The Kilcommon Costume — a 16thc Irish kern’s clothes

RH303 – Kilcommon Outfit
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In 1946, a suit of clothes dating to the late 16th or early 17th century was found by Father Fitzgerald in Kilcommon Bog, Thurles, County Tipperary, Ireland. It consisted of a jacket and trews (pants) and accessories of native manufacture. The garments were of a rough weave, suggesting that they belonged to a common man. Yet they were also of a style that suggested they followed the Gaelic (i.e. non-English) fashion.

The records we have of the Kilcommon costume are sketchy. This is not uncommon with Irish textiles. No notes on the find survive. No archeological dig of the site was done. All that remains besides the textiles themselves is the account of a tailor who in the late 1940′s examined the garments. It is unfortunately clear that the man knew nothing about clothing history nor textile production. He describes the garments with a modern viewpoint which, if it were not for the evidence of the extant garments, would greatly skew our understanding of the clothes.

The Jacket

The cloth of the jacket is wool in a coarse tabby (plain) weave. Dunlevy1 states that it is woven with an uneven warp and weft. In my investigations, I did not find this to be true. The thickness of both warp and weft threads varies between 1 mm and 2½ mm. This variation is due to wear and tear and the effect of time in the bog. When looking at the threads, it is obvious that time has made them different thicknesses, not the intention of their spinner. Both warp and weft is made from Z(clockwise)-spun singles. The sett is 11 thread per inch horizontal and 13 threads per inch vertical. The present colour of the jacket is a lighter brown than the trews or hat or clock, indicating that it may have been a light colour. The National Museum of Ireland has not done any scientific test to determine its original colour.

The construction of the Kilcommon Jacket could not be more simple. The front of the jacket consists of two pieces 3″ wide at the shoulder seam. Although in the photo, they appear to have some shaping, they are simply two rectangles pulled into place over the chest, much like a Japanese kimono. These strips increase to 4″ wide about 11″ down the front. At this point, a 5½” by 5½” tartan patch fills in the gap from this strip to the side seam. The patch is only extant on the left side (not visible in the photo) but it is obvious from the condition of the right side of the jacket that there once was a similar patch there as well. The jacket continues below the patch for another three inches. Level with the bottom of the patch is a single fabric button on the right and a bound buttonhole on the left. On the side where there is no patch, the edges are bound with a whipstitch, as are all the raw edges of the jacket.

The sleeves of the Kilcommon Jacket, though simple in the extreme, are the most interesting part. Indeed, hanging sleeves seem to be the “stamp” of Irishness in 16th century dress. The purpose of hanging sleeves was to accommodate the voluminous léine sleeves thast were popular at the time. This style apparently confused the above-mentioned tailor because he states, “I think part of the sleeve must be missing as it only measures 8″ muscle. The cuff at 7″ is small but 8″ at the muscle of the arm would hardly fit a girl.”4 It is obvious that he was not aware that this “half sleeve” was a well-known element of Irish dress. As he states, the sleeve is roughly rectangular, 7″ wide at the cuff, 8″ wide at the shoulder and 19¾” long from the underarm to the cuff. At the top back corner, a triangular gusset is added, similar to that on the Shinrone Gown. This gusset, measuring 4″ on the sides attached to the sleeve and to the body front and 2″ on the side attached to the back, turns the sleeve very slightly so that the fabric lays over the arm, not out to the side. Unlike the Shinrone Gown, this sleeve closes by means of two fabric buttons at the wrist. The buttons are sewn onto the underarm side of the sleeve with long shanks made from the same thread that holds the garment together. The first button is 2½” from the cuff and the second is 1½” away from that. The bound buttonholes on the back edge of the sleeve are similarly placed.

A curious slash (like that on the extant Shinrone gown sleeve) also appears approximately 1½” in from the underarm edge of the sleeve and measures 3½” long. The purpose of this slash is not known, but like that on the Shinrone specimen, it shows no signs of wear (i.e. it was not habitually pulled open). Unlike the buttonholes, its edges are not bound. Matter of fact, it is less a slash and more a case of two missing threads. To accomplish this slit in the material, a pair of threads had been cut and removed from the fabric, leaving the slash we find today. My only guess as to its purpose is the “slash and puff” style that was common in the period. However, in that style, many slashes were employed. None of the woodcuts or illustrations show such an element.

Woodcuts from John Derricke’s “Images of Ireland” from 1581 (picture at right) show men in short, V-necked jackets and leg-hugging trews. The sleeves of the jacket appear open at the bottom to accommodate the bagpipe sleeves shown in almost every illustration. Derricke’s woodcuts vary in quality and detail, but these elements of men’s clothing appear again and again when he represents native styles.

The back of the jacket is even simpler in design than the front.  It is made from a single, nearly square piece of fabric identical to that from which the front piece was cut.  From collar to waist, the back piece measures 17″ long.  From sleeve to sleeve, the top of the piece measures 12½” across.  The places where it attaches to the front piece are each 3″ wide. The piece measures 15″ wide at the bottom (where the “skirt” attaches).

The “skirt” is simple in design but curiously engineered.  Three pieces of 5¾” wide 33½” long strips of fabric and two pieces the same width and 4½” long are joined together to form the skirt. These strips are pleated with 1½” knife pleats. The pleats are held in place with two running stitches on the underside of the skirt. At 2″ from the waist seam and again at 4″, this stitch has held the pleats together perfectly, even surviving the rigors of the bog.

I am currently undertaking a project to weave this jacket. From my calculations, the jacket lays out very tidily on about 5 yards of 13-15″ wide cloth. I have obtained a pound of wool singles which measure 24 wraps to the inch. I dyed them with madder and hope to warp my loom this winter. Watch this page for results.

The Trews

The trews or trousers found with the jacket are of a typical medieval style which we know to have persisted in Ireland until at least the 17th century. The legs and body are made of two different fabrics. Both are woven in a 2/1 twill, but the legs are 18 threads per inch while the top is a much coarser 15 threads per inch. Other trews of the period (most notably the Killery trews) are composed of a solid coloured top and checked legs. There is no indication that the Kilcommon trews had legs of a different colour. However, it is true that chemical tests to determine the original colour of the garment have not been performed.

 

The top of the trews seem very crudely made. The fabric is simply wrapped around the body and joined on the left side with a running stitch.  The side seam measures 233/8” long. The casing which holds the drawstring is on a separate 3½” strip which overlaps the the trews body by ½” and is roughly stitched at both edges (the strip to the trews body on the inside and vice versa on the outside). The casing is a simple 1″ of fabric folded over and tacked into place. The waist of the garment measures 29″ and the hips 42″. The rise measures 14″. Despite period references that Irish trews were worn low on the hips, it is clear that this pair had a full bottom. The great amount of patching on the rump indicates that the wearer may have been a horseman. There is no codpiece on the garment and the tailor who examined the garment in the forties seems to have thought that the wearer cut a hole in the front of the pants to serve as a “fly”. This hole is not finished in any manner, but I cannot say whether the tailor is right in his assumption.

 

The legs, however, are as tailored as the top is crude. The pieces are cut on the bias to afford a tight fit without constricting the movement of the wearer. A seam runs from foot to buttocks up the back of the legs. The tops of the legs, which are square, insert into a slit in the pants top, giving the extra mobility of a gusset. The point begins 10½” down from the waist band on the left leg and 9½” down on the right. This “point” is 10″ to 11″ long along the grain on the inner side and 13¼” to 14½” long on the outer side. The widest part of the leg, where the point diminishes, is 18″. The legs are 13″ wide just below the knee and 10″ around the ankle. The seven buttons and buttonholes that shape the lower legs are spread out over 10″. The overall length of the legs, from crotch to foot, is 34″.

If one were to graph these measurements, one would find that the fabric required for these leg pieces was over 44″ wide. This width of fabric is not seen in any other garment in Ireland at that time. Looms all over Europe produced cloth from 22″ to 27″ wide but no greater than that. However, there is a simpler explanation that an inordinately wide Irish loom.

The knees of the Kilcommon trews are very heavily patched. If one examines the fabric under these patches, “slits” can be seen in the fabric. Upon closer examination, it appears that two widths of fabric were joined selvedge to selvedge to make it possible to cut such long trews on the bias. The fabric width required would be about 22″ wide, which conforms with fabric widths we know to have existed in Ireland at that time. The fabric of the trews has not been scientifically dated. But it is this author’s guess that the knee patches were sewn onto the original before wearing in an effort to keep the trews from spliting at a very tenuous place. This technique can be seen today in blazers with leather elbow patches. It is not unreasonable to suggest such a technique was used in the 16th century as well.

 

Buy an authentic pattern for the Kilcommon Costume here.

Bibliography

  1. Dunlevy, Mairead. Dress in Ireland. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1989.
  2. McClintock, Henry Foster. Old Irish and Highland Dress. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, 1943.
  3. McGann, Kathleen. Unpublished notes made at the National Museum of Ireland, July 1998.
  4. Notes of an Unnamed Tailor, circa 1946. From the files of the National Museum of Ireland.

© 2000, 2003 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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