While I was doing some online research about the Smeerenburg caps I wrote about a few weeks ago, I came across a pattern for one called a "Smeernberg" cap, which the author said was Swedish. Well, of course I was intrigued, not only for the historical knitting and the connection to Smeerenburg, but to the fact that it was said to be Swedish.
The page was pretty old -- one version of it was in fact defunct -- but with the help of a member of the HistoricKnit list I'm on, I sent an e-mail off to the author, Maeve Kane, who responded, as we used to say, "by return of post" and generously provided me with no less than four PDFs of her sources.
Spitsbergen is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, some distance off the northwestern coast of mainland Norway. It was first used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Dutch and the Danes, then for coal mining by the Russians and as a fishing base for various northern countries. For centuries, the whole archipelago was known as Spitsbergen (from the Dutch spits + bergen, "pointed mountains"), but after control was ceded to Norway in the 1920s, it was re-named Svalbard (sval + barð, an old Icelandic name for the place probably meaning "cold edge/coast") , and after 1969 the name Spitsbergen referred only to the largest island in the group.
Smeerenburg, the first and largest of the whaling settlements in the area, was on a point of Amsterdam Island, in the NNW corner of the archipelago. It was founded by Danish and Dutch whalers in 1619 and in its heyday had sixteen or seventeen buildings, including a fort, with cobbled alleys so that the men could keep their feet dry -- an important consideration in a place where the summer temperatures average 4 to 6° Celsius (39-43° F) and polar winds with it. This 1639 painting by Cornelis de Man, "The Whale-Oil Refinery near the Village of Smeerenburg", was not painted from life, but is supposed to give a representative if somewhat clean picture of the settlement in its prime. Late-Victorian idealism gave the settlement a population in the tens of thousands, though the reality is more likely to have been at best about two hundred.
Here is another, closer map --
(Bree is Norwegian for glacier [breen = the glacier], and øya is "island".)
Another whaling settlement was about fifty km to the northwest on Ytre Norskøya, which settlement was founded around the same time as Smeerenburg by a rival whaling company. By the time it was abandoned fifty years later, there were at least 165 whalers buried in its cemetery.
(Click on the speaker symbol in the Google Translate box here to hear how to pronounce "Ytre Norskøya"!)
In this photo, seen from the south --
the settlement and burial sites are at the foot of the steep rise. As much of the area is now national parkland, visitors can still go to Ytre Norskøya and here is another photo, from the Norwegian Polar Institute --
facing the south (towards Indre or "inner" Norskøya) with the gravesite area outlined in yellow. Tourists are asked, I hope needless to say, to not land or walk in that particular spot because of the fragility of the graves, nor to remove anything.
From 1979 to 1981, archaeological excavations were carried out at Smeerenburg and Ytre Norskøya, where about a hundred and 150 graves respectively were found, those on Ytre Norskøya at least in danger of being eroded by the sea. Due to the polar conditions, much of the clothing in the graves was very well-preserved, and in one of the Ytre Norskøya graves, numbered 579, was found a man wearing these clothes --
Many of the whalers' garments were remarkable for the sheer number of patches and repairs made to them, and this particular jacket is singled out by more than one researcher for that very reason. It's a poignant reminder of not only the ingenuity and tidiness of the whalers, but also of their distance from home.
In full, Vons-Comis’s paragraphs about the cap are as follows (all question marks in the original):
The deceased wore a woollen cap on his head (fig. 20.3). This is a single thickness (red?) brown cap with a turned-up brim, with light brown (originally white?) and dark blue stripes. The cap is 26 cm long including the 5cm turned-up brim. The circumference of the cap at the junction from crown to brim is 50cm, with the greatest circumference, 60cm, reached at the lower end of the brim.
Knitting probably began at the lower edge, by casting on stitches with (red?) brown wool and knitting one row in plain stitch. After this, two rows in purl stitch were knitted alternately light brown (white?) and dark blue. There are 1.5 sts per cm, and 4 rows per cm (table 1) [which is a chart of the various twists, plies, thread counts, and colors of the Grave 579 textiles]. As the brim is felted it is not entirely certain whether the yarns are (Z-?) plied or not. The number of stitches is decreased regularly at two points in the cap which lie directly opposite one another.
After 5cm, one round was knitted in purl with (red?) brown, thinner wool. Then the cap was continued in the same colour using plain stitch, so that when the brim was turned up only plain stitch would be visible on the outside. Yarn composed of two 8-twisted threads which were not plied, or hardly plied, was used for the crown. The count also differs: 1.6-1.8 stitches per cm and 3 rows per cm. The cap is slightly felted inside. Some damage seems to have occurred in the coffin as a result of either the effects of the decay of the corpse or soil conditions. No patches or darns were discovered.
Presumably the brim is turned down in this photo, as the reverse side of the knitting is clearly visible, whereas when worn it would have been turned up as Vons Comis describes. (Note, by the way, that the drawing of the cap and the photograph of it show rather different proportions.)
Lars Vig Jensen dates the jacket found in grave 579 as ca.1700, so presumably the wearer’s cap would be the same. Jensen also notes that “No specific nationality can be assigned to any of the three cemeteries discussed [Likneset, on the Vasahalvøya peninsula of Albert I Land, Ytre Norskøya, and Jensenvatnet on Danskøya]; however, the graves must represent a majority of whalers from the Dutch and German provinces together with a minority of personnel from England and Scandinavia…. The textile finds should be generally characterised as being Northwest European” (p.52, emphasis in original).
Maeve also mentioned that Vons-Comis describes the 579 cap as single-knit, but at the time of her research she’d also found a similar cap with a double-knit brim in the Skokloster Castle collection, though the image doesn’t seem to be online now (http://emuseumplus.lsh.se/eMuseumPlus). I suspect that Maeve’s 2006 pattern was a mash-up of a number of descriptions of whalers’ caps, and that perhaps the “Swedish” description was simply a mistake. (Presumably there may have been a Swede or two among the whalers at some time or another, but there is apparently no surviving identification on any of the hundreds of burials except I think two, so really no way of knowing the nationality of any of the burials anyway.) Maeve’s version of the cap has the purled brim on the outside, where Vons-Comis clearly says of the 579 cap that the turned-up brim had the “plain” stitches on the outside – in other words, the stockinette stitch was reversed at the turn-up point. It also looks, from the drawing of the cap in Vons-Comis 1987, that Maeve’s version has a different proportion of brim-to-crown, as hers is about one-to-one and the drawing has the upper crown about 2-3 times the height of the brim. I did find a report from a “Smeerenburg Seminar” (Rapportserie, Norsk Polarinstitut, no.38, Oslo 1987) -- containing, among other things, another paper by Vons-Comis, titled “Workman’s clothing or burial garments? Seventeenth and eighteenth century clothing remains from Spitsbergen”, and “Textiles from Danskøya” by Ingrid Lütken in a similar vein. But unfortunately, as I said, it doesn’t seem that the Ytre Norskøya clothing has been discussed since 1990 or so.
So, reluctantly, I must venture that the "Smeernberg" cap is unlikely to be Swedish at all, and that while the construction of the reconstruction (!) is interesting and thoroughly attractive, and certainly produces a cap that could have been worn in the period, it does not actually look like the cap from grave 579 or even any of the other Smeerenburg/Ytre Norskøya finds -- this may very well be why the webpage with the more extensive version of the pattern does no longer exist.
It may be possible at a later date to learn more about this particular cap. It isn't at all clear from the research papers where the cap from grave 579 is now, but the Norwegian Polar Institute writes, "Any preserved whalers' outfits and other textiles from the [Smeerenburg and Ytre Norskøya] graves were taken to the Netherlands and are today a part of the Smeerenburg Collection, large parts of which were returned to Svalbard in 2005. Today parts of the collection are on display at the Svalbard Museum," so presumably it is either at the Rijksmuseum or back at Svalbard.
The reason, by the way, that these clothes are so interesting to researchers is that very few actual garments of ordinary people survive from this period. Paintings are all very well and good for seeing how clothing looked, but they are no substitute for seeing how the seams are constructed, or what kind of fabric was used, or how something was mended!
"The history of place names in the Arctic" by Oddveig Øien Ørvoll, at the Norwegian Polar Institute.
"Kleren maken de man: zeventiende- en achttiende-eeuwse kleding van Spitsbergen" by S.Y. Vons-Comis (pp.97-118 in the book Walvisvaart in de gouden eeuw: opgravingen in Spitsbergen, ed. by Louwrens Hacquebord and Wim Vroom, De Bataafsche Leeuw, 1988).
"Seventeenth century garments from grave 579, Zeeuwse Uitkijk, Spitsbergen" by Sandra Vons-Comis (pp.175-186 in “Textiles in Northern Archaeology”, NESAT III : Textile Symposium in York, 6-9 May, 1987).
"Spitsbergen" at Wikipedia.
Map of Spitsbergen from Trichinella.org.
"The train oil cookery of the Amsterdam chamber of the Northern Company at Smeerenburg" painting (1639) by Cornelis de Man (1639), based on a painting of a "Dansk hvalfangststation" (Danish whaling station) by ABR Speeck (1634), via Wikipedia.
"Whalers's [sic] clothing from a 17th-18th century cemetery at Likneset, Northwest Svalbard" by Lars Vig Jensen (pp.36-55 in “Acta Borealia” 7:2, 1990).
"Workman’s clothing or burial garments? Seventeenth and eighteenth century clothing remains from Spitsbergen" by Sondra Vons-Comis in "Smeerenburg Seminar" (Rapportserie, Norsk Polarinstitut, no.38, Oslo 1987), also containing the paper "Textiles from Danskøya" by Ingrid Lütken.
Photo of "Ytre Norskøya seen from the south" by Erlend Bjørtvedt, at Wikipedia.no. (The caption says that the settlement and burial sites are scattered across the coastal plain nearest the viewer, with the lookout point to the right. It is not clear to me why the so-called look-out point would be on a much lower place than most of the rest of the island, as well as facing the other islands instead of the sea, but there it is.)