Clothing Forum

by Ralph & Mary Briggs

This column is intended to provide a forum for a free exchange of documentation with an emphasis on both men's and women's clothing and accessories. We don't claim to be experts on the subject, but we are experienced, having sewn for ourselves and others, helping others with their IIFs and being on the IG's staff. We don't intend to try to pass ourselves off as authorities, but will be looking to the general membership for both questions and answers.

Documentation: Primary Vs. Secondary

During inspections, we have found there is sometimes confusion over the difference between primary vs. secondary documentation. The IG Department prefers the former. Often the source mentioned is excellent, but the presentation diminishes its impact. The difference may seem subtle, but it is not.

Secondary documentation uses a book or author not of our portrayed period as the reference. This might be a page in an art book and includes books of collections, such as Neumann's Collector's Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, The book is secondary documentation. Primary documentation is the object itself. It is the painting shown in the book. It is the gown in the collection on display. It is the quote by an eyewitness. Primary documentation can include period journals, newspaper accounts, orderly books, paintings, etc.

"Gehret, Ellen, Rural Pennsylvania Clothing, p. 98" is secondary documentation. "Shirt, from the Collection of the Costume Museum of the Germantown Historical Society, as seen in (ASI) Gehret, Ellen, Rural Pennsylvania Clothing, p. 98 is primary documentation ¯ the reference is the object as it is presented in the book, not the book itself.

Primary documentation should include all relevant information to help the reader identify the piece. In the case of a painting, the name of the work, the artist's name, the year it was created, where the original piece is to be found, and the publication in which you found it.

Obviously not every tid-bit of information is relevant to every reference, but the more information you can include, the more solid your documentation, and the more useful to the people attempting to appreciate your sources.

Burn Testing Fabrics

Most cloth is made of perpendicular threads in one of two basic weaves. The threads in plain (broad, tabby) weaves cross one another like the wire in window screens, while twills usually appear to have diagonals running through them, like blue jeans. The threads that run across the fabric from selvage (finished edge) to selvage are called the weft or woof. The warp runs lengthwise through the fabric. Warp and woof threads may not be of the same size or fiber, i.e. 18th century fustian, which had a cotton weft and a linen warp, and linsey-woolsey with a linen weft and a wool warp (Gehret, pp. 25-30).

One concern at inspections is the fiber content of the clothing fabric itself. How strictly content is interpreted, such as whether cotton is an acceptable substitute for linen, is determined by individual units, but the inspector's department allows a synthetic fibre content up to 30% in wool blends only (By-laws, #01-1, 20). The simple reason for this is that synthetics are DANGEROUS AROUND FIRE! Modern fabrics are often "blends," combining characteristics of strength, comfort, drape, price, etc. Fabrics marked "linen" are often, upon closer inspection, "linen-look," and may contain no flax fibers at all. The madder (brick) red wool that many of the British regimentals are made from is 15% nylon, as this color is difficult to find in 100% wool.

A common and accepted way to test a fabric is to apply a flame to a piece of it. Note that testing one thread only is not a complete test of the material, as warp and weft thread might be of different fibers. In a nutshell, fabrics test into three basic categories:

Blends, of course, are more difficult to identify, but if it seems to burn like the latter, avoid it.


We get to ask the first questions.

RED WOOL. The madder red British coat wool mentioned earlier is is 5100-466, Brick Red available from Woolrich Woolen Mills, Mill Street, Woolrich, PA 17779. The last time I ordered a bolt of 15 yards, the minimum order, ran about $170. The weight of this material is 22 oz, that is, one square yard weighs 22 ounces, which is pretty heavy material. Does anyone know of a lighter weight wool of the same color available from some other equally dependable source?

WATCHCOATS. I have collected some good information on materials, styling, and colors in civilian greatcoats, but what I would really like to know is what colors of watchcoats were issued to Howe's army in the east. Note: these were not the Canadian capote of Burgoyne's northern army.

A MAN'S SHIRT? On page 145 in Janine Montupet and Chislaine Schoeller, Lace, the Elegant Web, published by Harry Abrams, Inc., New York, 1990, is a reproduction of a painting by Gabriel Gresly entitled "Lace vendor". The woman depicted appears to be wearing an man's shirt as an undergarment. Has anyone else seen this painting? What is this woman wearing?

Please send your comments, documentation and questions about clothing and accessories to Ralph & Mary Briggs, 1537 31st, Des Moines, IA 50311, or e-mail us at


Brigade of the American Revolution, Basic Non-Military Clothing Guide for Women, 1993

Gehret, Ellen J., Rural Pennsylvania Clothing, George Shumway, York, PA, 1976

Montgomery, Florence,Textiles in America 1650-1870, W.W. Norton & Co, NY, 1984

NWTA By-Laws, 1991

Some Things Never Change?

Ever show up to an event early? Ever host an event where someone showed up early? Did it go something like this?

BOSTON, 5 April, 1775: At 9 this morning the Grenrs. and Lt. Infantry assembled at their ground, where they found nothing settled, no ground marked out for them nor was there anybody to mark it out or show them where to encamp; after waiting a considerable time, we set about pitching the Tents as we cou'd settle ourselves, the Grenrs. on the right, the Light Infantry on the left; the whole was not finished till 6 or 7 o'clock, and after all it was then wrong and we must have to move again, for the Streets are only single, by which means we have taken up twice the ground we ought.

SOURCE: The British in Boston, The Diary of Lt. John Barker, NY Times and Arno Press, 1969