Saturday 29 September 2012

Make do and mend – early modern style

Turned collar and cuff
Mending my partner’s shirt by turning neckband and cuffs on a shirt I made some years ago now, I thought that we don’t give much consideration to the extent of mending, of even the size of the second-hand clothing trade in the early modern period. We may not do much mending nowadays,  I have a friend who spoke of throwing away his (modern) shirt because a couple of buttons had come off,  but just think of the number of charity shops selling second-hand clothes today. As an aside a good reason for using sewn on ties for shirts rather that eyelet holes for ties to go through, is that when you turn the cuffs or collar the eyelet holes get horribly in the way.

 The main problem with early modern survivals is that they are mainly upper class, and they do not show the sort or repair and patching that went into working class clothing. I can think of only one non archaeological survival that really shows this, and that is the shirt and breeches ensemble at the Museum of London. Click on the link and there are many close ups of the items that show why in the 1970 catalogue the breeches are described as, “so extensively patched that it is difficult to determine which is the original material.” (1)

Other garments that show this sort of mending are some of those that have come out of archaeological digs. Vom Comis for example, excavating at Smeerenburg, points to seventeenth century felt hats having been cut up to make inner soles for shoes, and breeches that had been heavily patched. (2) Examination of a jacket from grave 579 at Zeeuwse Uitkijk shows that on the outside of the jacket, which was blue, are ten dark blue patches, and on the lining inside, which was brown, were five brown patches. There were a further seven patches belonging to the jacket which had come loose and their original position could not be certain.  In addition it was noted that all the seams had torn out at vulnerable points and been crudely mended with woollen thread, and there was also much darning. (3)  It is interesting that the owner endeavoured to have some form of match for the colour of his garment; re-enactors have a tendency to patch with different colours to show that there is a patch.

Back in the UK the Gunnister man, who died around 1700, had a “shirt” which is patched on the sleeves, and worn at the waist where a hole had been mended by sewing a tuck. Likewise his stockings were so badly damaged that not only were the knees heavily patched, but the feet of both had been completely replaced. (4) This echoes the stockings in grave 579 which were also heavily darned, though the feet were not replaced but patched, five patches on one stocking foot and three on the other.

Patching the lining of my son's breeches
I recently put a link to Michelin (Le Nain’s) 1656 painting the Baker’s Cart, all the clothes are patched, doublets, breeches, cloak. We have so few images of working class people, if you move on a few years to Laroon’s Cryes of London (1688) as the well as the dealers in second-hand materials that are Old Sateen and Old Clothes, many of the figures are wearing clothes that are heavily patched like the pin seller or the woman selling almanacks.

Garments that were too worn to be patched any further could be sold to a ragman. That many of these old scraps ended up being used as the seventeenth century equivalent of loo paper, can be seen in the amount found when excavating a privy in Newfoundland. (5)

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

2. Vons-Comis, S.Y. Workman's clothing or burial garments?: seventeenth and eighteenth century clothing remains from Spitsbergen. Smeerenburg seminar: Report from a symposium presenting results from research into seventeenth century whaling in Spitsbergen. Oslo : Norsk Polarinstitutt, 1987.

3. Vons-Comis, S. Seventeenth century garments from grave 579, Zeeuwse Uitkijk, Spitsbergen. Walton, P. and Wild, J. Textiles in northern archaeology: NESAT 3. London : Archetype, 1987.

4. 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, Vol. 86.

5. Mathias, C. Walking down the "Prettie Street" of 17th century Ferryland, Newfoundland. Material Culture Review. 2009, Vol. 69.

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