There has been some notion espoused among a few amateur historic clothing enthusiasts that there were no cotton woven checks or plaids in the 18th century or that checked cotton was not used for clothing. I don’t agree, but after reading a few notations, you may decide for yourself what you think.
The theory that checked cottons were only for furniture is like saying toile was never used for clothing – a statement proven unfounded by the existence of such a dress, ca. 1780, in the Snowshill Collection. There is no known history on this dress so we don’t know why this fabric was used or where the dress was worn. It could have been made to showcase the production of the toile fabric, as a promotion, perhaps a prize was offered for any item promoting its production, or as a costume of some sort as easily as it might have been worn like any other dress. Admittedly toile was very rare in clothing based on the absence of it in paintings and extant 18th century garments but, at least once, it did exist.
The dress from the Snowshill Collection is also found in the 1988 edition of Nancy Bradfields’s “Costume in Detail”. The man’s robe is later, ca. 1830, in printed cotton toile, found in the Victoria & Albert Museum collection, London.
The Chester County Historical Society in Pennsylvania has in its collection a man’s banyan (robe), attribution ca. 1780-1830, made of small checked cotton in brown and white. See Burnston’s “Fitting and Proper” pg 73.
Beverly Lemire in “The Cambridge History of Western Textiles” notes more than a million pieces of cottons were imported to England in 1684. The inadequate ban of Indian fabrics in Europe about 1720 was due to the fear they would wreak havoc on the economy by lessening the consumption of linens and wool produced at home.
“The cotton-thread is always washed before it is given to be woven. The method of washing in question renders it whiter than the ordinary bleaching. It may be performed equally well upon the woven cotton…where four families have for a long time possessed it as a secret”. Having been written in 1805 “for a long time” definitely puts woven cotton firmly in the 18th century and the washing process consisted of washing and placing into a lye solution several times, each time rinsing with clear water. It was then put into a mordant and dyed.
Pre-1800 sources mention a check apron numerous times, and these are enumerated seperately from linen aprons indicating the checked aprons were either cotton or wool. The records note one man stole “five checked aprons” among other things – again separated from linen aprons. The piece also lists a check gown. Check neckerchiefs and scarves, are easily documented.
“In John Holker’s manuscript of about 1750, swatches…of blue and white linen and cotton checks were made in the Manchester area for home consumption and for export, especially to the colonies. They were used for sailors’ blouses, children’s clothing and linings”.
Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were producing stripes, checks, and ginghams, before 1810, and the Germans of Pennsylvania were said to be fond of checks. “But by far the greater part of the goods made of those materials (cotton, flax, and wool), are manufactured in private families mostly for their own use, and partly for sale. They consist principally of coarse cloth, flannel, cotton stuffs, and stripes of every description, linen, and mixtures of wool with flax or cotton”. – 1810.
Before 1809 a Pennsylvanian wrote, “My family of eighty persons are clothed in our own homespun. Our wool, flax, and cotton, are of our own raising; as are our dye-stuffs. Our wheels and looms are also of our own manufacture”. We can’t say what sort of clothing was made from the cotton, but we certainly can’t claim checks and stripes weren’t produced or how much earlier production began.
A premium of five dollars was offered for the, “best specimen of Cotton Homespun, not less than ten yards”, in the “American Farmer” March 7, 1823, published in Baltimore, just one of such occurrences.
Primary sources note woven cotton and cotton checks were worn by the German emigrants in Pennsylvania so let’s take a quick look at the industry there. NOTE: Because these sources were published just after 1800, doesn’t mean they weren’t already in existence and successful by the date of publication.
Prior to 1810 factories in New York were weaving cotton fabrics from cotton grown in New Orleans and Alabama – some 1000 bales annually. John Siddal of Wilmington, Delaware, was, “intimately acquainted with spinning and weaving cotton, for nearly 40 years” and employed some forty hands.
“Pennsylvania exceeds all the other states…there were 64 cotton manufactories”, in 1810 with eight in Philadelphia alone.
In 1826, we find, “There is Goody, with her clean check apron, quite nice and spruce, just as was common fifty years ago, in my grandmother’s days, though now almost out of fashion”. The author went on to say, “Let us first state, that stripes, checks, and ginghams are figured by different coloured threads in the weaving; but any thing of a varied pattern, must be printed”, clearly differentiating the block printed cottons from the stripes and checks achieved by the weaving pattern of different colored cotton threads. If common fifty years before her grandmother was wearing them ca. 1776.
The author noted that at the time of publication (1826) spinning jennys were used to spin this fabric but in former times they were spun by hand.
Norway produced 923 yards of striped cotton, in 1818 and in 1819 reported another 399 yards of checked cotton. British Northern Colonies produced 797 yards of striped and checked cotton. These were noted in just a single report published in 1823, certainly not a full accounting of the fabric thus produced.
Catherine Parr Strickland penned in 1826 a description of her clothing that differentiated between a checked apron and a linseywoolsey apron further solidifying that at least some of these checked aprons were made of cotton.
“…a piece of checked, or other cotton cloth…” – 1821.
“There, opening a chest of drawers, she drew out a piece of pink-checked cotton…”.
Checked cloths of red and yellow. 1820.
Blue checked cotton cloth. 1829.
“…their bathing-cloaths, which are usually of blue and white checked cotton”. 1768.
A chest having been opened, “It was discovered that a checked cotton dress…”. 1802.
“…calico or cotton petticoat”. 1766.
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Porter, Sir James. “Observations on the Religion, Law, Government, and Manners”. 1768.
“The Repertory of Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture”. 1802, 1805 and 1810.
Hutchinson, William. “The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham”. 1823
“The Proceedings on the King’s Commissions of the Peace, Court of Oyer and Terminer and Gaol Delivery”. 1778.
“Scenes of Wealth or Views & Illustrations of Trades Manufactures Produce & Commerce for the Amusement and Instruction of Tarry at Home Travellers. 1826. London.
“The Young Emigrants”. 1826.
“Tour of Africa”. 1821. London.
“The Pocket Magazine”. 1821.
“The Monthly Magazine”. 1810.
“The Register of Pennsylvania”. March 1828.