18th Century Linen Mitts – Research

the haymakers.jpg
The Haymakersdetail by George Stubbs, 1785

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. 

Fort Dobbs wood chopping
The camp follower before the sunburn.

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.

Extant garments:

linen mitts museum rotterdam
“Paar mitaines van ongebleekt linnen met wit borduurwerk op de rug” (Pair of mittens of unbleached linen with white embroidery on the back) Museum Rotterdam, accession #20890-1-2
linen mitts MET C.I.44.8.9a, b
Linen mitts, probably European, The MET, accession #C.I.44.8.9a, b
linen mitts MFA 43.1968a-b.jpg
Pair of light brown linen mitts, Museum of Fine Arts, accession #43.1968a-b

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

Primary references: 

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:

Larkin & Smith Mitt Pattern

“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

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Why Reenact British?

Why Reenact British https://thefarmingdaughter.com/2017/04/06/why-reenact-british

The uncertainty was clear in Mom’s voice. “You’re going to reenact British? Why would you want to do that?” It was a fair question. I had, after all, just announced I was going to start reenacting the Revolutionary War…on the side of the “enemy”.

I have reenacted the 19th century and the American Civil War for over five years. Most of the time I portray a Northern civilian on the side of the Union. This year I decided to branch out into reenacting the 18th century and the Revolutionary War. I am currently researching and sewing to develop a British camp follower impression, a woman who followed the army to lend support through cooking, doing laundry, sewing, and nursing. So why did I decide to portray what is usually viewed as “the bad guys”?

Besides wanting to participate with some of my friends who reenact British, there are several reasons why I chose to side with the Redcoats for my first 18th century impression.

I want to reenact British because…

1.) …someone has to portray them!

You have to admit, it would be a pretty lame reenactment if the brave Continental soldiers and American militia marched out to do battle with no one! There are two sides to every conflict and it’s necessary for reenactors to be willing to rally ’round the King’s Colours as well as the Continental banner.

2.) …I want to accurately tell their story.

It has been said, “History is written by the victors.” As Americans it’s understandable that we would like to glorify and emphasize our side of the story. However, I think the British narrative deserves to be told as well. To gain an accurate picture of the war we need to look at the events from both the American and British perspectives. I hope through my portrayal I will be able to negate some of the common misconceptions and bias surrounding the British.

3.) …I want to humanize them. 

This somewhat goes along with #2. Since the British were on the opposing side we tend to brand them as vengeful monsters. History is not as cut and dried as “good guys” and “bad guys”, however. There were men who acted honorably and those who acted deplorably on both sides. I want my persona to bring the British to life, to make their motivations, hopes, desires, and struggles relatable.

4.) …I might have been one in the 18th century.

Before the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies belonged to Great Britain and the colonists themselves were British subjects. At the time, rebelling against England was viewed by some as a treacherous and foolish decision, essentially turning traitor on your own country. Even if you disagreed with some of England’s policies, that didn’t necessarily mean you were willing to take the radical step of revolution. With the perspective of time it’s easy to unhesitatingly claim that we would have sided with the Patriots, but that might not have been the case.

5.) …they had more camp followers.

Both the American and British armies had women camp followers, but the Crown forces tended to have a higher ratio. It is entirely appropriate to portray a follower of either army, but the description of the British with their “Herds of Women” makes it especially relevant to portray one. The double benefit is most of the clothing I will be sewing for my British impression will translate to an American impression as well.

 

It had been suggested to me that portraying the British will disrespect the sacrifices our founding fathers made. I believe the contrary. Accurately and knowledgeably representing the British will only further show how truly amazing the American victory was over the super power of Great Britain. I’m excited to begin this foray into a new historical portrayal!

What do you think of reenactors portraying “the other side”? If you are a reenactor, what made you choose your particular persona?

-Michaela “The Farming Daughter”

(Post image: detail of “The Relief” by William Dickinson after Henry William Bunbury, 1781)