The clothing of the rural poor

The clothing choices of the rural poor in 17th century Sussex were constrained by two factors: practicalities and income.  Clothing had to be made from robust material to withstand wear and tear.  Limited resources also meant restricted clothing choices and garments (often second-hand in the first place) that had to be worn for a considerable number of years. 

The type of woollen cloth recorded in wills, quarter session records and overseers’ accounts were ‘homemade’ (this was professionally woven cloth, not ‘homemade’ in the sense we would now use the word), blanket, thickset, kersey, frieze, serge and ‘cotton’ (a type of woollen cloth with a shorn nap).  Linsey-woolsey (a flax and woollen mix) and fustian (a flax and cotton mix) were used for a variety of outerwear.  Coarse linen cloth like canvas, linsey and lockram was used for head and neckwear, smocks, shirts and aprons, and sometimes for outerwear.

Woollen outerwear was brushed down rather than being immersed in water, so in theory one set would suffice, but in practice even the very poor seem to have had a variety of woollen (or woollen and flax mix) garments, even if they did not amount to a complete second set.

Linen clothes (smocks, shirts, head and neckwear) were washed regularly, which means that all but the truly indigent would have a minimum of two sets.  The expectation that smocks and shirts would be changed regularly is reflected in the fact that they were frequently referred to as ‘changes’.

Clothing, even ‘ordinary’ or ‘workaday’ clothing, was often brightly coloured – red, green, blue, yellow.  The most popular colour for women’s petticoats was ‘red’, a colour achieved by dyeing the cloth with the roots of the madder plant, which could produce a vibrant red, but also ‘red’ shades varying from dark russet to soft apricot.

Women could achieve a measure of social display by wearing fine (imported) linen head and neckwear trimmed with bone lace (lace made on bone bobbins from linen thread).  Coloured ‘ribbon’ (probably more like braid) was used for a variety of decorative purposes, such as trimming for petticoats, apron and shoe strings, hat bands and fastenings for neckwear.

Men’s working clothes (doublet and breeches) were often made of canvas or leather.  Sometimes cloth breeches had detachable leather linings.  But men too could enhance their appearance with fine linen neckwear, decorative hatbands and coloured handkerchiefs.


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