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The Language of Infant Clothes, c1650-1750 Part Two

​Attributed to Dirck Dircksz Santvoort 'Boy in White' c1641.

Netherlands, private collection.

If you have read Part One of this investigation, you will know that the few lace trims and the provenance have helped us to identify the approximated age of this 32 piece layette. It is early 18th Century 1720-30's and some possibly earlier. At this point I should make it clear that 'Layette' is not an 18th Century term. It seems to have come into use in the mid 19th Century and is from the old French word 'Laie' meaning a box [to place your infant clothes in readiness for the birth, perhaps].

'Gerard Anne Edwards in his Cradle'

William Hogarth 1733.

National Trust

I have not been able to source an earlier term for a collection of newborn baby clothes, but there is plenty of recorded evidence of well-to-do ladies purchasing fabric and sewing for lengthy periods, to prepare the collection of items the baby will need. Note, there are sets called 'Christening clothes' in museums and books. These sometimes refer to the mainly outer garments worn by the infant at the Christening and to the mantles that wrap the infant on that occasion. These could be made of very fine fabrics, just as grand as for adult men and women, and I have examined some in the past. So the term can be confusing because this is not what we discuss here. Hence the use of the word Layette for convenience.

In very grand families, it would be the Governess or the maids that would construct the infant clothing. Here is where my passion comes to the fore - Plain Sewing, Plain work or Plain Needlework, has a small but dedicated band of followers today, including myself! It is the admiration of the stitch-work involved in sewing the under-clothing and the accessories [usually made of linen] worn by adults and children alike pre 1850, when the arrival of the sewing machine lead to the demise of fine hand sewing skills .

'Clara & Alelbert de Bray'

National Gallery of Scotland

by Saloman de Bray 1646

Showing the twins in very similar infant clothing to those in this set.

Why do we love it so? Because these items of clothing needed to be really tough! Whilst the outer clothing was often stitched together with simple slip stitches or back stitch, neat but unremarkable, all the regularly washed items had to hold together through repeated scrubbing & wringing, during the harsh washing process. And I won't mention some of the foul ingredients used to whiten linens! So, the stitching, which took hour upon hour of labour, was so tiny and so exquisite, one can hardly see it with the naked eye.

If you are interested in 18th Century plain needle work, do read Gail Marsh, '18th Century Embroidery Techniques' Page 126/2006. She puts it far better than I ever could. [See Links & Research for full reference]. The construction of this 32 piece set has stitching that has to be seen to be believed.

Continental School, '17th Century Three-quarter Length Portrait of a Young Dutch Girl' Sold at Skinner Auctions.

I adore this one!

Finding similar layette's to mine is extremely difficult. One can find individual items from such sets, but they are rarely kept together as a collection. Several European museums have them, but unless they offer an online service, one would need to visit to be able to see the garments. I am therefore most grateful to Kerry Taylor Auctions, who gave permission for us to see three similar sets, sold at the auction house over the past few years:

Auction date 8/4/14 - Lot 411. Price realised £700.00.

'A good collection of baby garments, late 17th and 18th century, including three shirts; a patterned knitted cotton jacket, assorted linen vests; a ruffled tape trimmed bonnet, bib and fichu, five caps with hollie-point insertions including crown, birds, acorn, a mechlin edged coif and short bib, six linen caps with Flanders bobbin or 1770s whitework or plain (qty) There is a note addressed to Pat Earnshaw stating that the clothes came from the Earl of Jersey's family. Provenance: Pat Earnshaw collection'

Kerry Taylor Auctions.

Auction date 14/10/13 - Lot 526. Price realised £1500.00.

'A group of baby clothes and linen, late 17th-early 18th century, including a trapunto quilted cradle cover, two quilted caps, two quilted cap insertions, the remains of an adult quilted coif; a cap with Hollie point insertion; eight bonnets - three with bobbin lace edging one with embossed matching bib; eleven other bibs, two with elaborate ruffles; three pairs of mitts, coif, vests and binders (qty) Provenance: Pat Earnshaw collection Provenance: Purchased from Christies, 12.3.1973 lot 246. This baby linen belonged to Joseph Crouchley (1671-1745) a barrister who built the two first houses in Brook St, Grosvenor Square and they descended to his great great great niece a Miss Eagleton who lived at Flintwell Vicarage, Hawkshurst, Kent in 1906.'

Kerry Taylor Auctions

Auction date 14/6/16 - Lot 26. Price realised £2800.00.

'A group of fine linen baby garments believed to have been worn at the christening of King Charles II, 17th century, comprising: matching embroidered set worked in French knots and with Prince of Wales plumes, tulip motifs: simple shirt; an elaborate collar with loops for fastening at the rear neck; simple curved collar; christening bib and christening skirt panel; together with a simple vest with needlepoint scallops to shoulders; an under-cap and an over-cap adorned with French knots, Hollie Point lace back worked with a large crown; and a christening robe adorned with latticed linen tape strap-work, with box pleats to the front panels and centre back; and a copy of a letter of provenance dated 1948 (qty)

King Charles II was born on 29th May, 1630 in St James's Palace, the eldest son and crown prince of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria. At birth he automatically became Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay and was created Prince of Wales on his eighth birthday. He was christened and baptised in the Chapel Royal on 27th June by the Anglican Bishop of London, William Laud.

Previously on display at the Museum of London.

Provenance: Margaret de Halsey, formerly a Lady in Waiting in the court of King Charles I, c.1630. Thence by descent to the Abbott family around 1730 via marriage, and thence by descent to the present vendors.

The Victoria and Albert Museum shows similar embroidered christening garments (T.209-1970) and similar linen strapwork garments (T.4430-1970), which they date as 17th century.'

Kerry Taylor Auctions

So wonderful! I have shown each Lot in this order, because there are key points to address in each, when comparing them to my layette. The top image and description [Lot 411] seems to show a collection of infant clothing, perhaps not all from the same set, although certainly from the same family. It contains a superb number of caps with individual decoration, a knitted jacket which my layette does not have, shirts, that I do have but not in this layette etc. This Lot appears to be a part set, and it is interesting to note how many multiples of the same item each mother would prepare for the newborn.

The second image [Lot 526] seems to be the closest to my layette. Again from Pat Earnshaw, it also includes bedding and nursery linen that mine does not, but the range of clothing pieces seems very similar to mine. I would have loved this set!

Now the third and final image is some of the linen clothing most similar to mine. It is particularly interesting to us because the decoration of 'latticed linen tape strap-work,' {Kerry Taylor] is just the same as some of my pieces, and I think that I can show you how the separate parts are laid upon each other to achieve exactly the same appearance! Several different pieces are involved to achieve this final infant ensemble.

We are making progress now! See you in Part Three!

References used in this research:

  • First, a warm thank you to the Lace Mentor. I do not know what I would do without you!

  • Kerry Taylor Auctions, who kindly gave permission to use images and descriptions of past auction Lots.

  • Cunnington P & Buck A, ‘Children’s Costume in England’. Adam & Charles Black, 1965. Chapter starting page 65 – The 17th Century. Chapter starting page 103 – The 18th Century.

  • Lynn E, ‘Underwear: Fashion in Detail’ V & A Publications

  • Baumgarten L, ‘What Clothes Reveal’ Colonial Williamsburg Collection/Yale University Press 2011.

  • Hart & North, ‘Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century - Fashion in Detail’ V & A Publications 2009. Glossary.

  • Ashelford J, ‘The Art of Dress’ National Trust 1996. Chapter 1 – ‘'Gorgeous Attyre & Chapter 7 – ‘Swaddling to Sailor Suits – Children’s Clothes’.

  • Arnold J. ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d’ Maney Publishing 1988.

  • Boehn Max Von, Translated from German Joshua J. ‘Modes & Manners. Volume IV The Eighteenth Century’ George G Harrap & Co Ltd. 1965.


  • 17th & 18th Century artists and portraits.

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