The Tam O’Shanter

A tam o’shanter is a bonnet made of wool, handknitted in one piece. It is flat, similar to a beret, but with a circumference twice that of the head. The cap is stretched on a wooden disc to create its unique flat shape. At the end of the sixteenth century, bonnet makers made these caps in Scotland. They became fashionable for men and remained so throughout the seventeenth century. The name comes from an old Scottish legend that was later turned into a poem—“Tam o’Shanter”—by Robert Burns (1759–1796). [Read more about tam o’shanters in “Beret, Tam, or Slouch?”]

A form of the original Scottish tam o’shanter, the tam (or tammy), became a fashionable women’s accessory beginning in the early 1920s. Before chemical dyes were invented in the mid-1850s, the Scottish bonnet was made only in blue, black, and brown colors. Presently, it is available in a wide variety of colors as well as in tartan plaids and Fair Isle–color patterning.

Tam O’Shanter

Take style to another level with Eileen Lee’s brilliant tam. The circular cast-on produces a beautiful cast-on edge; the elasticity from this cast-on helps the tam fit better. Photos by Joe Coca.]

This tam starts at the bottom with a circular cast-on, which produces a beautiful cast-on edge. The tam fits better because of the extra elasticity from this cast-on. A neat 1×1 rib is then worked for about an inch (2 cm). The body is worked next in a Fair Isle pattern, followed by decreases for the top Color Wheel pattern. The completed tam gets its distinctive shape when it is washed and blocked properly.

All charts are read in the same way. Each stitch is indicated by a square and each round of knitting is indicated by a row of squares; read each chart from right to left and from bottom to top. When the chart narrows by a stitch on each side of the center stitch, make a central double decrease (CDD) as indicated on the chart; as stitches are decreased, they are replaced with a gray “no stitch” on the chart. In this pattern, there are seven double decreases every other round.

—Eileen Lee

Cast-on Eileen Lee’s classic project, “The Tam O’Shanter,” available in the January/February 2017 issue of PieceWork.

Eileen Lee has a textile background working with Levi Strauss & Co. for eighteen years where she was responsible for product development, design, and merchandising. For eleven years, she worked at MeadowFarm Yarn Studio in Nevada City, California, managing the shop, teaching, and designing. Currently, she has a studio near her home and continues to teach the arts of knitting, weaving, spinning, and dyeing. Her designs have appeared in several publications, including PieceWork, The Unofficial Downton Abbey Knits, Spin & Knit 2017 and Knitting Traditions Fall 2015. Many of her patterns are available on and Ravelry (mzfiber); handwoven items are available on Etsy for sale. She lives in Grass Valley, California, with her husband, Bill, son, Eric, and dachshund, Lizy Marie.

Featured Image: Make Eileen Lee’s fetching tam o’shanter.

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