Archive for January, 2017

January 19, 2017

A Silk Taffeta Foot Colour

Recently I was allowed access to the foot colour in the National Army Museum store in Stevenage. It was educational and as you will see I was inspired to have  go and make one from scratch which opened up some of the secrets of the 1640s tailors who were asked to make flags for the armies of the Civil War.


4th Captain’s Colour Sir John Gell’s Regiment of Foot c1646

 This is the catalogue entry from the museum website about Gell:

Sir John Gell was High Sheriff of Derbyshire when he was commissioned as Colonel to raise a Parliamentarian regiment during the English Civil War (1642-1651). His regiment took part in several engagements including the sieges of Chester and Lichfield and the battle of Hopton Heath.

Gell became disaffected with the political direction taken by the Parliamentary regime after the king’s surrender in 1646. A further cause of disillusionment was Parliament’s reluctance to compensate him for losses he incurred in fighting the war. In 1646 his regiment was disbanded and he was relieved of all appointments. Gell moved to London where he made contact with Royalist agents but in 1650 he was found guilty of knowing of a royalist plot and not revealing it to the authorities. Imprisoned in the Tower of London, Gell was released in 1653 on grounds of ill health. He was pardoned by King Charles II at the Restoration in 1660 and given an appointment at court.


This foot colour is the best provenanced of the three in the museum, having been in the keeping of the descendants of Sir John Gell in Newnham in Northamptonshire it can be connected with some certainty to Gell’s regiment from the Civil War. It was framed and kept behind glass where Andrew Polkey examined it for his research into the war in Derbyshire and Stephen Ede Borrett for his book ‘Ensignes of the Civil Wars’. Andrew’s comments formed the larger part of a description in ECW Flags and Colours by Les Prince and Stuart Peachey. In 1994 it was purchased by the National Army Museum and passed into their collection. Recently it was taken for conservation work to the Museum’s workshops in Woolwich. It has now been returned to the stores in Stevenage where I was allowed to view and photograph it. I had read the piece in Les’ and Stephen’s books, but because the previous inspections upon which the descriptions were based were limited I wanted to look at it for myself.


The museum entry says:


“4TH Captain’s colour. Gell’s Regiment of Infantry, C.1650. Double sided silk colour with a gold silk ground and five blue stars inset, running diagonally from the lower right corner of St. George’s Cross at the top left to the lower right corner (as viewed). The pole sleeve is lined with linen fabric.”


The width of the colour is 1990mm. It is 1915mm tall at the pole sleeve and 1870mm at the fly. The body of the flag is cut from three sections of yellow silk hand-stitched together with run and fell seams. The upper portion above the horizontal seam is 800mm wide and the lower section 1050mm. The lower section is one single piece whilst the upper section is made in two pieces of yellow silk, one under the canton and the larger piece (to the right hand side in the photo) joined with a vertical seam that runs from the top right hand corner of the canton to the centre seam.


The silk on the St George’s canton, (especially the white quarters) has degraded over the years but it’s still possible to see how it went together. It’s obvious now, (though it wasn’t when framed) that the vertical of the St George’s cross isn’t one complete strip as the top and lower arms don’t quite line up. I think that I’ve now (having made a canton) worked out the sequence of construction for the St George in the corner. The canton was made up as a complete section and formed the basis for the rest of the colour. All the seams are run and fell to protect the cut edges of the silk, the practical problem here is that a run and fell seam has a finite width across both sides so if you aren’t careful lining up the pieces, the reverse side can look pretty rubbish (I found that out by trial and error). The two top vertical red pieces were sewn to a flanking cream square and the lower two were also sewn to another one, making sure that the two seams were identically aligned. Then these two sections were sewn to the horizontal red stripe to complete the cross.

The finished canton doesn’t overlay the flag, but is set into the body in the following way: It was sewn to the yellow silk section below it and this complete piece was sewn to the yellow top left hand quarter of the colour. The top and bottom halves were then joined by sewing together with another run and fell seam. In this way, all the seams are straight and there were no tricky corners to sew round. The entire flag was then hemmed on three sides with what looks like a thin cord inset within the hem to give it more body and hopefully keep it from immediately fraying in the wind.



Following this, in a diagonal line from the corner of the canton were sewn a row of five blue stars. This denotes that the colour is the flag of a fourth (or possibly fifth) captain’s company. This also may explain why the flag has survived. Quite often any junior colours like this one wouldn’t have been used if the regiment was under strength. The stars are made of blue silk sewn into star shaped holes cut into the ground of the flag. I suspect the shapes were tacked on to the flag and whipped down around the edges before the silk was turned over and the yellow silk cut away. Then the yellow edges on the reverse were whipped over to hold them in place and to stop them fraying.


The pole sleeve was the made from the same yellow silk as the flag, lined with plain weave linen and attached to the colour. It’s 50mm wide at the widest point, and could take a pole roughly 3cm in diameter. The colour also had a matching silk cord with tassels attached. It has been associated with the flag for a long time so may be safely attributed, but it wasn’t available for me to view


The colour has been stabilized by the museum and covered with a fine net to prevent any further degradation of the silk. Some fine dust was removed with a fine sable brush and this brightened it up generally. The white silk, (and to a lesser extent the red) in the St George canton has degraded badly but this has been enclosed in conservation net and the whole colour now fixed to a padded board for future display. As I understand it is to be displayed at the Chelsea Museum in rotation with another flag a blue and white pile wavy foot colour, also possibly from the civil war.

Since I visited the museum I’ve been commissioned to make a gyrony colour, 2nd Captain’s company of Sir John Owen’s regiment, possibly Capt Brinknir’s company. This picture was what I had to use, but I could begin to see how it would go together.13874781_10209424344542131_1517240195_n

The canton in the corner I could do, having seen the Gell’s flag. The gyrony sections I thought would also be a doddle. How wrong could I be? It all started off well, that canton went nicely, it even lined up on both sides. and I managed to complex seam with the angle that joins the canton with the red section below it to the white silk piece that completes one quarter.


I laid out the silk pieces just to check all was well and took a deep breath before I carried on.


Then I hit the wall! Having made up the three other quarters I started to join the whole thing together and realised that the offset nature of the run and fell seams make it really tricky to align both sides of the flag. One side was quite respectable but the other….Suffice to say I didn’t take any photos! Notice here that the colour takes up most of the living room when laid out.


The drawing board was needed! I took a week off, then made a small replica and played with various alignments of seam, red over white, white over red etc. Why hadn’t I done this earlier! It was now coming together. If you are really interested I can draw you a picture of the seams and how they align, but to cut a long story short I was beaming all over my stupid face when I got to this stage. So glad it was only a 2nd captain’s flag that was ordered, but maybe I’d be up to the challenge of more sections?


It just needed hemming around some thicker interior thread, like the Gell’s colour and a pole sleeve adding. I had even sourced a silk cord and tassel to match the one in the illustration.



So here is the finished article ready to rumble.



More reading, (though with less accurate descriptions of this colour) can be found in:

English Civil War Flags and Colours by Les Prince & Stuart Peachey 1991

Ensignes of the English Civil War by Stephen Ede-Borrett 1997

January 19, 2017

Required Reading

The new book from the V&A, 17th-Century Men’s Dress Patterns has been anticipated since the series started with 17th Century Women’s Dress Patterns. The wait has been well worth it, as the authors have learned from the previous volumes and produced this state of the art publication about early 17th century men’s clothes. I had a conversation a few years ago with a museum curator about the first women’s dress pattern book and she told me it was ‘re-enactor porn’. This has taken it to another level.


The book has been produced by a collection of authors from the School of Historical Dress and Susan North from the V&A. Each author has inspected and put together a pattern for at least one of the items in the book, four doublets, a pair of breeches, a cloak, a pickadil, a hat, a cap and liner, embroidered mittens, a sword girdle and a pair of linen hose. The introduction and photos of stitches set you up with the background and techniques used for the clothes and then pitch you headlong into the world of the 17th century tailor. I particularly like the diagrams on page 11 where the different methods of fixing each of the four doublets to the matching breeches are shown so you can compare the different systems and track the development of the hook and eye system that we use at the 1642 Tailor. In the following pages you are introduced to all the tailoring techniques used for this complex garment. This is not a book of fancy dress, it’s proper stuff. If you want to make a real stiffened, interlined, fitted garment that will transport you back to the 17th century, dive in.


This picture (above) lifted from the Amazon preview gives a flavour of the detailed photos you get  of all the clothes. I know that this red grosgrain silk doublet has been a favourite of Jenny Tiramani’s for a long time and she has pulled out all the stops, with close up photos, x-rays, detailed pattern layout and a superbly drawn construction sequence. There are even diagrams of the braid used and some photos of the half scale reconstruction Jenny made to test the techniques. If I was being picky, I would like an indication of which points each doublet would have been tried for size on the wearer. All the constructions just assume the pattern was spot on to start with. Below, (from another Amazon image) are some more photos and x-rays of a pair of silk breeches made for Sir Rowland Cotton.


If you don’t have this book, save up your pennies and get a copy (or nick it off a friend). It will open your eyes to how hard the tailors worked to make these clothes. They weren’t just thrown together on a machine, but finessed, sculpted, shaped and finished off by real expert craftsmen. As has this book. It’s a tad pricey at £35 from the museum, but there are all sorts of places where you can get it cheaper.

I can’t wait for book 4!



January 9, 2017

Grey Russet Wool Fabric



Just some old grey wool? Maybe not. The subject of russet wool is a tricky one, sometimes russet refers to a colour and sometimes it’s the kind of fabric. The trouble being that research hasn’t exactly revealed what the fabric was, and most people think of it in terms of colour, a kind of natural brown, slightly red shade that we are all familiar with. What we do know about russet in the mid part of the seventeenth century is that it was a lightish weight wool fabric, most often used for coats and breeches. Stuart Peachey in Vol 3 of Clothing of the Common People lists seventeen garments in records, including waistcoats, men’s pettycoats, coats, breeches, women’s pettycoats, waistcoats, cloaks etc. It would seem to be a popular fabric for clothes of the common people. In fact the famous quote by Cromwell is indicative:

“I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else.” (On the passing of the revolutionary Grand Remonstrance of November 1641)

We have tried to replicate as far as possible the make up of a seventeenth century russet fabric here. though there is still some discussion as to its particular make up. Stuart P (whose book is recommended) lists several quotes that suggest russet was basically a plain woollen cloth, undyed and left as whatever colour the sheep’s fleece was. There are suggestions that several shades of grey could have been possible candidates, as well as a lightish blue and possibly black. We have taken our inspiration from a tailor’s bill I was shown that lists the many kinds of grey cloth available in a Chester draper’s shop in 1642/3. Titmouse grey, iron grey, mouse grey, grime grey, lead grey etc. We went for two shades, a dark shade which I have named (in honour of Mr Cromwell) Ironside Grey  and a pale, the 1642 Tailor Titmouse Grey.

The next consideration was the weave. It’s unclear whether russet was a plain, (tabby) weave or a twill. most sources are unclear and different people have made different choices. Tudor Tailor have plumped for a twill cloth for their ‘sheep colour‘ wool fabric which is very similar, so we were almost persuaded. Stuart says “possibly plain”. I looked at the fabric on a (possibly) mid seventeenth century coat in Colchester Museum. It’s a plain weave, milled to take a cut edge and napped on one side. It makes sense if you are making coats to have a fabric that will hold an edge without really fraying, so in the end, after all the deliberation, that’s what we went for.


The wool was commissioned from a mill in Yorkshire, in the Happy Valley of TV fame and I’m happy to say it arrived this morning. It’s plain weave, (each with a different colour grey thread in the warp and weft to give it a motley look), 150cm wide, milled and napped, and a good weight for coats, breeches women’s waistcoats, hodden grey soldier’s coats, etc, etc. For those of a more techjnical bent, it’s 400 grams per square metre or 20 oz/yd in weight. It is 100% pure new wool and has been given a raised and cropped finish. The yarns are both s twist: sett 11 epi and 9 ppi. We will be using it to make our own things, but enough is available to sell on at £22 per metre. Samples or more substantial lengths can be ordered from the 1642 Tailor.