By Daniel O’Connell
Originally published in Smoke & Fire News.
For the sake of allowing our gracious Editor to publish this article with as many images as possible I am endeavoring to be brief and to the point with my comments, observations, opinions and recommendations on the famous Canadian Cap.
A Tale of Two Caps
Pictured below are two Canadian Caps. Which of the two caps would you want protecting your head and ears during severe winter weather?
Note that the Canadian Cap on the left covers your ears as well as the back of your head and the Cap on the right sits on your head like a… Baseball Cap! There my good reader is the beginning of our story. For decades we have been advised by pattern and plan to cut out the wool portions of the Canadian Cap like the four parts of the baseball cap as well as using skimpy widths of fur around the cap. The Cap on the right is one of many caps I have made according to this old advice and pattern. One winter I put this old pattern into use at Michilimackinac. Not only did I freeze my ears and back of my neck, I also resembled Where’s Waldo? in the several group photos that weekend… and, I looked like I was wearing a baseball cap with skimpy fur around it! Something had to change.
The Search for the True Canadian Cap
I began searching for 18th century artist renderings of Canadian Caps during the American Revolution and set out on a process of elimination based on the particular artist’s date of birth, date the portrait was rendered, the life experience of the artist, and by far foremost; the artist’s sense of proportion. Without a talented sense of proportion even artists that are eyewitness to an event can only offer us images and details that translate between a cartoon and an impression rather than an accurate accounting or, documentation.
I completely rejected the esteemed portrait of Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanueal Gottlieb Leutze for the following reasons: Leutze was born in 1816 and produced this famous portrait depicting Washington as well as two detailed Canadian Caps in 1850. I will offer that with Leutze’s elimination I did learn where these baseball style and skimpy fur patterns might have originated.
Much to the reader’s surprise I almost eliminated the well-known artist Von Germann who captured with watercolor the famous image of a British soldier in winter kit. Von Germann served as a Captain in the Hessen-Hanau Regiment Erbprinz with the Burgoyne campaign (1776-77) and made his series of watercolors while a prisoner of war between (1777-83) recalling images of uniform and dress during his winter in Canada and the invasion south with Burgoyne.
Although Von Germann was an eyewitness and detailed the Canadian Cap, Capote and winter gear, I was disappointed that his proportions were not entirely realistic, examples being the trigger guard (sans trigger) on the musket being as big as soldier’s entire hand and when I tried duplicating the raccoon tail on my own hat I discovered it served no practical use and was in fact a discomfort and hindrance. Nevertheless I could not entirely discount Von Germann’s offering since he did get me past the baseball cap pattern: his image indicating that the wool portion of the Canadian Cap was far more generous than a baseball cap and that the width of the cap’s fur was, at a minimum, considerably wider than traditional patterns and articles of today. I was at least venturing in the right direction.
With confidence I settled on John Trumbull’s images, detail and proportions of the Canadian Cap in his work Death of Montgomery, and for many reasons: John Trumbull served as a soldier during the Revolution sketching plans of the British Works at Boston, witnessing Bunker Hill, was Washington’s second personal aide, and Deputy Adjutant-General to Gen. Horatio Gates. Trumbull resigned his commission in 1777. Like Von Gernann, Trumbull without a doubt was a military man and eyewitness to the styles of the period. Trumbull traveled to London in 1780 and studied under Benjamin West and at West’s suggestion Trumbull painted pictures of the American Revolution producing more than 200 works. Of interesting note because of Trumbull’s service and rank as a former American Officer, when John Andre’ was hanged in October 1780 Trumbull was imprisoned at Tothill Fields Bridewell for seven months.
In 1784 Trumbull rendered his famous Death of Montgomery and it is this painting and proportions that pulled together all the elements of the Canadian Cap that satisfied my opinion and pattern on the matter. Taking into account some of Von Germann’s detail I added Trumbull’s far superior proportions and clarity in his work depicting the American attack on Quebec City in December 1775:
Notice the wool on these Canadian Caps: the wool portions of these hats are somewhat bag-like, you can tell there is room for air under these caps and the fur is obviously winter-kill which avails a lush fur protection extending past the upper and lower edges of the caps. As with Von Germann it appears that the fur is at least as wide as a man’s hand: four inches minimum and by my opinion that four inches is measured on the backside or skin side of the hide NOT four inches on the outside of the fur. If you measure four or four and a half inches on the skin side of the hide and cut the skin carefully with a razor blade you will preserve the fur on the outside thus having near six inches of fur showing on the hat very much like these Von Germann and Trumbull renderings. Do not cut your fur with a pair of scissors, carefully cut the skin side of your fur with a razor blade without destroying the fur, in this way you’ll have that fur extending past the edge of the cut skin that will give you the look found in Trumbull’s Canadian Caps and my image (photo) at the beginning of this article.
Getting away from the mini-baseball cap pattern: One year I made a Banyan and I found through serendipity that the Banyan Pattern from Mill Farm Patterns (offered by Smoke and Fire: www.smoke-fire.com) included a Mandarin style cap. Mill Farm’s Mandarin style afforded the generosity of the wool portions of the caps shown by Von German and Trumbull. The Mandarin style cap pattern by Mill Farm have four pieces like the traditional Canadian Cap parts but each of the four parts to the cap are shaped far differently than a baseball cap: the Mandarin style has straight sides for the first three inches and then begin their triangular shape. Further, one side of each has a slightly different angle and when joined give the bag-like fullness of the caps shown at the top of the caps. When you join the winter-kill raccoon fur to this Mandarin cap you have the details that Von Germann and Trumbull accounted.
Pulling it all together: I recommend using the Mill Farm Banyan pattern that includes the Mandarin Cap pattern. Make the circumference of your cap far larger than any hat you have worn, you want the cap to be deep and sit down far on your head affording you to cover your ears. For lining I use cotton or linen pillow ticking and I’ve found that when you attach the fur to your finished Mandarin style cap you carefully sew the skin of the fur to the edge of the finished cap, you don’t have to fold under the edge of the fur since the fur and hair you’ve preserved by carefully cutting will extend past the edge of the cap hiding the raw edge of the skin. On the upper part of the cap the raw edge is likewise hidden by fur extending past the edge and I’ve found no reason to sew any part of the upper fur to the cap. As a matter of fact by not sewing the upper fur to the cap you’ll get a better fit to your cap because the fur won’t be pulling on the shell of your cap. For the best winter-kill furs I’ve found no source better than Ernie Marvin at Two Bears Trading. My last advice is to be patient with the assembling of your Canadian Cap, always make it bigger than you think since you can always make something big smaller but you can never make small any bigger! I hope my observations and opinions on the Canadian Cap keep your head and ears warmer than they may be right now, and that in winter photos you will never have to look like Where’s Waldo? D.O.