Linens and Lace and Other Inspirations by Catherine Czerkawska

The occasional old shawl like this gorgeous Cantonese shawl
For some years now, I’ve been running another business on the side, supplementing my writing income by buying and selling antique and vintage textiles of all kinds. Textiles have been pretty much a lifelong passion with me. It all started when I was a child and used to go with my mum to the saleroom – she would always be looking at pottery and porcelain while I would be gazing at linens, lace, embroideries and the occasional old shawl that was always thrown in the corner of the saleroom, because nobody bothered much about old clothes back then. Or, come to think of it, old teddies. How time have changed!

An old fabric doll, fully dressed in Polonaise style
For me, there seemed to be something quite magical about them. When I went to university in Edinburgh, I was fascinated by the emerging vintage clothes shops there, even though ‘vintage’ had not yet become a mainstream interest. My mum was a very good seamstress and she made me a long Dr Zhivago coat (well – Lara coat, really) in black wool with fur around the hem and neck. There was a maxi dress too, from one of those Vogue Paris Original patterns, a beautiful thing with a weighted hem. I still have that, along with a long white lacy skirt, originally a petticoat, very ornate and detailed, bought from a little shop down in Stockbridge with carefully saved cash. Old army greatcoats were in fashion for the boys, long skirts, Indian cotton dresses for the girls. I remember going to one party in a nightdress from Marks and Spencer, a long candy-striped garment with a high waist, straight out of Jane Austen.

'Do you know,’ said the shocked wife of one of our lecturers, ‘that some students wear nightdresses to parties?’ I’m still not 100% certain whether she guessed what I was wearing or not ...

Nowadays, with a lot of writing to do, I spend less time on the textiles, but I still browse boot sales and the local saleroom, still splash out on a box of old linen and lace and sell most of it on to other textile nuts. But all this has certainly helped to enlighten me about costume in my historical fiction. Finding out what somebody would have worn, the how and the why of it is a vital part of the research for me. And also you’ll spot the howlers, like the mediaeval underpants mentioned in a recent post about anachronisms in historical fiction by Mari Biella. 

A lady's bonnet, rather than a baby bonnet - from France.

A few years ago, a curator of textiles gave a small group of Society of Authors in Scotland members a private viewing of a few of the textiles in storage in one of the big Scottish museums and since they were for study purposes, we were even allowed to handle some of them. It was enlightening, not least because certain items were beautiful to look at but very badly stitched ‘behind the scenes’ as it were. Clearly some dresses were like theatrical costumes - the illusion was everything. She also told us that although the really poor would obviously have great trouble keeping clean, for many ordinary eighteenth and nineteenth century people - tradespeople or tenant farmers, for instance - keeping their linens clean would have been important. 

Essentially, they would not be as smelly as we think. 

Looking at inventories of possessions, you can see that people of even limited means would have several shirts, shifts, etc so that the items worn closest to their bodies would be reasonably clean. Which makes sense when you think about how uncomfortable it would be to play host to fleas and lice, the inevitable result of filth. And for country people, a great deal of linen was spun and woven at home. Elsewhere it could be bought by the yard. Pretty printed cottons were also becoming fashionable through the eighteenth century and ease of laundering was an important factor in their popularity.

If you think about how seldom even today we dry clean a winter coat, for instance – perhaps only once a year, unless we’ve been out in the mud – you can see how little we've changed in this respect although I don't think a daily bath was an option or even thought desirable. But then nor was it the norm back in the fifties, and I don't remember that the world felt particularly grubby, even then.  

The embroidery that inspired The Physic Garden
This interest in clothes has been very important to me in several of my novels. In The Curiosity Cabinet, not only is an embroidery central to the plot, but the clothes of a dead woman, gifted to another woman in desperate straits, provide a turning point in the story. In my nineteenth century Polish historical epic, The Amber Heart  what the heroine wears became a sort of indicator of her character, all the way through - and certainly it mattered to me in terms of how I perceived her relationship with the hero (or possibly anti-hero) of the novel. And in The Physic Garden, an authentic embroidered garment looms very large in the story. 

Perhaps most of all, though, it has been important to my work in progress, the Jewel, about Robert Burns’s wife Jean Armour. The daughter of a master stonemason, she was not hugely wealthy but still cared very much about her appearance as a young woman of some consequence in the small town of Mauchline. This perception of her ran contrary to many subsequent accounts of her as a plain countrywoman, not quite 'worthy' of her famous husband. I never really believed that. The six ‘Mauchline Belles’ of which Jean was one - I always see them as eighteenth century cheerleaders - are described by Rab as being keen on fashion too. ‘Their carriage and dress, a stranger would guess, In London or Paris, they'd gotten it a'.’ So even in Mauchline in 18th century Ayrshire, the lassies were happy to imitate London or Paris fashions if they could. 

Jean's silk shawl? Maybe. But not from Rab!
Later on, it becomes obvious that Rab liked his wife to dress as well as possible on their limited budget. He spent money on the finest ‘lutestring silk’ for her gowns, and the latest fashion in printed shawls. His own stylish mode of dressing was one of the things that her family so disapproved of during their courtship– and also one of the things that made Jean fall for him. She continued to appreciate nice things and pretty clothes throughout her long life.

Finally, the single sexiest garment the textile curator showed us on that museum visit, was a linen shirt. I’ve found these kind of things in boxes of old linen, but never something just as wonderful, as old, as well preserved, as that late eighteenth or early nineteenth century linen shirt, a man’s garment, with flowing sleeves, lots of fabric and a smooth, cool texture under the hand: a bit like the ones you see Ross Poldark or the musketeers wearing on the recent television dramas. 

But the really interesting thing is that such shirts were deemed to be very intimate. They were undergarments. So if a young lady actually saw a man in his shirt, like Mr Darcy on that TV adaptation, it would have been very shocking indeed, even for somebody as forthright and brave as Lizzie Bennet! 

I'm hoping that the new novel will be published in 2016. Meanwhile, if you're another textile nut (or even if you're not) you could check out The Curiosity Cabinet in particular. I only wish I possessed an embroidered cabinet like the box of the title - but unfortunately, I don't.


Wendy H. Jones said…
What a fascinating look at the world of textiles. Thank you. I have learnt so much
Jan Needle said…
Me too. Excellent and fascinating. Thanks.
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, a really absorbing post, Catherine. About girls wearing nightdresses to parties - I remember a college ball where I was teaching, (The Principal's Ball it was called, which led to a lot of ribald comment). My wife didn't have a proper ball gown so she tacked up an old nightdress. It looked brilliant. If anyone noticed, they forbore to speak. The wife of a mature student simply took down a front room curtain, wrapped it round herself and fastened it with safety pins and that looked stunning. I seem to have read or heard or seen on TV that the great Aristocratic Unwashed of the time thought that linen had a property which actually sucked dirt out of the body so there was no need to wash themselves. Could that be true? - not that it has such a property but that the Unwashed believed it?
Mari Biella said…
Lovely post, Catherine. I spend quite a lot of time thinking about what my characters might wear, not least because I tend to develop rather a vivid mental image of them. I've also heard that people in the past weren't perhaps as dirty as we tend to think. While researching a novel set in the 17th century (which never quite worked out) I found out that, while people didn't necessarily wash their outer clothes very often, they would have worn clean undergarments, which included shirts and underskirts for women.

Interestingly, my mother recently told me that when she was growing up in post-War Birmingham, people not only usually restricted themselves to one bath a week, but that the water would usually be shared by all members of the household - cleanest one in first, dirtiest one last. It sounds pretty awful to me, but apparently it was pretty common at the time!
Ann Turnbull said…
I too wore a nightdress to a university ball - hadn't realised everyone was doing it! I loved mine and wore it many times but never in bed. It was black, printed with delicate sprays of lilac blossom. I also adapted a green nightdress with a frilled hem to wear as a long skirt at my wedding and made a white jacket to go with it. My husband wore a suit and his desert boots (it was the early 1970s).

Lydia Bennet said…
A fascinating post Catherine, textures and textiles do a lot to evoke a place and time. I highly recommend Catherine's novel The Curiosity Cabinet too! Yes i too wore a nightdress at one time, and also many jumble sale finds before they were called 'vintage' and sold in shops for a lot more money. I still have some very old clothes. When i was growing up, it was the norm to have a bath a week but we didn't have central heating and spent more time outdoors so we didn't get smelly. The shared bath water was an earlier generation when the water had to be heated in kettles and poured into a tin bath in front of the fire. AFAIK the man then woman of the house would be first then all the kids until the littlest one was in filthy water, very good at boosting immunity and also I've heard, the derivation of 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater' as the water would be opaque!
Thanks for all the interesting comments. I've been away in Edinburgh all day and couldn't post - but isn't it interesting how many of us wore nighties to parties and balls!
Dennis, not sure about the belief that linen had that property, but it's very intriguing and I'll investigate. I know you were supposed to wear flannel next to your skin to keep healthy!
Dennis Hamley said…
Mari, I obviously grew up at the same time as your mother and I can confirm one bath a week if lucky, in perilously little water - and that sometimes it was indeed used more than once. When I was little, there was a very chaste advertisement in newspapers for female underwear, featuring a rather smug-looking woman wearing something utterly devoid of charm and saying, 'Next to myself, I love Vedonis,' which always seemed to me a tad conceited.

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