My class have pompoms on the brain at the moment, I don't really know where the craze has come from, but I have a group of children who would happily make pompoms all day. I felt this wasn't posing much challenge to them, so I told them they needed to take their pompom work deeper. I suggested making a pompom solar system, or perhaps elements to make up molecules and represent the chemical composition of wool. The children decided they were going to make the world's biggest pompom - which is a whole other story and involved far more physics than any of us imagined - I'll write about that another day!
I decided I would look into the history of pompoms, and have put together this story for you to share with your students - but beware the pompom making craze - use it at your own risk!
I like to show laminated copies of pictures as I tell stories, and of course, you need a real pompom to show the children.
A Story of The History of Pompoms
Have you ever noticed the fluffy pompoms on the woolly hats people wear in winter? They look fuzzy and fun don’t they? But whose idea was it to start putting these little balls of fluff on the tops of hats, and why did it catch on?
The English word ‘pompom’ comes from the Old French word ‘pombe’, which meant "knot of ribbons”. The word was also used to describe the rosettes, tassels or other decorations used on military hats to show which regiment a soldier belonged to. We are not sure why these decorations were adopted as part military uniforms but we think it developed because soldiers would stick their fluffy musket cleaning brushes in their hats. Many militaries still use different forms of ‘pombe’ on their uniforms and each has its own story and special meaning - soldiers are very proud of their particular one.
But it is not just on the battle field that the pompom is significant, many cultures use pompoms as symbols or decorations on their clothing, for example, in Rome, priests wear square-peaked caps called birettas and the colour of the pompom shows wearers order.
In Scotland pompoms have always been part of the traditional dress, men wear a floppy beret called a Balmoral bonnet with a bright red pom-pom called a ‘toorie’.
And in the Black Forest in Germany women wear special straw hats called ‘bollenhut’ which have fourteen handmade pompoms on them! Unmarried women wear red pompoms and married women wear black pompoms. Each hat takes about a week to make and you can imagine that with all those pompoms, the hats can be quite large and heavy so these days they are only worn on special occasions.
We don’t know who made the first pompom, or exactly how old they are but we do know that they have been around for a very long time. A statue made in the eleventh century shows the Viking God Freyr wearing a hat with a pompom on it.
In Viking times knitting had not yet been invented so woolly hats would have been made using an older technique called ‘nalbinding’. The stitches would probably have been worked in tube shape and then drawn together to close the top. The crafter might then have wanted to add something decorative to cover the seam or the knot at the top. This may have been where pompoms came in.
But pompoms are not just decorative – they can be useful too. Imagine you live in a very cold climate and you wear thick leather or woollen gloves to keep your hands warm. You probably wear a thick woolly hat to keep your head warm too. But as you do exercise or work, your body warms up and you don’t want to overheat, so you need to be able to remove your hat, but your thick gloves prevent you from gripping it. A big fluffy ball on the top of your hat would allow you to pull it off without having to take the time to unlace and remove your leather gloves.
And of course humans love to make things beautiful – we add decorations to things even if there is no functional reason for them. There is something about a soft fluffy ball of wool that makes us feel a little bit cosier – especially on a cold day. This is a feeling we share with our ancestors, possibly even further back than the Vikings – for thousands of years, people have made and worn pompoms, just because we like them!
Perhaps you would like to have a go at making a pompom and think about all the people around the world who like to make them too.