Sunday 29 April 2012

Irons and Ironing

I was doing the ironing this morning, following  advice my mother gave me more than forty years ago that is, when ironing a garment with beads turn inside out and iron on a towel, and it reminded me of the wonderful ironing room in Petronella Dunois’s dolls house in the Rijksmuseum, which I must have seen twenty years ago. For those who don’t know the late seventeenth century dolls’ houses in the Rijksmuseum, these are not children’s toys but adults toys. There are three survivals, the earliest dates from c.1675 and the latest from about 1710, two are in the Rijksmuseum and one in Utrecht and they show life in miniature down to the smallest detail.  

As far as ironing is concerned all the dolls’ houses have linen rooms complete with ironing tables, and small box irons of brass with wooden handles and their own stands, the whole thing being only 3.5 cm high.  These are not sad irons, that is solid irons, or slug irons where a heated solid slug of iron is inserted into the iron, but box irons that are hollow and designed to hold charcoal as the heating element.  Two of the houses also have linen presses.

The house of Petronella Oortman c. 1710  can be seen on the web at

The house of Petronella Dunois c. 1675 is at

I’ve had problems trying to find a clear image of the house in the Utrecht Museum, but the linen room can be seen here

Washing clothes, doing the laundry and ironing is such a basic occupation, and yet we know very little about it in the 17th century. Queen Elizabeth had a laundress who was paid for washing and starching, mainly linens, but other clothes were brushed, beaten and aired, in fact she had a “Brusher of our robes.” There is mention of pressing of cloths, but not ironing, though linen smoothers go back to Viking days.  Lord Rochester, it’s not something I’d normally associated him with, is one of the first to mention things being ironed, as is Cecilia Fiennes.  So I think one can assume that ironing is something that is coming in during the seventeenth century.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Fans of the 16th and 17th centuries

Geeraerts. Lady Lister, 1621
Although fans were known from antiquity, and were used in the middle ages in religious ceremonies to keep flies away from the communion, it is only in the sixteenth century that they start to be a fashionable accessory. Fans come in two types, fixed and folding. The folding fan does not appear in Europe until relatively late apparently appearing sometime in the mid 16th century. According to Anne Houget (2012) they were brought from Japan to Europe by the Portuguese around 1540.  During the 16th and 17th centuries fans of both types can be seen in portraits. Hollar’s twenty six plates of Englishwomen, the Ornatus Muliebris of 1640, has four of the figures carrying fans, two fixed and two folding, plus one lady who appears to be carrying a fixed fan with a looking glass in the handle.  The folding fan gradually took over from the fixed fan until, at the end of the 17th century, the fixed fan had almost completely disappeared.  (Alexander, 2002) (Hart, 1998) Links to online examples appear throughout this article.

The earlier fixed fans either consisted of a solid fan on a handle, or of a handle into which feathers, or something similar, could be inserted. For example the feather fan in this 1621 portrait of Lady Lister by Marcus Geeraerts  (love the see through apron too), shows clearly the fan handle with the feathers inserted, hanging from her girdle. Very few of these handles still exist, the Victoria and Albert Museum has a Venetian fan handle of about 1550 of brass gilt in an openwork design. There are several portraits of Queen Elizabeth carrying this type of fan, the handle richly jewelled, and there are many in the Stowe inventory of her clothing. One of the most elaborate in her collection was “firste one fanne of white feathers with a handle of golde garnished with fower faire diamonds twoe faire rubies, twoe small diamonds and seaven rocke rubies and one emerode”; it was kept in a case of black velvet. White were not the only feathers used, Elizabeth also had fans of black feathers, carnation, white and orange feathers, one described as having painted feathers, and one of the “feathers of the Birde of Paradise and other colored feathers”. (Arnold, 1988)

These feather fans were status symbols, and John Aubrey at the end of the century wrote of them. “The Gentlewoman then had prodigious Fannes, as is to be seen in the old pictures, like that instrument which is used to drive feathers: it had a handle of at least half a yard long; with these the daughters were corrected oftentimes. Sir Edward Coke, Lord Chief Justice, rode the circuit with just such a fan; Mr Dugdale sawe it, who told me of it. The Earl of Manchester used also a fan. But fathers and mothers slash'd their daughters in the time of that besome discipline when they were perfect women.” Interestingly by the middle of the 17th century Helene Alexander considers that the fixed fan was becoming associated more with the bourgeoisie, while the folding fan was associated with upper classes.

Larkin, Diane Cecil, 1614
Folding fans come in two types, those where the sticks themselves form the fan, these are known as brise fans, and those where a fan leaf is attached to the sticks. Where there is a fan leaf attached to the sticks, it can be made from vellum, chicken skin,or paper, anything that can be decorated, folded and attached to the sticks. The sticks themselves, including the outmost sticks, which are known as guards because the protect the fan leaf when the fan is shut, can be made from ivory, wood, or any other material that can be carved, painted or otherwise decorated.

The earliest fan in the V&A collection is a brise fan dating from the 1620s. I am amazed it has survived as it is described as “cut straw applied to silk covered cardboard, reinforced with metal rods, decorated with gold paper and silk.”  

Sometimes the leaf can be cut (decoupe) in various ways. Diane Cecil, painted in 1614 by William Larkin, is carrying a folding fan which may well be decoupe fan, the portrait is in the Suffolk Collection at Kenwood House. There is a superb example of a decoupe fan dating from 1590-1600 in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, it looks like lace, but is actually cut skin. 

The mica fan of about 1665 in the Fitzwilliam Museum is one of only four of this type to survive. [6th July 20 there are problems with the Fitzwilliam website so I have put a detail from this fan below ] Three bands of mica panels have been painted with figures and mounted on a paper fan leaf. The leaf has then been mounted on ivory sticks. Another of these fans, this one possibly Dutch, is in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, but most of its mica inserts are missing. 

Leaves of fans sometimes survive unmounted, for example there is a leaf in the Museum of London that dates from 1686 and depicts the Lord Mayor of London’s procession.

By the late 17th century folding fans appear to have taken over almost completely. In France in1678 a guild, the Association de Eventaillistes, had been formed producing fans similar to this French example of c.1670-1680 in the V&A collection . The reverse of the fan often had a different picture to that the front, as in the fan of c.1700 in the Fitzwilliam Museum, [6th July 20 there are problems with the Fitzwilliam website] which depicts the Rape of the Sabine women, from a painting by Pietro da Cortona of between 1626 and 1631 on one side, and a mixture of flowers and birds and putti on the other.

Fans are shown being sold in the wonderful 1636 etching by Abraham Bosse of shops in the La Galerie du Palais in Paris. The rear centre shows folding fans displayed opened out, while in the centre front a gentleman displays a fan to a lady.

Alexander, Helene. 2002. The fan museum. London : Third Millenium, 2002.

Arnold, Janet. 1988. Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe unlock'd. Leeds : Maney, 1988.

Hart, Avril and Taylor, Emma. 1998. Fans. London : Victoria & Albert Museum, 1998.

Hoguet, Anne. 2012 Histoire de l'éventail. Online:

Sunday 22 April 2012

Clothing for Grand Funerals

Before I went off on holiday my blog on Black had lead to a discussion that ended up with Dave Evans talking about the Lant Roll. For those who do not know the Lant Roll was a series of drawings by Thomas Lant, the Winsor herald of arms. The drawings were of over 200 figures who took part in the funeral of Sir Philip Sidney in 1587.

The giving of clothing for the funeral, as mourning wear, has a long history. Many think now of mourning wear in Victorian terms as something worn by the immediate family for a specific period of time, but in the Early Modern Period it had a far wider meaning. The act of giving clothing went down the social scale of those with some money, as Jane Malcolm Davis and Ninya Mikhaila discussed in the paper they gave at the 2010 Costume Society Conference, “To ten poor women a gown.”  

The period from about 1550 to 1650 was the height of the truly grand funeral. Having too many die close together could bankrupt you.  When the 3rd Earl of Rutland died in 1587 he was succeeded by his brother, who was informed, “your debt to the woollen draper for the funeral black of my late Lord is £898 8s 6d” (probably a quarter of a million in current terms). When he himself died three months later his son was only twelve and the executors were advised that, “Blackes should be provided for the widow, her sons and daughters and also for the gentlemen and yeomen that are ordinarily in the house, but there should be no charge for the retainers.”

What was provided for men was a mourning gown, or later a cloak, and a hood, not really normal clothing. Most ECW people will know the story of Hutchinson at Ireton’s funeral. Cromwell did not send him an invitation to the funeral, or provide mourning, so Hutchinson turned up in his “scarlet cloak, very richly laced.” The amount of fabric provided depended on one’s rank. At Prince Henry’s funeral in 1612 the ambassadors were allowed nine yards of black. The allowances for mourning at state funerals were laid down, ranging from 16 yards for a duke down to 5 yards for a knight. The scale of the provision could be tremendous; in 1624 the Duke of Richmond’s funeral had “one thousand men in mourning.”

By the middle of the seventeenth century these great funerals were disappearing. Cromwell’s funeral in 1658 cost £60,000, and the army were present not in black, but in “new red coats and black buttons with their ensigns wrapt in cypress.” At the funeral of the Earl of Essex in 1646 (illustration of part of the funeral procession from the Thomason tracts) there were a few mourning gowns and hoods, but mostly the mourners were wearing cloaks and hoods. After the restoration in 1660, apart from state funerals, the nobility no longer went in for the grand funeral. So John Gibbon, one of the heralds, wrote that in eleven years he had attended only five such funerals.

Much of the above information has come from Phillis Cunnington and Catherine Lucas’s excellent and so far unsurpassed work Costume for Births, Marriages and Deaths. (London: Black, 1972)

Friday 6 April 2012

Black: re-enactment myths and realities

How many times on a living history have you heard someone say to a member of the public, something to the effect that, black is a very expensive dye and only the rich wear it, or that black is a difficult and corrosive dye and therefore the fabric rots away, which is why it is an expensive colour. To a certain extent these comments have a kernel of truth in them, but I want to examine whether re-enactors have exaggerated these effects.

Black is difficult to produce

Black was a difficult colour to produce well, so a true black is difficult, but brownish or blueish blacks are easier. Country dying used alder bark or gallnuts, but dying black commercially involved overdying, and mordanting with iron. When a good viable dye for black, logwood, did appear from the Americas in the late 16th century, the immediate reaction was to ban it, to protect dyes already in use. There was a statue of 1581 which rather unfairly declared logwood to be “false and deceitful” (Munro, 2007). The act was supposedly in force until 1662, but in actual fact the dyestuff appears frequently in the import lists for London, Bristol and Southampton, so was obviously coming into the country in some amounts.

Black rots the fabric.

Dyes that use iron mordants (copperas) have a long term problem in that iron can rot the fabric and weaken the fibres, particularly of animal based materials, such as wool. This effect can be seen very clearly in existing blackwork embroideries, where in many cases the embroidery has rotted away leaving only the drawn lines of the design. However this is not something that happens immediately, or indeed even in the life time of the person who did the work. An analysis of a late fifteenth century tapestry for example, showed that many of the black threads had been replaced in the eighteenth century. Black dyes are incredibly complex and difficult to analyse. The earlier dye in the tapestry was tannin based, extracted from gallnuts, alder bark or sumac, whereas the later eighteenth century dye involved complex overdying using a indigo dye bath, with cochineal, madder and possibly weld, after which gallo-tannins also appear to have been added (OK I’m probably getting too technical here). (Degano, 2011)

Only the rich wear it

Huggett’s (1999) analysis of Elizabeth rural wills includes no gentry wills, those involved are yeomen, husbandmen, tradesmen, even servants and labourers, and their widows. Interestingly on the occasions where colour is mentioned in the wills the commonest colour for men’s wear is black, followed by blue, and for women red, frequently petticoats, followed by black for gowns and kirtles.

Black fabric is more expensive.

Some dyes are so expensive that they affect the cost of the material. In the Middle Ages this was true of scarlets produced with kermes, dyed in grain as it was often called. By the end of the Middle Ages the term scarlet sometimes means not the colour, but a better quality of fabric, and so you get references to black scarlets. (Munro, 1983) This is not true of black dyed materials. An analysis by Strong (1980) of Charles I’s clothes shows of 62 suits purchased 10 were of black, and a further 8 were in shades of grey ranging from dove to lead, but the prices of these clothes appear to be no different from those of other colours.  The bulk of his suits range from around £40 to £70 and, with one exception, the black suits fit well within this range being from £44 to £54. There are exceptions and these are the suits where Edmund Harrison is also paid for embroidery. Even here the £146 paid for a suit of black taffeta embroidered with gold and silver, is exceeded by £155 for a cinnamon coloured suit and £226 for a watchet (bluey-green) suit.


Yes a true black could be difficult to obtain, but lesser blacks were common, and were worn by all classes of society. Black cloth was no more expensive than any other colour, and although the fabric might rot, it would not do so in your lifetime.

Degano, I. et al. 2011. Historical and archaeological textiles: an insight on degradation products of wools and silk yarns. Journal of Chromatography A. 2011, Vol. 1218.

Huggett, Jane. 1999. Rural costume in Elizabethan Essex: a study based on the evidence from wills. Costume. 1999, Vol. 33.

Munro, John. 2007. Early modern techniques of dyeing black: logwood. Medieval clothing and textiles. 2007, Vol. 3.

—. 1983. Medieval scarlets and the economics of satorial splendour. Harte, N. and Ponting, K (eds). Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe. Essays in Memory of Professor E.M. Carus Wilson. London : Ashgate, 1983.

Strong, Roy. 1980. Charles I's clothes for the years 1633-1635. Costume. 1980, Vol. 14.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

The costume collection Hüpsch in the Hessian State Museum in Darmstadt

Die Kostümsammlung Hüpsch im Hessischen Landesmuseum Darmstadt Bestandskatalog der Männer- und Frauenkleidung Studien zu Material, Technik und Geschichte der
Bekleidung im 17. Jahrhundert
Johannes Pietsch

James Biddlecombe was kind enough to put a link 
to this PhD thesis by Johannes Pietsch, on the 16th and 17th century clothing page on Facebook. For those fazed by the fact that it is in German I give a quick outline below.

The thesis is a detailed examination of 23 garments in the collection of the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt and is now available full text online. The garments were collected by Baron Hüpsch (1730-1805), and are described as bourgeois, and of German, specifically Cologne, origin, with one exception, a 1660s man’s doublet suspected of being English.

The garments are all upper body wear and 18 date from the 17th century (between c.1610 and c.1675), with 5 from the 18th century. All five of the eighteenth century garments are for women, as are nine of the seventeenth century items, including one which is a fragment of either a boned bodice or stays, the date of which is debatable. The remaining nine garments are all men’s doublets, although two are described as boy’s wear.

In each case there are patterns taken from the garments illustrating the cut, and also the placing of linings and interlinings. There are line drawings of the patterns on the fabrics, and even some diagrams of the construction of laces and of some of the sewing techniques used. At the end there are photographs, frequently in colour, of the garments themselves, and close ups of the construction and some details.

The women’s bodices from the 1620s and 1630s have the long front that are very Germanic or Eastern European in style, similar to that seen in Ruben’s self portrait of himself and his first wife painted in 1609.

List of the garments covered is:-
1. Man’s doublet 1610-1620
2. Man’s doublet 1610-1620
3. Woman’s bodice 1615-1625
4. Woman’s bodice 1625
5. Woman’s bodice 1627-1635
6. Woman’s bodice 1627-1635
7. Woman’s bodice 1630-1635
8. Woman’s bodice 1630-1635
9. Fragment of boning from bodice or stays, could be 1630-1635 altered later in 17th or 18th Century
10. Upper part of a woman’s gown. 1630-1635
11. Man’s doublet 1630-1635
12. Man’s doublet 1630-1635
13 Boy’s coat 1635-1645
14. Man’s coat 1640-1645
15. Man’s doublet, possibly English 1660-1665
16 Man’s doublet 1665-1670
17. Boy’s doublet 1665-1675
18. Upper part of a woman’s gown 1660-1665
19. Woman’s jacket 1750-1770
20. Upper part of a woman’s gown 1770-1780
21. Woman’s spencer 1790-1795
22. Upper part of a woman’s gown (theatrical) 1770-1785
23. Upper part of a woman’s gown (theatrical) 1775-1790