Constructing a Late Eighteenth-Century Calash

The calash bonnet is perhaps one of the most intriguing eighteenth century accessories. It is simultaneously attractive and strange to the modern eye, appearing both extraordinary and intricate. The calash bonnet was worn throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for protection from both inclement weather, particularly wind, or sunny weather. It first came into use in the 1760s in the form of a supported, collapsible hood. This new style could protect the wearer, like its predecessor, the padded hood, without crushing the hairstyle, cap or headdress worn beneath.

Calash bonnets were usually constructed from green or black silk, and often lined with pinkish red linen, said to improve any complexion. They could also be brown, but very few other colours seen to have been particularly popular. It was given its concertina shape using cane or whalebone inserted into channels, and gathered rows. It was held in place with a tie at the chin, and the tallest examples have a ribbon attached to the brim, which wad held out in front of the wearer’s face. This example from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, shows this extra ribbon. Some calash bonnets were padded for extra warmth, which creates a luxuriously rounded shape.

The calash takes its name from the calèche, a French carriage with a similar collapsable hood. They continued to be worn through the early nineteenth century, but became steadily less fashionable. In the 1840s the calash evolved into the ‘ugly’, an expandable brim, usually with three or four canes and no gathering, which was worn over the bonnet. It also spawned the drawn bonnet, which consisted of a soft crown and brim, supported using canes and channels instead of the traditional buckram type materials.

Further Extant Examples

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Los Angeles County Museum of Art;id=66502;type=101;id=15426;type=101

Other Sources

Constructing the Calash

My calash was constructed out of green silk taffeta and lined with rose coloured linen. I decided to us canes to support the hoops. The natural curve of the cane was enough to form the shape. Initially, I approached the project with trepidation. In spite of having extensive experience of millinery, I found the task daunting initially. In reality, it went together with considerably greater ease than I expected, though it is certainly not a project for beginners.

The pattern itself is very simple, consisting of a large rectangle of fabric for the brim, and a shaped piece for the back panel. All the other pieces for bindings and the bavolet are also simple rectangles of fabric.

  1. The brim section of the calash was constructed from a simple rectangle of fabric. The first stage was to mount the outer silk fabric onto the linen lining. All of the edges were then turned in, pinned and pressed. The front and back edges were then stitched closed, as is one of the sides. 1 he other was tacked, allowing for the bones or canes to be slipped in afterwards. The cane and gathering lines were then marked on the lining using a water soluble pencil or tailor’s chalk and then tacked using a contracting thread.2
  2. The next stage was to stitch each of the cane channels. The fabric was folded first, and pinned in place. These channels were sewn using a running stitch. A backstitch would be more secure perhaps, but both are seen in extant examples.
  3. The two end channels were sewn by hemming the fabric. The fabric was folded towards the inside once, and stitched in place with a running stitch.
  4. 5Once all the cane channels were stitched, the next stage was to create the rows of gathering which give the calash its concertina shape. First the fabric was folded, right sides together, along the marked gathering lines. Then it was pinned and pressed.
  5. Extant examples display a variety of methods for the gathered lines, including gathering onto a shorter hoop or onto a cord. However I decided to use another contemporary techniques: whip-gathering. This is achieved by using a whipstitch over the folded edge, then gently pulling on the threads to gather up the material. The first and last lines of gathering were two inches shorter than the middle lines.
  6. 6Once the channels and gathering were completed, the calash began to take shape.
  7. The next step was to cut and finish all the lengths of cane. The front cane was cut at 27”, and the back three canes were graded between 20” and 30”, while the main canes were all 31”. These canes were then inserted into the correct channels.
  8. 8The back channels had their canes inserted last, as the fabric had to be gathered up over the canes. This was the stage with which I had the most difficulty, as the cane kept slipping into the channel. I considered various options, including stitching through the canes. However I instead used masking tape to widen the ends. This prevented the canes slipping out while I finished positioning them. Once these channels were stitched to the back panel, they remained in place.
  9. 11The next stage was to cut the back panel. This was cut from both the lining and silk, and mounted in the same way as the brim, having the seam allowances turned in and stitched.
  10. A line approximately an inch and a half from the edge was then marked with tacking stitches. This is where the smallest hoop was to sit at the back of the calash.
  11. The back section was then pinned in place at the back of the brim, matching up the back cane with the tacked line. This is the stage at which I removed the masking tape. The third cane should sit comfortably on the outer edge of the back panel.
  12. This was then stitched in place using a running stitch along the seam lines of all three back hoops.
  13. I spent quite some time researching how the bottom edge of the calash was finished, and found a variety of methods, and may where it was difficult to work out quite how it had been achieved. Once extant example I was able to look at first hand had the bottom edge gathered into a neck band, which was the method I decided to use. First the bottom edges of the brim only were gathered up so that the canes sat in a comfortable fan shape.

  14. 14The entirety of the bottom edge of the calash was then bound using a strip of the silk. It was firstly pinned and backstitched to the right side of the neck edge, then turned under and finished off inside.
  15. Two further strips of silk were cut as neck ties. These were hemmed all the way around, and then stitched at one end to the outside neck edge of the calash.16
  16. The bavolet or neck curtain was then cut. A small hem was made down the two short sides and one of the long sides. The final long side had a larger hem, through which was inserted a length of piping cord.
  17. Using the piping cord to gather the fabric up, the bavolet was then sewn onto the back edge of the calash, again using a running stitch. The gathers were distributed evenly.

This was the stage at which I left my calash, however there are further decorative touches which could have been added.




Box Pleating

Many extant calash bonnets have a strip of box pleated trim at the from brim edge. This would be achieved by cutting a strip of fabric three times the length of the brim, and hemming it on all edges. The strip would then be box pleated and attached to either the inside or outside edge of the calash using a running stitch.

Back Gathering and Bow

Extant calash bonnets also often have a more elaborate back than my example. (See page 42 of Burnston, Sharon Ann, Fitting and Proper: 18th Century Clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society, Scurlock, Texas, 2000.) To achieve this look, the back of the brim piece needs to be extended and gathered into a central point on the back panel. A self fabric bow is then created from strips of the silk and attached to the centre back of the back panel.

Some calash bonnets also had a corded bavolet or neck curtain. This helped the fabric to flare out at the back and protect the neck. The calash was often worn with a cloak or mantle, so this curtain of fabric helped to seal the gap between the two garments, protecting the wearer.

Making a calash bonnet is a complicated task, but certainly a worthwhile one. The construction of this example demonstrates the basic method to create the shape, but there are numerous options available to make each example individual. In spite of its unusual  and cumbersome appearance, the calash can be an innovative and interesting addition to a late eighteenth or early nineteenth century outfit.


Amphlett, Hilda, Hats: A History of Fashion in Headwear (Dover, 2003).

Bradfield, Nancy, Costume in Detail (Barming, 1968).

Burnston, Sharon Ann, Fitting and Proper: 18th Century Clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society, Scurlock, Texas, 2000.

De Courtais, G., Women’s Hats, Headdresses and Hairstyles (Dover, 2006).

Dyer, Serena,  Bergère, Poke and Cottage: Understanding Early Nineteenth-Century Headwear, Codnor Books, 2011.

Mackenzie, Althea,   Hats and Bonnets from Snowshill, one of the world’s leading collections of costume and accessories of the 18th and 19th centuries (National Trust, 1999).

This post was originally an article on Your Wardrobe Unlock’d.

This entry was published on January 20, 2013 at 9:50 pm and is filed under Eighteenth Century, Nineteenth Century, Reproductions, Women's Dress. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

10 thoughts on “Constructing a Late Eighteenth-Century Calash

  1. jfwakefield on said:

    Reblogged this on Austenonly and commented:
    As you know, Serena’s research fascinates me. I thought you would all enjoy reading about this project.

  2. Oh, that is wonderful. Now I want one, but can’t make one. 🙂

  3. Just curious – did you use a machine or did you hand sew? I have a book that demonstrates many hand sewing techniques from historical sources about how clothes were created without machine sewing.

    • Hi Elizabeth, I generally try to hand-sew as much as possible in my reproductions, especially when it will influence construction technique. I made this calash a couple of years ago, but as far as I recall it was mostly hand-sewn.

  4. This is truly WONDFERFUL! Thank you for sharing. I make historical fashions for 18″ dolls to interest a younger generation… Been intending to create a calash or -did they really call them “uglies”?? This is the final inspiration I needed to stop being lazy 🙂

  5. I was wondering approximately what size your rectangle is? I want to make one, but don’t want to stuff it up. Thank you.

  6. Pingback: A Pink Calash: Finished. | Lady of the Wilderness

  7. Pingback: Objects of Mystery | Welcome to the Wonderful World of Wade

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