Review – Dressed in Blue: The Impact of Woad on English Clothing, c. 1350-c. 1670

There are some persistent assumptions myths among historical costumers regarding clothing colours.  Fictions such as purple was only worn by Royalty, or pink is not an achievable colour in period continue to be handed down from one costumer to another.


It has recently come to my attention that there are some persistent assumptions myths among historical costumers regarding clothing colours.  Fictions such as purple was only worn by Royalty, or pink is not an achievable colour in period continue to be handed down from one costumer to another.


Virgin and Child with Saint Anne Artist: Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg) Date: 1519 Medium: Oil on wood Dimensions: 23 5/8 x 19 5/8 in. (60 x 49.8 cm) Classification: Paintings Credit Line: Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 Accession Number: 14.40.633


If the goller on the girl in Virgin and Child with Saint Anne Artist: Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg)  from the Met isn’t pink, I’m a monkeys uncle.

Often these tidbits are passed on with little thought to their veracity or how much harm they are doing the costuming community.

One of these “facts” recently came to me from a very reliable source (as in, they’ve written books on the subject matter and are professional historical costumers specializing in 16th century England). This “fact” was that blue was not a common colour in period and that only servants wore blue.  Since no one would want to be confused with a servant, no one wore blue who didn’t have to. Well, I can think of more then a few images of blue gowns in 16th Century German art and I’ve made a few myself.  The article Dressed in Blue: The Impart of Woad on English Clothing, c. 1350-c. 1670 by Maria Hayward addresses these assertions and assumptions using many period sources to support her claims.

Summary and points of interest:

  • In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, blue was so popular that dyers specializing in other colours launched a smear campaign against it.
  • Despite high import value and traffic, only 5% of extant pieces of textile were dyed with woad, indicating that either woad dyed textiles were less popular then trade suggests or it’s hard to detect.
  • The York livery colours were blue and murrey. Ms. Hayward speculates that this may have caused blue to go out of fashion during the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII and Edward VI. Those monarchs would want to distance the House of Tudor from the House of York.
  • The French love affair with the colour blue remained constant throughout the time covered. The author cites the twelve French Ambassadors attending Henry and Anne Boleyns wedding  having worn an abundance of blue velvet and silk.
  • The decline in blue worn by the nobility can be directly linked to the decline in wool worn by that class of persons. The colour never went totally out of fashion, it transitioned out of everyday ware and into costumes and uniforms using more expensive fabrics such as silks and velvets.
  • Although blue wasn’t worn by the monarchy, other members of the aristocracy are noted for it, especially in their household staff. Often the closest staff of the nobility were minor aristocrats in their own right.
  • By the Seventeenth century, city constables, town watches, and apprentices are all noted for blue apparel and uniforms.
    • Apparently the term “Blue Collar worker” goes back much farther then I originally realized.
  • Blue represented Loyalty in a highly superstitious world.
  • Court entertainment often included the colour blue in it’s costuming. The Blue Knight was a feature in tournaments beginning in the mid 14th century. The concept was so well entrenched that even Henry VIII and his team wore blue uniforms on the tilt yard in 1511, 1516 and 1524.
  • Later Masques became all the rage for court entertainment. Blue was a common colour seen in those costumes. It was said to look good in candlelight and often signified the ideals of Chivalry.
  • chatsworthinigojonesdesignsforOS59.jpg
    Drawing of a Lady Masquer by Inigo Jones c. 1613

    Vestments for the clergy were often blue even at the highest level of noble clergy.




Ms. Hayward addresses the cycle of popularity of the colour blue in the late middle ages and early modern era of England in a straight forward manner.  She neither attempts to convince the reader that blue was or was not fashionable but instead provides documentation of who was wearing it, when and why. This paper provides a very solid basis for further research into the use of the colour Blue and it’s fashionableness across England and beyond.

Aprons – A Historical Overview

Aprons can be seen everywhere, on everyone in the 15 and 16th Centuries.  Worn by both men and women at work and at play, they appear to be a standard attire throughout the early modern era.

Worn by the lowest classes as working garments to offer some protection for their dearly owned clothing underneath, aprons were also worn by the highest classes as a show of status in extravagant embellishment and fine work.  Even women of the gentry would need some protection of their clothing when doing the various household tasks not trusted to the staff.

Clothing cost money.  Lots of money.  The poorer classes would have 2 maybe 3 outfits.  One for church, one for the rest of the time. They ate, drank, worked, and even slept in the same small wardrobe.  In order to maintain the best condition of their clothing, protective layers (both inside and out) were made of cheaper materials. Items such as the hemd (English: smock, Italian: chemise) and the schürze (English: apron) were generally made from linen and served this purpose.  I believe there are some records of wool aprons, but I am lacking a citation at the moment. It would make sense, since wool was nearly as cost effective as linen, although harder to clean.

Aprons in 16th century Germany are standard to a few different styles.  I will explore these designs in detail in future posts.  For now I will refer to them as “Front Aprons”, “Full Aprons” and “Shoulder Suspended”

Image 1, Center: Full Apron, Right: Front Apron
Image 2: Left: Shoulder Suspended Apron

Aprons were often smocked with either basic or elaborate embroidery, displayed cutwork and pulled thread work. The colours ranged from undyed to black, reds, blues, greens and yellows can be found in imagery of the time.  Most often, aprons were white presumably for ease of cleaning and re-bleaching for reuse.

Like head coverings, aprons are something we often neglect in our portrayals of persons in history. In our modern recreations of historical dress, we go for the flashy, big picture. Accessories are the details that blur the lines and make our garb more authentic and feel more real.

Image 1:  Costumes and moral images of the 16th century from Western and Eastern Europe, Orient, the New World and Africa – BSB Cod.icon. 361

Image 2: The Sächsische Stammamuch – Mscr.Dresd.R.3


Apprentice Tournament – Samhain

Like most tournament formats in the SCA, A&S competitions usually follow a fairly standard format.  “Enter ‘x’ pieces with some level of documentation and be adjudicated according to the level of competition”.  Over the past few years, there as been a shift in A&S activities from the standard in order to draw in more participation. I’ve seen, run and/or participated in “unfinished projects”, round tables, and show & shine formats.  Recently at Samhain in Montengarde the A&S champion ran a format that I could both participate in with ease and challenged my documentation.  The theme was Irish (there were other categories, Irish is the one I entered) and there was a 1 page limit on documentation.  I conveniently had a Beoaed on hand whose garb we’ve been working to make more authentic.

This is Beoaed in his blue silk Killcommon Jacket and Saffron Leine

I also entered his attached braies and hose, which I learned are just called Trews according to the authorities on 16th century Irish Dress.

Most of my documentation came from Mairead Dunlevy – Dress in IrelandH.F. McClinotck – Old Irish & Highland Dress and The Image of Irelande, by John Derrick plates


John Derrick – The image of Irelande (1581)
I had a few major personal accomplishments with this entry.
First off, being able to pull something out of the closet that I made without the intention of entering it in A&S and enter it was a big deal. I had great comments from my judges on this.  It was honestly not something I had really thought about, but like Mistress Katryna said it speaks to where my work is.
Second was distilling my documentation to a single page.  I was having problems finding the happy medium between covering my divergences from period and documenting what was actually period. In the end, with guidance from Mistress Inga, I kept the paperwork simple and elaborated on my process, design and divergences in my oral presentation.
Eventually I would like to do a series of blog posts about later period Irish clothing including some patterns, so keep an eye out!  For now, here is my winning entry from the Samhain A&S competition:


16th Century Irish Clothing – By Adelheid Holtzhauer
·         Blue Silk Jacket in the style found in the Killcommon Bog find.
o    Blue silk outer fabric, linen canvas interlining, white linen lining.
o    Hand sewn with blue and white silk thread
·         Saffron Linen Liene with green and red embroidered seams
o    5.3oz Autum Gold linen from
o    Hand sewn with green silk thread that is deteriorating
o    Repaired with white cotton thread and re-embroidered with green and red cotton
·         Linen underware and trews based on the Killcommon Bog find.
o    5.3oz white linen, green linen, patched with orange linin
o    Handsewn with white cotton thread
During the 16th century, the English were trying to conquer Ireland. Conquering a country included the vanquished accepting the dress of the victors (Dunlevy, 1989, p. 46).  Ireland was divided on acceptance of English rule.  With this divide came some interesting combinations of traditional Irish dress with English fashions.  Depending on how one wished to be viewed, one would dress in different modes or simply mix and match as seen in plate 12 of The Image of Irelande (The Image of Irelande, by John Derrick (London, 1581) – Plates, 2002).
As luxury fabrics became more readily available in Ireland, the Noblemen began to eclipse their women in dressing with vanity in rich fabrics.  In order for the in Dublin Castle encouraged the Irish aristocracy to wear lavish garment by offering expensive fabrics or clothes as gifts.  Acceptance signified acknowledging English rule in Ireland (Dunlevy, 1989, p. 44).  Doublets were known to be made from and lined with expensive fabrics such as satin, velvet, cloth-of-gold. Legs were covered with breeches on the upper legs sewn to stockings below (Dunlevy, 1989, p. 45).
Saffon dye was made from the dried stigmas of the autumn crocus and was considered a distinctly Irish dye and was specifically legislated against by Henry VIII in 1537 (Dunlevy, 1989, pp. 47, 54).  This saffron colour was traditionally believed to protect the wearer from ill health (Dunlevy, 1989, p. 54).
The saffron-dyed linen léine (pl. léinte) had long full sleeves and their jackets were short-waisted with v-necks and hanging sleeves covering the tops of the arms and tied at the wrists (Dunlevy, 1989, pp. 53, 54). There is a misconception about the Irish not wearing trews or leg coverings.  Woodcuts from John Derrick debunk this showing kern wearing fitted leg covers or trews and underwear (The Image of Irelande, by John Derrick (London, 1581) – Plates, 2002).
The mode of dress was described by John Derricke after spending time in Drogheda (Dunlevy, 1989, p. 56):
His skirts be very short
With pleats set thick about
Their shirts be very strange
Not reaching past the thigh
With pleats on pleats they pleated are
As thick as pleats may lie
Whose sleeves hang trailing down
Almost onto the shoe


This description is corroborated by William Camden in 1589 who described the dress of the kerns as large linen tunics with wide sleeves hanging down to their knees which were generally dyed with saffron; short woolen jerkins, and simple close fitted trews.  It is also backed up by the suit of clothing found in Kilcommon bog near Thurles Co. Tipperary (Dunlevy, 1989, p. 57).

Léune’s are shown in the print titled “Irish Chieftans” in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford as closed in the front, drawn up through a belt to make them knee length and the resulting pouch around the waist was probably used as a pocket (McClintock, 1950, p. 32).  Later the léine is shown as open in front and the sides fold across the chest, it is also shortened to a length between the hip and knee (McClintock, 1950, p. 41)
The Irish trews found in the Killcommon bog have a drawstring waist, and made of a single piece of fabric joined with a seam and shaped to the waist.  The legs were made with a different fabric with a seam at the back and attached to the body with a seam around the thigh. The bias cut of the lower leg allowed more flexibility in the tight fitting garment (Dunlevy, 1989, pp. 57, 58).
Dunlevy, M. (1989). Dress in Ireland. New York, NY: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.
McClintock, H. (1950). Old Irish & Highland Dress. In H. F. McClintock, Old Irish & Highland Dress Second Edition. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press (W. Tempest) Ltd.
The Image of Irelande, by John Derrick (London, 1581) – Plates. (2002, 06 27). Retrieved 11 03, 2016, from Masterpieces from the research collections of Edinburgh University Library:

Apron Research

Melancholia I – Albercht Durer – 1514
Melancholia I (Apron Detail) – Albrecht Durer – 1514

Aprons, ubiquitous to all stations throughout history, serve both functional and frivolous purposes.  Made of wool or linen, ranging in colours from black to white to green to blue, they were used to protect clothing and as a status symbol.

This is the beginning of my research into aprons in the German Cities in the 16th century.  I’ll be looking at the range of colours displayed in art and trying to extrapolate a difference in social class in relation to apron colour.  I will also try to identify different styles of aprons; pleated, smocked, flat, partial coverage or complete.

I like aprons, I find them useful every day.  I cook, clean, work, and relax in garb over the course of an event.  Having useful functional clothing and accessories assists in maintaining my kit as well as lending authenticity to it.  The devil is in the details. I’ve had a simple pleated apron made of midweight linen for 5 years and it’s finally time to cut it up into wash cloths.  I need some basic functional aprons, but I’m also working on some fancier ones similar to the apron depicted in Durer’s “Melancholia I” shown above.

Welcome to my Rabbit Hole!

Welcome back…. and WAY back!

I haven’t posted a blog in a VERY VERY long time.  I shall begin to remedy this promptly.

Since my past post in 2009 I’ve grown enormously in my research and knowledge of both clothing and life in the 16th century.  I’ll try to get a few diaries and patterns up as well as complete photos and progress shots.

But, let me start with the start.  This is me in 2009 in the first thing I ever made (beyond that one bag in sewing classes when I was 12).  It was at Montengarde 12th Night (photo courtesy Falashad on Flickr) and inspired by Hans Holbien’s painting.

Me. 2009. First Garb!
Portrait of Dorthea Meyer – Hans Holbein the Younger (1525)

Iain Gutherie patterned the bodice for me, and I did it NO justice in the end.  Lemme tell you, this was an optimistic first try.  I have yet to re-attempt the gown.  Its a great attempt though, I am pretty proud of this all things considered!

Smock Constrution

100% Cotton

How I did it
A bunch of triangles and little tiny cartridge pleats around the neck…. maybe?

Hat Construction

 ?? Your guess is as good as mine.  It doesn’t look too bad though eh!

Gown Construction


Lining – 100% cotton
Interlining – Jean denim
Red Fashion – Questionably 100% cotton drill
Black guards – Questionable content plain weave “wool”

How I did it
This was a VERY long time ago.  So I don’t have many details on my process other then a LOT of tea, frustration, and seam ripping.

I started with zigzagging all the edges of all the pieces… so I had some good direction!

The lining and interlining on the bodice is sewing good side to good side then flipped right side in and pressed.  Since I used inappropriate materials, and didn’t know about clipping allowance, I ended up running a stitch along the neck and front to minimize bubbling along that edge.

The bodice was WAY too big around the waist and fit funny so I ended up  putting a little pleat in the back where it attaches to the skirt to make it look better.

The sleeves are probably unlined and sewn in right side to right side then flipped over.  I didn’t know much about seam finishing, so they are all bulky and raw inside.

The skirt is a vague approximation of a knife pleat. The neck guard runs down the length of the front of the skirt and then into the  hem guards.  I liked the look at the time, but totally undocumented.

It is closed with hooks and eyes.

Take Away
Ok, this is pretty redundant since it’s my first ever sewing project.  But I really DID learn a lot from both those helping me, and my own mistakes.  I guess it wasn’t too bad, since I haven’t stopped making stuff yet!