What Is a Fisherman’s Kep?

    Ten colorful Fair Isle fisherman's keps (or caps or hats) piled high on a table

    A fisherman’s kep is a knitted cap or hat that is often long, conical, and colorful. Handknitted keps were historically worn by fishermen and sailors in many maritime nations. Often associated with Fair Isle and the Shetland Islands, fisherman’s keps were also worn by people from other geographies. As fishing and sailing were nomadic pursuits, there was a constant sharing of textile cultures as fishermen and sailors visited different ports of call and interacted with others from outside their home country.

    In my knitting design studio, here on Fair Isle, the historic birthplace of Fair Isle knitting, I have been publishing original knitting designs for fisherman’s keps. My kep design process began 20 years ago, but it is fitting to finally publish my fisherman’s kep patterns on Fair Isle, a Shetland island closely connected with the sea and keps.

    Shetland is geographically situated at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, amidst a historically prime nautical trade route, which ensured a recurrent spread to (and through) Shetland of textile creativity and knitting know–how. This led to Shetland knitters of fisherman’s keps adopting or adapting knitting patterns and motifs from one culture to another. Before the twentieth century, fishermen and sailors from some of the great maritime nations passed through the Shetland Islands. Shetland knitters observed the dress and distinctive knitwear of these visiting fishermen and sailors. Some foreign keps were more stripey in design while other foreign keps might have been knit with only two natural colors. Especially during the nineteenth century, many different styles of fisherman’s keps existed aboard and ashore.

    A Fair Isle inspired fisherman’s kep, in particular, often (though not always) incorporates a distinctive knitting pattern. A row of repetitive wide motifs is separated by a row of repetitive narrow (small or peerie, in the Shetland dialect) motifs. The effect is a balanced design of large and small motifs in horizontal strips. Variations of diamond motifs are traditional as is an XO design combination. A truly endless variety of knitting motif combinations and designs and color variations is evident in fisherman’s keps.

    Historically, fisherman’s keps often relied on color to convey status. Color could act as an identifying feature on vessels where the sea and mission made it difficult to communicate clearly. For example, a captain or skipper may have worn the most colorful or elaborate kep to distinguish him from the crew. In this case, personalization was a design feature.

    As Fair Isle is situated in the Shetland Islands, Fair Isle fisherman’s keps are associated with Shetland wool. The thermal properties of Shetland wool make it an ideal handknitting textile for fisherman’s keps. Shetland wool and the kep’s traditional brim construction contributed to the comfort and warmth of historic fishermen and sailors. Keps often (though not always) feature a turnup brim, which is a practical design element as the turnup provides a double layer of knitting at the ears and widest part of the head. Historically, a handknitted wool kep (even when wet) would have offered some semblance of warmth, as fishermen and sailors braved the cold seas and worked aboard sailing vessels for long stretches of time and in often inclement weather. Shetland waters were often rough, especially where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea.

    Fisherman’s keps can include a separate knitted lining that is connected to the hat at the brim edge. If an interior lining is integral to the kep, then the lining is usually knit in a single color stockinette stitch while the exterior design is colorful or intricately knitted. This enabled the fisherman or sailor to choose which side of the reversible hat to showcase. During the nineteenth century, a fisherman or sailor might have worn the single plain color lining as the exterior while he was working diligently at sea during which time the single plain color lining might have become soiled or snagged during the course of work. Yet, when ashore, the fisherman or sailor could quickly and easily switch the reversible component in order to proudly display the colorful Fair Isle inspired knitwork patterns.

    I began researching historic knitted fisherman’s keps in 2004, with my academic research into the clothing and textiles of sailors. In 2004, I was studying millinery in London (UK), and I was incorporating Fair Isle handknitting into some of my hat designs. It was at this time that I worked in the millinery design studio of Philip Somerville (1930–2014), royal milliner to the Queen. I had a great interest in how historic design elements transformed into modern–day headwear. I researched the juxtaposition of working–class dress (such as Fair Isle fisherman’s keps) making its way into the wardrobes of the middle and upper classes. I pursued this academic research path that led to my PhD thesis, titled, A History of Clothing and Textiles for Sailors in the British Royal Navy, 1660–1859. My academic textile research informs every aspect of my knitting designs, including fisherman’s keps.

    The clothing and accessories of historic fishermen and sailors remain obscure in physical remains, which is often the fate of occupational clothing. There are few genuine historic samples of fisherman’s keps to examine. Fishermen and sailors wore their clothing and headwear through many cycles of mending, then till worn through. Therefore, in museum collections, there are fewer working–class dress accessories such as fisherman’s keps than there are middle– and upper–class clothing and textiles.

    This is primarily a story of survival. In the middle and upper classes, clothing is maintained, documented, and preserved while the apparel of the lower classes fades into history through use and re–use out of necessity. It is therefore difficult or impossible to expose the precise history of fisherman’s keps. We instead consider oral histories, or lore, which may or may not be accurate.

    Kep lore has developed. For example, fisherman’s keps often (though not always) feature a tassel that dangles from the apex of the kep. But, there are conflicting opinions as to the purpose and history of the kep tassel. Some lore indicates that the tassel was historically utilized to secure the long conical knitting. The long kep would naturally fold over at the top of the head. Then, the tassel could be tucked under the brim (or behind the ear) to secure the kep in place, especially during windy conditions at sea. Kep lore also surrounds colors and motifs. For example, lore indicates that knitted anchor motifs were unlucky on keps as anchors sink, which was a bad omen for fishermen and sailors, who need to remain afloat.

    Fisherman’s keps provide an intriguing design concept, then and today. Once considered a necessity for survival at sea for fishermen and sailors, keps are today considered an entertaining and interesting way to display the knitter’s skill for design and color. Fisherman’s keps offer a veritable infinite number of knitting pattern and motif combinations, with local and international design influences. Yet, fisherman’s keps remain easily identifiable through the long conical shape and myriad mix of Fair Isle stranded colorwork.


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