Cuff Links – to the Past

The Mystery! Cuffs? Undersleeves? What the heck are they and what did She wear them with?

The Mystery. Cuffs? Undersleeves? What the heck are they and what did she wear them with?

It’s summertime, as you can tell by the artfully posed hydrangea, and time for a little mystery. Every now and then I come across examples of plain sewing that are rather puzzling. This pretty pair of sleeves (or cuffs) are not like any I’ve seen before.

They certainly do look early nineteenth century. The gathered section is a very delicate white muslin with stripe pattern. The flat section is an extremely fine linen, the kind of linen used for infant clothing and men’s “shirt bosoms.”

On the muslin end of the sleeve there’s a triple row of gathered cording, a feature that was popular in the early 1800s. The linen end has a narrow hem and is divided all the way to the gathers, almost like it was meant to fold back. The sewing is neat and tiny, with an occasional clumsy stitch, just along the gathers.

Sleeve Cuff 7

Gathers from the inside.

And speaking of the gathers… the method used to attach them is not commonly used for joining a flat to a gathered part in most of the plain sewing I’ve seen – a type of felling? It appears the linen and muslin were half-backstitched together, then felled, with a stitch in each gather.

Gathers from the outside.

Gathers from the outside.

Well, silly me. Of course the usual method of inserting gathers into a band and then sewing them on both the inside and outside wouldn’t work here: there’s only one layer to the band!

The blue cotton marking thread is almost invisible now, but it is miniscule. The height of the letters is .4 centimeter (just over 1/8 inch), and each stitch is made over two threads. Early marking charts and samplers did not have a “J” but used the letter “I” instead. So was the owner “J R” or “I R”?

Sleeve Cuff 2

Blue cotton marking, “I R” – who was she?

Sleeve Cuff 8

It’s easier to see when held against the light.

I think my favorite bit of handwork here is the mending. These sleeves were worn enough to fade the marking, but I don’t know if the repair is due to a worn spot or a tear. Either way, the fix is a work of art.

Sleeve Cuff 5

The mend from the inside.

Sleeve Cuff 4

The mend from the outside.

Sleeve Cuff 9

A cord to tie.

Just above the marking is a fine cotton cord, obviously meant to attach the sleeve to another garment. Both are still in place and appear original.

Well, so much for my observations and (right or wrong) interpretation. On to my questions.

Why are the sleeves so big? The circumference of the linen end is about ten inches, the muslin cording about nine inches. My scrawny wrists are less than five and a half, and so the sleeves look absurdly baggy when I slip them on. And even men’s shirts of the era don’t usually have cuffs that big, so it can’t be just me!

What were they worn with? The total length is about seven inches, so they’re really too long to fit the end of a long sleeve anyway, without some peculiar looking bunching up. Were they not intended for ladies’ apparel? Were they worn with some special type of  clothing, religious or a costume?

Sleeve Cuff 3

Open slit in the upper band.

Why is there a slit in the linen band? It’s configured so that the hems are not meant to be turned back. Why is there no way to adjust the corded gathered end? They are a fixed size.

Hmm. As I was trying them over my hand and onto my wrist, I tried slipping them up my (correspondingly scrawny) arm, past the elbow. Aha! A perfect fit! And the opening in the linen allows for movement or shifting around a bit on my arm. So is that the answer?

I’m so accustomed to seeing the underleeves that were worn in the mid-nineteenth century, or the cuffs that have been worn for centuries, that I wasn’t expecting something different like short sleeves. Were these intended for wear with the short sleeved gowns of the Regency era? I don’t know.

I’m not (always) shy about sharing my costume and sewing blunders and misunderstandings. So if you have the answer up your sleeve, please – do tell!

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4 thoughts on “Cuff Links – to the Past

  1. This is just a guess, but my guess would be that these are removable sleeves for a shift. The flat part that looks like a cuff has that string and no buttonholes, so I don’t think it’s for the wrist, but it could be pinned to the shoulder of a shift, adding a fine puffy short sleeve. That would explain why they’re so big and why the cords aren’t adjustable.

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    • Oh! thanks, Sara! That sounds reasonable. In fact, I’m going to get a shift, slip a sleeve in as you suggest, and take a photo to add to the post. And if I can find a volunteer arm to model it, I’ll do that as well.

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  2. At first I thought it might be Edwardian sleevelets, which were worn over the sleeves to protect them while working (here’s a picture: http://chestofbooks.com/crafts/needlework/School-Sewing/Sleevelets.html). But the fabric and sewing looks mid-Victorian to me, so maybe they were worn at the end of shorter dress sleeves, which was fashionable in the 1840s (as in this 1847 fashion plate: http://www.marquise.de/database/dbout.php?x=21&y=42&name=1847_1d5.jpg&lang=en); with the linen part attached with basting stitches to the inside of the dress sleeve.

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    • Hi Lina, Thank you for the great links and sharing your ideas! I could see what you meant about the sleevelets. Those were really cool and I could have used some myself this afternoon (I was painting)! However, I feel pretty sure that, whenever these were worn, the sewing and materials are certainly in the style of the 1st part of the 19thC. I know it’s hard to see from pictures posted online, but handling them in person it’s much easier to tell. Although now I think about it, I’ve seen very fine baby clothing from mid-century like that… They’re still a mystery, and I wish I could time travel to meet their maker – and wearer!

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