Friday 15 January 2016

The decline and fall of frieze and russet?

Frieze and russet appear to be two of the main fabrics for the outer clothing of the generality of lower classes in the sixteenth century. Peachey’s (2014) table of wool fabrics covering the period 1558-1660 shows frieze as 37% and russet as 38% of the fabrics used. This would seem to indicate 75% of clothing for the lower classes was frieze or russet. Peachey’s figures are obtained mainly from wills and probate inventories and are for fabrics used for the outer layer of a garment, for those he describes as common civilians. One problem with his figures is that they cover an entire century and he does not show how this usage changed over time.

What were these two fabrics?
Re-enactors, and I’m one so I can be rude, often want things nailed down. Garment x was made with fabric y, and fabric y was made to the following rules and cost z. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that, firstly because it is very, very rare to find a piece of fabric with a contemporary label attached saying I am a piece of Devonshire dozen or Manchester cotton, then because fabric terminology changes over time, and also because the same word can be used to describe quite different fabrics.

Mikhaila and Malcolm-Davies (2006) describe frieze as, “very thick, heavy, plain weave, well-fulled cloth, with raised hairy surface on one or both sides. Made from cheaper fleeces, unfit for finer cloth.” Fuller (1660) speaks of it as a coarse kind of cloth manufactured in Wales, "than which none warmer to be worn in winter, and the finest sort thereof very fashionable and gentile. Prince Henry (1594-1612) had a friese sute out of it.” 

Frieze is sometimes regulated by law. An Act of 1551, speaking like Fuller of Welsh friezes, gives them as being a minimum of 30 yards long, three quarters (27 inches) wide and “being so fullie wrought shalle waye ev'ye” (love the spelling of heavy). A whole piece, that is the 30 yards, to weigh 48 pounds at the least. 

However not all frieze was the same. Spufford (2003) examining the prices of fabrics has a table showing the price of frieze ranged from 7d to 5s 8d a yard in the period 1560-1610, and 2s to 6s in the period 1610-1660. She has no examples of frieze in her table for the period after 1660. 

Mikhaila and Malcolm-Davies (2006) describe russet as “a coarse narrow wool, undyed and unfinished; broad russet, better quality, might be dyed; London russet as wide and costly as broadcloth.” Both Delaney in hisThomas of Reading from 1612, and Hall in his Satires of 1598 describe russet as the wear of country folk. 

Spufford (2003) shows that russet, like frieze and other fabrics, could vary enormously in price for “a yard of [any] fabric with the same name at the same date throughout our period (1560-1705).” Russet varies from 5d to 4s 5d a yard in 1560-1610, and 1s 6d to 3s 10d in 1610-1660. Like frieze she has no examples of russet after 1660.

Part of the problem with describing russet is that the term was being used not only for a fabric, but also for a colour from before the beginning of the sixteenth century. The colour russet is described in 1573 as, “If you will mingle a litle portion of white with a good quantitie of redde, you may make thereof a Russet, or a sadde Browne, at your discretion.” 

Probate accounts
As pointed out above Spufford’s (2003) paper shows no frieze or russet, in the accounts she examined, after 1660. Spufford was looking at probate accounts, these were produced by the administrator or the executor of a will, often the widow. When there was a child orphaned the accounts can show, among other things, the provision of clothes for the orphaned child/ren until they were, apprenticed or 21 in the case of boys, and married or 18 in the case of girls. These are often more detailed in the final year when the accounts are being wound up.  Spufford analysed 820 accounts from which she extracted 8,974 garments. These accounts are not from the very rich, they reflect, she says “the lives and clothes of labourers, husbandmen and yeomen below the gentry level.”

Cloth is a very general term usually referring to a fabric made of wool. In the probate accounts it is the most used fabric for making doublets, jerkins, waistcoats and breeches for boys, and waistcoats and petticoats for girls. However it is also listed as providing a large number of the shirts and smocks, which might indicate that it may be being used just as a general term for any type of fabric, wool or linen. Spufford refers to it as “the ambiguous and universal” cloth, and it is interesting that in his list Peachey does not mention it at all, maybe because of its ambiguity.

The changing use of cloth types
As well as dividing what was provided by garment and gender, Spufford also split her results by 40-45 year time periods; 1560-1610, 1610-1660 and 1660-1705, this enables us to infer that perhaps certain fabrics were declining in use, while others were rising. The declining fabrics would appear to be russets, friezes and cottons: 90% of russets, 82% of cottons (wool) and 76% of friezes are pre 1610. Other declining fabrics that appear pre 1660, but rarely post 1660, are fustians and canvas: 64% of fustians are pre 1610 with 36% in the 1610-1660 period and none post 1660; with canvas this is 74% pre 1610, 24% 1610-1660 and only 2% post 1660. Other fabrics go along in a more or less steady state, like cloth, stuff and kersey, and among the linens, lockeram. 

Remember that these are clothes provided for young adults and children, by comparison the garments appearing in wills belong to older people. It would be interesting to compare an analysis of the fabric of garments in both early and late seventeenth century wills and probate inventories, with those in the probate accounts. We could then see whether this would show the same change in fabric use, but perhaps coming through later. Certainly John Dale, a yeoman, still had one gray frieze coat in his 1682 probate inventory, to go with his serge, cloth, and two worsted camlet coats. (Williams and Thompson, 2007)

Social status and the fabric used
The obvious thing to say is that the poorer, coarser cloths are worn by the poorer classes, and yet there is this enormous difference in price for fabrics of the same name. While friezes have been identified as being worn by the poor, they are also, as shown by John Dale and Prince Henry, being worn by the middle and upper classes.

Spufford’s (2003) analysis appears to bear this out. She points out that the heavyweight and cheap canvas appears across all her income groupings for doublets, though the owners of canvas breeches are predominantly in the poorest group. On the other hand four of her poorest boys had doublets of the supposedly expensive broadcloth. With the girls more of the poorest were wearing russet waistcoats and petticoats, whereas none of the richest group did so. The richest group’s waistcoats and petticoats were mainly of cloth, kersey, mockado [a fake velvet style of cloth] or fustian.

How much was spent
In Gregory King’s 1688 calculations, variation in the amounts spent by families on their clothing range from, ‘almost £3’ a year for  the lowest income groups to, ‘about £1000’ for those with the highest of incomes. (Spufford 2000)   If you think this is any different from today consider that you can buy a pair of cheap jeans for £5 in a supermarket, while an “off the peg” top of the range pair of Gucci jeans cost over £2000. 

Spufford (2003) produced a table showing how the cost of a basic wardrobe changed over the period. For a boy the wardrobe she uses consists of a shirt, jerkin/doublet, breeches, coat, stockings, shoes and a hat, the median for 1610-1660 was £1 3s 3d. For girls her wardrobe is a smock, waistcoat, petticoat, stockings, shoes and headwear (she did not include a gown although she had records for 137 of them, as most were in her top income group); for 1610-1660 the cost of this wardrobe was 14s 9d. She did not unfortunately do a cost by time period analysis of the gowns.

Anon. 1573. A very proper treatise, wherein is briefly sett for thethe art of limming, 1573. The 1596 edition is available at
Fuller. T. 1660 The history of the worthies of England, Volume 3. London:Tegg, 1840 edition.
Mikhaila, N. and Malcolm-Davies, J. 2006. The Tudor tailor. London: Batsford.
Peachey, S. (ed.) 2014. Clothes of the common people in Elizabethan and early Stuart England. 1558-1660: the user’s manual. Bristol: Stuart Press.
Spufford, M. 2000. The cost of apparel in seventeenth-century England, and the accuracy of Gregory King.  Economic history review, 53 (4) 677-705
Spufford, M. 2003. Fabric for seventeenth-century children and adolescents’ clothes. Textile History, 34 (1), 47–63
Williams, L. and Thompson, S. eds. 2007. Marlborough probate inventories 1591-1775. Wiltshire Record Society, vol 59, 165-6

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