A wimple is a garment which is worn over the head and ears and around the chin. Many people associate wimples with very traditional orders of nuns, who continue to wear this garment along with full habits. Wimples were also very popular among women in the Middle Ages; they were worn from around 1200 to 1400 by married women of all classes, although their arrangement and ornateness varied immensely. In modern times, wimples are usually only seen on traditionalist nuns and historical re-enactors.
The style of the wimple appears to be related to the traditional modest dress worn by Muslim women. Christian crusaders brought back numerous cultural traditions with them, including the concept of covering the hair and face of devout women. European wimples were different from the traditional Muslim hijab in a number of ways, however, although the basic principle of maintaining modesty remained the same.
A basic wimple is simply made by wrapping white fabric around the chin, hair, and ears, and then draping the remaining fabric in an attractive way. Many medieval women wore custom-fitted wimples which had been sewed with folds and pleats to make them easier to don. Traditionally, this headgear has always been white, although the quality of the fabric varied immensely, and more wealthy women actually supported elaborate wimples with frames to give them even more texture.
Married women were the traditional group to wear the wimple, as unmarried women were allowed to wear their hair unbound and uncovered. The ritual of donning the wimple after marriage was very important in some European cultures, since it marked a major step in the passage to adulthood. Less wealthy women made do with a more simple head cloth or scarf which covered the hair and pulled it back from the face to make working more comfortable, while the elaborate wimples of wealthy women could look like miniature architectural projects.
Over time, the style of the wimple began to evolve. Italian women were the first to use more gauzy fabrics for their wimples, to show off their elaborately styled hair, and the garment started to move back on the head, and to be replaced with hats and other fashions. You can see numerous historical examples of wimples in medieval paintings, if you are interested in seeing the rich variety of wimple styles. If you are making a wimple for a project, many web sites have patterns for Medieval garments, including wimples; try searching for Medieval sewing patterns in your favorite search engine.