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.