This piece of embroidered cloth was found during the dismantling of the house extension from Reigate in 1981, re-erected at the museum in 1987. The extension, containing a basement, ground-floor room, first-floor room, and attic, was originally attached to the rear of No. 43 High Street in Reigate (Surrey). No. 43 High Street dated from the early 20th century but fragments of earlier timbers suggested that its medieval predecessor had a rear staircase tower to which the extension had been attached sometime around 1620.
The clothing fragment – most likely part of a sleeve – appears to have been deliberately concealed in a partition between the building eaves and the attic floor. The material is linen with an elaborate floral embroidered design worked in black silk and silver and silver gilt thread. It is thought to date from about 1580 and is an example of ‘blackwork’, a style of needlework popular in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The design would have been drawn onto the linen with pen and ink.
This style of embroidery bears a striking resemblance to contemporary wall paintings. Those discovered in the upper room of the Reigate extension consisted of curvilinear black-on-white designs as well as brightly coloured foliage.
A more obvious comparison can be made with the so-called Fittleworth panels in the museum’s collection which were removed from a house in Fittleworth (West Sussex) in 1968 to prevent their complete destruction. They were uncovered beneath layers of reed plaster whilst the house was being renovated and the house’s owner had no interest in preserving them in situ. Like the sleeve fragment the paintings are thought to date from about 1580.
The practice of deliberately concealing garments and other objects within a building’s fabric is now well documented with examples from the 15th century to the early 20th century in various parts of Britain. They are most commonly found in or near chimneys or fireplaces, under the floor, above the ceiling or within walls, frequently near the junctions of old and new parts of the building. There are no contemporary explanations of why objects were concealed in this way but historians and archaeologists generally interpret these practices as a form of ritual behaviour, intended to protect the occupants from some kind of malevolent external force. To find out more visit the website of the Deliberately Concealed Garments Project.
The museum has other examples of deliberately concealed objects, the most significant of which is the collection of around 80 shoes and boots, all dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, found in a space next to the chimney on the ground floor of a house in Nutley (East Sussex).
Some of these objects will be on display at the museum from 10 to 12 July 2015 as part of the Festival of Archaeology.