First of all, what is an ear iron? An ear iron is a metal frame that passes behind the nape and drops over the ears, ending at or slightly below the level of the ear lobe. It is held in place with ribbons which are tied on top of the head in front of the braids. It’s purpose is to help hold the under cap into place, and/or to give shape to the outer cap and veil.
The earliest examples are simple wires with some sort of balls on the end of the “legs”. They have a loop at the top of the leg which the ribbon passes through. Occasionally there is a twist of smaller wire at the bottom of the leg which helps keep pins from sliding up. As the style progresses, the legs becomes wider and more decorative. Many have pin holes which allow the pin to go through, rather than around, the ear iron. By the 1620s, some even have pendants dangling, earring-like, from the end of the leg.
When in use, ear irons are often obscured by the hat or veil, so it is difficult to be sure when they were first worn. Using the ear iron with a veil creates some distinctive folds, and those folds can be seen at least as early as the 1550s. Obvious use of ear irons shows up in the pictorial record from the 1580s on, when the ends start to poke out from under the headdress. The extant record appears to begin at about the same time. The earliest actual date I’ve seen from a museum is 1575, although many are (unhelpfully) labeled “16th Century”. Sometime around the 1660s, styles change enough that the ear iron drops out of formal portraits. They continue to be seen occasionally in pictures of country people, and they remain today as an import part of modern Dutch folk dress.
How to Make an Ear Iron
Unfortunately, I lack any actual metal working skill, so some of the more elaborate ear irons are out of my reach. I live in hope of finding a jeweler willing to create them for the re-enactment crowd. Until then, a down and dirty version can be made with material available in your local craft and home improvement stores.
Supplies for building an ear iron.
You will need:
Beads: These will go on the end of the ear iron’s “legs”. The wire will be passing through the hole in the bead, so you need something with as big of a hole as possible.
Wire: So far I’ve had the best luck with buying bare copper wire in the electrical section of my local hardware store. I use the biggest wire I can get through the beads, so about the size of an old metal coat hanger.
Craft wire: Smaller wire to form the coil around the bottom of the leg. This is optional, but helpful.
Pliers: To cut the wire.
Craft glue: I like E6000.
Masking tape: Helpful for marking the length of the leg.
Bowl: Or some other helpful household object for smoothing the wire and bending it into a curve.
Ribbon: For tying the ear iron on. Something that doesn’t slip is best.
Assembling Your Ear Iron
First, dress your hair up in braids as discussed in the previous article. This step is very important because the ear iron doesn’t clamp onto your head, and it does not rest of your ears like sunglasses. Rather, it is suspended from a ribbon which is tied in front of the braids. Next, measure from about an inch above your ear, around the back of your head under the braids, and up to the identical point on the other side. Then add ten inches. Or, if approximating, I’ve found that a total of twenty-two inches gets you in the right ballpark.
Forming the wire for the ear iron.
Straighten the wire out as much as you can, and then use your pliers to cut a piece twenty inches long, or whatever your measurement was in the previous step. Measure in five inches from each end and make 90 degree bends. Next, use the bowl to round out the center portion. Then tie the ribbons onto the wire at the bends. Most extant ear irons do have some sort of hole or added loop for the ribbons to pass through, but that would probably require soldering. Luckily, I haven’t really had any problems with the ribbon slipping out of place without it.
Fitting the ear iron on to the head.
Carefully fit the ear iron into place with the hoop of wire passing under your braids at your nape. Tie the ribbon in front of your braids at the top of your head. The legs will almost certainly be sticking straight out, so bend them back until they run down the side of your face right in front of your ears. Use your masking tape to mark the end of the leg, which should be just a little below the bottom of your ear lobe.
Adding the wire coil and gluing on the bead.
Take the ear iron off and even up your measurements. Cut both legs to length. Then take the smaller wire and wrap it from top to bottom to form a coil around the leg. Ideally, the hole of your bead will be big enough for both wires to pass through it. In that case, end the coil in a straight section. If the bead is too small, as has so far generally been the case for me, simply crimp off the end. Even if the coil itself can slide slightly, I have still found that it helps keep the pins in place.
Finally, glue on your beads. I like to use a disposable plate to keep the mess contained. Apply glue to the ends of the legs, put the beads on, and then set the legs upright on the plate. This position helps make sure that the wire passes all the way through the bead but doesn’t stick out the other side. Allow the glue to dry completely.
Congratulations! You now own an ear iron. As promised, this is just a down and dirty version, but it is functional. (Luckily, when you wear it, the only part that will show is the bead.) Your hair and the ear iron create the structure for a wide variety of caps and veils.
Next in this series: constructing the hat.
Looking for the rest of the series? You can find the articles here: