interesting, but altogether rare type of bonnet called the Hummel.

The two types of bonnet that one is familiar with today are the Balmoral (the round, flat bonnet) and the Glengarry (the wedge shaped cap). Both ultimately derive from the old Highland broad bonnet.

We are not sure when the broad bonnet was first worn in the Scottish Highlands, but it was sometime after the Reformation.  It was made from wool, knit and felted, and most often blue in color.  Up until the middle part of the eighteenth century it was quite flat, with the edge of the crown hanging down, shielding the face of the wearer.  The loose ends of the wool in the center of the cap made a little tuft, which at some point became a decorative ball (called a toorie), usually red to contrast with the bonnet.

Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, the crown of the bonnet grew smaller, so that it could be worn cocked up, exposing part of the headband.  The crown continued to grow smaller, and the bonnet grew taller, and then in the 1760s a diced band was added.  All of this change occurred slowly, over time.

Eventually the bonnet grew to be almost cylindrical in shape – this was called the Kilmarnock bonnet.  Sometime in the 1770s this Kilmarnock style was adopted by all
the Highland regiments.

The Kilmarnock bonnet is very often referred to as a Hummel bonnet.  In reality, the word “hummel” simply referred to any bonnet that was unadorned with feathers or bearskin tufts.  It most likely is a corruption of the word “humble.”  Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, the fatigue dress of the Highland regiments included some form of the Hummel bonnet.

The United Services Museum in Edinburgh Castle has several specimens of Hummel bonnets dating between 1790 and the middle 1800s.  Each cap in their collection is a bit different.  They are all cylindrical in shape, knitted in the round and heavily felted, usually with three courses of dicing knit in (not a separate band added on).  Most, but not all, have a red toorie.  They are black or dark blue in color.  But they appear to have been made according to different knitting instructions, and particulars, such as the size of the diced band, vary greatly.  Some were even lined to give the bonnet extra body and provide warmth.

The Hummel bonnet went out of fashion after the middle of the nineteenth century, when the style of cap either became straighter and more rigid (the Glengarry) or returned to the larger, rounded crown (the Balmoral).  The Hummel is usually only seen in old portraits, which is why I was very surprised to see one being displayed this summer at Franklin’s (NC) “Taste of Scotland” festival, at the booth of the Appalachian St. Andrew’s Society!

There I met Betty Johnson, who made the reproduction bonnet.  To my delight, she told me that she not only knit and felt the cap, but she also spun and dyed the wool herself.  As it turns out, Betty has her own company, The Royal Fleecery, where she provides hand-spun yarns, hats and scarves, all of her own creation.  She has been knitting for over 42 years, so she brings a lot of experience to her craft.

I asked her what inspired her to make Hummel bonnets.  She told me, “I heard about the Hummel Bonnets from Marjorie Warren.”  Marjorie is a Scottish-born tartan hand weaver now living in Lake Junaluska, NC.  “She called and said that some re-enactors had contacted her about supplying them.  She, in turn, called me and asked if I would be interested, since I make felted hats.”  The rest, as they say, is history.

Marjorie provided a pattern from an old fiber magazine.  Betty tried it, adjusted the pattern a few times, and came up with something “just right.”  “All of these hats were knit by soldiers’ family members,” she said, “so each one was a little different.”

“I was intrigued not only by the hat’s history, but by its shape.  I altered the pattern and designed my own unique one.”  I was intrigued by the fact that she was offering a completely hand-produced product, from start to finish.  I asked her about what all that entails.

“I attend sheep and wool shows to purchase the raw fleece… I wash it to remove any vegetable matter and grease.  Next, I utilize a drum carder to line up the fibers.  This combs the fleece and makes it easier to spin.  This produces ‘roving’ which can then be dyed.  Next, I spin the roving into a very thin yarn.  I take two or three of these yarns and ply them together.  The yarn is then knit on circular needles.  After the bonnet is completed, I felt it by putting it in the washing machine.  Felting is really controlled shrinking.  When it’s the right size, I remove it from the washer, squeeze out as much water as I can, and put it on a mold to dry.”

Betty Johnson has graciously left a couple of her creations on display at the Scottish Tartans Museum, so our visitors can now see actual examples of this historic style of cap.  She also sells these unique bonnets to reenactors and others who are interested.  Needless to say, one doesn’t need to be a reenactor to appreciate the historic details and quality craftsmanship of this (not so) humble bonnet!

You can purchase one of Betty's hummel bonnets through the Scottish Tartans Museum gift shop.