A Shirt Tale

Eighteenth-century unbleached linen shirt.

No single garment has bridged so many generations, social classes and continents so comprehensively as the ubiquitous linen shirt; boy to man, convict to settler and pauper to prince, all wore the same shirt.

Retaining its fundamental shape and simple style, it altered little between the sixteenth and nineteenth-centuries.

In Cut My Cote[1], Burnham illustrates a sixteenth-century Italian shirt, made from a single, 27″ (69 cm) wide, length of linen, folded across the middle and slashed at the neck, with a plain collar, tapering sleeves and long underarm gores.

Bath’s Fashion Museum[2] houses a late sixteenth-century linen shirt that is similarly constructed but the body is a more generous 38″ (96.5 cm) wide. The sleeves are simple rectangles gathered into cuffs at the wrist.

An early nineteenth-century linen shirt at the National Maritime Museum[3] is an example of non-regulation garment worn by ratings beneath their heavy uniforms and exhibits virtually the same basic design and cut as the aforementioned specimens.

The Fabric

Linum angostifolium, the wild antecedent of flax, can be found throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia and was exploited by early cultures.

Harvesting flax. From a linen mummy bandage, Ptolemaic Period (circa 305-30 BC).

As long ago as the Badarian Period (circa 4000 BC), the Egyptians employed the fertile soils of the Nile Delta to produce flax and became skilled in the creation of linen textiles, the like of which is seldom rivalled in strength and fineness of weave even today.

It is not uncommon to unearth piles of linen sheets in un-plundered tombs; stored in expectation of the departed’s return.

Flax has been cultivated in all temperate and tropical regions for so many centuries its geographical origin cannot be identified, for it readily escapes from cultivation and is found in semi-wild conditions in all countries where it is grown.

Flax as we know it, Linum usitatissimum (meaning ‘most useful’), is believed by many historians to have been introduced to England by the Romans.

Both the Greek historian Thucydides and the Roman, Pliny, mention the use of flax. So impressed with this endowment of nature Pliny wrote: “What department is to be found in active life in which flax is not employed?”[4] Pliny also described the process of preparing flax fibres for spinning and dying.

Of flax, Bartholomew had this to say, “None herbe is so needfull to so many dyvrrse uses to mankynde as is the flexe.”[5]

Charlemagne valued flax so highly he passed laws regulating its cultivation and expenditure. Millennia before coinage was invented, linen served as a standard of exchange, or currency, and a gauge of wealth. By the sixteenth-century, laws were enacted requiring one rood (about 0.1 of a hectare or a quarter of an acre) of flax be planted for every sixty acres (twenty-four hectares) under cultivation.

Linen became fundamental to everyday existence from the manufacture of under clothes to the sails of ships that delivered its seeds to new lands and cultures.

Linen possesses virtues making it eminently suitable for clothing. It will keep the wearer warm in winter, refreshingly cool in summer and also has the capability to wick sweat away from the wearer. It displays immense strength, yet drapes itself gently about the wearer. It withstands mistreatment and repeated washing with bleaches, yet the more it is subjected to this type of treatment, the more pliant and wearable it becomes. It is therefore no revelation that linen became the choice of shirt wearers, plainly because of its durability, washability and wearability.

Linen can be as fine as the best cotton lawn or as coarse as hessian, as sheer and subtle as organdie or as firm and strong as sailcloth; it is beyond doubt a versatile material and offers immense variety for clothes-making, the same cloth being suited to both under and outer garments.

Few, if any, modern synthetics and blended fabrics have such an outstanding list of attributes as linen, but regrettably, the development of drip-dry and crease-free fabrics heralded the demise of linen from the mid twentieth-century – save for a few fleeting fashion revivals.

Seventeenth-, eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century linen shirts were constructed from somewhat heavier fabric than present-day garments; characteristically, linen used for traditional shirts weighed around 5.5 oz/sq. yd. while modern shirting weighs somewhere between 2.5 oz/sq. yd. and 4 oz/sq. yd. One first notices the weight of a traditional linen shirt (not least because of the expanse of cloth consumed in the garment), but it is of no detriment; linen hangs so well as not to be an inconvenience or hindrance to the wearer.

Linen, as it is first produced, is an agreeable oatmeal colour and as such is perfectly satisfactory for common clothing. However, it easily bleaches to a brilliant white, so adored by our fastidious ancestors, but once bleached, it must be well maintained with frequent washing and occasional bleaching. It is undoubtedly for this reason that the ordinary man’s shirt was often of unbleached linen and extant shirts worn by naval ratings were of a buttermilk colour (there not being the same laundering amenities onboard a wooden Man o’ War).

A heavy linen shirt – in some examples measuring almost a metre wide – contains a substantial amount of cloth and while a working man would no doubt have welcomed the additional warmth and protection offered by such abundance, a gentleman would have had no little difficulty stuffing the same voluminous garment beneath his waistcoat and frock coat.

Big man’s shirt!

Whereas the common man, who was likely to strip down to his shirt sleeves during the course of his work, favoured the heavier cloth’s resilience, and to some degree, its modesty, gentlemen, whose shirts were virtually invisible beneath their finery, could afford a less modest and less bulky fabric for their shirts.

Superior quality linen shirting was adopted by the wealthy, the clergy, officers and more genteel folk in general; the startling white fabric weighing closer to 3.5 oz/sq. yd. and quite sheer in appearance.

Contemporary court records from The Old Bailey[6], along with North American gazettes[7] and those of other colonies afford detailed and insightful accounts of individuals’ sartorial indiscretions:

14th October, 1741. MICHAEL MACCARTEN was indicted for assaulting Gilbert Knelham on the King’s highway, putting him in fear, and taking from him a linen shirt, value 4s.

March 17, 1774. RUN away…on the 26th of February… a Negro fellow named JOE… When he went off, he had… a fine ruffle shirt…

June 23, 1774. RUN away…on Monday the 23d of May, an indented Servant Man named BENJAMIN PARROT… had on, when he went away… a white Irish Linen Shirt…

May 26, 1774. RUN away…on the Night of the 5th instance (May), two convict servants, viz. JOHN JONES… had on and took with him… two Shirts of Country made linen…

July 20th, 1775. RUN away… the 20th of May, a convict servant man… He took with him a white linen shirt, a stock, a brass stock buckle…

June 5th, 1778. RUN away… 10th of April last, a convict servant man… had on, and took with him, a yellow dyed country linen shirt…

10th May, 1780. GEORGE COOK was indicted for stealing four linen shirts, value 8s. … a child’s linen shirt, value 6d. … a muslin neckcloth, value 6d.

2nd April, 1800. JOHN BREWER, JOHN COLLEY, and JOHN BARNETT, otherwise JACOB FARROW, were indicted for breaking and entering … and burglariously stealing nine linen shirts, value 27s.

The Chest Opening

The chest slit was rolled and hemmed and depending on the depth
of the opening, may have had a single button and buttonhole.

When the shirt was worn, the chest opening was seldom seen,
being concealed by the wearer’s neckcloth or waistcoat.

As the shirt was considered underwear, no respectable wearer would be seen in just his shirtsleeves; to do so would be altogether improper. The waistcoat (with or without sleeves) was the furthermost a gentleman would expose himself in public.

The placket opening began to appear during the first quarter of the nineteenth-century.

Button Choices

There were a variety of buttons employed on shirts during the eighteenth-century and made from such materials as gold, silver, pewter, glass, leather, cloth (cloth-covered bone or wooden ‘moulds’), horn, shell and the most prevalent; those made predominantly from thread.

Animal bone was inexpensive and once boiled,
provided excellent workable material for buttons.

Pearl Buttons

‘Pearl’ being a misnomer as the substance used was actually mother-of-pearl (either fresh water mussel or marine mollusc). Birmingham was then the English button-making centre and thousands of small concerns employed child ‘mechanics’ to work the lathes that produced the familiar buttons (many became ill or died from inhaling the shell dust).

Mother of pearl button blanks.

Two-hole mother of pearl buttons.

10th October, 1733. Joseph Morgan sworn: I live in Bowl Yard in St. Giles’s in the Fields, the Prisoner lodged at my House 6 Weeks, from the End of June: He behaved well, and kept good Hours; he made Mother of Pearl Buttons…

Thread Buttons

The most basic thread button was simply a coil of thread which was bound with buttonhole stitches, and to which a thread shank was ultimately attached – and all done with a single length of linen thread!

Bleached and plain linen thread buttons.

Dorset Thread Buttons

A vast cottage industry making thread buttons (thread-covered rams’ horn discs – later, wire rings), was in evidence throughout East Dorset circa 1680, peaking in the late eighteenth-century and dying abruptly circa 1850 upon the invention of a button-making machine.

An adept ‘Buttony’ could produce a gross of Dorset Buttons in a day.

The shirt buttons were collected in their thousands in a number of regional centres and then carted to Liverpool, London and beyond.

17th January, 1739. JOHN BULL was indicted for stealing two Gross and a half of Thread Shirt-buttons, value 40s.

9th January, 1782. PATRICK CROCKHALL was indicted for stealing… 3420 dozen of thread buttons, value £22 -16s.

Optional Details

Ruffled Cuffs and Ruffles

If anything, ruffled cuffs must have been an encumbrance; becoming quickly soiled by everything they brushed against and snagging on every protuberance they encountered.

Ostensibly, their admirers were many for the trend flourished throughout the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, but favour waned circa 1780.

Not exactly the garb of arduous toil.

Ruffles appear to present no obvious purpose, save for catching
morsels of foodstuff and keeping washer women gainfully employed.

Ruffles had been a badge of distinction and prosperity since the seventeenth-century and if anything, grew in popularity especially among the Macaronis (and later, the Dandies) until they too fell into decline circa 1815.

The demand for ruffles supported a small industry of specialised workers; many supplying directly to shirt makers, although there is substantiation of singles and quantities being sold to individuals; presumably one had one’s housekeeper or seamstress sew them to one’s shirts.

14th May, 1741. MARGARET CLEMENTS was indicted for stealing … a pair of Cambrick Ruffles…

“Clothes make the man”.

To achieve a light and wispy appearance, ruffles were made (independently of the shirt) from finer cloth of no more than 3 oz/sq. yd.; the use of cambric, muslin and organdie being common.

15th May, 1782. ANN HALFPENNY was indicted for stealing a linen shirt, value 20 s. the property of Richard Sanderson, April the 16th.
Elizabeth Slater sworn. I had a ruffled shirt of Richard Sanderson’s to wash; he said it cost a guinea and a half…

Lace Trim

Lace was also fashionable for ruffles and cuffs; much being imported from the continent, but some of the most exquisite lace in Europe was the thread lace produced in and around Honiton in East Devon, there being around five thousand out-workers employed.

“My Dear Miss Somerville, I am indebted to you for sending me
nine very fine pairs of lace ruffles…”

20th February, 1793. ANN SOMERVILLE was indicted for feloniously and burglariously stealing therein … nine pair of lace ruffles, value £1.

29th May, 1793. ISABELLA TATE was indicted for stealing, on the 23d of April, twelve yards of thread lace, value 10 s. … the goods, chattles and monies of Lawrance Palk, esq.
Court to Mr. Palk. Is it lace for a lady’s use or for gentlemens ruffles? – For a lady’s use.



No discussion of traditional linen shirts could be considered complete without even the briefest mention of the neckcloth, for the two are inseparable. In truth, the only vestige of the shirt visible, in formal habit, was the top edge or tips of the upstanding collar; wrapped about the throat and loosely tied at the front, the neckcloth smothered the wearer’s neck and practically all signs of the undergarment.

By 1790 the stylish neckcloth increased in such volume as to wholly engulf the shirt collar and encroach on the wearer’s chin (a notable dissimilarity to the mode of the fairer sex whose neck – and bosom – was characteristically laid bare).

Neckcloths adopted many bizarre forms with equally amusing names.

By 1810 the folding and tying of neckcloths had risen to such an art, Beau Brummell declared it took him upwards of an hour each morning to perfect his knot!

15th May, 1755. THOMAS RODE was indicted for stealing… seven muslin neckcloths, value 10s.

July, 1766. JOHN TAYLOR and MARY AYRES, spinster, were indicted, the first, for stealing … three linen neckcloths…

Neck Stocks

The stock was altogether a more structured form of neckwear, not unlike a belt, and no doubt a speedier device to don, requiring only the fastening of a clasp or buckle at the back of the neck.

Leather and woven horsehair stocks were often issued for military wear and
were fastened with stamped brass clasps or cast brass buckles.

Stamped brass stock clasp.

Especially popular amongst the militia, the stock presented
a cleaner-cut appearance than the neckcloth.

Civilian wearers favoured pleated black or white linen, muslin and silk stocks…

… and were content to fasten theirs with ornate gold, silver and paste buckles.
Silver stock buckle by William Cattell, London circa 1775.

24th April, 1790. SAMUEL GILBERT, ELIZABETH GILBERT and ANN HUGHES, were indicted for burglariously stealing … a linen stock, value 2s.

3rd July, 1782. GEORGE LEE , otherwise CROUCH, otherwise BAKER, otherwise BALDOCK , and JOB BAKER, otherwise FILKIN , were indicted for burglariously stealing …one paste stock-buckle, set in silver, value 5s.

13th April, 1791. THOMAS RUSSELL and JONATHAN OAKES were severally indicted for feloniously stealing … a silver stock-buckle, value 2s.

[1] Burnham, Dorothy K., Cut My Cote, Royal Ontario Museum, 1973.

[2] Fashion Museum, Assembly Rooms, Bennett Street, Bath, England.

[3] National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, England.

[4] Pliny The Elder, Naturalis Historia, published c. AD 77-79.

[5] Bartholomeus Anglicus, On the Properties of Things, published c. 1240.

[6]The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London 1674 to 1834

[7]The Virginia Gazette


About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Apparel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Shirt Tale

  1. Ron Jones says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this well researched and well written post. Your writing is crammed with detail and flows nicely. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and interests with us.

    Ron Jones

    Liked by 1 person

  2. rob campbell says:

    I agree that your entries are fascinating, amusing, and extremely well-wrought! Thank you much and please keep them coming!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My work suggests that thread buttons were used on men’s shirts in the 18th century. The shell button industry seems to have gotten started in the early 19th century. I have accumulated about a hundred paintings showing buttons on shirts. The buttons sit a distinctive way that you only get from thread buttons.


    • Jack Plane says:

      Extant records show mother-of-pearl buttons were in use in the seventeenth-century and were quite the fashion in the early eighteenth-century. The mother-of-pearl button manufacturing industry mushroomed in the nineteenth-century with more mechanised factory based production.



      • Early shell, horn and bone buttons in the 1700s were pin shank on garments. The only mention I have seen of pierced button vs shank buttons were on gaiters.


        • Jack Plane says:

          I have not come across a British eighteenth-century shell button with a pin-shank… shirt or otherwise.

          Pin-shank horn and porcelain buttons were common in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries for outer garments and military uniforms, but were not employed on the shirts described here.

          Of course, the situation may have been different in North America.



  4. Le Loup says:

    Thanks Jack.


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