Henriette Gertrude Walpurgis Sontag (or Sonntag), Countess Rossi (3 January 1806 – 17 June 1854), was a beautiful German operatic coloratura soprano of international renown. The sontag is alledgedly named after Henriette, who is said to have brought this style of a shallow, front-crossing shawl to the attention of fashionable Victorians.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a “Sontag” as “a type of knitted or crocheted jacket or cape, with long ends which are crossed in front of the body and tied behind, worn by women in the second half of the Nineteenth Century.” Oddly, although there are a great many portraits of Countess Rossi, there are no portraits or photographs of her wearing such a garment (and I looked).
(My personal conjecture? Perhaps a garment like this was part of a stage costume she wore, devised by a creative costume mistress, in an especially outstanding performance which inspired women to emulate the style. It’s a notion full of flaws, but I like to imagine an opera company’s costume mistress as the unsung heroine of a long-lasting fashion movement.)
Instructions (“receipts”) for sontags (also called “cache coeurs”, or “bosom friends”) are found in many women’s magazines from the 1860s onwards. In fact, they are one of the first styles of shawl to be written up in modern pattern form.
Sontags are very good at keeping the upper body – especially the bosom – warm. As a result they are often worn by re-enactors and living historians. I’ve been wanting to make one, but kept coming up with the same pattern or two that “everyone” uses. Being me, of course, I wanted something different. Something to keep both my back and my front warm. Something that had instructions I could understand.
Then, a while back, I stumbled upon this.
Colleen Formby took this original 1860 pattern and “translated” it into modern knitting instructions, complete with yarn and needle equivalents, photographs and directions on how to make the “ermine” spots on the edging. Ms. Formby holds the copyright, but it’s licensed for individual use.
I love the checkerboard knitting pattern and the addition of the faux ermine spots. I like the way the back is completely covered. I also like that the ties wrap around the waist completely and tie in front, instead of tying in back.
And the best part is I can use it for the HSM Challenge #3, since I already have everything needed to make it in my stash, including period-correct colors in period-correct yarn (both content and weight) with period-correct (i.e., wooden) needles. It’s also a project I can do whilst packing/unpacking, since it doesn’t demand a lot of space – if there’s a chair/bench/stool/pillow where I can sit, I’m good.
Here’s a link to pictures of the same pattern done by an Australian historical sewer/knitter. As you can see, her sontag turned out looking very nice indeed. (Love the Dorset button!)
It’s getting easier and easier these days to find reproductions of extant patterns, which is good, but most of them are only copies of those originals and have sparse or confusing instructions, which is not so good. So I was thrilled when I come across a vintage pattern that is in contemporary terminology – not changed in any way, just translated into something understandable. Thank you, Ms. Formby, where ever you are.
Sadly, Henriette, Countess Rossi, only lived to the age of 46. She died from cholera in 1854 while on tour in Mexico. Every time I wear this sontag I’ll think of her – the woman with the beautiful voice who lent her name to such a practical garment, yet died so young.