Promoting Natural & Cultural History
Patching and mending was an everyday occupation that could considerably lengthen the life of garments at a time when textiles and ready-made clothes were expensive to buy. However, patched and repaired clothes are seldom found in museum collections since clothes in this condition usually ended up recycled as rags by later generations of the family, if not by the owner herself. Nor was it at all likely that, even if it did survive, any repaired garment would have been presented to a museum. An in-depth study of local primary sources originating from the Whitby area – like photographs, preserved garments, embroidered samplers, newspaper adverts and sewing tools gives some ideas about these traditions. Whilst probate inventories reveal informative details about how clothes and linen were stored during the 18th century.
Advertisements in the weekly newspaper Whitby Gazette during the years 1855-1900 also show that buying clothes was an important form of investment. This fact accounts for why people took great care of their clothes, using them repeatedly and remaking them whenever possible. It was the same in middle-class and upper-class homes where a cast-off garment could either be passed on to servants of the same size, let out or taken in if it no longer fitted, or altered to fit children. However, it is rare to find any advertising or notices about darning, patching or repairing clothes, probably because these were occupations done by mothers, daughters or servants in the home environment. Draper’s shops and other establishments selling clothes particularly emphasised ‘good quality’ or ‘best quality’ or ‘hard wearing’ in adverts, so darning etc., may not have been seen as positive attributes. One of the few exceptions was the advertiser George Kitching in 1865 being ‘Cleaner and Repairer of Furs, Muffs, Boas, &c.’
Darning could also be practiced as an educational needlecraft in so-called “Darning samplers” or a variety of weave techniques constructed by the embroiderer with her needle, usually in cross-shaped or four-cornered patterns copying such techniques as tabby, 2/2 twill or diamond twill. This manner of working was in use from the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th. There is one undated sampler of this type in the Whitby Museum collection, sewn by M. E. Bland at the age of 14, with rows of alphabetic letters sharing the space with three “darning” squares at the bottom of the sampler. To be able to “sew” in a variety of techniques was not only a good way of filling up the embroidery, but an essential learning process for a young girl doing it, since such skills could come in very useful for repairing a hole in a piece of twill clothing when a virtually invisible mend was needed.
However, in-depth research through the extensive collection of clothes in Whitby Museum has revealed only one mended item of clothing and one made from large scraps of cloth sewn together. Both were made for children in the Victorian period. No attempts to reproduce the techniques of woven fabric by darning, tabby, 2/2 twill or diamond twill have been found anywhere in the collection.
The second garment mentioned above was made from small pieces left over from other clothes, skilfully assembled into a little coat for a child of 2 or 3 years. The garment has been sewn from black silk and decorated with black fringes, entirely hand-sewn and lined with a cotton cloth. In the collection, it is otherwise common to find clothes that are torn or have been worn extensively, especially certain types of fragile silk that quickly disintegrate. Many factors have contributed to this: the way the clothes were treated when in use, how they were kept before they came to the museum, and how they have been treated, stored and exhibited since, while we should bear in mind that between more than hundred or sometimes almost two hundred years have passed since these clothes were last in use.
Looking further back, the probate inventories are a good source of information on the kind of furniture used for storing clothes and household linen in Whitby homes during the 18th century. In the first half of the century, chests were common; for example, the master mariner Richard Ward in 1705 owned ‘2 chests’ and the blacksmith Robert Patison in 1744 had ‘a chest’. The custom of keeping clothes and linen lying flat in a chest was a survival from the previous two centuries when it was the usual way of storing clothes. But during the 18th century, the ‘chest of drawers’ became increasingly common in many Whitby homes. This type of furniture had developed to keep pace with the changing fashion in clothes, as lighter-weight material that demanded greater care in storage began to be popular towards the end of the 17th century. Quite simply, delicate silks and satins could be destroyed if everything was piled indiscriminately into a large chest, so garments were folded carefully and increasingly placed in pull-out drawers together with underclothes and accessories. Such a chest of drawers was equally suitable for storing bedclothes, tablecloths and napkins. Furniture of this kind was already well established in Whitby by the beginning of the 18th century when many homes contained two or three chests of drawers, as can be seen from the inventory of the master mariner Francis Smith in January 1702. He had two pieces of furniture of this kind kept in different rooms in his home, and the inventory lists the contents of one of these: ‘In the chest of drawers in the Chamber over the Dining Room 12 pairs of sheets, 5 dozen of the diaper, huckaback and damask napkins, 6 table cloths and 18 pillow beers, 6 window curtains and several other small things’ to a value of £13 3s 4d. It was the textiles rather than the furniture that caused the high valuation, as can be seen from the case of the mariner George Jackson in 1720 when ‘1 chest of drawers’ was valued at only 10 shillings. Similarly, fifty years later, in 1771, the mariner John Gibson owned ‘1 chest of drawers’ worth 12 shillings. Another way textiles could be stored – though only recorded at the beginning of the century – was in a trunk, as in the case of the widow Alice Nellist who in June 1710 possessed ‘An old trunk, linen, 2 cradle cloths’ valued at £5.