A rare survivor:
17th century black woollen bonnet

Agnes Baliques, foundress of the Convent of the Women Apostles

One of the simplest objects in the current exhibition at MoMu is perhaps one of the most important, at least in a historical way of view. It’s a so-called widow’s bonnet made out of black cloth, dating from the late 17th century.

The fact that this rather plain looking woollen bonnet has survived is exceptional and it has all to do with its provenance. The bonnet was originally owned by Agnes Baliques (1641-1700), the daughter of a well-to-do Antwerpian cloth merchant, and foundress of the Convent of the Women Apostles. After her death on the 25th of October 1700, the congregation kept some of her clothes, including this bonnet, raising them almost to the level of a relic. It is heartwarming to see how the sisters cherished these garments throughout the ages and it feels like a real privilege having the bonnet on show in the museum knowing how special it still is for the present owners. My colleague Frieda Sorber and I found out about this very rare object by going through some older publications during research for another project, and we both fell for its simple but attractive cut and unique character.

Black outer bonnet belonging to Agnes Baliques (1641-1700)

Apart from the historical link with Antwerp through the person of Agnes Baliques this bonnet is important for another reason, namely for the simple fact that it is black. In the 16th and 17th centuries Antwerp was renowned for its black-dying industry. From all over Europe silk and woollen yarns as well as finished and half-finished fabrics were brought to Antwerp to be dyed black. The dyeing process was most difficult, costly and labour-intensive, and as a result of this textiles in ravens’ black were both expensive and luxurious. The widow’s bonnet, however, is not in this deep black colour which sometimes can be seen on contemporary portraits. The woollen plain weave gives it the dull finish that was expected of a widow’s bonnet.

To become a beautiful black colour in the 17th century the fabric or yarns were first dyed in blue. Dye analyses carried out at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels show that the wool of Agnes Baliques’ bonnet was firstly vat-dyed with logwood to give the blue ground, and then a bath with a combination of iron salts and tannins was used to give the fabric its final black color. Although in 17th century Antwerp the use of logwood was forbidden by guilt regulations for woollen fabrics it still seems probable that the cloth of Agnes Baliques’ bonnet was dyed in this city, for not seldom regulations were trespassed. If so, this modest bonnet might be considered as one of the rare survivors of this once mighty and prosperous local industry.