Things I’ve learnt since I made my first pair of bodies with a busk.

Several years ago I decided to make the best pair of bodies possible in terms of accurate period construction etc.  – avoiding real whale bone and hand spun hand woven fabric but using the most appropriate modern materials.

Being a member of the UK Costume Society and also The Costume and Textile Society of Wales gave me access to seminars and people with a lot of advice and experience.  I am indebted to all the help and advice from Jill Salen who encouraged me and was a source of inspiration.  After I had decided on the project The Costume Society held a very useful Symposium on underwear including an extra day with Ian Chipperfield, the Staymaker and a lecturer from the London College of Fashion, which I attended with added interest.

One of the main problems I had was finding appropriate boning.  I wanted fine boning similar to the boning as shown in the V&A book Costume in detail 17th and 18th century.  But it needed to be strong enough to correctly hold me in shape.  Jill gave me a few contact details but it was the London College of Fashion’s technique of folding plastic boning in half lengthways that gave me the boning which was narrow but strong; stronger than normal boning, which I recommend.

Jill advised me that red edge linen was the correct linen and Whalleys of Bradford was able to supply it.  I had a piece of pink silk which I wanted to use as the top cover. I was content that the style of the original stays was ok as it was from a Janet Arnold book and used a pattern I had prepared before.

I had noticed that all the early stays seemed to be bound at the edge, generally in a contrasting colour and it was that fact which lead me to the most extreme change in my sewing technique. Instead of making a lining and a top part and sewing them together by bagging out, I cut out the lining, two layers of the red edge linen and one layer of the pink silk and placed them on top of each other – both slightly bigger than the pattern required in case of shrinkage due to the boning process.

Tacking the layers together I sewed boning channels in a simple running stitch in white silk thread.  After making the channels I inserted the boning and busk between the two layers of linen and sewed up the pieces, keeping them in layers.  After making the bodies into one piece I then prepared several metres of bias binding in grey silk.

I checked the bodies for fit and cut the layers into the right size, then I used the bias binding to cover the edges which also keeps all the layers as one.

I made eyelets holes centre back, as it was a back lacing pair of bodies, and for the shoulder straps using whip stitch.   With a lucet I made lacing cord using perle cotton with silver coloured tags.

I was quite pleased with the results of the project and was happy to wear them until I put on too much weight to get into them and now use them as an example of underwear when talking to the public and re-enactors interested in the foundation garments of the 17th century.

Of course I forgot to take photographs of the construction but my husband has taken some costume in detail photographs for me. Hover over the picture to pause the slide show.

  • Stays-and-tabs-whip-stitched-together
  • Stays-front-view-2
  • Stays-front-view
  • Stays-inside-view
  • Stays-shoulder-strap-with-cord-and-tag
  • Stays-side-and-back
  • stays-back-and-side-inside-view
  • stays-inside-shoulder-strap
  • stays-side-and-back-showing-shoulder-strap
  • stays-sides

Since the project I have learnt more about the construction of 17th century clothing and that will be part of my next article.

Bibliography:

Patterns of Fashion III    Janet Arnold

Corsets and Crinolines    Norah Waugh

Cut of women’s clothes    Norah Waugh

Costume in detail 17th and 18th century     Avril Hart and Susan North.

Patterns for Stage and Screen    Jean Hunnisett

Sewing Tips and Techniques for 17th Century Costume

These articles originally appeared in “Orders of the Daye”,
the magazine of the The Sealed Knot


Index

  1. Decorating Unconfined Breeches
  2. Tacking
  3. How to make Small Slashes in fine fabric
  4. Making Stays
  5. Organ or Cartridge Pleating
  6. Types of Boning
  7. Stiffening a Doublet
  8. Making a Toile

I have tried to aim the tips at inexperienced sewers so some readers may think I am re-inventing the wheel.

An important point to make is that although tedious, preparation & neatness before, during & after construction produces a better final garment.

I make no apology for using imperial measurements i.e. inches. I also give only approximate measurements. I am writing guidelines not rules. Good luck with any sewing you decide to do.

If you have any tips that you would like included contact me and I’ll see what I can do

Decorating Unconfined Breeches

One tip given to me by a tailor friend, sadly no longer with us. When decorating unconfined breeches with ribbons and metal points, leave a gap of 2-4 inches on the inside leg. The gap will not be very noticeable but the wearer will be able to walk without the points getting tangled up. Like many tips it is obvious after you have been told. UNCONFINED BREECHES

Tacking

I rarely tack but do use long pins (1″ inch) when sewing. If I want to hold pieces of fabric together during sewing I pin at 90ø to the fabric edge, so that I can easily sew over them – be careful & do expect some broken machine needles when using this technique.

How to make small slashes in fine fabric.

In the 17th Century small slashes were made by sizing the back of silk satin often by painting the fabric with gum arabic. Allowing it to dry. Then stretching fabric tight and stamping the pattern with a sharp metal shape , not unlike a small printing block.I have not tried this but I doubt if it would work on thick woollen fabric. SLASHED FABRIC

Making Stays.

When fitting stays remember that the lady’s bustline will be different to her 20th century shape.

A rough guideline is to take 2 inches off her normal bust measurement to compensate.

For more advice on fitting stays I suggest reading “Period Costume for Stage and Screen” by Jean Hunnisett. Also see try my article on Making Stays.

LADIES BUSTLINE

Cartridge or Organ Pleating.

This method of pleating is very old and can be seen in contemporary, i.e.. 17th century, paintings. Sew the widths of fabric together. Turn the top edge down approximately 2 inches, I tend to fold top edge over twice for neatness and a firmer finish.

Using 2 separate needles stitch along the folded portion approximately 1 inch stitches 1 inch apart. Gather the stitches together, i.e.. Pull the threads, and arrange neatly to match the size of the waistband. Catch stitch the gathers onto the waistband, right sides together. This means the sides of the
fabric which will be seen on the outside of the finished skirt.
When using this method of pleating I strongly recommend leaving a gap in pleating over your tummy otherwise you will be asked delicate questions about pregnancy !
CARTRIDGE PLEATS

You can finish the inside of the skirt by knotting the big stitch threads together. You can also stitch the inside gathers together to help hold the shape.

Types of Boning

Steel Boning:

Bought by the yard or metre, can be difficult to cut. Use ridgeline endcaps to cover cut ends Very firm boning.

To sew use 2 layers of fabric e.g.. cotton calico, sew channels and slot boning in place. Interlining, the layers of fabric inside the outer fabric and lining holding the boning, needs to be cut slightly smaller than outer fabric and lining.

Plastic Boning:

Brand name ridgeline. Bought by the yard or metre. Easy to cut with dressmaking scissors. Cover ends with ridgeline endcaps or melt ends over a flame – in a well ventilated room (Be careful). Can be sewn directly onto inside of lining fabric or onto interlining.

Bamboo Barbecue Skewers:

Approximately 12 inches long, Can be cut with a sharp knife, be careful. Like steel boning use 2 layers of interlining fabric and sew channels to slot bamboo in.

These are useful to give a very firm edge centre front or centre back between edge and lacing holes.

If you have a bodice which has no boning you can bone pieces of calico and attach the boned calico to the inside of the bodice to produce a neat finish.

Stiffening a Doublet:

17th Century doublets were often stiffened with buckrum. The collar and belly pieces were stiffened.You can also use iron on interlining down the centre front of the doublet and in the tabs to produce a very professional finish – do this as well as using buckrum for stand-up collar and belly pieces – not instead of (or the authentic crowd will lynch me!) STIFFENING

Toile:

When using a pattern for the first time it is useful to make a Toile. Cut the pattern out using an inexpensive fabric such as calico. Allow at least 1 inch for seam allowances and draw around the pattern to give an initial sewing line, machine sew using large stiches.

Try the garment on to see if it fits properly. Any adjustments can be tried out first using the Toile.

The Toile can be used as pattern pieces for your main fabric. If it is not too untidy or cut-up you can use it to line the main garment.

Historic Knitting and making the Gunnister purse

Historic Knitting

Whilst knitting has had something of resurgence in 21st century there has been a great deal of debate in the re-enactment world about the availability of knitted goods in the 17th century. Although hats (e.g. the Monmouth cap) and stockings have long been accepted by re-enactors as contempory wear other items have sometimes been viewed with suspicion.  However research has shown other items were available; sleeves; bags/purses; mittens/gloves and waistcoats, as all have surviving artefacts.  Knitting was imported and exported and intricate multicoloured designs were made.  It was long believed that the beautiful knitted silk waistcoats, such as the one in the Victoria and Albert museum were imported from Italy but the current theory is that they were, in fact, made in Britain.

So when was knitting invented and when did it arrive in Britain?  Various forms of textiles have a very early history and some textiles resemble knitting especially nalbinding, there are suggestions that knitting was derived from sprang or netting.  Crochet and Tunisian crochet are more recent than knitting; early knitting needles were hooked and hooked needles are still used in Egyptian villages.  Further research into the beginning of knitting is thwarted by lack of extant examples.

Early pictorial evidence of knitting is available; The Buxtehude Madonna by Master Bertram of Minden is the most well known, painted before 1400.  It shows the Madonna knitting a short sleeved shirt with five needles.
The history of knitting in Britain is difficult to unravel because the term ‘to knit’ is used in many ways:- to knit in Britain has meanings of :- to marry; to twine; weave; plait; to clench (the fist); to pack hard or solidify; to set fruit (or blossom); to swarm bees; to join by pact; to cement; join or congeal.

Knitted cushions were found in Spanish tombs dated to 1187 and also 1275.  Knitting was known in Italy and Germany in 13th century.  The first form of knitting in Britain appears to be caps, the Coventry Cappers can be traced to the 13th century and were established by 1424 and cappers are mentioned in the roll of the Hundred Court at Monmouth in 1449.  The biggest problem with the spread of knitting was that needles could not easily be made as steel rods required a great deal of skill to produce them.  When the technique of drawing wire was developed in 16th century Britain was ready to build up knitting as an industry.

Existing artefacts imply that tubular rather than flat knitting was the first form of knitting and that purl stitch was developed later.  The earliest purled stitches are found in the stockings of Eleanora of Toledo 1562, although purled work could have been used earlier.

  • For non-knitters; there are two main stitches in knitting; knit and purl.  When using three or more needles using knit stitch (the earlier tubular knitting); will produce smooth knitting known as stocking stitch.  Flat knitting, using two needles, will produce garter stitch if every row is knitted but when knit and purl are used on alternate rows stocking stitch is formed.

Knitting Project

pursepursepursepurse

I was quite content to simply knit stockings as I felt it looked good in Living History situations.  That changed after reading ‘A history of Hand knitting’ by Richard Rutt and learnt about the Gunnister man; in the 1950’s an unknown man was dug up from a peat bank at Gunnister in the North of Shetland.  The peat had preserved his coat, breeches, shirt, doublet, gloves, two hats and a knitted purse.  The purse contained coins of Dutch and Swedish currency dated 1680-90.  The trade of knitted goods from the Shetlands to Dutch, Scandinavian and other mariners is recorded in the 17th century and later.  What was especially interesting was that this purse is the earliest example of multi coloured knitting from the Shetlands.  ‘A history of Hand knitting’ gave the pattern for the knitted articles and a graph for the coloured pattern and a fellow re-enactor knitter sent me a copy of the record of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  Strangely they gave different designs for the pattern although the purse itself was similar.  The Antiquaries simply gave a striped pattern, both used three colours.

While the purse was dated by the coins to 1690 earlier purses are known such as the relic purses of Switzerland, knitted purses or bags to hold the relics of saints which are considered to be of 14th century origin.  This suggested to me that I could have a go at knitting the purse and use it in re-enacting.  (The fact that I had bought some brown, pure wool Shetland yarn in a charity shop recently also hinted that I was ready for
the project).

Modern knitters, as well as having a pattern to guide them, also are usually given the tension or gauge*.  This is simply the number of stitches per inch, the greater the number of stitches the finer the work; some caps have just 3 or 4 stitches per inch whereas Richard Rutt gave a tension of 11.5 stitches per inch – very fine work indeed.  I knitted a couple of tension squares using my Shetland wool and different needles.  The narrowest needles I had were 2.5 mm in diameter and I knitted 9 stitches per inch.  This is much bigger than the Gunnister purse but I decided to use these needles to create the project.  I needed 2 more colours for the pattern.  Shetland wool is 2 ply (2 strands of thread twisted together to make the yarn), whereas most of the wool I had was 3 or 4 ply.  A search on the internet brought Jamison & Smith (Shetland wool brokers) to my attention a source of pure Shetland wool and a selection of coloured wool soon arrived.  My charity shop wool is double knit, the new wool was thinner but I found that I could knit them together.

knitting needlesThe construction was of rib and stockinet although the top of the purse was unusual in that I had to cast on 6 stitches then make a chain of 7 stitches with a crochet hook, this is repeated 14 times.  The crochet was a little fiddly but after the cast on row the knitting was straight forward.  Richard Rutt gives the rib to be 2 knit and 2 purl for 5 centimetres; the Scottish Antiquaries gives 2 knit and 3 purl for 5 centimetres
(Richard Rutt says to cast on 86 stitches but Scottish Antiquaries says to cast on 85 then cast on a further 1 stitch after the rib) Richard Rutt directs 1 row of purl stitches then12 rows of stockinet without shaping, then 6 rows of red pattern, after 15 more rows of the first colour 5 rows of white pattern 5 rows main colour the 5 rows of the second red pattern.  The Scottish Antiquaries give a pattern of stripes.  Both stop without returning to the main colour; I decided to do a few more rows of the main colour to balance the look of the bag.  I finished the base of the purse by grafting.  The crochet loops act as a drawstring, a length of wool doubled over and twisted made a cord and 3 tassels finish the base of the purse (copied from the original).  I was pleased with the bag, especially as it was my first attempt of bi-coloured knitting.  However comparing it to the photograph of the original in Richard Rutt’s book I could not help but notice the scale underneath the purse.  My bag was 12 cms wide, the original was 9 cms.  The difference in size was due to the different tension caused by different needle sizes.  Having been bitten by the Gunnister purse bug I trawled the internet for narrower needles.  Several sites had 2mm needles but I had trouble finding anything smaller.  Eventually I found a site with 2mm and 1.5 mm needles and ordered them.  Then I found a site which specialized in dolls houses and linked equipment where there were needles from 1mm to 0.8 mm and bought a set of 1mm needles.

The 1.5 needles arrived first and I tried to knit a tension square, I found it very difficult to use the thick double knitting yarn and decided to only use my thinner wool from the Shetland wool Brokers.  My second purse was knitted to the Scottish Antiquaries pattern and ended up with a base measurement of 10 cms.  For completeness I then knitted another purse with my 2 mm needles but used a different design and different colours.  My final experiment was with my 1mm needles, as well as being very thin they had sharp points, after trying to knit with them for a short while I ground the points off; it made it more difficult to pick up the many stitches I dropped but at least it stopped my fingers from being shredded.  I returned to Richard Rutt’s pattern in different colours.  My knitting was woefully lacking in skill and several dropped stitches were never recovered but on completion my purse was 9 cms wide.

The yarn I used was very soft and fine but by knitting to such a high stitch count, 11 per inch, the fabric formed was quite stiff and should be hard wearing.

As well as having a few coins in his purse the Gunnister man had a length of silk ribbon.  Whether this was a gift for a sweetheart or mother no-one knows but after working on several copies of his purse my thoughts return to the Gunnister man and wonder why and how he ended up in a peat bank in the Shetlands.

purses

  • This is first mentioned in 1920’s earlier knitters must have had the skills to match the pattern to size or simply guarded their professional work by not recording tension.

Bibliography

A History of Hand Knitting by Richard Rutt, 1987

The Monmouth Cap b Kirtie Buckland, Costume XIII (1979)

Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold

Knitting book by Mary Thomas 1938

Book of Knitting Patterns by Mary Thomas 1943

Websites

www.knittinghistory.co.uk

www.shetlandwoolbrokers.co.uk/

www.shetland-museum.org.uk/

Frequently asked questions

Frequently asked questions sent to Caroline

Compiled by Caroline Vincent


I find that I spend a lot of time answering the same basic questions – so, before putting fingers to keyboard, please look through the questions that have already been asked and see if there is an answer to your question.

In general you should bear in mind that my main interest and research is in the British mid 17th century clothing, this is my hobby (I have a completely unrelated day job) and I do not make clothes or patterns for commercial purposes. I will endeavour to help anyone with their questions, but I may not manage to reply straight away.


I would like to know more about making stays/corsets or other historical garments:

Either try the link on my homepage to the Elizabethan corsets or try the books listed in my useful book list, especially:

Corsets and Crinoline

By Norah Waugh

Published by Batsford

ISBN 0 7134 5699

The Cut of Women’s Clothes 1600 – 1930

By Norah Waugh

Published by Faber & Faber

ISBN 0571 085946

Period Costume for Stage & Screen – Patterns for Women’s Dress 1500-1800

By Jean Hunnisett

Published by Players Press, Inc.

ISBN 0-88734-610-3

Patterns of Fashion, The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and
Women c. 1560 – 1620

By Janet Arnold

Published by Macmillian

ISBN 0333 382845

I am making clothes from earlier (or later) periods than your stays can you help?

Try the books listed in my useful book list or look at contemporary paintings from the period.

How did women in the 17th century live?

I have spent many years researching 17th Century costume, if you want to
research the lives of 16th and 17th Century women I recommend you start
with the following books:

The Weaker Vessel

by Antonia Fraser

Published by George Wiedenfeld & Nicholson Ltd, London

ISBN 0 297 78381 5

The English Family 1450 – 1700

by Ralph A Houlbrooke

Published by

ISBN

Women all on fire – the women of the English Civil War

by Alison Plowden

Published by

ISBN

Where can I get ridgoline endcaps (or other items mentioned in your articles) from?

I am based in the UK and find ridgeline boning in habadashery
departments of department stores or in fabric shops. It is usually
hidden with bits and pieces like velcro and pipe cord.

I have assumed you have tried ridgeline on a word search. (or is it
ridgoline?). Try needlework supplies as well.

Julie Yoder from the Clann Tarten advises that Ridgeline is available in the U.S. from
Greenberg and Hammer, Inc., 24 W. 57th St., New York, NY.
They apparently carry Rigelene, the endcaps, steel boning by the cut piece or by
the pound, and thousands of other sewing necessities.

How much boning should I use?

Amount of boning? Now that’s a question. As I have a wooden Busk which
I can use centrefront I don’t need that much to stiffen. Following
patterns of historic stays I find that a bone every half inch works for
the front and back. I usually put a few lines of boning at the side
seams as well. It depends how much support you need/want, how much
stiffening you’ve got and a basic ‘feel’ for the stays.

Metal boning would probably be better then plastic boning, if you can
cut it safely. If you can get ridgeline-end caps the ends would be
safer and more comfortable, but if you can’t get ridgeline, the end-caps
will be equally hard to come by.:-)

Where can I buy 17th century-style clothing

If you are a re-enactor in the UK you will usually have no problem getting clothing to suit most pockets and tastes from a number of traders who are to be found at larger re-enactments and at a number of re-enactors fairs through out the year. Caveat Emptor – buyer beware, please do a little research before you buy. If you live elsewhere I am afraid that I cannot help you.

Where can I get patterns for my school production of the Three Musketeers

I don’t do patterns, I scale up original patterns from the books noted in my useful book list. I’ve had a look at commercial patterns which might be of use to you. Many fashion houses do have ‘fancy dress’, especially in Autumn for Halloween and also for Thanksgiving. Available at fabric shops or haberdashery shops. One I looked at which might be suitable for a theatrical production is Butterick no.6305. It might be numbered differently in America.

It is no good for re-enactment but I hope you find it useful.

I’ve read the FAQ and can’t find an answer…

We will do our best to reply to any genuine enquiries - we apologise if we don't get back to you, but this is our hobby and we don't always have time.

* indicates required field

Straw Hats in the 17th Century

REFERENCES TO STRAW HATS IN THE 17th CENTURY

compiled by Caroline Vincent

Book: A Visual History of Costume in the Sixteenth Century.

Illustration of a pamphlet dated 1592 shows countryman weaving a hat of Straw Hat shape which author Jane Ashelford believes
to be made of straw – “The Countryman’s hat , probably made of straw, has a wide flat brim.”

Author took postgraduate degree in History of Dress at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Book: A Visual History of Costume in the Sixteenth Century.

Unknown couple c1667. Unknown artist.

Flat-brimmed Straw Hats protect the face from sunshine.

Author Valerie Cumming Assistant Director of the Museum of London.

Book: Handbook of English Costume in the 17th Century.

by C. Willett Cunnington & Phyllis Cunnington.

Materials of hats “Straw “For a fine Straw Hat lined in the brims £1.4.0 ” ”

1632. Accounts of Ben Frewen, Haberdasher, Sussex Archeal. col.

Book: The Historical Encyclopaedia of Costume by Albert Racinet

introduction by Dr Aileen Ribiero

– Holland – styles complemented by Straw Hats, also worn by English Women.

Picture: Artist Aelbert Cuyp (1620 – 91)

River Landscape with Horseman and Peasants c1655

Woman wearing sleeveless bodice and wide brimmed yellow (straw) hat.

Picture: Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640)

Rubens and his wife, Isabella Brant, in the Honeysuckle Bower.
Isabella is wearing a plaited woven straw hat, high crowned,
wide brim & lined with silk.

Useful Book List

Useful Book List for making 17th Century Clothes

Compiled by Caroline Vincent


Period Costume for Stage & Screen – Patterns for Women’s Dress 1500-1800

By Jean Hunnisett

Published by Players Press, Inc.

ISBN 0-88734-610-3

Handbook of English Costume in the 17th Century

By C.W. Cunnington and P. Cunnington

Published by Plays Inc Boston

ISBN 0 8238 0135 7

A Visual History of Costume in the 17th Century

By Valerie Cumming

Published by Batsford

ISBN 0 7134 40937

The Cut of Women’s Clothes 1600 – 1930

By Norah Waugh

Published by Faber & Faber

ISBN 0571 085946

Corsets and Crinoline

By Norah Waugh

Published by Batsford

ISBN 0 7134 5699

Patterns of Fashion, The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c. 1560 – 1620

By Janet Arnold

Published by Macmillian

ISBN 0333 382845

Evolution of Fashion Pattern Cut from 1066 – 1930

by M. Hill

Published by Batsford

ISBN 071 3408510

Costume History 1500-1900

By Valerie Cumming

Published by Batsford

ISBN 071 341829

Dress and Morality

By Aileen Ribeiro

Published by Batsford

ISBN 071 347898

The Identification of Lace

By Pat Earnshaw

Published by Shire Publications

ISBN 085 2637012

A Dictionary of lace

By Pat Earnshaw

Published by Shire Publications

ISBN 085 2637004

The Costume Accessories Series

Gloves by Valerie Cumming

Shoes by June Swan

Hats by Fiona Clark

Bags and Purses by Vanda Foster

All Published by Batsford

Some Museums to visit

Victoria and Albert, London

Museum of London

Museum of Costume, Bath

Museum of Costume, Nottingham

Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth collection of Textiles Gawthorpe Hall, Padiham near Burnley.

Gallery of English Costume, Manchester

Museum and Art Gallery, Northampton (Footwear only)

Also try the WWW Virtual Library – Museums around the UK, for a comprehensive list of on-line museums covering all periods and interests

Working class costume of 17th century women

Foreign visitors to England would often remark how well dressed the English* women were, one traveller has been quoted to say that English women would wear velvet on her back when she had not a crust of bread in her house. It shows that England did not have the ragged poor of Europe. Britain had not had a peasant class since mediaeval times and this was reflected in the appearance of its people.

*There may have been minor regional differences, for the purposes of re-enactment a broad-based English style is appropriate.

Illustration 2 It was easy to tell the status of a person by the clothes they wore. The richer you were; the better fitted, brighter coloured and more decorative were the clothes you and your family wore. This extended to any servants you had. Clothes were part of servants pay, a well favoured servant could also expect to receive presents of cast off clothes from master or mistress, to be worn or sold on. The second hand market for clothing dressed the poorer in society and helped to finance the fashions of the aspiring rich.

Clothes were looked after, they were kept as clean as possible and were maintained in a good state of repair. The proverb ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ came from the days when if a repair was not rapidly done, further damage would be caused. Clothes were patched and darned until repair was no longer possible, when the item might be taken apart to be made into something else, for example, used to line quilts.

When researching early costume, the clothing of the poor is more difficult to trace. There are no surviving garments and few artists bothered to record what the poor wore – they could not afford to pay for portraits. However there are various ways to find out what was worn by the ‘common folk’.

The word contemporary is very important here, anything written or recorded by artists at the time is far more relevant to anything written or recorded after that period. Therefore to find out who in history to trust you have to do research, discover contemporary artists and writers. The Civil War period has been of interest over the centuries, which is why, for example, the Victorians painted many Civil War scenes, however these are not contemporary and should not be trusted for any costume information.

Illustration 1 Although British artists based in Britain, provide excellent reference material, there were not many of them. European artists can be used for research. However social conditions were different and this is reflected in the national costume. Countries close to Britain would have shared similar fashions. French fashions influenced the British Court. The English middle classes had strong trading links with Holland. The Dutch were mainly Protestant with a powerful merchant class, their clothes appear to be similar to that worn by British people of similar status. The wealthy spent some of that wealth on ornamenting their houses with portraits of themselves, their families and more importantly, for this article, their servants. The servants were probably in their best clothes, as were the bourgeoisie but the differences in the clothes gives an indication of how they were worn. Which is why Dutch Old Masters can be used as reference material.

When looking at any European artist you must ask yourself whether the paintings would have any relevance to British costume. Another important factor to consider is that the artist could lie, either to flatter or to make the picture look more aesthetically pleasing. The lines of stitching might not be painted in, colours may be brighter, the oils used in the painting may have deteriorated to produce colours not intended.

I refer to Wencellas Hollar, who spent many years in England and would draw working class people and also Jacques Callot, a Frenchman who recorded life and times of the 17th century including the 30 years war See illustrations. Illustrations 1 +2 by J.Callot, 3, a detail of ‘The Camp’ 1633-35 by J.Callot, a campfollower cooking on an open fire. Illustration 4, English Country woman by W.Hollar.

Illustration 3Contemporary written evidence is useful, commentaries of important events often recorded the clothes worn, Samuel’s Peyps would describe in detail clothing worn by himself and those around him, in his diaries, sadly written after the Civil War period and therefore not contemporary . Wills written at this time record clothing, because it was a valuable asset. Finding contemporary writing is not always easy, neither is reading the writing. Translations and interpretations by modern authors can be useful, especially by fellow enthusiasts, published and found on traders row – caveat emptor.

There are some surviving garments from the 17th century, these tend to have a well known provenance. They would have been expensive or valuable for sentimental reasons, think of clothes saved nowadays – wedding dresses or christening gowns, worn once but kept indefinitely. Original garments give construction details. Working class clothes would have been made in similar manner of cut, the tailors would have used less expensive fabric.

A word of warning, due to the interest in the Civil War, these clothes may have been adapted for ‘fancy dress’ at any time after the Civil War or used by artists’ models.

If you can get close enough, look carefully at lines of stitching, have they been altered for any reason? The alterations may have been made in the 17th century so that the garment could have been worn by someone else, or at a later date to accommodate a different style of corset.

For those who do not have the time or inclination to do research here is my interpretation of the clothes worn by working class English women.

Fabrics Linen was worn next to the skin, shifts, shirts , collars, coifs, kerchiefs were made of linen. Working class women would probably not have had the resources to keep their linen white, therefore use cream, grey or beige linen – or cotton dyed with tea or coffee grounds make a good substitute. (As a Textile graduate I know how to tell the difference but for the purposes of re-enactment cotton is acceptable). Wool and wool mixtures would have been used for skirts, stays, bodices. Lace was expensive, made by the poor, worn by the rich, when portraying working class people avoid lace.

Colours Only natural dyes were available, these could produce a wide range of strong colours, but the working class would have been limited by budget. There is an interesting article ‘Dyeing for the Army’ by John Bridges, Vol. 29 No. 4, O.O.D. The dyes would fade more easily than chemical dyes. Washed out muted colours look better than harsh, strong bright colours. Working out of doors and sleeping rough, following the army would speed up the wear on materials and colour.

Headgear Women covered their heads unless they were rich enough to have their hair dressed in the fashionable style. When rich women did not have the time to dress their hair they also wore coifs. Covering ones head was a social convention, even as recently as the 1950’s women would normally wear a hat or a headscarf to go out. Going bareheaded does not indicate a whore, for information about 17th century prostitutes read Geraldine Murgatroyd’s excellent article in vol. 26, No. 3, O.O.D. If you are trying to look richer or more desirable then you would attempt to wear your hair like a rich women – no hat and no hairstyle is pure laziness.

Before my Scottish friends start their letters there is one very well known regional difference. Scottish women tended to go bareheaded, or with hair adorned by red ribbons, until they got married. Then they would wear a coif.

Bonnets/coifs/scarves were worn, anyone with living history experience will know that covered hair is much more practical. If worn, all hair would be covered by the coif, hair trailing seductively should be left to the beer tent away from the public.

Shifts Were made of linen, they could be ankle or knee length. The sleeves would cover the elbow, most sleeves would reach the wrist. Most people would own two shifts or shirts, one to wear and one to wash.

Stays Correct underwear makes the rest of the costume look ‘right’. For further information see the article is elsewhere on my web site. Boned sleeveless bodices would have been worn – although whalebone might not have been used, working class women could have used bents. These were bundles of reeds which acted as whalebone. Wooden busks would also have been used for shaping, these would have been carved locally. Numerous tapestries show women working in fields wearing sleeveless stay-like bodices. Take care, the tapestries were made in Europe and may not show British fashion, however, field working can get hot therefore it is likely that women wore only sleeveless bodices when working.

Illustration 4Collars/Kercheifs A large square of linen, folded diagonally and pinned or tied about the neck was worn, especially by labouring women. By covering the back of the neck heat is kept in when cold and sunstroke avoided when warm. The kerchief also covers the décolletage modestly, 17th century women did not invite lewd behaviour. Wait until the beer tent to show off your cleavage and avoid the infamous ‘SK tan’ markings.

Bodices See contemporary references, they were unlikely to have had braid or ribbon unless second hand from richer women. Bodices could be boned and/or worn over stays.

Skirts These were full and would make the hips look large, wearing a bum roll does look ‘right’. Showing the ankle was not immodest in the 17th century (remember we are not Victorians). I advise ankle length skirts, this avoids the effects of capillary action I observed at Aylesbury – i.e. when the skirts drag on wet ground the hem gets sodden and capillary action draws the dampness higher and higher. All skirts were known as petticoats at this time, several petticoats were worn together.

I hope this provides a useful guide to what working class women probably wore in the 17th century.

Bibliography

Handbook of English Costume in the 17th Century

By C.W. Cunnington and P. Cunnington

A Visual History of Costume in the 17th Century

By Valerie Cumming

The Cut of Women’s Clothes 1600 – 1930

By Norah Waugh

Corsets and Crinoline

By Norah Waugh

Patterns of Fashion, The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c. 1560 – 1620

By Janet Arnold

Evolution of Fashion Pattern Cut from 1066 – 1930

by M. Hill & P Bucknell

Costume History 1500-1900

By Valerie Cumming

Dress and Morality

By Aileen Ribeiro

English Costume

By Dion Clatton Calthrop

History of Costume

By Blanche Payne

Scenes of Everyday Life: Dutch Genre Paintings of the 17th century

By C Brown

Some Museums to visit:-

Victoria and Albert, London

Museum of London

Museum of Costume, Bath

Museum of Costume, Nottingham

Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth collection of Textiles Gawthorpe Hall, Padiham near Burnley.

Gallery of English Costume, Manchester

Museum and Art Gallery, Northampton (Footwear only)

Making 17th Century Stays

STAYS, A Brief History

…or, How 17th Century Women got their shape

including instructions for how to make them


Please feel free to copy this article freely as long you bear in mind that the author reserves all reproduction and other rights to this article.

If you want to reproduce this for commercial gain please contact us and I’m sure we can arrive at a mutually agreeable deal.


CONTENTS:

History

Practical

Stays Pattern

Bibliography

What they look like


History

MID 15TH CENTURY STAYS The soft flowing lines of the mediaeval period followed the natural female form. By the start of the 15th century this was changing, waists became high and small – an extra band of stiff material may have helped create this shape.
By the mid 15th century fashion had reached its peak of tall, thin lines and the pendulum of style swung to a new broad, straight silhouette and a more rigid, structured form. Italy is usually credited with the invention of the ‘busc’, the first artificial support to the upper body, whilst from Spain came the farthingale, which pushed the skirt into a conical shape. Catherine of Aragon is blamed for bringing both to England.In order to keep the bodice straight and tight a heavy underbodice was now worn, called ‘pair of bodys’. By the mid 16th century this was strengthened and stiffened by whalebones at the sides and back, fastened at the centre of either the front or back, depending on whether boning or a busk was used at the front. LATE 15TH CENTURY STAYS

Although James 1 and his wife Anne of Denmark continued Elizabeth’s extravagance of dress the farthingale gradually disappeared, affecting the bodice, which became much shorter. The ‘pair of bodys’ were now known as ‘a pair of stays’ or ‘stays’ and followed the fashionable waistline but kept the long centre front stomacher as seen in contemporary portraits.

1630'S STAYS A short bodice, with tabs, appeared in the 1630’s and was worn throughout the middle of 17th century by the middle and lower classes, long after the fashionable Miss had gone on to other styles. It was either boned or worn over a separate pair of stays.
For the ultra fashionable a softer, more rounded silhouette was appearing by the late 1630’s. Stiff patterned brocades and velvets were giving way to plain silks which folded and draped to great effect. The silhouette grew longer and straighter. Stays almost disappeared and became incorporated into the bodice itself, which was now mounted onto a stiff whaleboned lining. 1640'S STAYS

The 1640’s waist began to descend again, the bodice still mounted onto the heavily whaleboned, stay-like foundation. Similar boned bodices were also worn on the Continent.


Practical

As there are so few surviving examples of clothes from our period, without the use of an efficient time machine it is difficult to be certain of what was truly worn circa 1645. However having established to my own satisfaction that stiffened bodices were worn, I then had to choose whether to heavily bone all of my bodices or make a pair of stays and only lightly bone any bodices to go over them. Realising that we have a warmish muster occasionally I opted to make a pair of stays which could be worn as a sleeveless bodice on warm days and worn as an underbodice with layers on top for our more usual weather. These I made, lined in cotton and covered in mustard coloured wool.

STAYS PATTERN Undaunted by the scarcity of patterns I used Janet Arnold’s book Patterns of Fashion 1560-1620 to find the style I wanted, the stays were dated 1598, the same pattern is seen in Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh, dated early 17th century. This is where my previous research came in, I was able to use this style as I was aware that it was not too dissimilar to 1640’s shape. I altered the neckline to make it more contemporary to 1645.
Having decided on the fabric, wool and cotton and the pattern
the only other bits I needed were the stiffening. I used ridgeline for the
whalebone, I have recently discovered ridgeline end-caps which cover the cut
ends and stops the sharp bits working their way out of the fabric, I heartily
recommend them. The final piece of stiffening was a wooden busk measuring 13
inches (33cms). These were often presented by the woman’s sweetheart or husband
and I followed this tradition when my husband bought one as a gift from the
Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagans – alas they are no longer available from there.
He also drilled the hole at the base to allow it to be laced into the stays.
A BUSK

To make-up the stays I cut an extra pattern in cotton. This I fitted and arranged the ridgeline roughly following Janet Arnold’s drawing – leaving a gap at the front for the busk. As I did not know whether I would be able to wear the stays with the busk I made a pocket of fabric into which it could be inserted and stitched this to the boned interlining. I again checked for fit and made up the wool and cotton bodice and put the interlining in between the two layers before it was completed.

STAYS - FRONT Tabs were added afterwards and I stitched eyelet holes at the back to allow for lacing-up. The original stays would have had metal rings to reinforce the eyelet holes which I had to do without as I could not find any of the right size. There was a line of boning between the eyelet holes and the centre back edge to give a neat finish STAYS - BACK

I made the stays a few years ago and am still happy with their authenticity and their fit. The busk is remarkably comfortable and does stay in place.


The finished article

Bibliography

A Visual History of Costume in the 17th Century

By Valerie Cumming

Pub Batsford

ISBN 0 7134 40937

The Cut of Women’s Clothes 1600 – 1930

By Norah Waugh

Pub Faber & Faber

ISBN 0571 085946

Corsets and Crinoline

By Norah Waugh

Pub Batsford

ISBN 0 7134 5699

Patterns of Fashion, The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c. 1560 – 1620

By Janet Arnold

Pub Macmillian

ISBN 0333 382845