Tag Archives: ratio of time spent spinning to time spent weaving

The Evolution of the Shirt and Cut My Cote: Book Recommendation

I’v been wanting to recommend this little book, Cut My Cote, for a long time, and, since I showed some Victorian era men’s shirts in a recent post, this seems like a good time to share some things Cut My Cote taught me about the evolution of the shirt.

Shirt spun, woven and stitched by Elizabeth Hitchings in 1816. Metropolitan Museum.

Shirt made by Elizabeth Wild Hitchings in 1816. Metropolitan Museum Collection.

“This shirt was created, from the linen fiber to the finished garment, by the donor’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth Wild Hitchings, for her husband Benjamin Hitchings, a sea captain, in 1816.”

Cut My Cote, by Dorothy K. Burnham, is more of a pamphlet than a book, but its 36 pages are packed with useful diagrams and thought provoking information. For me, it was one of those “whack on the side of the head” books, because I had simply never considered how precious cloth was in the pre-industrial age, or how garment construction was influenced by the size of the handwoven cloth available. Making clothes from Burnham’s diagrams is a real education.

This book expands on  some themes from Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Barber. Barber, an archeologist and a weaver, estimated that it takes a woman seven hours to hand spin enough thread to weave for one hour. For the woman spinning and weaving and sewing a linen shirt like the one above, every scrap would represent days of labor. You can understand why “zero waste” clothing is not a new idea.

Diagram of Man's shirt, by Dorothy Burnham, showing how none of the handwoven linen was wasted. From Cut My Cote. Pleas do not copy this image.

Diagram of 16th c. man’s shirt, by Dorothy Burnham, showing how not a single inch of the handwoven linen was wasted. From Cut My Cote. Please do not copy this image. The cloth was 27 inches wide.

In the shirt above, the sleeves (B) narrow from below the elbow to the wrist. The triangles of fabric (C) trimmed from the lower part of the sleeves are used to widen the upper part. The neckline is slit straight across, and gathered into the collar at front and back. This gives ease across the back. (Modern shirts have a center back pleat for the same reason.) Notice how similar it is to that shirt made by Elizabeth Wild Hitchings nearly three hundred years later.

“I shall cut my cote after my cloth.”

Burnham examines this proverb and finds it true:  “I shall cut my cote after my cloth.” ( Haywood’s Proverbs, published in 1546) You may have heard a variant of the proverb:

“You must cut your coat to fit your cloth.”

The size of the cloth often dictates the shape of the garment. Using her measurements of rare surviving garments, Burnham charts their cutting patterns. In examples that trace the development of the European shirt, for instance, you can see how reluctantly the cloth is cut at all, and how every inch is utilized.

The Loom and The Shirt

Burnham explains the various types of looms used from place to place, and how the physical requirements of the loom (width, portability, number of weavers) dictates the width of the cloth. Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt [all slave-owning societies, as it happens] used very wide, vertical or horizontal looms; some needed two weavers passing the shuttle back and forth. The Greeks wove big, wide pieces of cloth, and wore them sideways, wrapped around the body with one selvage as a hem and the other at the top, usually pinning (rather than sewing) the garment at the shoulders. Excess length was controlled with belts, or by folding the top down, or both (below right.) It didn’t need cutting or sewing.

Greek charioteer, ca 475 BC; Roman dancing girl, before 79 AD.

Greek charioteer, ca 475 BC; Roman dancing girl, before 79 AD.

Nomadic societies had to use looms that were portable and easy to set up. Sometimes a waist strap (or back strap) loom was used (Click here to see one being used.) When fabrics began to be worn vertically, instead of having the selvage as a hem, their width was dictated by the weaver’s reach when passing the shuttle from one side of the loom to the other. Since shirts made from narrow cloth were also worn very long, added width was needed for walking, so the sides had to be open at the hem, or the front and back were slit and godets inserted, as below. The fabric for this 13th century shirt was only 22 inches wide. Fabric (C) left over from the sleeves (B), which narrow toward the wrist, is used for godets (C) to widen the bottom of the shirt.

Burnham's diagram for a 13th century French shirt. The wedges cut off the fabric used for sleeves have been inserted into the bottom of the shirt front and back. Please do not copy this image.

Burnham’s diagram for a 13th century French shirt. The wedges (C) cut off the fabric used for sleeves have been inserted into the bottom of the shirt front and back. Please do not copy this image.

This drawing of a medieval farm worker shows a similar garment, with tapered sleeves and a very full skirt.

Harvesting barley in a long, belted, shirt-like garment. Late 1300's c. From 20,000 Years of Fashion, by F. Boucher, p. 199.

Harvesting barley in a long, belted, shirt-like garment. Late 1300’s. From 20,000 Years of Fashion, by F. Boucher, p. 199.

Shirts for the 1700’s

Late 18th c. shirt in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Late 18th c. shirt in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

I have made late 18th century shirts like this one using Cut My Cote as one source, and, while perfectly authentic, they did not always behave well on sweaty actors and singers.  You can see that the shoulders of the shirt are much wider than the shoulders of the wearer, and in the diagram there is no shoulder seam. Even on a motionless mannequin, the shoulders fall forward, twisting the sleeves.

Also, when the neckline is cut as a straight line, like this one …

Shirt, late 16th c. Diagram by Burnham. Please do not copy.

Shirt, late 16th c. Diagram by Burnham. Please do not copy.

… it doesn’t take into account some facts about the human body. First, flat rectangles of cloth are relatively two dimensional; we are three dimensional. Second, we are not symmetrical when seen from the side.

Left, and illustration from Walt Reed's book The Figure; Right, an illustration from Drawing the Head & Figure by Jank Hamm.

Left, based on  an illustration from Walt Reed’s book The Figure; Right, based on an illustration from Drawing the Head & Figure by Jack Hamm.

Our necks are lower on the body in front than in back. The measurement from the base of the neck to waist (CF measurement) is always shorter than our Center Back measurement (CB). If you cut your shirt’s neck opening in a straight horizontal line, the opening will be forced down in the front, and the shirt will twist on the body. The shoulders of the shirt will want to move forward, while the back rides up. (Actors will be more comfortable with a modern curved neckline on an otherwise “period” shirt.”)

Another problem that had to be solved was the trapezius — the muscle that connects your neck with your shoulder.

Geometrical stick figures (top) and a more complex figure, bottom.

Geometrical stick figures (top) and a stick figure adjusted to treat the neck and trapezius more realistically (bottom). Photo from Walt Reed’s book The Figure.

It took a long time for most shirt makers to solve these problems, although this woman’s smock from 1630 has a triangular gusset at the side of the neck; that was part of the solution.

This shirt, which belonged to British banker Thomas Coutts, has triangular pieces at the neck, either side of the collar.

Early 19th c. shirt belonging to Thomas Coutts, Metropolitan Museum Collection.

Early 19th c. shirt belonging to Thomas Coutts, Metropolitan Museum Collection.

This 19th century shirt with a neck gusset was collected by a friend.

Linen shirt, 19th century. The collar has a gathered triangular gusset at each side.

Linen shirt, 19th century. The collar has a gathered triangular gusset at each side. inserted in the straight, slit neckline.

The triangular gusset is an attempt to solve the problem of the trapezius.

The triangular gusset is an attempt to solve the problem of the trapezius. It just didn’t go far enough.

The collar, hand sewn, of a finer fabric than the shirt's body.

The collar, hand sewn, is a finer fabric than the shirt’s body.

This shirt, from the same collection, has a shoulder yoke and a different way of using a triangular gusset:

Yoke across the shoulders and a gusset below the yoke.

19th century shirt with a yoke across the shoulders and a gusset below the yoke. Apparently the shirt body was cut straight across, but did not match the shape of the yoke without piecing. The neckline seems to be curved in front.

These collars with a wide gap between the wings were seen from the 1820s through the 1850s, persisting among older men. They could be starched and worn turned up, or worn turned down.

Shirt collars with a wide gap in front: a fashion plate, 1849, a sketch by Ingres, 1826, an older man, 1859, and Ingre's self portrait at age 79, 1859.

Shirt collars with a wide gap in front: a fashion plate, 1849, a sketch by Ingres, 1826, an older man, 1859, and Ingre’s self portrait at age 79, 1859.

This shirt, also owned by Thomas Coutts, has a yoke. So did the shirts worn by Mississippi boatmen in the 1840’s and 50’s, as painted by George Caleb Bingham; their shoulder seams drop far down the arm. (Shirts were one of the few ready-made garments available. But they were not sized to fit before the Civil War, when statistics that made standard sizing possible were collected.) The boatmen’s shirt size was probably dictated by the width of the cloth available.

The Jolly Flatboatmen, painting by George Bingham

The Jolly Flatboatmen, painting by George Caleb Bingham, 1846.

The problem of the too-high-in-front neckline was solved by wearing the shirt unbuttoned at the throat. There are no other buttons, except at the wrists, and shirts were pulled on over the head.

Mississippi Boatman by George Caleb Bingham, 1850.

Mississippi Boatman by George Caleb Bingham, 1850.

Another problem for shirtmakers was that, if the sleeves were tight, it was hard to raise your arm.

Photo from Erik A. Ruby's book The Human Figure. If your sleeve was tight, raising your arm like this was difficult.

Photo from Erik A. Ruby’s book The Human Figure. If your sleeve was tight, raising your arm like this pulled your shirt up several inches.

Some cultures — like Japan — left the underarm seam open. Europeans wanting to wear tighter sleeves without losing the ability to raise a sword or a tool, wore a very full sleeved shirt underneath a tight outer sleeve that was attached only at the shoulder, or tied on just at the top.

A young man by Memlinc, and a young lade by Ghirlandaio. Both are late 1400s.

A young man by Memlinc, and a young lady by Ghirlandaio. Both are late 1400’s. Her sleeve is also open at the elbow, so she can bend her arm easily.

But the best solution was a square gusset (C), inserted in the underarm seams so that the bias stretch would accommodate movement.

Burnham's diagram of a 17th century shirt with underarm gussets. Please do not copy this image.

Burnham’s diagram of an early 19th century shirt with underarm gussets (C) and neckline gussets (F). Please do not copy this image.

The shirt above, diagrammed by Burnham, was one of several owned by Thomas Coutts (d. 1822); the survival of his large wardrobe is a boon to historians.

Victorian era Shirt with underarm gusset. It also has neckline gussets, like the Thomas Coutts shirt diagrammed.

Victorian era shirt with underarm gusset. It also has neckline gussets, like the Thomas Coutts shirt Burnham diagrammed.

Neck gusset in a Victorian era shirt.

Neck gusset in a Victorian era shirt.

Neglected Treasures

For the most part, shirts are not beautiful; they are not collected; they get worn out and used as cleaning rags; they get passed down to be worn as work clothes, instead of being wrapped in tissue and passed down as heirlooms. That is why very old shirts in very good condition are really, really rare! And a very old shirt with provenance can end up in a museum’s Costume Collection.

This wedding shirt from 1841 has a curved neckline; like a formal dress shirt, it opens down the back. It’s in the Victoria and Albert collection.

I’m not sure whether the dealer who bought my friend’s collection had any idea about how rare documented Victorian era shirts are. Here for example, is a lace embellished shirt that my friend was able to document, because it was made for a wedding and remained in one family.

A wedding shirt dated to 1871.

A wedding shirt of Davenfort Harrold, dated to 1871. The neckline curves and is deeper in front. A separate collar could be worn.

Eureka:  Shirts That Fit

I think the ultimate solution to making shirts that fit arrived along with the industrial revolution, when spinning and weaving became mechanized, lowering the price of cloth. Before that, as Dorothy Burnham says, “an extreme economy of material was practised in the cutting of traditional garments…. In ancient times, weaving far outstripped the techniques of cutting and sewing….”

Once people realized that cut cloth will not unravel after it’s been sewn, and that a certain amount of wastage is preferable to a poorly fitting shirt, the problems of the neck and trapezius fit were solved by a diagonally cut shoulder seam and a curved neckline that was cut deeper in front than in back. (The triangular neck gusset was, in a way, included in the new seam across the shoulders, which creates a triangle.) a seam across the shoulders

Using statistics collected for the manufacture of military uniforms, a range of sizes and a closer fit became possible.

Shirt diagram from the Cutter and Tailor.

Shirt diagram from the Cutter and Tailor. It is essentially a modern shirt.

This heavy cotton flannel shirt, made in Sherborne, England, ended up in California. It is factory made, with a curved neckline, sloping shoulders, and a double layer of fabric for warmth. But its one-size-fits-many sleeve length had to be adjusted with a tuck. (Office workers could shorten their sleeves with a sleeve garter.) Also, like earlier shirts, this one pulls on over the head.

Vintage flannel factory made work shirt made in Sherborne, England.

Vintage flannel factory-made work shirt, probably from Sherborne, England. The label says “N. E. Strickland & Co., Shirt Specialists, Sherborne.” Strickland shirts are still being made, but not necessarily by the same company.

There is a good review of Cut My Cote at The Perfect Nose. (Click here). It shows several different illustrations from the book and encourages the stitcher to dive in and use them instead of patterns — “mark it onto your fabric in chalk/ marker and have at it with ruler and rotary tool.”

I have done this (using a #2 pencil and muslin), and I learned a lot about the evolution of the shirt from making smocks, blouses, and shirts from Cut My Cote. My old copy was covered with measurements in pencil! You can find used copies for about $15.00 — Click here. — Or you could buy it new from The Royal Ontario Museum, which has kept it in print since 1973! Cut My Cote at ROM– Click Here.

For serious research into 18th century and early 19th century shirts, follow the links at 18th Century Notebook. An entire list of links to shirts in museum collections can be found by clicking here.

The TwoNerdyHistoryGirls wrote about 18th century shirts (and why the hems were so long — ick!) here.

It’s easy to see why this 1630  embroidered smock at the V & A Museum didn’t end up as a dishrag. And its
gorgeous blackwork embroidery probably saved this going-on-500-year-old Tudor shirt, circa 1540. It’s in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Read more Here.

But spare a thought for the uncollected, hand spun, hand woven, hand stitched, everyday shirts that were made and worn and finally worn out.

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Filed under 1700s, 1800s-1830s, 1830s -1860s fashions, 1860s -1870s fashions, 1870s to 1900s fashions, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 16th century, Costumes for the 17th Century, Costumes for the 18th Century, Costumes for the 19th century, Early Victorian fashions, Exhibitions & Museums, Late Victorian fashions, Menswear, Resources for Costumers, Shirts and Blouses, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Uniforms and Work Clothes, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing

A Costumer’s Bookshelf: Woman’s Work: the First 20,000 Years

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, 1994. ISBN 0-393-03506-0

My definition of a classic book is that the book seems to grow with you. Every time you read it, you notice things that seemed unimportant on your previous readings. Of course, the book doesn’t change; a classic is just so rich in ideas that, as you, the reader, learn and grow, more of what’s there becomes relevant to your new experiences.

I’ve just read Women’s Work for the fourth time. I had to use a library copy, because, although I’ve bought the paperback several times, I always end up giving it to another costumer, or a textile artist, or someone who’s interested in women’s studies or archeology or mythology or ethnic embroidery or…. This book covers a lot of ground.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber is a woman archeologist. She realized that the work women have done since pre-historic times usually involves textiles, but, because cloth is perishable, and looms made of wood are perishable, as are wooden distaffs and spindles, the huge contribution that textiles made to ancient economies has been overlooked by [mostly male] archeologists.

Vase, 560 BC, showing vertical loom & loom weights in use. Illustration from Women's Work of a vase in the Metropolitan Museum.

Vase, 560 BC, showing vertical loom & loom weights in use. Illustration from Women’s Work of a vase in the Metropolitan Museum.

Thousands and thousands of loom weights have been found at Troy and other ancient sites where vertical looms were used. (Loom weights are made of non-perishable clay or stone.) But when Troy  or Knossos or Kültepe burned, so did the looms and the textiles that were part of their treasures.

I am simplifying here, but Barber’s point is that half of the products, and at least half of the objects that determined the ancient world’s trade and economy, have disappeared from the historical record – the half that was women’s work.

Textiles: Traditionally Women’s Work

Barber explains that spinning and weaving were tasks compatible with child-minding, while hunting and herding large animals were not.

“Among the thousands of archeologists who have written about pottery or architecture, how many have actually tried to make a pot or build a building? Precious few….” she writes on page 24.

But Barber taught herself to spin and weave so that she could analyze ancient textiles – even reproducing some – to get insight into the differences in societies that lead to different kinds of looms and spindles, etc. A nomadic society, for instance, can’t use a loom that hangs on the wall and uses loom weights for tension on the warp, so archeological evidence of their textile work rarely survives. We know about horizontal Egyptian looms primarily because of wall paintings and models left in tombs; archeologists didn’t need to find piles of loom weights to know that the Egyptians produced vast amounts of cloth.

Things I never really thought about until I read this book:

1. Thread. Fiber. String.

"Needle netted linen bag with stone button. thought to be a ceremonial hat and thus the oldest preserved clothing." From Israel, 6500 BC. (drawing from Women's Work by Tamar Schick.)

“Needle netted linen bag with stone button. thought to be a ceremonial hat and thus the oldest preserved clothing.” From Israel, 6500 BC. (drawing from Women’s Work by Tamar Schick.) Click to enlarge.

On vacation years ago, I was hiking along the Welsh border. Small clumps of white stuff drifted across the road and were caught in the hedges. I stopped to read a map, alone – I thought – and a voice on the other side of the tall hedge cried, “Maa!”  There was a flock of sheep on the other side of the hawthorn bushes, and that white stuff caught on the branches was wool. I was in the position of some paleolithic woman or man who, more clever that I am, gathered some of the animal hair or plant fibers she found, twisted them in her fingers, added more, twisted them together, and invented string or thread.

Drawing from Women's Work by Barber, after Glory

Drawing from Women’s Work by Barber, after Glory

2. Textiles were necessary for trade.

Archeologists find non-perishable items like obsidian, pottery, tin, gold, ax-heads and knives, beads, beakers, and statuettes – trade items that show us how far pre-historic people traveled and how wide-spread and interlinked ancient societies were. But a pack animal can carry only so much metal or stone. Textiles are lighter; they can be used to wrap the precious metals and objects and then sold or traded at the end of the journey.  “The records tell us that one particular donkey [that left Assyria] carried twenty-six cloths of two sorts, sixty-five units of sealed tin, and nine units of loose tin [used to pay for expenses on the way.]”  An ancient letter written from a trader to his wife says, “If you don’t manage to make fine textiles [in time for the caravan], … Buy [them] for me and send [them] to me.” (pp. 170 -171)

3. The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the ancient Greek plays confirm the economic importance of women’s textile work.

A Spinster. "Woman spinning with a drop spindle, depicted on a Greek vase of ca. 490 B.C." From Women's Work, by E. W. Barber

A Spinster. From Women’s Work, by E. W. Barber

At the end of a war, the losers were killed or enslaved.  Numerous female slaves were needed because it takes much longer to spin the thread for a garment than it does to weave the cloth – “as much as seven to ten times as long, using a hand spindle.” (P. 87) “Spinsters” were especially valuable prizes of war.

4. Textiles are part of our language and proverbs. “Spinster.” “On the Distaff side.” “Cut your coat to suit your cloth.” “Man must work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.” That was literally true. A woman can spin thread while walking, while ‘resting,’ and even in the near-darkness of a fire-lit hut or cave. A woman would spin day and night for most of the year in order to have enough thread to weave cloth for her family: that was woman’s work.

You don’t have to know anything about textiles or archeology before reading Women’s Work. Barber’s writing is scholarly, but never stuffy or condescending. There are plenty of illustrations from Egyptian, early European, and Middle Eastern cultures, and a wealth of odd facts about everything from Egyptian eye makeup to “dragon’s blood” dye.

Every time I read Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, I enjoy it. I learn from it. It’s a classic.

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