Red knit caps have over time become a symbol of adventure and exploration, across the world, and also deeply rooted in Norwegian folklore. How did it become such an iconic piece of headwear, and what is the origin of the red hat?
Traditionally, a beanie, hat or a knit cap—which is the technically correct term—is a working man’s outfit. Seamen, foresters, explorers—anyone spending their work days outside would—and still do—use it for the obvious purpose of keeping the head warm.
In Scandinavia some form of cap resembling the modern knit cap has been used already since the days of the Vikings, and when knitting entered the region around the 17th century, it slowly replaced the classic skill of nålebinding, and became the primary way of hand crafting caps.
Askeladden — The Original Norwegian Red Hatter
In Norwegian folklore there is this character that keeps appearing—seemingly jumping around through stories, making his way into most of the main fairy tales. His name is Askeladden, roughly translated into “The Ash Lad.” He is famous for tricking trolls, riding magical flying ships, and other true adventures—all wearing a red knit cap with a pom-pom—a Scandinavian tradition since long back.
Quick word fact: The word “adventure”, shares a common root with the Norwegian word “eventyr.” The Norwegian word means “adventure”, but also “fairy tale.” And that connection is there for a reason. Almost all Norwegian fairy tales is about someone going on an adventure. Especially our red capped friend Askeladden.
The topplue — a knit cap with a pom-pom — is something incredibly Norwegian. (Though all of Scandinavia probably could and would claim it as theirs). I did absolutely grow up wearing one of these.
The “topp” from “topplue” refers to the top, meaning the pom-pom. The one I wore was sadly not a red one, but a black one streaked with really ugly pink lines, which I borrowed from my dad. I will spare you the picture for now.
When you look at pictures of Askeladden, you cannot help but have your thoughts going to the classic Norwegian fjøsnisse. He’s a little guy that is presumed to live on the hayloft of farms, and come out and either help or sabotage things on the farm. Around Christmas, one would put out a little porridge on ones porch to thank him for his help (and maybe bribe him into not sabotaging you).
This Christmas tradition was the last fjøsnisse-related activity to be observed, and therefore the images of the red-cap-wearing fjøsnisse, and the red Santa Claus that would later be imported from America began blending together.
Fjøsnisse now equals Christmas.
If we look into the history of why the fjøsnisse wears a red cap, however, it might turn out we got some things the wrong way around.
Coca-Cola and Santa Claus
It is not a historical deep exciting root that makes Santa Claus currently wear red. It is in a large part the result of a huge marketing effort by Coca-Cola in the 1930’s.
Somebody made a red Santa, at a time when he was portrayed in different colors — often blue — and Coke picked it up in order to turn their brand into an all-season drink. Before this, people mostly bought it during hot summer days. This Santa is still highly associated with Coca-Cola, and the marketing campaign established Santa as a red cap wearer until this day.
From this time forward, the American Santa Claus, the Norwegian fjøsnisse, the English Father Christmas, and many other has blended increasingly into one entity.
If this is why Norwegians depict their fjøsnisse with a red knit cap today, I don’t know, and would love to hear your input on it, but it seems highly likely. I imagine the classic Norwegian folk tale being slowly saturated by the influence of the Coke Santa’s globalization, and now is known to wear red.
Zissou or Jacques Costeau?
If we are talking about one person in the entire world that made the red knit cap into a symbol of exploration, one must instantly go to Mr. Costeau. You may not know him, but maybe know Steve Zissou, from Life Aquatic?
Zissou is a film icon, but he is inspired and based on a real life adventurer, red hat wearer and explorer icon named Jacques Yves-Costeau. He was a pioneer in diving and sea life exploration. Such was his love for the ocean and nature in general, that he is quoted explaining how we should start killing off large amounts of humans to save the planet.
However. He also delivered a lot of quotable lines of a much lighter nature. Let us instead pick a beautiful one.
The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.Jaques Yves-Cousteau
Now, the reason why we love him so much is his taste in knit caps. If you take a look at him, you will notice his excellent cap taste — a style that has been part of influencing the development of the Southlander, our most basic red hand knit cap.
Steve Zissou, and the film The Life Aquatic is a case study in red explorer caps. Their team colors in the film are blue shirts and red knit caps, some of them wearing rounded caps like the Southlander, and Zissou himself wearing a pointy tip one that was part of influencing the design of our North Cap. Also one can see a really nice pom-pom flapping around in the movie.
The film is completely based off of Jaques Cousteau, and is in fact dedicated to him.
The Workingman Knit Cap Brought to the Office
In Norway we have a living legend. His name is Olav Thon, and he owns a chain of hotels — Thon Hotels. He is one of the richest people in Norway, but also seems to be an incredibly chill person.
He wears colorful suits to high end business meetings, and is quoted saying something like the following.
If I had to wear those regular black suits, I would be bored to death.My Paraphrase of Olav Thon
He is an honorary member of the Norwegian tourist union, and spends huge amounts of time in nature — a true son of Norway. But this, of course, is not our favorite part of him. We have to look higher.
He faithfully wears a red knit cap. He has proven one can wear a knit cap to business meetings and still be successful. Thank God!
So when I wear my red Southlander in Norway — no surprise — people keep calling me Olav Thon.
Color Blocking Against Nature
One of the historical reasons for wearing a red cap may very well be how one stands out against nature tones. Very much like workers nowadays wears yellow or orange work clothes to stand out.
I have noticed the effect of this. I am a relatively tall guy, faithfully wearing his red hat, and whenever I am to meet somebody downtown, they instantly spot me from a distance because of the red hat. It is more than a hat, it’s a gps!
The red really stands nicely out against nature tones or black.
One of Sweden’s great sons, Mora-Nisse — a famous cross country skier — became known for wearing his red hat as part of his competing outfit.
He won the infamous Vasaloppet in Sweden year after year, all in all nine times! And all of this while wearing a nice red knit cap with a pom-pom dangling from the top. I bet he was easy to spot in the track with that red hat against a backdrop of white snow.
I do not know if the red hat is why he was named such, but the word “nisse” refers to the red hat wearing little creature which we Norwegians call fjøsnisse, and thereby draws this very article straight back to the starting point.
Adventures, fairy tales, bold colors, red knit caps! It is all connected like the stitches that make up one of our hand knit caps.
Hand Knit Red Caps — Back to the Roots
We at Red Hat Factory are going back to the roots. We are hand knitting every single of our caps from the bottom up, the traditional way, as they have done through generations in Norway.
We aim to keep this handcraft alive for many more years, and keep promoting a culture where people can live of off their handiwork.