September 2013

The Tailoring Test

Sometimes, when one is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff to learn about a topic, it helps to make an outline of the knowledge you want to tackle.

To make it more interesting, I framed my outline like a test. Or series of tests, really.

The first section: What would I know if I was an actual tailor’s apprentice of the 16th century. The second section: What would a journeyman know? And finally, what would a master tailor know?

It’s really helped me learn a lot. It’s also caused me to branch out into totally unexpected areas, like economics and social history and agriculture, while hunting down answers to particular questions.

Here it is:

Orme’s Tailor’s Bills

Today’s contribution to the Research Singularity:

Read Mr. Orme’s Bills from Tailors, Haberdashers and Other Merchants

I found this collection of bills at the Public Records office. They were a bunch of loose-leaved single and double sheets of paper in a porfolio. Some looked like they’d been written yesterday; others were waterstained, torn, burned on the edges, or had holes eaten into the paper. Some were written in beautiful, flowing secretary; others appeared to be written by Dr, Jekyll’s alter ego.

It got me thinking about what a miracle it is that these things survive. (more…)

A Fistful of Probates

Probate Inventories are inventories taken at the time of someone’s death, and are meant to catalog the value of everything they own in order to come up with a true value for the person’s assets–useful when calculating estate taxes, etc.

A probate inventory usually progresses methodically through the person’s house, listing the worth of their furniture, kitchen equipment, farming equipment, etc., etc. In some cases, the clothing for a person is summed up in a succinct “His Apparell: 1L”. Sometimes we’re  luckier, and the inventory contains a more detailed listing of the person’s clothing, with a value given for each item.

Even so, probate inventories are rarely an accurate glimpse into a person’s possessions or belongings. Items always disappeared between a person’s death and an inventory-taking, and clothing was a notoriously portable form of wealth.

In the book Wills and Inventories from the Registry at Durham, Probate Inventories for a number of merchants are listed–including fabric merchants. Drapers, Mercers, and Haberdashers. The contents of their shops are given in detail, with prices for all of the fabrics and small wares they contained. This is a valuable snapshot into the life of tailors and others working with cloth–what fabrics did they buy, of what colors, and how much did these fabrics cost?

I loaded a number of probate inventories into DressDB from Durham Wills and Inventories today. Some were for merchants, others for people with particularly detailed wardrobes. All are of interest and use to the textile and clothing historian.

William Wray, Haberdasher

I just finished transcribing and reading through the account book of William Wray, a farmer and haberdasher–dealer in fabrics and small wares–in the town of Ripon.

One of the questions responsible for beginning my research into tailors’ bills and accounts was a simple one: what did a tailor or cloth-seller make? To answer this, I had to find out how much his materials cost and how much they sold for. This opened up a whole nest of additional questions: what sort of profit did a tailor make? What about the people he bought things from? How often did a draper buy from his suppliers? Did a cloth merchant have the concept of wholesale vs retail rates? Did he sell things to different people for different amounts?

This account book has answers, or at least suggested possibilities, for several of these questions. It lists the purchases that Wray made from cloth suppliers–how many yards of what fabrics, for how much–and also records who he sold things to, and for how much. It covers the years 1588 to 1597, and contains several hundred entries.

A thorough investigation and data-crunching session will be needed to suck these accounts dry of all that they have to offer (yeah, I know, it’s on my list of things to do) but here are some of the interesting things I noticed during the transcription.

Wray bought things from a lot of people, but he bought  a surprisingly narrow range of goods. The fabrics he bought–buffin, sackcloth, rash, jean fustian and milan fustian, durance–were modestly priced, affordable by the merchants and well-to-do yeomen of the town. Black and purple were the fabrics he had the most of; after that it was green, orange tawny and straw-color.

He bought from each of his regular suppliers between three to six times a year, supplementing these with the occasional purchase from others. Those one-off purchases appeared, on the whole, to cost slightly more than supplies from his regulars.

He sold lots of silk embroidery floss, fringe (black, and black-and-crimson fringe), and ribbon–everything from silk satin ribbon to lowly linen inkle tape. He also had a store of soap, starch, cinnamon, nutmeg, raisins, sugar candy and other small whatnots. He sold cheap narrow taffata (levant taffeta), gartering, and buttons of hair, silk and thread.

He bought a lot of his stock on October 11 of every year, which puzzled me until I realized that this was Michelmas day in the Elizabethan era. There must have been a festival or fair in Rippon, where various venders of fabric and small wares gathered.

He sold goods on to petty chapmen, men who traveled the roads with their wares on their back or on a wagon. He sold to the wives and men of the community, and even to a local knight, Sir Mallory.

And he made a profit of approximately 40% on the goods he bought and sold. (The buffin fabric, at least). Interestingly, Sir Mallory, Esquire, paid a third again as much for a yard of purple buffin as did another, less exalted townsman.

There’s a lot to be discovered in these accounts yet…I’ll post more conclusions as I find them.

Read Wray’s Account Book

Elizabethan Petticoats

What’s a petticoat?

In 100 words or less, a petticoat is:

Lia de Thornegge's Red petticoat

Lia de Thornegge’s Red petticoat

  • Usually a skirt with a sleeveless, front-lacing bodice; sometimes a separate skirt tied to a bodice with points, and sometimes a skirt with a sleeved, front-lacing bodice.
  • Usually red, especially for the lower and merchant orders.
  • Usually closed with lacings, though there are a few references to petticoats closing with hooks and eyes. Some petticoats had placards pinned or fastened across the lacings in front.
  • Made of wool or silk fabric; no references to linen or fustian petticoats have been found.
  • Frequently had bodices and skirts of different colors and fabrics.
  • were often lined or interlined with stiff fabric, like fustian or buckram, for support.
  • Until the 1580s, were the primary garment (alongside the kirtle) used for supporting the bosom and achieving the period, flat-fronted silhouette.



What’s a Petticoat? | Petticoats for Re-enactors: some considerations | Search for Petticoats in DressDB | Where can I find out More about Petticoats? | Making a Petticoat |
Additional References to Petticoats