Last weekend I had a lovely time at Fort Dobbs participating in their War for Empire French and Indian living history weekend. I learned about 18th century shoemaking and tailoring, visited with friends, tried my hand at log hewing (not so easy in stays!), and soaked up some North Carolina sun – perhaps too much sun. Yup, it was inevitable that the pasty white ghost would get a sunburn after being sequestered in six months of darkness up North. Thankfully all of those 18th century clothing layers and wide brimmed bonnets protected the majority of my lily skin, but my exposed forearms turned a nice shade of tomato.
After that happened, the obvious question was, “What is the 18th century solution to this problem?” Of course sunscreen is a perfectly viable (21st century) option, but I don’t like to have to carry around and conceal modern items and I usually forget to reapply it enough anyways. Thankfully there is a period alternative that solves my problem: linen mitts.
If you follow @girloncampaign on Instagram you might have seen my posts about my knitted wool mitts I made. Those, like other knit and sewn mitts of the 18th century, were constructed from wool, silk, or leather for warmth purposes, but I have also found references to linen mitts for sun protection. I hope to make a pair soon, but in the meantime I’d like to collect my primary source references and extant garments here for inspiration.
An earlier pair of mitts believed to have been made in India for the western market. Linen plain weave with silk embroidery. LACMA, accession #M.80.43.4a-b
A later pair of mitts, MET, accession #2009.300.1685a, b
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: Elizabeth Clemens, William Smith, 9th December 1761, reference #t17611209-8:
“Elizabeth Clemens, otherwise Smith, was indicted for stealing…two pair of white thread mitts, value 2 s.”
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: Samuel Lane, Esther Lamb, 10th January 1781, reference #t17810110-30:
“Samuel Lane and Esther Lamb were indicted for stealing…two pair of linen mitts, value 6 d.”
The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: Henry Abel, 22nd February 1781, reference #t17810222-29:
“Henry Abel was indicted for stealing…two pair of linen mitts, value 5 s.”
“Wives, Slaves, and Servant Girls” by Don N. Hagist, entry # 316:
“She stole and carried off with her…one pair of white cotton mitts.”
Based on what I’ve unearthed so far, linen mitts seem predominantly to be made from white or unbleached fabric, but constructed in a similar manner to silk or wool fabric mitts. I plan on constructing my own pair, but Penny River makes lovely recreations for those inclined to purchase a ready made pair.
Various patterns are available:
“Costume Close Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern 1750-1790” by Linda Baumgarten, pg. 72-74 (the pattern is also available for free without the construction notes on the Making History blog)
“The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking” by Lauren Stowell & Abby Cox, pg. 60-63