Tuesday, September 15, 2015

An Intricate 17thc. Woman's Knitted Jacket

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Isabella reporting,

Last week I shared several fans that I discovered in the study drawers of the Donghia Costume & Textiles Study Center at the RISD Museum in Providence, RI. Today I'm featuring another piece from the drawers that completely captivated me: a women's knitted jacket dated from 1630-50.

As a long-time knitter myself, this jacket immediately caught my eye. It's knit of silk in a beautiful green and metal-wrapped thread, with the elaborate floral pattern knitted in, and modern knitters will recognize some of the familiar patterns still worked today. The gauge is very fine by today's standards, probably about 15-17 stitches to the inch. For comparison's sake, the finest modern hand-knitting is worked with lace-weight cotton thread on 000 needles at a gauge of 8-10 stitches to the inch.

The construction of the jacket is simple: knitted rectangles form the sleeves, fronts, and back, and were sewn together, and despite the skill of the knitting, that somewhat clumsy construction probably means it wasn't a luxury garment. There aren't any buttons or other closings, and it's likely that the jacket were pinned together like many other garments of the time. The jacket was likely made in Italy, possibly for import to other countries like England, and was probably hand knit by professional knitters. From the size, it was probably made for a woman.

I know that's a lot of "probably" and "likely", but the jacket's exact provenance isn't known. There are several others similar to it in other collections, but many questions remain for scholars about who wore such jackets and who made them, their purpose and roles as garments (fashion? warmth? masquerade?)

Here are a few notes about the jacket, generously provided by Laurie Brewer, Associate Curator of Costume and Textiles, RISD Museum:

"This jacket is knitted in stocking stitch, a combination of knit and purl stitches using green and gold silk thread, with some of the outlines floral motifs in reverse stocking stitch. The floral motifs were skillfully made, with the gold thread only loosely stranded across the back of the stitches. The basketwork around the hem is in alternate blocks of stocking and purl stitch, and the front edge is in garter stitch. 

"We know of two other related works: one at the Cleveland Museum and the other at the V&A....The Cleveland Museum has the most closely related example, in both construction and patterning. Of special note, all three examples employ the basket stitch at the hem of the jackets, and all embrace the Italian design impulse of the meandering, meandro floral motif. The floral motif that decorates the RISD Museum's garment is influenced by contemporary woven silk designs, which nearly always featured flowers."

If you're feeling really adventurous, you can knit yourself a similar jacket with the pattern derived from the V&A jacket in Seventeenth-Century Women's Dress Patterns by Jenny Tiramani & Susan North. (Thanks to Samantha McCarty for reminding me of this!)

Many thanks to Lani Stack of the RISD Museum for her assistance with this post. 

Top: Woman's knitted jacket, 1630-50, Italian, artist unknown. RISD Museum. Photograph ©RISD Museum.
Bottom: Detail, Woman's knitted jacket, RISD Museum. Photograph ©2015 Susan Holloway Scott.


Sarah said...

Extraordinary patience needed! a fascinating garment, thanks for sharing

Chris Woodyard said...

Absolutely love these! There is another example at the Metropolitan Costume collection. http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/84229?rpp=30&pg=2&ft=sweater&pos=46 knit

So many of these knit jackets/waistcoats are green. I see that the one in Cleveland is called a "hunting jacket." One wonders if there is some connection--"Robin-Hood green" was an 18th and 19th century convention for archery and some hunting clothes. Does that color-scheme go back even further?

Karen said...

There's actually quite a few of these sorts of jackets; I've got a batch of links to 'em towards the bottom of http://www.larsdatter.com/knit.htm :-)

marquise.de said...

Thank you for sharing! There's another one of those jackets in the fashion museum in the Louvre. That was the first one I ever saw and I, too, was fascinated.
You wouldn't have any more pictures of the inside, would you? I've always wondered whether the gold thread was carried across (floating) on the wrong side - it seems to expensive to do this.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

There ARE a number of these in various collections (Karen's list is a good one) which makes the lack of scholarship surrounding them surprising. I think it's interesting how they're called so many different things - jackets, hunting shirts undershirts, even masquerade costumes - which underlies the fact that no one knows that much about how they were worn or who wore them. Fashion mysteries!

Marquise.de, I'm afraid I don't have an interior picture, since the jacket was in an enclosed study drawer and with the front edges arranged to meet, I could only glimpse the inside. Anyone else seen inside one of these to know if they're worked in intarsia, or with threads carried across the work?

Scrapiana said...

I feel just a little responsible for stirring up your interest in these jackets by posting the V&A example on Instagram (@Scrapianagram). Glad to have been of service! :D

Elizabeth Moon said...

Marquise.de: My guess is that the gold thread was indeed carried in floats, because the loss of thread to that would be less than the loss in loose ends for weaving in, even at that gauge. If each gold bit used a separate piece of yarn, the ends would take up a fair bit of yarn--in some cases more than float. In my own work, I make the decision on "float or cut" on the basis of the distance to the next use. If the distance to be covered is less than the length needed to weave in, I float it. Particularly true if the color to be floated repeats. Another value of the floats is increased warmth (may not be a factor with this, or might be.)

What surprises me a little is finding such a garment in a Rhode Island museum--was it sourced there? The New England colonies in the 17th c. were religious, usually with restrictions on color and type of clothing, to avoid "luxury" and "showiness". Who was wearing gold & green silk? It would have been expensive.

Fascinating, absolutely. Thanks for posting about it.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Scrapiana, you can ALWAYS send me down rabbit holes like this one. :)

Elizabeth Moon, My guess is that it's probably worked in intarsia - forgive me if I over-explain for non-knitters! - which means that the pattern was worked with large bobbins for each section, with the threads twisted at the edge of the pattern, but not carried across. No floats or pulling, and an economical use of the thread, but a method that requires more skill so as not to leave holes. But that's only a guess....

As for it being in RI - I believe it was donated to the museum's collection in the 20thc. It doesn't have any provenance of having been worn in RI, esp. not in the 17thc (though if any of the early New England colonists would have worn something like this, it would have been a Rhode Islander - no problems being showy there!) The RISD Museum isn't a museum dedicated to local history, but a collection that encompasses good design and art from every culture and time period. Well worth a visit! :)

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