Anthea Bickley

Early wills often mention items of clothing and shoes passed on to relatives, friends, dependents and others. This surprises us today when clothing is cheap and throw-away, but in the past these were probably the most expensive items in any family or personal budget because of the amount of skilled labour involved in spinning, weaving, dyeing and finishing the cloth, or in preparing leather from animal hides. Added to these were the costs of making the items, if this could not be done within the home. Recipients would wear or re-use items suitable for their life-style and station, and would sell the rest.

Measures were taken to protect garments from soiling and damage so aprons and oversleeves were frequently worn by both sexes when working. Men’s shirts and women’s smocks - the basic linen undergarments - helped prevent the wearer’s body from soiling the main garments from the inside. Clothes were usually cut in simple square or rectangular shapes so that there was no waste, and thereafter every scrap of cloth was carefully hoarded and re-used until that really was no longer possible at all.

The wills of Jenet Haworthe of Aighton, in the Parish of Mitton, who died in 1590 and of Margaret Preston of Mearbeck who died in 1637 both contain bequests of clothing. Both women were well-off by the standards of the time shown by the fact that they made wills at all. They were both spinsters, and had probably inherited small personal legacies from their fathers so that they could continue to live in a way befitting the family standing in the community. They probably lived in the household of a brother or sister, helping with the work as they had done all their lives in return for bed and board, and it is often this surviving sibling and the sibling’s spouse who receive the most valuable goods, and who are charged with being executors of the estate.

Jenet Haworthe owned three kine (cows) who seem to have been boarded out elsewhere. She had probably originally been given ownership of a calf which would continue to live with the rest of the herd. Income from the milk and the sale of calves over the years would pay for their keep and the surplus would be a small private income for her, and from this she would provide her own clothes. Her will gives us an insight into the extent of her wardrobe as anything of real value is specified.

Most contemporary illustrations show fashionable and expensive city clothes. The women in the families of northern farmers would certainly not be dressed like that even though elements of fashion could creep in over a generation or so. Their garments would be simpler and more hardwearing, designed to show an appreciation of these substantial qualities, and the long life of the garments also meant that style changes were slow to appear. By the 1590’s most women wore a gown which was open fronted from the waist downwards showing off the underskirt, known as a petticoat. The gown was put on like a coat and the bodice part fastened from neckline to waist by lacing or with pins. The dress sleeves worn with a gown were usually tied on under a small fabric wing or flap over the top of the armhole rather than sewn to the bodice as tailors had not yet mastered the art of setting in sleeves. This also made them easy to remove when they were at risk of soiling. The linen smock beneath had long sleeves worn either to show or to be rolled up as need required; it was not considered at all improper to show this undergarment and wealthy women often wore very showy and finely-worked smocks. The neckline of the gown was not tight to the base of the neck as again this helped with cleanliness. The smock showed at the neckline and the remainder of the space was sometimes filled with the partlett, a triangular linen scarf tucked into the gown all round. The hair would be covered with a linen coif or cap, and a hat added out of doors. For most of her day a woman with farm or household duties would also wear a large linen (flaxen) apron.

Jenet’s will lists the items of clothing which are to go to particular recipients and shows that she wore the usual garments of the time. Agnes Moncke receives “my best petticoat my best partlett my best three quarters” . This would be a wool, or less probably silk, petticoat. The linen partlett might be embroidered, or just of the best available quality, depending on Jenet’s tastes and skill with the needle. The “three quarters” are more of a puzzle as the term is not really known from this date. Later it referred to a piece of cloth three quarters of an ell long; an ell was 45 inches so three quarters would be almost a yard of fabric. This was large enough to be worn on its own, possibly like a partlett, but as Jenet specifies a partlett immediately before I think this is an unlikely explanation. Another suggestion, for which I am indebted to Dr. Maria Hayward of the Textile Conservation Centre, University of Southampton, is that it might refer to a kirtle. This by now skirt-like garment was worn under the gown, showing at the open front, and later in the mid sixteenth century is recorded as an apron-like piece of fabric worn by itself under the gown or with the decorative section mounted onto plain fabric. As Jenet also specifies a petticoat the idea that her “three quarters” was apron-like in shape is attractive.

Elline Tomlinson received from Jenet “one black gown and one petticoat with one pair of black durance sleeves and one three quarters”. The colour of the petticoat is not specified, for it was probably the only other one in good condition which she possessed, but almost certainly it did not match the gown. Contrasts were favoured. The durance for the sleeves was a particularly hard-wearing woollen or worsted cloth, and as black was always the most difficult colour to dye satisfactorily, and thus highly desirable and expensive, they seem to have been especially good.

The hat which Robert Thomlinson received would be made of felted animal hairs. Rabbit was the cheapest, beaver much more expensive, and other hairs made hats of intermediate price. It would be quite large and stiff with a high crown and a fair-sized brim, worn plain or simply trimmed with ribbon. It was worn for weather protection as much as appearance so styles for men and women often only show variation in their trimmings.

Margaret Winder received a black apron. This would be for smarter wear, such as attending church or visiting, rather than for work, but it would still have the added purpose of protecting the gown and petticoat. The stockinger she received was probably a full pair of stockings rather than just one. Many pairs were made as a cottage industry in the Yorkshire Dales, sold through middlemen who controlled the supply of yarn and saw to the finishing and sale of the knitted garments; Jenet may, however, have knitted her own. A mufflinge was a large piece of fabric worn wrapped around the upper body over other clothes for extra protection against the weather.

George Moncke and Thomas Haighton each received a handkerchief. These were not, as we know them now, for blowing the nose, but for carrying about in the hand when in full dress. They could be perfumed as a protection against infections which were generally thought to reside in unpleasant smells. The silver lace on Thomas’ handkerchief means just what it says, bobbin lace made from a silver or silver-over-silk thread. These were definitely status symbols indicating that the owner could afford to buy fabric essentially just for show.

After all these bequests Jenet moves to recipients lower down the social scale and distributes the garments which were either in everyday use or already put by for re-use. William Waringe’s wife is given no name, but is given one old petticoat either to wear herself or to make into other things. There was a considerable amount of cloth in a petticoat when it was unpicked, and it might well make sleeves, or clothe a child. The wife of James Johnson receives the lower part of an old petticoat and one old smock; presumably the upper part of the petticoat had worn out or been re-used already. Thomas Marshall’s wife receives an upper body, that is the bodice part of a gown, and a pair of sleeves. Some poorer women would add to these a smock and a petticoat and consider themselves satisfactorily dressed; lack of a formal gown did not mean that she was going out in her underwear.

Jenet’s quantity and quality of garments tell us that she came from a prosperous family, one which could afford to dress for show as well as for warmth and protection whilst working. It is frustrating that we know no more of her or her family circumstances, though she does give the distinct impression of a woman who cared about her standing and appearance within her community.

Will of Jenet Haworthe of Aighton pa Mitton 1590 (abbreviated)


My body to be buried in the parish church yard of Mitton. For my goods my will is that my brother John Haworth and Midgeley shall have all my goods whatsoever my funeral expenses and the legacies following discharged. To Lawrence Osbaldeston of Billingeton two kine which are mine in the hands of the late wife of Richard Broughton and one in the hands of Lawrence Osbaldeston. To Agnes Moncke wife of George Moncke my best petticoat my best partlett my best three quarters. To my cousin Elline Tomlinson one black gown and one petticoat with one pair of black durance sleeves and one three quarters and one chest that is in her hands. To my cousin Edward Thomlinson one chest being the better of the two which are at John Waters. To Robert Tomlinson my best hat and all that he owes me. To Emma Birley wife of William Birley one three quarters and one flaxen apron. To Margaret Winder one black apron one single stockinger and one mufflinge. To George Moncke one silver ring and a handkerchief. To Thomas Haighton schoolmaster of Whalley a handkerchief with a silver lace about. To the wife of William Waringe one old petticoat. To the wife of James Johnson alias Fielding one lower body of an old petticoat and one old smock. To the wife of Thomas Marshall one upper body and a pair of sleeves of cloth. If my funeral expenses are greater than I had thought Lawrence Osbaldeston shall provide the one half. My brother John Haworth to be my executor.

Witnesses George Moncke Richard Midgeley Lawrence Osbaldeston Nicholas Winckley William Birley

Almost half a century later, in 1637, Margaret Preston of Mearbeck made her will. Like Jenet Haworthe she bequeaths items from her wardrobe, but the intervening years have had an effect upon styles and some items are very different. She leaves clothing only to close family members and each receives several substantial items.

Margaret’s aunt Isabel is named first, probably as the most senior. The first item is a safeguard, a stout extra petticoat worn over the other clothes when riding and probably much needed. This one had belonged to Margaret’s mother, and is now on the way to its third owner. Isabel also receives a pair of bodies, a stiffened undergarment made in two parts and equating to the later corset, worn over the smock and beneath the gown or occasionally in informal situations with just a petticoat and no gown to make a practical outfit for heavy work such as haymaking. The waistcoat was a sleeveless undergarment, simply shaped and pulled on over the head, worn for warmth. Like the bodies it could be worn with just a petticoat to make an informal outfit, or under the gown as an extra layer, and be made of almost any fabric. As in later centuries red was sometimes a favoured colour for undergarments as it was supposed to promote the health of the wearer as well as providing warmth. The two coils are cauls, hairnets made from netted silk and worn by girls and younger unmarried women instead of the linen cap and have probably been carefully put aside because of the value of the silk in them. The belt would be ornamental rather than purely practical, though it might also be used to hang things like knife, scissors and household keys from. Together with the apron and the best neckcloth - the current name for the partlett listed in Jenet Haworthe’s will - these make a valuable legacy in terms of both cash and usefulness.

Margaret’s sister-in-law, Anne Preston, receives a smaller but no less useful legacy. The best petticoat goes to her, again passing to its third owner. The best hose, or knitted stockings, and two linen smocks would be much appreciated. Anne’s husband was to be Margaret’s executor and to have everything left over after paying for the funeral and distributing the specific bequests so there may well have been further whole or part garments for that family.

The final bequest is made to her sister, Elizabeth Preston. She receives two waistcoats - so Margaret had at least three - together with another safeguard, a red petticoat and a hat. These are all thoroughly practical garments and taken with everything else Margaret left provide a picture of a family where the emphasis was on clothing suitable for daily work.

Will of Margaret Preston of Mearbeck 1637 (abbreviated)

Spinster buried Giggleswick

To be buried within the parish church yard of Giggleswick. Debts and funeral expenses of my whole goods. To Roger Preston my younger brother eight pounds. To Elizabeth Preston my sister 40 shillings. To William Preston and John Preston my brother Richard’s son 30 shillings each. To Isabel Preston my aunt a brown savgard which was my mother’s best, a pair of bodies, a red waistcoat, two coils which is wrought with silk, a silk belt, an apron and my best neckcloth.

To my brother Richard’s wife Anne Preston my best red petticoat which was my mother’s, also my best hose and two linen smocks. To Elizabeth Preston my sister two of my best waistcoats, a brown saveguard, a red petticoat and my best hat. To my brother Richard the rest and remainder of my goods - he to be executor.

Witnesses Isabel Preston her mark, Thomas Knowles


The wills are part of the collection deposited with the North Craven Historical Research Group by Reg Postlethwaite collated by M.J.Slater.