Saturday, 18 June 2016

Clothing and textile terms in sixteenth-century Essex

Continuing my posts on the vocabulary of the Essex Wills and its place in English lexical history, an introduction to which can be found here.

The Essex Wills are naturally full of words for household goods. The majority are words that are still used, though the things to which they are applied may now be different in design or appearance. A large majority are words, or meanings of words, that are no longer used, but are carefully recorded in dictionaries, and especially in the Oxford English Dictionary. But a significant number have escaped notice by lexicographers and yet can be found, often in large numbers, in wills, inventories, and other non-literary documents of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and sometimes in earlier and later documents). Please note that I record the absence of terms from Early English Books Online not in order to criticize that inestimable resource but to highlight the gap between the language we find in non-literary texts and that of the printed book, especially the literary text.

Here are some little-known terms for clothing and textiles...

bearing sheet

The Essex Wills have at least 17 examples, 1558–1593. Typical cases are: 

1568 (II. 171) To Catherine my daughter a red bearing cloth, a bearing sheet

1569 (II. 78) a bearing sheet, a bearing kerchief

1571 (III. 28) My best sheet save 1 to be my bearing sheet

1577 (X. 92) bearing occupy when any..stand in the birth of their children

1580 (X.138) a bearing sheet of calico cloth to have a child in 

1588 (V. 93) 12 pair of sheets..whereof her bearing sheet to be 1

1593 (XI. 176) a bearing sheet for a child.

There is an example of this compound in the OED at bearing n. Compounds; it is not lemmatized, but simply headed by the rubric ‘Comb. and attrib. in prec. senses’: 

1570  in S. Tymms Wills & Inventories Bury St. Edmunds (1850) 156,  I beqwethe to my dawghter Jone Kenam one berynge sheet. 

In fact a more correct place for this example would be sense 17b, which contains attributive (premodifying) uses of bearing in the sense ‘the action of bringing forth (offspring)’.

Here is the fuller (and slightly corrected) context:

1570 Will of Richard Kanam of Soham in S. Tymms Wills and Inventories from the Registries of the Commissary of Bury St. Edmunds and the Archdeacon of Sudbury (Camden Society) (1850) 156 Item I gyve and bequethe vnto Ioane Kenam my daughter one bed as hit stondethe in my chamber, withe a vnderclothe, and my best coverlet, withe a payer of shetes withe the hanginge of the same bed, and one payer of shetes of hempteren, and one berynge sheet.

An earlier example:

1513 in D. Yaxley Researcher’s Glossary (2003) 10 a lytyl beryngshete wt a opeyn red seme.

Approximate meaning: a sheet used by a mother during childbirth and typically preserved and handed down as an heirloom.

Supporting evidence for this interpretation comes from some other terms used in the Essex Wills:

1584 (X. 101), 1591 (V. 161) childbed sheet

1585 (V. 31) 4 childing sheets

F. G. Emmison himself (1976: 15) stated that ‘a bearing sheet is used for carrying a child to church for baptism’: this use is (not surprisingly) not shown by the Essex Wills, though it may well have been a secondary use for such sheets. There are of course two possible interpretations of bearing here: childbirth or carrying a child in one’s arms. 

Numerous discussions of the famous case of Richard Hunne (March 1511) give this explanation with reference to the bearing sheet which the rector of St Mary Matfelon demanded as mortuary:

Holinshed’s Chronicles (1808) III. 608 Ann. 1515 The curat claimed the bearing sheet for a mortuarie. Hun answered, that the infant had no propertie in the sheet.

Yaxley (2003: 10) explains it as ‘a child’s christening robe’.

Compare also these examples of other textile items connected with childbirth:

1569 (Essex Wills VIII. 224) a red bearing cloth, a bearing sheet, an upperbed of fustian for a child

1591 (Essex Wills V. 161) certain clouts belonging to a woman in childbed which were my own

1592 in D. Yaxley Researcher’s Glossary (2003) 10 beryng blanket ijs.

1595 in D. Yaxley Researcher’s Glossary (2003) 10 one bearing cloth & a fac clothe viijs.

Early English Books Online provides no examples other than Foxe’s and Holinshed’s narration of the Hun case.

birde coverlet

This term occurs only once:

1603 Essex Wills (VII. 189) birde coverlet

It is explained in this 1983 glossary:

1983 J. H. Wilson Wymondham Inventories 37 Bird coverlet: a coverlet embroidered with a bird design. 

Similar quotations possibly referring to the same kind of fabric:

1594 Essex Wills (XI. 198) 1 coverlet of bird work

1625 in D. Yaxley Researcher’s Glossary (2003) 16 ij Coverletts one of Birde Worke.

No evidence is available from Early English Books Online.

casting kercher, casting sheet

Casting kercher occurs three times in Essex Wills, e.g. 

1569 (VIII. 224) a casting kercher of ‘Raines’

1597 (VI. 189) a bearing sheet and a casting kercher

1573 (IX. 153) a casting kercher fringed with white silk and black.

Kercher of course = kerchief, originally a cloth used to cover the head, but later (ME onwards) ‘a covering for the breast, neck, or shoulders’. It is not immediately clear what sense of casting is operative. The only possibly related lemma in the OED is casting sheet, which is unhelpfully glossed by cross-reference to the only quotation: 

1644 in S. Tymms Wills & Inventories Bury St. Edmunds (1850) 186,   I doe give with my owne hands vnto Alice my wife, my castinge sheet. 

The Essex Wills contain at least nine earlier examples of casting sheet, the earliest from 1573; examples are: 

1573 (IX. 153) Katherine my son Thomas’s wife a casting sheet [from same will as above]

[date uncertain] (VII. 147) 1 holland sheet commonly called a casting sheet

1582 (IV. 159) a casting sheet, a holland bearing sheet. 

There is no evidence for either on Early English Books Online.

harness girdle

There are two or three examples of this in Essex Wills (1560 harnet may be an error for harnest = harnessed):

1560 (II. 118) my wife’s harness girdle

1560 (V. 338) harnet girdle

1572  (IX. 15) To Anne a harness girdle with the pendels and the rest of my wearing gear

1587 (V. 208) my harness girdle with 3 knops of silver and gilt [in a man’s will]

This is probably a worn-down form of harnessed girdle, which is in OED: see harnessed adj. 1 ‘mounted with silver or other metal’, with quotations of 1478, 1538 for this specific collocation. Compare also:

1538 Will of Alyce Harvy of Bury in Wills & Inventories Reg. Commissary Bury St. Edmunds (1850) 136 My best harnysid gyrdyll of golde callyd a dymysent.

1560 Essex Wills (I. 285) the harnessed girdle with the pendant and buckle

There seem to be no examples of this form without –ed outside the Essex Wills. No evidence seems to be available on Early English Books Online.

knit ware

This must mean ‘manufactured items made by knitting with wool’ (not = ‘knitwear’, which is recent).

1574 Essex Wills (III. 321) the wool and the ‘cnettware’ that I have... ‘cnetteware’

The spelling with e may well be a relic of a south-eastern sound change in Old English, whereby the high rounded front vowel /y/ became /e/ (literary Old English cnyttan to knit). Further examples relate, rather surprisingly as regards dialect distribution, though not in terms of product, to Guernsey:

1616 in Actes des États de l’Île de Guernesey 1605–1651 (1851) I. 41Whereas humble suite hath ben made unto the Booarde by Peeter Beavor, a native of Guernsey, on the behalf of the Inhabitantes of that Isle, for the continewance of the like favor as hath ben anciently afforded unto them, in graunting them Lycence to transporte from hence thither a certain quantitie of Wooll for setting their people on worke, whoe are cheifely imployed in converting Wooll into Stockens and other knitt ware. 

1715 Great Britain’s Glory 75 Objection. That the Quantities allowed by that first Act is not sufficient to supply the Poor in their Manufacturies of Knit Ware. [Discussing a later Act, 1 William & Mary, for exporting wool to the Channel Islands.]

1996 D. M. Ogier Reformation & Society in Guernsey vii. 172 In 1616 a permit to import extra English wool was granted by the Privy Council to the ‘Inhabitantes’ (the merchant elite) ‘for setting their people on worke, who are cheifly imployed in converting wooll into stockens and other knitt ware’.


This term is used several times in Essex Wills to refer to an article of (women’s) clothing. 

1570 (II. 209) 2 quarters (1 lockram, 1 holland) [in a man’s will]

1584 (X. 164)  1 linen quarter

1591 (XI. 67) holland quarter

1591 (XI. 163) 2 of her best quarters, 2 of her best pair of cuffs

[1577–84] (IV. 114) 2 holland quarters [in women’s wills]

At quarter n. in the OED, there are two senses relating to cloth, namely sense 5a ‘one fourth of an ell’, as in (1524) ‘Item for j quarter of veluet to mynd my ladys grace Curtell’ and sense 22a ‘(A section of) the skirt of a coat or other garment’ as in (1591) ‘The lap of a coate, the skirtes, the quarters of a coate’. Neither quite seems to fit the Essex Wills sense, where the quarter appears to be a specific object and not just a length of material or a section of a larger garment. 

rat’s colour, rat’s coloured

A not very flattering term for a colour of cloth, occurring several times in the Essex Wills:
1560 (I. 11) 1 cassock of rat’s colour

1587 (XI. 228) a coat cloth of rat’s colour

1588 (V. 145) rat’s colour gown

1589 (XI. 185) rats-coloured

G. D. Ramsay 1942 ‘The Distribution of the Cloth Industry in 1561-2’ in The English Historical Review 57 361-369 shows that rat’s colour(ed) and sheep’s colour(ed) both occur in the lists of fines for defective cloth on sale in London, but only for producers from Kent (there are no Essex entries).

Further examples; the only literary use is extended, describing a man’s beard:

1582 in R. Lemon Cal. State Papers Domestic Ser. 1581–1590 (1865) (Modernized text) 66 He was apparelled in a cloak of rat’s colour, lined with green baize, the cape of tuffed taffata, red and blue, his ‘girkin and gascoyns’ of the colour of his cloak, his doublet white, and stockings of his hose ‘of a bluishe or murrey colour’.

1584 in M. A. E. Green Cal. State Papers Domestic Ser. 1580–1625 Addenda (1872) (Modernized text) 106 Boast rode with a cloak bag behind him, apparelled in a cloak of a rat’s colour, white jerkin, laid with blue lace, and a pair of buff leather hose.

1592 in Rec. Early Eng. Drama Newcastle upon Tyne (1982) 82 Paide for two yeardes d of brode clothe rattes culer.

1593 in Rec. Early Eng. Drama Newcastle upon Tyne (1982) 88 Paid for a iearde of brode clothe rattes culler to be a Ierken to him at v d a iearde.

1594 T. Lodge & R. Greene Looking Glasse in Wks. (1861) 119/2 Alas, sir, your father,—why, sir, methinks I see the gentleman still: a proper youth he was, faith, aged some forty and ten; his beard rat’s colour, half black, half white.


Can describe a garment (coat, frock, gown, jerkin, petticoat) or cloth or wool. Also occurs as a noun (‘of self grow’). Presumably it refers to the production of wool on one’s own farm instead of buying it elsewhere. It occurs many times in the Essex Wills, but is untraced elsewhere. 

1560 (I. 211) selgrove frock

1560 (VIII. 112) my selfgrow frock

1561 (II. 128) My ‘selvegrove’ gown lined with white lamb

1567 (II. 159) the gown cloth of self grow being 3 3/4 yards

1567 (II. 183) a coat of self grow

1567 (VIII. 191) a cassock of self-grow cloth

1570 (III. 223) 10 lb. of ‘self-grow’ wool ready wooded [= ‘woaded’]

1577 (IV. 110) 2 selfgrow jerkins

1588 (VI. 131) my self-grow petticoat

1592 (XI. 82) my 2 selfgrow kirtles

1600 (XII. 57) 1 selfgrow cloth waistcoat

sheep colour, sheep coloured, sheep’s coloured

1559 (VIII. 98) my sheep-coloured frock

1563 (VIII. 75) sheep-colour petticoat

1576 (III. 334) sheep-coloured jerkin

1584 (V. 7) sheeps-coloured cassock

Presumably describing a fabric that is natural in colour (perhaps even undyed). See the note at rat’s colour about the term’s distribution in 1561–2.

Earlier and later examples:

1552 in D. Bremner Industries Scotland (1869) 165 [In 1552 an Act of Parliament was passed limiting the number of coloured cloths to] scarlet, red, crimson, murray, pink, brown, blue, black, green, yellow, orange, tawny, russet, marble grey, sadnew colour, asemer, watchett, sheep’s colour, lion colour, motley, or iron grey.

1592 in Rec. Early Eng. Drama Newcastle upon Tyne (1982) 82 Paide for vij yeardes of sheep coloure cairsey to be a side cotte to Allon the foole.

1612 Red Bk. Corporation Kilkenny f. 290 in J. Graves & J. G. A. Prim Hist., Archit., & Antiq. Cathedral Kilkenny (1857) i. 138 No woman servant to have any cloak dyed with Spanish woad, but black tawney, or sheep’s colour.

1819 T. Mortimer & W. Dickinson Gen. Commercial Dict. (ed. 2) 111/1 Beige-serge, called so by the people of Poitou; it is black, grey, or tawney-coloured. It is also called sheep-coloured serge, or natural serge; because the wool of which it is manufactured is never dried, being employed both for warp and woof, such as it comes from the sheep. 


Upperbody is covered in the OED (though not entered as a defined lemma) at upper adj. 4b. This sense is defined as ‘that covers or clothes an upper part of the body, esp. the chest or shoulders’; for upperbody specifically OED gives quotations of 1579, 1587, and a1640. The word is evidently older than that, as it already has this derivative, meaning something like ‘provided with (a specified material) as an upperbody.’

Examples in the Essex Wills:

1559 (I. 26) petticoat upper-bodied with say

1563 (I. 161) my red petticoat upperbodied with worsted

1565  36 a red petticoat upperbodied with satin

1568 (II.  82)  my red petticoat upperbodied with worsted

[no date] (I. 4)

1600 (XII. 94) a new blue russet petticoat upperbodied with sacking

Examples outside Essex Wills:

[?date] in C. W. Cunnington & P. E. Cunnington Handbk. Eng. Costume 16th Cent. (1970) 200 Upperbodied with mockeado.

[?date] in D. M. Bergeron Practicing Renaissance Scholarship (2000) 38 Yellow cloth of gold vpperbodied with tynsell. (Also on page 40.)

There seem to be no examples on Early English Books Online.



1565 Essex Wills (II.  14) To my 2 sons two looms towards the occupation of ‘wevery’

Further examples (down to the twentieth century):

1726 T. Maddox Firma Burgi x. 199 The Decay of the woollen-weavery.

1726 T. Maddox Firma Burgi x. 217 They exercised the Trade of Weavery in London.

1726 T. Maddox Firma Burgi xi. 283 Working in the craft or mestiere of Weavery within the City of London.

1910 Amer. Carpet & Upholstery Jrnl. 28 70 These rugs, as now shown, are far superior to the first line produced by this mill, and represent the acme of Scotch weavery in this country to-day.

There was also a second, very common sense: ‘a place where weaving is carried out’, e.g.:

1678 ‘J. P’ tr. J. Johnston Descr. Nature Four-footed Beasts [Wing J1015A] In the Weveries they shear not, but pluck…

Neither is in the OED.

yard kercher, yard kerchief

This is apparently a kerchief measuring a yard, though so large a size seems excessive.

Three out of a number of examples in the Essex Wills.

1564 (VIII. 30) yard kercher

1591 (VI. 118) yard kercher

1600 (XII. 93) a yard kercher of fine holland.

Further examples (from Suffolk; could it be an eastern counties term?):

1615 Will of Joan Buck of Shotley in M. E. Allen Wills Archdeaconry of Suffolk 1625–1626 (1995) II. 133 To son Richard Tomson, bed in the entry chamber as it stands with all furniture thereto now used, & a dansk chest standing by it, little coffer in the parlour, pair fine sheets, pillow bere, yard kerchief, middle kettle, 4 pieces pewter marked on the

1624 Will of Cecilia French of Kelsale in M. E. Allen Wills Archdeaconry of Suffolk 1625–1626 (1995) II. 35 2 pillow beres with a yard kerchief.

Compare also 1-yard or one-yard kerchief:

1589 in F. G. Emmison Elizabethan Life: Essex Gentry’s Wills (1978) 203 to Elizabeth Piggott a one-yard kerchief [woman’s bequest].

No evidence available from Early English Books Online.

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