Thursday 20 December 2012

Christmas, his masque

Since it is Christmas I thought something seasonal was called for. In December 1616 a short piece, written by Ben Jonson and called Christmas his masque, was performed at court. The text does not appear to have been published until the second volume of Jonson’s works was produced in 1640/1. The piece is highly political. In a speech earlier in 1616 King James I had called for a proper celebration of Christmas. Marcus (1986) considers the refusal of Londoners to keep such a proper Christmas to be an “open defiance of authority.”

Christmas, his masque is unusual in that it is too short to be a full masque, the characters are not dressed in masque costume such as that designed by Inigo Jones, but would appear, from the costume described in the text, to be supposedly London apprentices and shopkeepers, the very people James had demanded celebrate Christmas. In actuality of course the piece was performed by actors.

James I - detail from a portrait by de Critz,
wearing a high crowned hat with a brooch
Christmas himself is shown very differently from the modern personification being, “attir'd in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, (but probably not as ornate as that worn by James I)  a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white Shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse.” He has ten children with him, eight sons and two daughters, being personifications of seasonal attributes, and the clothing of each is described. Each child is accompanied by a servant, but while what the servants are carrying, the attributes of the personification, are described, their clothes are not.

The children are:-

Misrule, who is, “In a velvet Cap with a Sprig, a short Cloake, great yellow Ruffe like a Reveller.” Yellow starch for ruffs was very popular, but note that this is 1616, the same year as the trial of Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset who was accused of murdering her husband with the aid of a yellow starcher, Mrs. Anne Turner. Mrs Turner was hanged in her yellow ruff on the 16th November 1616, afterwards James banned yellow starch.(Ribeiro 1986)

Carol wears, “A long tawny Coat, with a red Cap”

Mince pie is a female being dressed, “Like a fine Cookes Wife, drest neat.”

Gambol, unsurprisingly is “Like a Tumbler, with a hoope and Bells; his Torch-bearer arm'd with a Cole-staffe, and a blinding cloth.”

Design by Inigo Jones for a masque costume
 representing a star
Post and Pair – this by the way is a card game- has “a paire-Royall of Aces in his Hat; his Garment all done over with Payres, and Purrs.”

 New Yeares Gift, alludes to the fact that gifts were usually given not at Christmas but at New Year. He wears “a blew Coat, serving-man like … his Hat full of Broaches, with a coller of Gingerbread.”

Mumming is “In a Masquing pied suite, with a Visor.”

Wassall is the second daughter, and is dressed “Like a neat Sempster, and Songster”

Offering wears “a short gowne, with a Porters staffe in his hand.”

Babie-cocke (cake) is the youngest and is “Drest like a Boy, in a fine long Coat, Biggin, Bib, Muckender, and a little Dagger.” So he is dressed like an unbreeched boy.  His servant carries the Christmas cake with the traditional bean and pea.

The children have been lead in byCupid, who is attir'd in a flat Cap, and a Prentises Coat, with wings at his shoulders.” Later in the masque he is described as a “Prentise in Love-lane with a Bugle-maker, that makes of your Bobs, and Bird-bolts for Ladies.” Cupid is traditionally depicted with a bow and arrow, bobs and bird-bolts are types of arrows, and a horn.  Cupid’s mother Venus also appears in the masque, described as “a deafe Tire-woman.”

Jonson, Ben, The works of Benjamin Jonson, the second volume. London: Richard Meighen, 1640.

Marcus, Leah S. The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Ribeiro, Aileen. Dress and morality. London: Batsford, 1986.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Knitted gloves

Top of a nalbinded sock date c.300-500 AD - Egyptian

When looking at early modern period gloves the tendency is to look at the wonderful surviving leather gloves decorated with embroidery in gold, silver and silk threads, but knitted gloves were also around at the time. Knitting is a late comer to the textile crafts, with true knitting starting somewhere around the 10th or 11th centuries in the Middle East.(Rutt 1987)(Turnau 1991)  Items dated earlier than this are usually, on closer inspection, nalbinding, which looks like a twisted knit stitch, see the close ups of a c.300-500AD nalbinded sock and a 16th century knitted silk glove and see if you can see the difference. One point in nalbinding favour is that, although it is difficult to do, it does not unravel as knitting does.

Close up of 16th century knitted silk glove
The earliest surviving knitted gloves in Europe are fragmentary, from burials, and the earliest date probably from the late 13th century.(Cardon 1997)(Lyffland 2005) (Rowe 1969). Moving into the 16th century we have survivals of silk knitted bishops’ gloves such as those belonging to New College, Oxford, and associated with William Warham (c. 1450–1532). Bishop Nicholaus Shimer’s gloves of c.1510 also survive. The V&A museum have two possibly Spanish gloves from this century both knitted in red silk with patterns in yellow silk, and some silver. One has a design incorporating crosses, hearts and croziers, and is knitted at 23 stitches and 20 rows to the inch. (Carbonell 2007) Carbonell’s article is available online here. The other pair in the V&A has the IHS in a medallion on the back of the hand. There are several similar liturgical gloves in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Glovers of London.
Silk knitted gloves were also worn by the gentry, the best known example is probably the Sture glove which belonged to Sten Svantesson Sture, who died aged 25 in 1565, and whose clothes were placed in Uppsala Cathedral, Sweden. The glove is beige and has patterns and lines of red, green, yellow and brown, there are three rings in gold around the bottom of the fingers and the name Frevchen Sophia knitted into the palm. It was attached to his hat band, so it was presumably being worn as a favour.  The Glovers’ Collection has a two pair of ladies elbow length Italian knitted gloves from the second half of the 17th century. One is in pink with bands of florets in silver and gold around the arm, and tendrils extending up the fingers. The other is purple and has stylised animals and flowers.

Knitting in the round
The evidence for working class gloves is less extensive, as the wool from which they were made does not survive as well. The Museum of London has a 16th century child’s woollen mitten, found at Finsbury, in a beige/light brown colour with a simple brown/black pattern around the wrist. From the end of the seventeenth century we have a pair of gloves found in a burial at Gunnister in the Shetland Islands. The original publication of the finds by Henshall (1951-2)  can be found here, but recently the Shetland Museum has undertaken a reconstruction of the complete set of clothes and their leaflet on this can be found here. The gloves are worked in two ply wool at 17 stitches to the inch, and like all the gloves discussed so far are worked in the round. The cuff has a pattern of bands produced by using garter stitch (one round plain knit, one round purl), stocking stitch (all plain knit) and all purl rounds. The backs of the hands have three arrows worked in purl on the stocking stitch. Patterns have been created by various people for reconstructing these gloves just google -Gunnister gloves pattern - and you will find several. If you are an experienced knitted you may be able to work it out from the description in Henshall. The excavations at Copenhagen have also produced a selection of knitted gloves dating from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Lise Warburg (1989) decribes some of these gloves in detail. The “dandy’s” gloves, found in a moat that was filled in before 1668, is the one with five rows of fringe knitted into the border, and is 18 inches long, elbow length. There are also women’s gloves; one dating to the 1620s has a tight wrist section, but a wide cuff, while another slightly later in date has a cuff covered in sewn on fringe, and Warburg has a pattern created by Ingid Plum based on this glove.

Carbonell, Silvia. “Guantes episcopales con mensaje :Episcopal gloves with a message.” Datatextil, December 2007.
Cardon, Dominique. “French liturgical gloves (unpublished paper).” Unravelling the Evidence: Joint meeting of the Early Knitting History Group, and the Medieval Dress and Textile Society , 1997.

Henshall, A. and Maxwell, S. “Clothing and other articles from a late 17th century grave at Gunnister, Shetland.” Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1951-2.

Lyffland, Anneke. “A study of a 13th century votic knit fragment.” 2005.
Rowe, Margaret. “Fragments from the tomb of an unknown bishop of Sant Denis, Paris.” Bulletin of the Needle and Bobbin Club, 1969: 27-33.

Rutt, R. A history of handknitting. London: Batsford, 1987.
Turnau, Irena. History of Knitting Before Mass Production . Warsaw: Akcent, 1991.

Warburg, Lise. Knitted gloves from 17th century Copenhagen. Danish Handcraft Guild, 1989.

Sunday 18 November 2012

West of England Costume Society meeting, November 2012

Next year WECS is 40 so in celebration the society has decided to do a second round of something it did for its 25th. Enter Patterns of Fashion II. The morning meeting was to get together volunteers and divide into 4 (or 5) groups. Each group is going to recreate a garment from Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion. The four garments chosen are:

c.1931-2 Fuschia pink silk chiffon in the Museum of Fashion Bath.

c.1798-1805 Morning dress in white cotton with a small purple pattern in Salisbury Museum
(to go with this they are planning to do a c1800 military uniform)

c 1708-9 sap green brocaded silk mantua in Shrewsbury Museum

1562 white satin gown and crimson body of Eleanora di Toledo in the Pitti Palace Florence

My group is the Eleanora and two lucky people (not me) are going to Florence to have a look at the original. We have indicated our skills, plain sewing, pattern cutting, embroidery, materials sourcing, etc. We have a goldwork expert who is teaching others how to do the goldwork embroidery, and we have less than a year so it is going to be busy.

In the afternoon we had a talk by Chris Seals of Farthingales, seen above in his hussar outfit. He makes Napoleonic period military costume, examples of which can also be seen here.

Monday 12 November 2012

Exhibition review – The Lost Prince, Henry 1594-1612

The book and other related items are available from the
National Portrait Gallery Shop
I recently visited the National Portrait Gallery Exhibition, The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart (it finishes on the 13th January 2013). For those who cannot get to see the exhibition there is an excellent accompanying book and catalogue by the curator Catherine MacLeod.

For those who are uncertain who this was, Henry Prince of Wales was the elder son of King James VI of Scotland and I of England, and his wife Anne of Denmark. As the exhibition says when James succeeded Elizabeth in 1603 it was the first time in two generations that England had had a “normal” family consisting of the King and Queen and their three children, Henry, Elizabeth and Charles, though the last was considered so sickly he was left behind in Scotland. The exhibition is an assessment of the life of Henry, who died at the age of 18 some 400 years ago this month.
The exhibition is divided into six sections with a wealth of paintings, some of which have not been seen in public before. I have included links to copies of a few of the paintings that are in the exhibition.

The first section deals with the family and includes paintings by John de Critz and Robert Peake who (from 1607 until Peake’s death in 1619) were jointly Serjeant-Painter to James. Here are paintings of all the members of the family, the King and Queen, by de Critz and miniatures of them by Hilliard and Oliver, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Charles by Peake, and several of Henry himself including one of him in his garter robes by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. The most poignant item however is a letter from the nine year old Henry to his mother, assuring her he is in good health.

The second section is about the prince in his own household, which was established at the Palace of Nonsuch. There are paintings of the members of the circle who surrounded the Prince at Nonsuch, and a well known portrait of Henry with a young Earl of Essex (who later commanded the Parlimentary army against his brother King Charles in the Civil War. There has been much argument, based on the image I have linked to, as to whether the collars have a blue starch. The collars on the painting, as seen in the gallery, are white with a very slight caste of green from the doublets underneath. It is an object lesson in not taking the colours that appear in online sources as true.

 The third section is on festivals, masques and tournaments and includes several sketches for masque costume, as well as a very strange portrait of Henry leading Old Father Time by the forelock, two sets of Henry’s armour and several miniatures of Henry in armour.

The fourth section is on Henry’s collecting, and made me wonder if Henry’s collection of paintings and renaissance bronzes influenced his brother’s collecting habit, which has been explored in Jerry Brotton’s book The sale of the late king’s goods.

Henry did not leave the UK, but the fifth section explores his links to the wider world, and his interest in ships. The painting by Adam Willaerts of the Embarkation of the Elector Palatine 1613 is interesting for its depiction of ordinary people standing on the foreshore in the bottom right hand corner. The section also has portraits of his extended family, his uncle Christian IV of Denmark, his brother in law to be Frederick Elector Palatine, his godfather Henri IV of France, and Maurice of Nassau.

The final section deals with Henry’s death on the 6th November 1612, from an illness now recognised to have been typhus. It includes post mortem notes, and a well known portrait of Queen Anne in mourning, but most poignant are the scant remains of the wooden effigy of Henry that was created and dressed in his robes as Prince of Wales and placed on his hearse.

One is inclined to ask what if Henry hadn’t died? What if Charles hadn’t succeeded James I as Charles I? Would we still have had a Civil War? it is a very good exhibition, and if you can’t get to it the book is excellent.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Jenny Tirimani – On late 15th and early 16th century linen smock and shirts, evolutions in cut.

This is the last in my series of notes from talks given at:  Well worn weeds: the MEDATS (Medieval Dress and Textile Society) meeting at the British Museum 27th October 2012. Jenny made reference to a lot of illustrations and where I can I have created links to the examples she used. As before any misinterpretations and misspellings are my own. I don’t do shorthand and I don’t write fast enough.

Jenny started by talking about women’s necklines in the early 16th century, and particularly the V in the back of some illustrations. She examined the wide square front neckline with a V back in Holbein’s drawing which shows both, and she speculated on how the smock underneath it may have been made. The construction is problematic because you don’t want the edge on the bias. She showed (and I haven’t been able to work out which painting it was) a c1500 crucifixion scene, so it may have been this one also showing the v back. In another painting, which she said was from a 15th century triptych in Metropolitan Museum of Art, the V neck back of the green dress shows her smock with a centre back seam, indicating that perhaps the edges of the V were on the straight and the seam was on the bias.

Jenny then looked at the extant c.1525 gown of Maria of Hapsburg, in Budapest. Jenny had a pattern from this, I don’t know who made it, which shows the smock back and front are each formed from 3 trapezoids, which of course you could top and tail when cutting to minimise fabric waste. The smock has incredibly fine gathers at neck and is embroidered over the gathers.

Jenny then looked at two Durer self portraits both showing very tight pleating. The better known of the two is probably this one, and here you can see that the top several inches are fine gathers, and at the very top they are confined by a band of braid. The lesser known one is very similar at the top, though the fine gathers do not go down as far.  Jenny looked at the V&A smock in Cut my Cote (1), which has no shoulder seam, and compared it to one in PoF4 (2) which has a shoulder seam. She posed the question, is this a smock or square necked shirt?

Jenny then showed a Portrait of a Young Man by Holbein c. 1520 National Gallery of Art Washington, pointing out that what we see is not a frill, just top of shirt gathered. Here we have perhaps the early origins of the neck and wrist ruffs.

Jan van Leiden 1536 by Aldegraver
Higher necked shirts were contemporary with lower necked shirts for quite a while. A discussion between Jenny and Jane Bridgeman at the end narrowed the introduction of the higher necked shirt into Italy to German influences around 1515. Jenny then showed a high neck shirt in a 1525 painting by Melzi showing that the neckline has a side opening.

The Jan van Leiden portrait of 1536 by H Aldegrever, shows an even higher necked shirt with a side opening, this time with 3 buttons and loops, and what might be a separate neckband.

Jenny then looked at the Platt Hall shirt, that was the subject of an article by Santina Levy (3), the re-examination of this shirt had dated it to c.1520, with alterations and the addition of seventeenth century lace having been made in the nineteenth century. The neckline of the Platt Hall shirt, is gathered and stitches worked over to produce a chevron design, this cannot be seen in the Platt Hall image of the shirt as it is under the later collar.

This type of chevron design appears again in an Aragon family shirt c1530-50 kept with the Aragon family graves at the Church of San Domenico Maggiore, Naples. There was some conjecture as to whether this could be Italian smocking, but because neck is lined you can’t see the stitching on the inside. Jenny also showed the portrait of a man by Moretto da Brescia 1526, if you use the zoom provided you will see the work around the neckline.

Jenny finished by discussing a reconstruction she is working on of a 1530 illustration, no 102 on page 96, in the Trachtenbuch of Matthaus Schwarz of Augsburg, the whole of the book is available from the hyperlink.  The shirt has really sloped shoulders, and the reconstruction has 3 and a half yards of fabric going into the neck.

1. Burnham, D. Cut my cote. Ontario : Royal Ontario Museum, 1973.

2. Arnold, J. Patterns of Fashion 4 : the cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women . London : Macmillan, 2008.

3. Levey, S. The story of a shirt: a cautionary tale with an unexpected ending. Costume. 2010, Vol. 44.

Monday 29 October 2012

Susan North - The necessity of clean linen

Susan started by saying that there is a profound insistence that the past was dirty, and that one needs to throw out modern judgmental comments. She says she traced some of this back to the Cunningtons. She gave a quote from the Cunningtons, which I didn’t write down, but may well have been this one “Bodily cleanliness was scarcely thought important until less that 200 years ago.” (History of Underclothes, 1951, p15). Susan talked about the visible qualities of linen, you knew your linen was clean because it was white, and it smelt sweet, and anything that smelt clean (as opposed to perfumed) therefore was clean.

Susan talked a lot about references to the necessity of clean linen in conduct literature, and had quotes from John Russell’s Boke of nuture (1460), Erasmus on the Education of Children (1530), The mirror of good manners of Dominicus Mancinus (fl. 1478-1491), French schoole maister by Claudius Hollyband (1573), George Whetstone’s Heptameron of Civil Discourses (1582), and Giovanni della Casa’s Il Galateo (1558). Finally she had some wonderful quotes from Thomas Reynalde’s The birth of mankind (1560), I particularly liked the idea of the “rank savour of the armhole.”

She talked about ideas on clothing and the transmission of the plague, commenting on the 14th century Moorish doctor Ibn Khatimah who was convinced that linens could transmit the plague. Advice on the plague also appeared in England, and in 1578 (reissued 1592) it was set down in Advise set down upon Her Majesties express commandment.

There was a discussion at the end about soap making. That three types of soap were imported and provided to laundries at the time of the Black Book of Edward IV. That there was soap making in London in the early 16th century. And that bucking using lye was common.

These are my notes on the talk given at:  Well worn weeds: underclothes, linens and vegetable fibres worn next to the body. The MEDATS (Medieval Dress and Textile Society) meeting at the British Museum 27th October 2012.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Beatrix Nutz – All indecent!: 15th century linen underwear from Lengberg castle, East Tyrol, Austria (Updated)

I said when I first published this that it was taken from my notes of Beatrix Nutz talk. Beatrix has been kind enough to feed back to me that there were some things wrong with my comments, and therefore I have altered them so that, hopefully, you now have the correct information.

We have all seen the newspaper reports about these finds, for example by Hilary Davidson (of the Museum of London) in the Guardian, and perhaps read the article by Beatrix in BBC History, and certainly they have created a lot of discussions on various web groups.

Beatrix started by talking about the castle itself. Between 1480 and 1507 it was owned by Virgil von Graben, who decided to extend the castle by adding a second floor. The room on the second floor, under whose floorboards the finds were found, is in the same wing as the chapel which was consecrated on the 13th October 1485, so presumably the work was finished by then. The room, on the first floor, was vaulted so that putting a flat floor above it created considerable voids which were then filled with this mainly organic material. Beatrix speculated that because they were adding a new floor they may just have dumped everything that was in the attics in there.

The finds consisted of 2,700 single fragments of linen and to a lesser extent wool. These included fragments representing 17 shirts, textile buttons, linen linings from dresses, one with fragments of the blue wool outer attached, a non ferrous metal dress hook, some baby clothes, a coif, a straw hat, fragments of finger loop braiding, a complete pair of underpants and the now famous “bras.” There were also between 800 and 1,000 fragments of shoes, and 12 complete shoes.

I think partly because of the controversy many of the pieces have been carbon dated. This gave a series of dates the earliest possible date being 1390 and the latest 1590. When carbon dating each item is given a range, so one item was 1410 to 1520, and another 1440 to 1590, however we know the floor was in place by 1485 so this gives us a probable terminus ante quem.

I actually found the coif quite interesting as there has been much discussion of coifs in 17th century circles. This coif was simply a rectangle of fabric with two corners tied in a knot at the back; the knot was still in place. I experimented with this at home in the three photos below, I think I made my rectangle too long, but you get the general idea. Beatrix has now informed me that I do indeed have it too large, the original is 47cm long and about 25 cm wide. The width has had to be estimated because of the knot.

Other things Beatrix pointed out. There was a fragment of clothing with eyelet holes and along the outer edge, to stop the eyelets tearing out, a piece of braid. There was a piece of fingerloop braid, 15 cm long with the loops still at both ends, and three patterns along its length, so obviously a practice piece. The underpants were also discussed, the linen was 11-12 threads per cm, but it was also patched with three patches, two with 12-14 threads per cm and the other 18 threads per cm. Beatrix said it had also been tested for DNA to see if it had been used by a man or a woman, but unfortunately the only DNA on it was her own.

Now to the bras. Beatrix has obviously been researching the use of these as she had found several quotes which I wasn’t quick enough to take down. There was one from the 13th century Roman de la Rose, one from Henri de Mondeville’s Cyrugia of c.1306-1320, one from Eustache Deschamps (c1346-1406) Balade sur les femmes qui troussent leur tetins (ballad on women who truss their breasts) and, one I did manage to get down, from Konrad Stolle’s Chronicle of Thuringia and Erfurt of 1480, which gave the title to the paper. “..and their shirts had bags into which they put their breasts – all indecent.”

If you follow the link above to the BBC article you will find photographs of the “long line style” with eyelet holes at the side for lacing, this and the underpants also appear in photographs in Beatrix’s project notes on the University of Innsbruck site.   The BBC site also has a photograph of the bra with needlelace in the shoulder straps, and a sprang insert between the cups. The sprang was worked on  120 warp threads, and there is evidence of a least one repair.

Beatrix has an article coming out in the next issue of Archaeological Textiles Review, and is going to write her own short report on the MEDATS meeting
These are my notes on her talk which was given at :
Well worn weeds: underclothes, linens and vegetable fibres worn next to the body. The MEDATS (Medieval Dress and Textile Society) meeting at the British Museum 27th October 2012.
Many thanks again to Beatrix for being kind enough to correct my errors



Jane Bridgeman – Machiavelli’s Linens: some linens in 15th century Florence

Ghirlandaio - Lucrezia Tornabuoni
This was a talk based on a diary/account book kept by Niccolo Machiavelli’s father Bernado around 1474. As well as a palazzo in Florence the Machiavellis owed a house in Sant’ Andrea in Percussina, an area which in those days grew a large amount of flax. The account book says nothing about the processing of the flax, but it does talk about it being sent away to be woven, what weight was sent, what length came back, and what it was used for. Much was woven into household linens.

The measurements in the account book are given in braccia, a Florentine braccia was equivalent to 58.4 cm. So having sent out so much weight of yarn, he might get back say 36 metres of 1.45 metre wide fabric. Some of the fabric that came back was fustian, with a linen warp and a cotton weft. Jane said that more cotton was imported than one might think, from places like Syria and Cyprus. It could take 3 months from the yard being sent to the finished, bleached cloth being returned. Though it depended on the weather the average time for bleaching was 2 months, in 1479 30 metres went for bleaching and took a month. There was a quote, not from Machiavelli but from a lady trying to make shirts to send to her sons, that “the linen for the shirts is not yet white.”

Examples given of uses:  11½ kilo weight of cloth (?) being 18½m. long, was to be used for two quilt covers, there is a reference elsewhere in the book to a quilt filled with chicken feathers. 36 metres was to be used for long linen towels, each 3 metres long. Jane commented that there is a problem with definitions here, as to what is a towel, for example 29 metres for use as a towel?  There were handkerchiefs that were a braccia (58 cm) square, and there was 4½ braccia (2.6 metres) for aprons. Some of the linen was made with a black or blue stripe, and some of this was for head coverings, though some was for napkins/towels. Jane mentioned examples in the V&A collection and this one. This type of striped linen can also be seen in illustrations of this period, for example as a table cloth in a wedding banquet, as a towel hanging over an arm in an illustration of Bathsheba bathing, and in the Melrode altarpiece, and as a sort of apron in the Birth of the Virgin Mary.  Jane did show illustration of the striped cloth being used as a headcloth, but I have not made a note of which examples she use, so here is Ghirlandaio’s Lucrezia Tornabuoni.
My notes made at a talk given by Jane Bridgeman at:  

Well worn weeds: underclothes, linens and vegetable fibres worn next to the body: The MEDATS (Medieval Dress and Textile Society) meeting at the British Museum 27th October 2012.



Well worn weeds: underclothes, linens and vegetable fibres worn next to the body.

The MEDATS (Medieval Dress and Textile Society) meeting at the British Museum 27th October 2012.

This will be a series of blog posts based on my notes taken at this fantastic study day, any misinterpretations and misspellings are my own. I don’t do shorthand and I certainly don’t write fast enough. The four blog posts will cover the four talks we were given.

Jane Bridgeman – Machiavelli’s Linens: based on the c1474 account book of Bernado Machiavelli of Florence

Beatrix Nutz – All indecent!: 15th century linen underwear from Lengberg castle, East Tyrol, Austria

Susan North - The necessity of clean linen: on attitudes to cleanliness in the 15th and 16th centuries

Jenny Tirimani – On late 15th and early 16th century linen smock and shirts, evolutions in cut. In which she looked at the origins of neck and wrist ruffs.

Friday 19 October 2012

The Early Modern Shirt (c.1530-c1660)

Left to right - A heavy weight bleached linen full shirt, a finer quality whitened linen full shirt and an unbleached half shirt 
Rather more years ago than I care to remember I produced some basic instructions in the Parliament Scoute (newsletter of the Roundhead Association of the English Civil War Society) on how to make a period shirt. This was a long time ago, well before the publication of Patterns of Fashion 4 (hereafter PoF4). (1) I based the shirt on an article by Janet Arnold, which gave a pattern for the 1585-1620 shirt in the Fashion Museum at Bath. (2) I thought I would revisit these instructions in the light of work that has been done since 1980, and add some (ok a lot of) background information.


In PoF4 there are fourteen examples of shirts dating from between the 1530s and the 1650s, the Bath shirt is item number 10. With the exception of the 1659 Swedish shirt all are either embroidered or have a lace trimming. Even the plainest shirt is upper class having been worn by an admiral when he was shot. I am not going to describe or discuss the embroidery or lace, just a simple undecorated shirt. The style of shirt described below is one that existed for centuries; the layout of the pieces required is much the same as that given for a shirt three centuries later on Plate 8 in the Workwoman’s Guide of 1838.  The instructions given below are based to a certain extent on the three later examples (1580-1620) in PoF4, which are from English collections, one in the Fashion Museum Bath, one in the Museum of London and one in Warwickshire Museum. This does not mean that we can be certain they were English, but it is more likely.

Quality (and Price)

What quality of fabric does the person you are making the shirt for want? What status of person is he portraying?  All the PoF shirts are of linen of varying qualities, one is over 100 threads to the inch, another is described as heavy and hardwearing, but the thread count is not given. The quality of the fabric was a large part of the cost. Stubbs in 1583 had much to say on the cost of shirts, “In so much as I have heard of Shirtes that have cost some ten shillynges, some twentie, some fortie, some five pound, some twentie Nobles and (which is horrible to heare) some ten pounde a peece, yea, the meanest shirt that commonly is worne of any, doest cost a crowne, or a noble at the least : and yet this is scarcestly thought fine enough for the simplest person that is.” (3) He would appear to have been exaggerating in saying the cheapest was a crown (5 shillings). A hundred years later Gregory King reckoned the average price of a shirt to be half that (2s. 6d), and textile prices had risen considerably in the interim. Spufford’s work on the accuracy of King’s prices for the late seventeenth century bears out the figure he gives. (4) A late seventeenth century publication listed over twenty five types of linens as suitable for shirts, ranging from various types of hollands for “persons of Quality and Gentry”, through osnabrucks, and dowlas for “ordinary shirts and shifts for tradespeople”, to a hempen cloth “often bought by poor people.” (5)  


All of the PoF4 shirts are white, though this does not necessarily mean all shirts are white, or even of unpatterned fabric, though most certainly where. Little is known of working class shirts. In the outfit in the Museum of London described as possibly belonging to a sailor the shirt has been described as of brown linen embossed with a pattern of diagonal lines. (6)   Both the Basque whaler found buried at Red Bay, Labrador, Canada, who is  16th century (7), and the late 17th century possibly sailor buried at Gunnister in the Shetland Islands (8) wore woollen shirts. The Basque shirt has a faint plaid pattern, which has been described as white with mid brown checks. (9)                                                                                                                           

Type of shirt

Decide whether the person you are making the shirt for wants a half shirt or a full shirt. Half shirts are usually thought to have been hip length, while full shirts could reach to the knee. Full shirts were therefore about a quarter more expensive, as shown in the Viscount Scudamore accounts for 1632, these shirts seem to have been for the servants as they are only 3d and 4d a piece, though this may well be just for the making and not include the fabric.  John Masters account for 1646 seems to indicate that a full shirt would take three ells of material, “12 ells of fine holland at 6s. an ell to make me 4 whole shirts.” (10)  

The pieces and their measurements

There are normally ten pattern pieces: 1 main body, 2 sleeves, 2 underarm gussets, 2 neck gussets, 1 neckband and 2 wristbands or cuffs. In all cases remember to make allowances for seams.

A to B    Measure your subject from where they want the shirt to come to, hip, knee, or somewhere in between, over the shoulder and back down to the same point, this gives the length of the largest piece.  The earliest English shirt and the four Italian shirts in PoF4 have a seam or seams at the shoulder, but the later English shirts are cut in one piece without a shoulder seam.

B to C    Then decide on the width of the shirt, the three English shirts are all about 36 inches (90 cm.) wide, as this is often the width of fabric it means you can work with the selvage edges which makes seaming easier, it also gives you 72 inches around the chest, so unless your subject is enormous you have plenty of material. The shirts described as boy’s are obviously much narrower being between 18 and 27 inches wide.

D to E    This is the opening for the neck. Measure from shoulder to neck, then take off from this measurement half the depth of the neck gusset. The remaining figure is how much is left uncut on either side when you cut the neck opening. For example if neck to shoulder is 8 inches and your neck gusset is 2 inches deep, then leave 7 inches uncut.

F to G    This is the centre front opening. Decide how far down you want it to come. Remember you have to be able to get your head through once the neck has been gathered onto the neckband. In the PoF4 shirts this runs from 5 inches on one of the boy’s shirts, up to twelve inches on one of the adult shirts.
Neck gusset

Neck gussets (D-H-I and E-J-K)     Most of the earlier mid 16th century shirts and some of the later ones have no neck gusset, but they do have one or two shoulder seams instead.  I once tried making a shirt without neck gussets to make it simpler. The first time he wore it my son torn the shirt out of the neckband on one side, I put in a gusset. A month later he tore it out on the other side, another gusset. It is easier to put them in to start with. Some survivals such as the 1627 shirt and one of the Italian shirts in PoF4 have tears, which would have been prevented if there had been a gusset. The gussets are triangular and about 2 to 3 inches to a side.

 L to M   Measure from shoulder to wrist over a bent elbow; this will give you the length of the sleeve.

M to N  This is the width of the sleeve. In the PoF4 shirts with straight sleeves this ranges from 15 inches to 18 inches, this means it is usually half the width of the fabric you are working with. If you feel this would be tight remember you have an underarm gusset to give you more room.

Underarm gussets (O-P-Q)            The underarm gussets are square, in PoF4 they are between 2½ and 5½ inches each side. The larger the gusset the more room there will be to move the arm.

R to S     For the neckband, measure around the neck leaving some space for comfort, and of course making allowances for seams.  Cut the neckband twice the depth you want the neckband to have. Where there is a simple neckband in PoF4 the fabric is doubled over to produce a neckband 1½ to 2 inches deep. Where the neckband also forms some kind of collar it is 4 to 6 inches deep.

T to U    Measure around the wrist and again make allowance for comfort and seaming. In the PoF4 shirts the wristbands are usually between 1 and 2 inches deep.

Making up

The making up is often done with a run and fell seam,  that is you join the two sides of the material with a running stitch, then open the seam out and fold the seam allowance so one side goes over the other. This is then felled (hemmed) to the fabric to form a flat seam with no raw edge.

The hem on the open side seam
I have found it easiest to attach the underarm gussets to the sleeve pieces, and then attach the sleeve pieces to the main body. The main body is then folded in half, and the side and sleeve seams are then completed. The side seam is usually left open from roughly hip level down to the hem, in the Bath, London and Warwick shirts this is from twelve inches below the underarm gusset. The point at which the shirt becomes open forms a weak point that often tears up, to prevent this the Bath shirt has a small strip of linen sewn across, while the Warwick shirt has a small triangular gusset. If you look at good quality modern men’s shirts you will often still find a triangular gusset at the bottom of the side seam. Remember also to leave the last two or three inches of the sleeve seam open at the bottom. The open seams on the sleeves and main body are then given narrow hems, and the body of the shirt is hemmed along the bottom.

Now work the centre front slit and neckline. The centre front slit is hemmed, again this leaves a weak point at the bottom of the slit. The 1659 shirt has a worked bar and spiders web here to stop it tearing down, the other shirts are mainly embroidered around the centre slit which gives protection against it tearing down. The neck gussets are then inserted, I find it easiest to fell and fell these seams.

Next gather the shirt neck opening evenly onto the neckband on what will be the outside of the neck. Fold the neckband in half and hem down on what will be the inside of the neckband. Decide how you wish to fasten the shirt. Ties or strings can be attached directly to the neckband as in 6 of the PoF4 examples, the two early Swedish shirts have 3 ties each side. Alternatively three of the shirts have eyelet holes for bandstrings to pass through; two of them have 2 eyelet holes on either side. Finally one of the Italian shirts has loops worked at either end of the neckband.

My son in a finished shirt - he's going to hate me for that.
Next gather the ends of the sleeves onto the wristbands and fold over as you did with the neckband. Again decide how you wish the wrist to fasten. Here there is a much wider choice of fastening among the PoF4 examples: eyelet holes, loops, ties, toggle with eyelet hole, button with loop, button with buttonhole, take your pick. Finish off your wristband with your selection.

Your shirt should now be complete.

 1. Arnold, J. Patterns of Fashion 4 : the cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women . London : Macmillan, 2008.

2. Arnold, J. Elizabethan and Jacobean Smock and Shirts. . Waffen- und Kosumkunde. 1977, Vol. 19, 89-110.

3. Stubbes, P. The anatomie of abuses. 1583.

4. Spufford, M. The cost of apparel in seventeenth century England and the accuracy of Gregory King. Economic History Review. 2000, Vol. 53, 4.

5. The merchant's warehouse laid open, or the plain dealing linnen draper. London : Sprint, 1696.

6. Halls, Zillah. Men's costume 1580-1750. London : HMSO for the London Museum, 1970.

7. Tuck, J. A. Excavations at Red Bay, Labrador - 1986. [book auth.] J.S. and Thomson, C Thomson. Archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador 1986, Annual Report No.7. s.l. : Historic Resource Division, Government of Newfoundland, 1989.

8. Henshall, A and Maxwell, S. Clothing and other articles from a late 17th century grave at Gunnister, Shetland. Proceedings of the Society of Anitquaries of Scotland. 1951-2, Vol. 86.

9. Walton, P. A 16th century basque seaman buried in "russets". Archaeological Textiles Newsletter. 1987, Vol. 5.

10. Cunnington, C. W. and P. The history of underclothes. London : Joseph, 1951.