Gown and accessories. England, Europe, and China, 1740–1785. Silk, linen, cotton, straw, ivory, paper, feathers, and leather. Various dimensions.
Museum purchases and gifts of Tasha Tudor and Tibo van der Does
Textiles and Costumes
Quilt. Sarah Anne Wittington Lankford (1830-1898) and others, Baltimore and Princess Anne County, Maryland, ca. 1850. Cotton, ink, wool and cotton embroidery threads, and metal and glass beads. OH 99"; OW 84."
Gift of Miss Marsha C. Scott
Sampler. Mary Welsh (1760-1820), Boston, Massachusetts, ca. 1770. OH: 23"; OW: 16 3/4." Silk on linen.
Bed Valance. Member of the Gore family, Massachusetts, ca. 1770. Wool embroidery on linen. OH: 12 1/4": OW: 65.”
Textiles and costumes touched every aspect of life from birth to death and every level of society, including the enslaved, the middling sort, and the aristocrat. Expensive and elaborate textiles were more than functional: they proclaimed wealth and status. In fact, clothing and textiles represented a far greater investment in the past than they do today.
Spanning four centuries, the textile collections at Colonial Williamsburg include clothing, needlework, quilts, carpets, and textiles from several continents. Many of the textiles and costumes are masterpieces of workmanship and design, but the unique strength of the collection lies in the modest but scarce objects that interpret the lives of everyday Americans. Among these rarities are the faded sampler on which a little girl practiced her marking stitches, the quilt made by an African-American woman in her home, and the valance that retains the nail holes where it was tacked to the bed frame.
Embroidered textiles in the collection range from clothing, bed furnishings, and schoolgirl samplers to early British raised-worked boxes, silk mourning pictures, and costume accessories. Nearly every type of needlework technique is represented, from cotton and linen whitework to colorful embroidery with silks, crewel wool, and metallic threads. Many are products of housewives and their daughters, while others were created by professional men and women who spent arduous days performing hand embroidery for sale.
Household furnishing textiles are represented by white linen tablecloths, homespun sheets, and woolen blankets, in addition to printed cotton bed hangings, chair covers, and—for the wealthy—expensive carpets from Asia and Europe. The figured and fancy woven bed coverlets of the 19th century exemplify the period’s fondness for brilliant color and bold pattern.
A particular strength of the collection lies in quilts that women decorated by piecing small bits of cloth together into geometric patterns or appliquéing cutout shapes onto a ground fabric. The hand stitches that held the finished quilt top to the warm inner batting and plainer backing fabrics added additional texture and subtle pattern. Today, many quilts that once warmed beds are appreciated for their abstract designs and impressive color as works of art in their own right.
The costume collection encompasses garments for men, women, and children from about 1725 to 1840. Included are women’s elaborate court gowns, more practical gowns and outdoor cloaks, and colorful suits for men, sometimes embroidered as elaborately as women’s ensembles. An extensive assemblage of costume accessories comprises hats, shoes, stockings, handkerchiefs, aprons, gloves, and pocketbooks.
Books about Colonial Williamsburg Textiles
- Linda Baumgarten, What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America (New Haven: Yale University Press and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002).
- Linda Baumgarten with John Watson and Florine Carr, Costume Close-up (New York: Quite Specific Media Group, Inc. and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1999).
- Linda Baumgarten, Eighteenth-Century Clothing at Williamsburg (Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1986).
- Kimberly Smith Ivey, In the Neatest Manner: The Making of the Virginia Sampler Tradition (South Austin, Texas and Williamsburg, Virginia: Curious Works Press and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997).
- Kathleen Epstein, British Embroidery: Curious Works from the Seventeenth Century (Williamsburg, Virginia and Austin, Texas: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Curious Works Press, 1998).
The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America.
By Linda Baumgarten
Drawing on the costumes and accessories in the Colonial Williamsburg collection, Linda Baumgarten examines how Americans of all classes dressed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Topics range from the work clothes of slaves to the elegant, high-style attire of the gentry. What people wore during significant life passages and the social contexts of such apparel are fully and engagingly discussed. The time line illustrates trends in fashion over three centuries. 278 pp., 355 color photographs, 36 black-and-white illustrations. Paperback $29.95