Friday, 8 October 2021

Russet: the decline and disappearance of a fabric

by Pat Poppy, paper presented to the Materials of Early Modern Fashion, online conference 7th – 8th October 2021.


The importance of russet as a fabric first appears in the 1363 sumptuary legislation, where it is stated that, “other people that have not 40s, should wear “no cloth, except for Blanket and Russet of Twelve-pence”; presumably the fabric to cost no more than twelve pence a yard. (1) When Henry VIII issued his first sumptuary legislation in the first year of his reign, the type of fabric was not mentioned, but those not having goods above £10 in value were forbidden to wear cloth costing more than two shillings a yard. (2) That however, allowed for a far wider range of fabrics than just russet and blanket.

What data indicates that russet was a fabric worn by many of the lowest classes in the sixteenth century, disappearing by the middle of the seventeenth century? Over the last few decades several databases of clothing information have been created, these use different sources and cover different date ranges, but there is considerable overlap. The authors of the Tudor Tailor, covering the period 1485 to 1603, used a variety of sources, but especially wills from Elizabethan Essex. (3) Stuart Peachy covered the period 1558 to 1660, and again used a variety of sources including the same Elizabethan wills as the Tudor Tailor, however he looked only at those below the level of the gentry. (4) Margaret Spufford covered the period 1570 to 1714 and analysed data from probate accounts, both in an article, and later with Susan Mee in a book. (5) (6) The database I have been creating for the Stuart Tailor (hereinafter referred to as ST database), is mainly from probate inventories and wills, but also from probate accounts, household accounts and court cases, and covers 1603 to 1714. Taking these different sets of information one can track the use and disappearance of russet.

These data sets result in different information being available. For those unfamiliar with probate inventories and probate accounts, probate inventories are taken after a person’s death, where the person is usually, but not always, elderly. What was referred to as their movable property and its value was listed by disinterested men, meaning they had no interest in the outcome. Probate accounts happened when someone died leaving orphaned children, where money was taken from the value of the estate to pay for bringing up these children. With probate inventories you have garments that are often described as old, and with probate accounts you often have the purchase of fabric to make new clothes for the children.

The main issue when examining the history of russet, is that the word has several connotations, not least referring to the apple, but that doesn’t appear until the late seventeenth century. Three of the uses of the word that relate to clothing: the fabric itself, the colour and its use to indicate simply status, can sometimes be disentangled by the context in which they appear, for example  in 1617, Sir Thomas Walsingham the Elder had stolen from him “a russett cloth cloke lyned with russett velvett worth ten pounds.”  It seems most likely, given the value and the status of the owner, that the cloak was russet coloured cloth, and lined with russet coloured velvet. (7) Most of the examples of people with russet clothing are members of the common sort: paupers, servants, husbandmen, and tradesmen, but better qualities of russet did exist, although it rarely appears among the clothing of those higher up the social scale. One can speculate to whom George Lovekyn, tailor to Edward IV, provided in 1472 one “long gowne of russet cloth.” It stands out among the other gowns of satin, velvet and cloth of gold in his accounts, not least because he only charged three shillings for the making, whereas the other long gowns were twenty shillings. (8 pp. 1-12)


The OED describes russet as “A coarse woollen cloth of a reddish-brown or subdued colour, formerly used for clothing especially by country people and the poor.” (9) It appears in the early thirteenth century when a letter (in Latin) from the Bishop of Winchester to Henry III mentions five and a half yards of russet and blanket.  In 1314 the 2nd Earl of Lancaster, a grandson of Henry III, gave 168 yards of russet cloth and twenty four coats to poor men. (10 p. 282)

The wearing of russet by the poor is mentioned often. In the fifteenth century Tale of King Edward and the Shepherd, the shepherd “In russet clothing he tyret hym tho, In kyrtil and in curstbye And a black furred hode.” (11) In the 1568 Debate Between Pride and Lowliness a woman of about fifty years, and her daughter are described thus; “The woman and wench were clad in russet, both course and olde and worn so very neere, that ye might see clean through both sleeve and gusset.” (12 p. 35)

Sometimes the fact that fabric is being talked about is obvious, for example, in his 1558 will, Thomas Stephens leaves to his mother, a piece of cloth of four yards, and in his matching inventory is four yards of russet and half a tod of wool together worth 10s. (13) [A tod is a wool weight equal to 28 lbs] A further example, where we know what is being made from the cloth, is in the Howard of Naworth Accounts, where in 1620 three yards of grey russet is purchased for 4s 6d, to make a doublet for a servant. (14 p. 64)

Russet does come in different qualities, and different prices. Spufford’s analysis of fabrics used for children and adolescents shows, over the period 1570 to 1610, russet being purchased at prices ranging from 5d a yard to 4s 5d a yard. These prices are still low compared with a top of the price range in the same period of 8s 6d a yard for broadcloth, 5s 8d for frieze, and 11s 9d for kersey. Spufford’s accounts include very few people with a total worth of over £300, a level above which they might be considered gentry. (5 p. 49)


What garments were made from russet? These were usually the main outer garments, and the fabric russet appears to be used across the country as can be seen by its distribution in the records. For the purpose of analysis main garments for men were: the doublet and breeches, coat and / or cloak, and less often gowns, and  waistcoats, (in the sixteenth century waistcoats are often referred to as petticoats). For women the main garments were the petticoat, waistcoat and gown, with less often coats and cloaks.

Russet was used for  men’s doublets, as witnessed by the Howard accounts from Cumberland, and for their jerkins, hose and, less often, breeches. In 1620, Thomas Mawlin, a Suffolk thatcher, left “To John Clark...doublet, russet jerkin, russet hose & stuff britches” (15 p. 34). In 1583 John Nashe, a husbandman, left a pair of russet breeches in his Hampshire will. (16)  In 1634 Francis Fuller, a yeoman, left “my old russet suit and my riding coat, he also left a russet coat. (17 p. 267) By suit he may mean a doublet and breeches.          

Russet was used for what was probably the largest and most fabric hungry of garments, cloaks. In 1618 Edward French, a husbandman, left to “Elizabeth my servant my russet cloak,” this is interesting because he was worth only a total of £9 16s 7d, and as a husbandman is of a lower status than yeoman, and yet he had a servant. (18 p. 221)

 Both men and women wore gowns, though for men by the middle of the seventeenth century these are the preserve of the elderly, the judiciary, mayors’ and aldermen [as in the two paintings here] academics, and those who wished to appear scholarly. Russet gowns were often associated with provision for paupers. Henry VIII, in 1511, gave Maundy Thursday paupers each a gown and hood made of four yards of russet cloth costing 2s 8d a yard , this is only a year after his sumptuary legislation that in theory forbade them to wear cloth costing more than two shillings a yard. (19 p. 21) 

Women’s gowns are different to men’s and continue through both the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Spufford did not include gowns in what she considered to be a standard wardrobe for girls, although she had records for 137 of them, she stated that this was because most of the girls who owned gowns had fathers worth over £150. (5 p. 56)   It may also be that gowns were less common among girls, as shown in the comment Adam Martindale made in his autobiography looking back to when his sister left home in about 1627; “Freeholders’ daughters were then confined to their felts, pettiecoates and wastcoates, … the proudest of them (below the gentry) durst not have offered to wear … a gowne till her wedding day.” ( (20 pp. 6-7) Russet for women’s gowns appears to be rare, there are only two examples in the ST database. In 1606 Joan Fielder in Hampshire left in her will,  “my best petticoat and my russet gown”. (21) and in 1611 Jane Tappertow, in Oxfordshire, left not only a russet gown, but also a russet safeguard. (18 pp. 213-4) Safeguards  were a form of protective overskirt.

A kirtle is a garment for women usually worn with an over gown. (22) It is a term common in the sixteenth century, which, like russet, disappears by the middle of the seventeenth century. There are no russet kirtles in the ST database. In 1555, Thomasine Petre of Essex travelled to take a place in the household of Lady Exeter, among the items purchased was “iii yards brode russet at 2s 6d the yarde for a kyrtell.” This is not the garment of an ordinary woman, her father was a knight, and one of Henry VIII’s secretaries, a post he managed to keep through the reigns of Edward VI and Mary, and into the reign of Elizabeth. (23 pp. 15-33)

Petticoats are most commonly associated with women, but in the sixteenth century men also wore petti – coats, literally short coats, however, the term seems to die out and be replaced by the term waistcoat. These do not seem to be made of russet for men, possibly because for them they were more of an undergarment. Andrew Boorde’s 1542 advice was, “next your sherte use you to wear a petycote…made of stammel or linsey-wolsey.” (24 p. 26)  Russet was a common fabric for women’s petticoats, a coroner’s inquest into the 1606 suicide of Joan Hawkins shows that, among other garments, she owned a russet petticoat worth 12d. (25 p. 163) The last mention of russet in the ST database is for a petticoat. In 1636 Rebecca Howlet, a Suffolk widow, left a russet petticoat to Mary Bensted. (26 p. 11) So far the assumption has been that russet is an undyed cloth, the only mention of a colour has been grey, but in 1623 Frances Moyse, another Suffolk widow, left a “grain russet petticoat,” the term grain indicates that the petticoat was red. (15 p. 296) A fabric that was in grain, was dyed with kermes, a small scale insect which was originally thought to be some form of grain. It dyed a bright red, scarlet colour, and was superseded by the use of cochineal when that became available. (27) The Tudor Tailor states that of the petticoats left in Essex wills in the sixteenth century, 52% were described as red and 40% as russet, which as they say could be either the colour or the fabric. (3 p. 40)

Waistcoats are, in the first half of the seventeenth century, a more common garment for women than for men, however the ST database has only one russet waistcoat, among the forty two for which a fabric is given. In 1630 Katherine Goslen, left a russet waistcoat to her daughter in law. (17 p. 22)

The final garment to examine, again worn by both men and women, is the coat. The 1550 inventory of William Mackerell, a Hampshire man worth only £5 0s 4d in total, had “a coat of russet, the price 3s 4d” (28) In 1587 Oxfordshire, Thomas Claridge a husbandman worth a more substantial £37 1s 0d, had a russet coat worth 5s 0d. (29 p. 233) Coats are also among the last mentions of russet in the ST database. In 1635 Grace Cheape, a Suffolk widow, left to her sister “my stammel petticoat, one of my hats, a red waistcoat and a russet coat.” (17 p. 362)

Different data sets can show how the use of russet changes over the centuries, however trying to compare datasets can be difficult. Peachey states in his analysis that where the fabric of a garment was given, 38% of the wool based fabrics in his database, were of russet. After russet the next most common wool based fabric in Peachey is frieze. Peachey treats the century he covers, 1558-1660, as a whole, and does not break it down further within those dates, so it is impossible to see the rise and fall of various fabrics.  Spufford does make such a breakdown in her article, she also includes the generic term cloth when it is used, as does the ST database. Peachey does not include this term, so comparisons of Peachey’s results with those of Spufford or the ST database will come with a lot of caveats.

Spufford splits her data into three time frames; 1570-1610, 1610-1660 and post 1660. Taking her wool-based fabrics: cotton, frieze, baize, russet, kersey, broadcloth and cloth and the period 1570-1610, her most common wool based fabric is also russet at 26%, followed by cloth, cotton and then frieze. However, move to the 1610 to 1660 data and the most common wool based fabrics are cloth, kersey and frieze, with russet at less than 10%. Spufford has no russet after 1660.  This compares with the ST database where, taking the period 1603 to 1660 and only wool based fabrics, the common terms are cloth and stuff, which together account for over 50% of the garments, followed by stammel, russet, kersey, serge and frieze. Like Spufford, the ST database has less than 10% russet, and no russet after 1660, with the last mention in the ST database being 1636, showing that the decline in the use of russet dates firmly to the first half of the seventeenth century.

Main garments of the types examined could also be made from flax based fabrics, the ST database has canvas doublets, and garments appear from mixed fibre fabrics, such as fustian and linsey-woolsey which were used for doublets, breeches, coats, cloaks and petticoats, or from leather, which was used for jerkins, doublets and breeches and so the percentages given for wool based fabrics are not valid for all garments.


The disappearance of russet as a fabric does not mean that the word disappears, as mentioned earlier, it was also used for a colour. In 1422 when Henry IV entered London it was ordered that every householder attending be in  “blac or ellis russet.” Now that may imply russet as a colour or, because russet was usually undyed, an undyed cloth. (9)   It is more obviously a colour later when in 1532–3  Henry VIII regulated the Apparel of the Barons of the Cinque Ports and reference was made to “Veluette, satten, and damaske, being of the colours of blacke, tawny, or russet.” (30) The colour russet was described in 1573 as, “If you will mingle a little portion of white with a good quantitie of redde, you may make thereof a Russet, or a sadde Browne, at your discretion.” (31)  E. L. in 1596 also considered it a brown, “whose colours gaye, to russet browne was turnd.” (32) When the term French russet is used it appears to imply a colour rather than a fabric.  In a play by Middleton someone is directed to take papers and “Scorch 'em me soundly; burne 'em to French-russet.” (33)

Sometimes is it difficult to see whether what is being written about is the cloth or the colour, and assumptions have to be made, for example when in 1550 John Lipscombe leaves three coats described as “1 coat of russet, 1 coat of green, 1 coat of blue 12s 8d,” the assumption is made that russet is a colour. (34) Often the term russet colour is used, which makes it easier, as in Alice Lowe’s 1647 will where she leaves “a linsey woollsey coat and a russet colour coat with two laces about the bottom” (35 p. 64) Sometimes an assumption can be made based on the description of the fabric, for example a 1633 purchase of “2 yeards of russett jeanes fustian 2s 8d”, where jeanes fustian is the fabric, and russet the colour. (14 p. 293)  Sometimes unpicking it can be difficult, as in John Hacke’s 1550 “an old doublet of fustian with red russet sleeves, price 1s 4d” (36)


The use of russet or the wearing of russet, to indicate simply a common person, sometimes in a derogatory sense, appears around the end of the sixteenth century.  Matthew Sutcliffe, Dean of Exeter, in a published dialogue, in answer to a comment that “eccelesiastical persons do not wear in journeying, cloaks with sleeves,” berates the “the flatcapped, short cloked,  russet clothed, and lether breeched broode of Puritans.” (37 p. 134)  It is less derogatory in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost where he writes of “russet yeas, and honest kersie noes.” Possibly the most famous quote, using russet in this sense, is from  Oliver Cromwell saying that, “ I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain, that knoweth what he fights for, and loves what he knowes, than that which you call 'a gentleman,' and is nothing else.” Russet had completed its transition from a fabric that almost everyone was supposed to wear, to meaning just a simple country person.


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