Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Beautiful (and Romantic) 18th c. Man's Shirt from "The Diligent Needle" Exhibition

Isabella reporting,

Today I'm posting one of the breathtaking examples of needlework from The Diligent Needle: Instrument of Profit, Pleasure, & Ornament, an exhibition currently showing at Winterthur Museum. 

Hung against a dark wall, this 18th c. man's linen shirt is almost sculptural in its pristine perfection. I've written other posts about similar shirts here and here, so I won't repeat how they're made, how often they're laundered, or who wore them.

So why write about another one here (except, of course, because it's so stunningly beautiful)? While most men of every class purchased shirts made by tailors (remember that at this time, the primary cost of any garment lay in the fabric, not the labor), shirts were one of the few garments that wives and mothers could, and did, make at home. The economical geometry of 18th c. shirts made them comparatively easy to cut out and sew, and the voluminous shape did away with any challenging issues of fitting. The simple construction focused the attention on the stitching, and an accomplished seamstress could display her gifts for perfect tiny stitches and neat hems, left. Fancy needlework was admired, but skillful plain sewing like this was almost considered a wifely virtue.

Shirts were also intimate garments, worn next to the skin, and for most men at this time who still had not adopted the new-ish fashion for underdrawers, the tails of shirts also served as underwear. All of these reasons made a well-stitched shirt a popular gift from a bride or newlywed wife to her husband, and they are often mentioned in letters and diaries of the time. A new wife could proudly cloth her husband with her own labors and romantically think of him with every stitch, while he in turn would also be proud to wear a shirt that showed his new wife was accomplished and frugal.

Although the curators at Winterthur don't know either who made or wore this shirt, their guess is that it was one of these "newlywed" shirts. Not does its sparkling condition hint at a shirt that was perhaps put aside as a keepsake, but the stitcher also added a small, sentimental touch: at the bottom of the neck-opening, serving as a reinforcement, is a small appliqued heart, right. Awww....

Above: Shirt, maker unknown, linen, probably made in America, c1790-1820. Winterthur Museum.
Photographs © 2014 by Susan Holloway Scott.


  1. Such meticulous stiching! I know how hard it is to produce those full but neat gathers. My grandmother could sew like that. Not I, alas.

  2. My husband was a member of both American Revolution and Civil War re-actor groups. I made a shirt quite similar to this one. I enjoy sewing but the sleeves and collar on this shirt were a challenge. I made a muslin shirt for the Civil War and a linen shirt for the American Revolution.

  3. This is indeed beautiful handiwork!

  4. I love these old shirts and have mid 19thc French linen examples, with monograms, pleating and plackets. The chanvre/linen can be very stiff and tough and so cotton collars and cuffs were added - or, a farmer might get his workers to 'wear them in' for comfort! I love the way the shirts often have darned repairs, and usually so neat and perfectly done that they add enormously to the piece. A lost art I think.

  5. I've been sewing ever since I can remember but never used linen until I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism. I am sure the linen most of us use is nowhere near as sturdy or as fine as this cloth, but it is still quite a pleasure to wear. The reason it's cooler when wet than cotton is that cotton yarn swells when it's dampened - so it doesn't breathe near as well as linen. Now, in sailcloth that's a good thing, linen or hemp sails sag and get baggy, cotton don't so your sailing ship is faster.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.