Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Fabulous Fabrics of the 17th century

In the 17th century all yarn for fabric was combed and spun by hand using a drop spindle and then woven into cloth. The immense amount of work that went into this process is often forgotten. Linen, wool and silk were all spun and combined in different ways to give different effects.
Coloured fabrics were usually called "stuffs" and were very popular after the Restoration and the end of Puritan rule when bold colours could be worn again. Many English fabrics sought to imitate those of France and Italy and were characterised by elaborate finishing techniques such as glossing, hot-pressing and watering. Weaving and finishing was a specialised craft operated typically by one or two journeyman-weavers in small independently owned workshops. At this period blue was not very fashionable as many servants were uniformed in blue. Orange and yellow were in vogue for women's clothes. Some fabrics were woven and then cut with decorative slashes as in the picture above. Each slash had to be buttonhole-edged by hand to achieve the effect. Thanks to Nicole Kipar for this picture.

Very desirable too were fabrics embroidered by hand, with what came to be known as "crewel" work, the more opulent the better, as long as you were not in servitude to somebody else, in which case you had to obey the "sumptuary laws" and dress according to your station.

This fabric from a 1630's jacket from the V&A museum features a fanciful bird woven in red wool on a linen twill. Later this sort of work was more often seen on furnishings and drapes for the house.
If you imagine how much time it would have taken you will be even more amazed by this example below. Another linen jacket made in about 1610 and lined with coral silk taffeta. The embroidery includes spider-knots, stemstitch, chainstitch and buttonhole stitches. The edging is silver gilt bobbin lace. Uniquely, on the V&A website you can see a picture of the jacket being worn in a portrait of the wearer.
Even handkerchiefs, purses, chemises, and shoes were embroidered, not to mention household linens and drapes for beds and windows. Above you can see women teaching young girls the art of embroidery and lace-making. The lady on the right has a lace-makers pad, and is working the pinned individual threads into lace.
Below is a pair of embroidered shoes, I do not know if they embroidered the fabric first and then made up the shoes, or did it the other way around. In any case, they are lovely. There are many other examples in the Northampton Shoe Museum. I used the shoes as part of the inspiration for my book, The Lady's Slipper, which features beautiful embroidered shoes like these. You can read an extract here

The Lady's Slipper
"The novel grips from the opening lines and carries the interest throughout. The several plot strands are seamlessly blended and come together in a wholly satisfying conclusion. Her characters are so real that they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf.

Highly recommended."

The Historical Novels Review


  1. As a knitter and a failed spinner, I can not imagine everything needing to be spun via a drop spindle. Ugh!

  2. My research finds that by the 17th century sumptuary laws were mostly ignored and unenforced. In fact, people gave their servants castoff clothing (even the poor had at least one servant, or someone to come in to help with the larger chores). At the end of the day, one couldn’t really designate who was a servant or who was the employer because so many wore used clothing.

  3. I'm not sure what I would do if I'd lived to be very old back then, my eyesight is so bad now that I'm in my 40's, but I did love to do handwork when I was younger! How lovely their clothing must have been!

  4. Tess, you are old enough to be thrown out to the workhouses. Most servants could only work till their forties due to the hard life and lesser quality food. Most had no retirement income and became stray puppies.

  5. Forgot to mention that I thoroughly enjoyed this post! I can't imagine ripping the fabric and then stitching up the edges. Don't wash too often, I suggest.

  6. Beautiful clothing, hard to imagine the work involved in making them from scratch. Did they really not have spinning wheels in the 17thC? No wonder clothes were passed down and down. I have read that Elizabeth I, once she discovered knitted silk stockings would have nothing else and only wore them once - so hopefully this was much to the ladies in waiting's benefit. I have a drop spindle and a quantity of carded wool - just cant manage the spinning bit yet!

  7. I wouldn't have survived if I had to do this kind of work. So beautiful, but so beyond me as I'm blind as a bat. (-;
    Good article!

  8. Thanks to Deborah Swift, author of The Lady's Slipper for sharing this fabulous article on historical very informative...and interesting to boot!

  9. I'm an embroiderer concentrating in particular on the art of stumpwork which dates from the late 17th century and I just LOVE that everything was embroidered! Some of the designs that originated then are tremendous sources of inspiration. Just look at the shoes, for example. I'd love to embroider my own silk evening shoes and have certainly done my own evening bags
    I imagine the fabric would be embroidered first and then the silk/satin taken to the shoemaker to be made up. It'd be almost impossible to embroider such a design after the shoes were made, to get such perfect stitches.
    And of course, now I simply MUST read The Lady's Slipper!


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