Monday, November 14, 2016

Extreme Embroidery, 17th Century Style

by M.J. Logue

History isn't just about dates and battles; it's about people, and I don't think people have ever changed. We all want, basically, the same things, to a greater or lesser degree. We want to be warm and dry at night, we want something to eat and something to drink. According to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, once you have realised one level of need, you can move onto the next. This is called actualisation:

1. Biological and Physiological needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.
2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.
3. Love and belongingness needs - friendship, intimacy, affection and love, - from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships.
4. Esteem needs - achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others.
5. Self-Actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

The level one and two needs, well, they are simple needs, aren't they? The sort of things no one should be without in a civilised world. (She says, channelling her inner Leveller.)

Level three, we're starting to get complicated. And you’re probably thinking, what’s this to do with history?

Embroidery. As George Wingfield Digby says in his 1963 book "Elizabethan Embroidery", it is "....the integrated expression of a society still creative and joyful about the things it could make and use."

Embroidered linen jackets were fashionable, in the 1620s, for undress wear for the lady about town. Some were professionally embroidered, some were bought in pieces with patterns ready drawn on them, and some were drawn up at home from books like Shorleyker’s Scholehouse For The Needle. A woman sat there in 1620-ish, and she made a jacket for the joy of it. Women drew on silly bugs and beasties with a fine-nibbed pen and embroidered them in not-always-realistic colours for the pleasure of owning a pretty thing and for the joy of wearing something that had given her pleasure to create.

The jacket I’m thinking of, Margaret Layton’s jacket, is a distinct level 5 - a lady realising her personal potential, self-fulfillment, personal growth and peak experiences. It's impossible to tell if it was made by a professional embroiderer or a competent, accomplished amateur. A lady four hundred years ago, loving being herself, loving the skill of her fingers, probably loving the way it sparkled and shimmered and the way her Francis might look at her at dinner when she was wearing it. A real person, who had a best jacket that she put on for dressy occasions. Who maybe had little sticky-fingered nieces and nephews admiring her birds and bugs. I imagine her jacket probably smelt of rose-water, or lavender water, and maybe a little bit sweaty under the arms, maybe a little bit of the ghosts of half a hundred suppers. But a woman you could probably sit down and talk to comfortably enough, a woman with whom you might have things in common - who might talk knowledgeably about gardens, and orderly households, and the cost of a loaf of bread.

The jacket was originally owned and worn by Margaret Layton (1579–1641), wife of Francis Layton (1577–1661) who was one of the Yeomen of the Jewel House during the reigns of James I, Charles I and, briefly, Charles II. We know this, because there's a portrait by Marcus Gheerearts the Younger of her wearing it: if you go to the V&A, you can see them side by side. She’s - she was - a real person. That little tiny child-sized jacket belonged to her. I imagine she barely reached to my shoulder.
It’s interesting to compare the obviously amateur homemade version of the very similar embroidery design on the loose at-home jacket from between 1590 and 1630. Although exquisitely worked, this jacket is crudely cut from a single layer of linen, indicating the work of a seamstress or embroiderer, someone without a tailor's training. It has no cuffs, collar or lining, and the sleeves are cut in one piece. The jacket was later altered to fit a thinner person. The sleeves were taken off, the armholes re-shaped, the sides cut down, and the sleeves set in again.

I think they’re beautiful - I love the shape of them, the feminine, but severe style. They’re very simple, there's very little shaping to them and so they lend themselves beautifully to expanses of embroidery, and the kind of tiny, intricate designs by which a clever embroidress could demonstrate her skill, and her wit, to an admiring domestic audience.

I love the personalities of the women that show through the embroidery - the choice of motifs or materials, the levels of ambition versus level of skill.


M.J. Logue is a writer, mad cake lady, re-enactor, and 17th century historian.

She's been slightly potty about the clankier side of Ironside for around 20 years, and lists amongst her heroes in this unworthy world Sir Thomas Fairfax, Elizabeth Cromwell and John Webster (for his sense of humour.)

When not purveying historically-accurate cake to various re-enactment groups across the country, M.J. Logue can usually be discovered practising in her garden with a cavalry backsword.

Free this week on Amazon: Entertaining Angels


  1. Great article. The amount of work in these clothes always astounds me.

    1. I'm making a little coif with some of the designs of the Layton jacket - a tiny little thing, no more than about 6 inches by 8 inches. It's taken me over 12 months, and I've completed about half of it. It's a sobering reflection!

  2. I enjoyed this article so much. Those jackets are both exquisite. Amazing workmanship.

  3. I love the jackets. I have embroidered my whole life, as my mother and grandmothers did. I read a novel a few years ago about the English embroiderers of the middle ages. I can't remember the name of it and I think I gave it away. That was the first I was aware of that great art.


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