|Princess Elizabeth by William Scrots, 1546.
When sleeves appear as a standalone item in a probate inventory what does it mean? Part of the problem is that today we usually regard sleeves as being always an integral part of a garment, and not as stand-alone items in their own right. Sixteenth and seventeenth century wills and probate inventories often list sleeves as sleeves, so what are these sleeves, and what are they for?
There are points in fashion when we know that separate fake sleeves appear. In the second quarter of the sixteenth century when the fashion was for huge sleeves with fore sleeves appearing from underneath them, the fore sleeves were often made and listed separately, sometimes with the fabric matching a forepart, as in the painting of the Princess Elizabeth by William Scrots (right). Sometimes the sleeves would have a matching partlet, in 1565 Queen Elizabeth I paid the embroiderer David Smith for, “enbraudering of a gathered partelet and a paire of wide slevis of lawne wrought allover with sondrie sortes of byrdes and floures.” It is difficult to tell in this painting if what can be seen at the neck and undersleeves is an embroidered smock, or a matching partlet and sleeves.
Sleeves and fore sleeves appear listed separately in probates throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when this fashion is long past. If they are described as fore sleeves then they maybe high status, in 1638 Margaret Giliebrown leaves her “best foresleeves” to her sister in her will, she also leaves her best overbody, so perhaps the sleeves go with the body. In 1625 Katherine Ware, a single woman, has in her probate two pair of fore sleeves and a drawn (drawn thread work?) stomacher, which together are worth only one shilling, do these form a set, are the sleeves also drawn? In 1649 the widow Mary Chapman, who owns silk gowns, also has a pair of fore sleeves in her probate. Are these like the fore sleeves of one hundred years earlier, or perhaps something entirely different, like protective sleeves.
Sleeves are not necessarily listed as fore sleeves. In 1557 Francis Prince, a yeoman, lists his late wife’s clothes as including “2 pairs of camlet sleeves”. In 1612 Ellen Taylor leaves in her will “to Margery Vaudrey one paire of satin sleeves” While in 1630 Frances Raye leaves to “my sister Callowe... a stuff gown without lining or sleeves,” which implies that the sleeves come separately. In 1617 Elizabeth Blakeborne in her will leaves “to the wyf of Robert Houghton one paire of gowne sleeves.” Elizabeth also has in her probate inventory “1 paire of ould wollen sleves,” “3 paire of ould smocke slives 18d” and “ould sleeves and ould incle 4d” Sometimes people owned multiple pairs of sleeves. In 1672 Sarah Kitchen, had “Eleaven paire of Sleeves” in her probate.
Like Margaret Gilliebrown’s best foresleeves and best overbody, sleeves may well be made to match a pair of bodies. In 1611 Jane Byas has both an “upper bodies” and “a peire of sleeves”. The following year Anne Hodgesonne leaves, “to Margaret Atkinsonne...one good petticoate, one hatt, my best upperbodie & a paire of sleeves which is the same upper bodie …” A pair of bodies from the second half of the seventeenth century in the Victoria and Albert Museum survive with their matching sleeves. Sometimesthe sleeves are listed with another garment made from a different fabric, in 1580 Elizabeth King left to Mary Wattes her “worsted kirtell and a pair of Damask sleeves”
Are separate sleeves used only by those with enough money to warrant a probate inventory, no they are not. The Bridlington records show several poor women in 1636 receiving an “upper body and sleeves”
These sleeves can be bought separately. In 1636 James Evans has among his extensive stock of dress accessories “sixteene payre of wrought sleeves,” wrought here probably means embroidered. An early seventeenth century blackwork sleeve panel survives in the Victoria and Albert Museum. More downmarket the clothier Ralph Eyton has in stock, again among other clothing items, 7 dozen of sleeves valued at £2 2s. If these are single sleeves, rather than pairs, it works out at 6d per sleeve. In 1679 the haberdasher Henry Mitchell has an unspecified number of women’s sleeves in stock, valued at £2 0s 6d, and other sleeves (sex unspecified) ranging from 4s to 8s a pair.
Could it be that these sleeves are worn to show under or though the gown sleeves in the first half of the seventeenth century when gown sleeves where slashed or paned to show another sleeve underneath? In 1621 Elizabeth Smith leaves “To widow Early [my] black gown and stuff drawing sleeves” Sometimes indication is given as to where the sleeves belong, Katherine Ware in 1625 again has “one stummedger sutable to the beste kirtle and an ould paire of sleeves to the second Cote, 2 shillings”.
|Whitework sleeves in Platt Hall, Manchester
What about linen, or possibly linen, sleeves? In 1632 Elizabeth Lee, the widow of a gentleman, has listed in probate together with her neckerchiefs and coifs, “3 paire of white sleeves.” A pair of whitework sleeves survive in the collection at Platt Hall, Manchester. (right)
Men also own linen sleeves. Between 1662 and 1669 James Master purchases several pair of holland sleeves, on one occasion laying out six shillings “for an elle & qu[arter] of holl[and] to make me a pa[ir] of sleeves.” In 1671 Lisle Stotesbury, who is referred to as a gentleman but appears to be a musician at Litchfield Cathedral, lists as his linen, “4 shirts, 3 paire of sleeves and seaven handkerchers £1 5s 0d”. In 1662 Thomas Fownes lists his linen as “2 corvats [cravats], 2 pare off halffe sleves, one shurte, two bands, two capes, 8 pare off cuffes, one handcarcher 9s.”
Were some of these sleeves working garments, perhaps used to protect other garments? One of the earliest mentions of protective wear is in the 1555 rules for student doctors attending anatomy lectures. The students should have, “two aprons to be from the sholder downewarde and two peyr of sleaves for his hole arme with tapes for change.” In 1602 the barber Owen Singleton has in his shop “3 towells, 2 aprons & 2 forsleves 5s”, which implies that the foresleeves are working garments. These types of protective sleeve might be provided for children as well, in 1602 the widow Esworthy is paid for providing John Butler’s orphaned child with “green flanell for an apren and for sleeves.” Pepys writes of a fight in London in 1662 between the weavers and the butchers, with the butchers’ sleeves apparently being a distinguishing mark. “At first the butchers knocked down all for weavers that had green or blue aprons, till they were fain to pull them off and put them in their breeches. At last the butchers were fain to pull off their sleeves, that they might not be known, and were soundly beaten out of the field.”
In conclusion we know that various types of sleeves existed, that they were listed separately and could be purchased separately. We know that they existed at all levels of society, and that they were made from many different types of material. However we really know very little about how these sleeves were actually worn, and how they were attached to other garments, though pins seems to be one option, which appears in many medieval illustrations. The Dutch artist Pieter Aertsen shows a number of Dutch women with obviously separate sleeves, but very rarely does he show that an actual pin is holding them in place, and this example from Birmingham Museums, appears to show a woman with protective fore sleeves.
References – I haven’t listed any as it would make this way too long, but if anyone wants a reference to a particular quote, contact me and I will provide it.