Mulling it Over

Ah, the quest to identify the delicate fabric! So many surviving caps, collars, aprons, and gowns. Mull, book, or clear muslin; longcloth, cambric, nainsook, lawn, batiste. Not to mention spotted, sprigged, flowered, figured, checked, worked, striped, and embroidered!

Cross-barred Muslin

Gossamer-thin collar of cross-barred muslin with a sheer muslin frill.

Because so many of the textiles that fascinate me are white cotton or linen, my inquiring mind wanted to know what to call that pretty little antique baby gown – mull? Cambric or jaconet? Swiss, Indian, or Scottish manufacture? Surely something more than white cotton!

Muslin Pink Spotted

Infant gown of pink spotted muslin.

Spotted Muslin

Cap of spotted muslin with edging of plain muslin embroidered with scallops and eyelets.

Muslin Cap

Three different types of cotton in one piece: airy frill, ribbed body, and a sturdier foundation for the embroidered insertion.

Muslin Apron

Apron of thin cotton, Dresden embroidery.

So many names show up in period writing. Some of the adjectives are unambiguous: spots are spots, then and now. But for years I puzzled over terms and asked any textile historian I came across (ok, there weren’t many) to explain how to identify each kind. Silly me.

I searched novels and dictionaries, magazines and swatch books, sewing textbooks and inventories galore. And guess what? Even more confusion. My eyes became as “glazed muslin.”  There was no consistency or authoritative answer to what was what. Or at least not enough for me to astonish my friends with my blindfold fabric naming tricks.

Yes, lawn and cambric were once only linen, names denoting origin; voile came rather late for my area of interest. And  often the context of the term (especially when it was attached to a dated sample!) was extremely useful. But I was looking for an answer that wasn’t. I mean, there isn’t one definitive answer, consistent for all times and places. The evolution of the stuff, as well as language, has seen to that!

After all, a maker who calls a fabric by one name, the wearer half a world away who calls it something else, and the lucky one who finds it in an attic 200 years later and doesn’t know what to call it – may all refer to the same thing. It all depends on Who, Where, and When. So I guess I’ll just call it all muslin!

Muslin

Muslin, by Sonia Ashmore,
image courtesy V&A

Speaking of books and muslin … the V&A published a book last year, Muslin, by Sonia Ashmore, and it’s my latest chair-side companion. Superb research, gorgeous photos – a must-have for any historic costume/textile enthusiast.

And anyone who wants more information on period textiles will find Florence Montgomery’s Textiles in America, 1650-1870, Sally Queen’s Textiles for Colonial Clothing, Textiles for Clothing of the Early Republic by Lynne Basset (the whole series, actually), and All About Cotton by Julie Parker to be excellent resources – and all but the first have samples!

Oh! And then there’s A Lady of Fashion, Dating Fabrics, Clues in the Calico

Post scriptum (ancora imparo and all that):

From The New Encyclopaedia, 1807, a hint of how muslin compared,
Cotton Goods are divided into different classes, each proportionally lighter than the other. The heaviest of these are, 1st. Shirtings, 2d. Cambrics, 3d. Cossias, 4th. Jaconetts, 5th. Lawn grounds, 6th. Mulls, 7th. Books.

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