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Learning about 17th Century clothing from a fragment

Have you ever seen a textile design and thought to yourself 'Where have I seen that before'?

Well, this small fragment is a perfect example of 17th Century embroidery, especially in regards to clothing and accessories. If you, like me, endlessly search museum collections and books for early dress examples, you will have seen this pattern before! But probably never touched or examined such a piece. Small items do come up at auction occasionally, for example gloves, caps and coifs, but they are so very expensive to purchase. It is unlikely that I will ever examine such a piece again and it is the first time I have been able to imagine myself in that era, and how clothing of the time would feel next to the skin. As such, I consider this very special indeed.

Made of linen and I feel sure, originally dyed to a brown hue, despite the discolouration, it is embroidered throughout in silk & gold thread, with scattered spangles applied throughout. The colours of the silk thread would once have been very bright and a hint of them can be seen by lifting the edges to the back to see the underside of the embroidery.

For those of you new to antique textiles though, this may simply look like a a rather uninteresting piece of cloth, discoloured and not at all pretty. So, please allow me to show you just a few examples of the same designs, sometimes on linen cloth and sometimes on silk, and I think you may begin to see how amazing this fragment is! The likeness is unmistakable.

Starting with probably the most famous example, here is a jacket belonging to Margaret Laton. This image is taken from 'Lace, A History' by Santina M Levey. V & A Publications, 1983, Chapter ll, Figure 79. It has the same motifs, the same wide ranging embroidery techniques and is embroidered on linen. Utterly magnificent, the jacket dates between 1610 - 1620.

With the title of 'Lace, A History' one might think that this book has a narrow focus, but I cannot recommend it enough for the costume history student. It contains a huge section of photographic images of early costume, many of which I had not seen before.

In the same publication, Levey shows us a lace maker's cap of the same design, dated to 1662. by Caspar Netscher, again where we see the coiled embroidery pattern. [Introduction Fig.2]

The design was not only used in embroidery work. See here, Flemish lacework dating to the 1660's, the likeness being unmistakable.

Levey, fig. 151, Chapter 3, and housed in the V & A Museum.

Now to my favourite of all the examples! Just gorgeous, you will find this image in Jane Ashelford's 'The Art of Dress' The National Trust, 1996, Page 65, Fig. 48. It is a portrait of Elizabeth Craven who was Lady Powis, and she is wearing a jacket profusely embroidered in flowers, insects & fruits. See that coiling design again? Just WOW!

The portrait, with an unknown artist, was painted in the 1630's. [Also shown at head of Blog]

Turning briefly away from clothing, Mary M Brooks, in her book 'English Embroideries' Ashmolean Museum Handbooks/Oxford University 2004, shows us a panel which was possibly used for furnishing:

On pages 86/7 she tell us that: 'Sparkle is added by the small metal sequins [many now missing] which are attached randomly over the embroidery'.

Exactly the same as our fragment! The panel is dated to the early to mid 17th Century.

Returning to clothing accessories, the author shows us a coif, laid out flat so that we can see the embroidery clearly - just the same design as our fragment, on pages 72-3 [as above].

Worked in a simple black silk & metal thread, with roses, borage & foxgloves as the motifs within the coiling stems. It dates to the late 16th to early 17th Century.

To continue with accessories, look at this beauty in 'The Visual History of Costume Accessories' by Valerie Cumming, Batsford 1998.

This stunning coif dates to 1600-1620 and must have been professionally renovated as it looks so fresh. Amazing colours! You can find it on page 97.

Cumming does not disappoint the gentlemen either, On page 29 she shows us a gentleman's hat in the same vein:

Dating to 1613, this type of cap would have been worn at home for leisure time.

But we must end with jackets again because these are truly the best way to see how the fragment would have formed part of a larger piece - a glorious, individual & awe-inspiring garment that we can only imagine. For this, the final book to recommend is 'Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Fashion in Detail' by Avril Hart & Susan North. V & A Publishing, 1998.

So far, we have seen two beautiful fitted jackets of the 17th Century, so lets look at a different style altogether. Dating to 1600-1625, this jacket is cut loose and flowing.

The simplicity of the shape gives the perfect opportunity for the embroiderer to show his skills to the full. And the reason I love it so much?

Our fragment has exactly the same oak leaves!


Now, before this blog crashes from the weight of too many images, let me end, dear friends, where I began, with the fitted and breathtaking jacket of Margaret Laton, dating to between 1610-20.

Hart & North show us this jacket in it's full detailed glory, in the book named above, and on several pages - 16, 74 & 148.

Again, it is just as in our fragment; '... the ground sprinkled with silver gilt spangles', and is profusely covered in fruits, flowers and wildlife.

See how the spangles in our fragment are applied? The reference to these comes up over and over again in the book references.

Hart & North explain that it is difficult to know if this jacket was embroidered by a professional of the time, or a lady at home. Pattern books and single sheets of embroidery patterns were available, but unlike in embroidered pictorial scenes of the 17th Century, where motifs were applied without any consideration given to proportion [for examples, rabbits appearing larger than lions!] here, we have a beautiful balance of size and grace.

In this blog, I have simply introduced you to some of the examples of garments that show very similar designs to our sampler. The opportunity for further research is vast:

* Why not visit museums and country house which house collections of 17th Century portraits to look for the same design in clothing?

* Or, go botanical, and research the flowers and fruits represented in the 17th Century? Hart & North list these for a start:

Foxgloves, cornflower, carnations, grapes, roses, honeysuckle, pansies, strawberries, currants, peapods, acorns, borage. Our fragment certainly has strawberries, oak leaves & grapes, just for a start!

* Perhaps you would enjoy taking just one flower type and following it through the Centuries? The viola or pansy, for example, was a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th Century. The great author Janet Arnold is the one to get you started here!

* Finally, the obvious choice for any embroidery fan. The types of stitches used in these pieces is extraordinary; some familiar to the 18th Century but some I have never heard of:

Chain, stem, satin, trellis, darning, couching, padded work, long & short stitch are all familiar, but what about 'spider knots, plaited braid stitching and, most exotic - Roumanian stitch'?

A world of textile to explore from one small fragment. If any of you does more, please do let me know!

As always, thank you for reading!

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