Glove Story of the Week - Eighteenth Century Baby Mittens | The Fashion Museum

Glove Story of the Week - Eighteenth Century Baby Mittens

Welcome to Week 12 of our series showcasing the world-class Glove Collection of the Worshipful Company of the Glovers of London, cared for and housed here in Bath at the Fashion Museum.

26 April 2019

This week the spotlight has been on Royal infants, with the first birthday photographs of Prince Louis of Cambridge, and the anticipation of the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s first child. In honour of the Royal babies our gloves this week are infant’s mittens, dating from the early 18th century, the time when Prince Louis and the new Royal baby’s distant ancestor George I (r.1714 -1727) was King of Great Britain and Ireland.

Dating to ca. 1710s these are a pair of infant’s fingerless mittens, each with a flap over the knuckles. The mittens are made of cream-coloured linen with an embroidered design of interlocking quatrefoils and single floral sprigs, the pattern worked in tiny back-stitches in saffron-yellow silk thread. The mittens are 120 mm in length and 48 mm wide across the knuckle. There are three lines, or points, of yellow stitching on the backs.

The mittens were most probably made by first working the intricate embroidery on a flat panel of linen, cut to shape. Once the decorative stitching was complete, the panel was folded in half, the edges turned in, and then both sides whip-stitched together on the outside edge to form the mitten. The top, bottom and the thumb, are all edged with a narrow band of yellow woven silk fabric, 5mm wide.  All the embroidery on these miniature mittens, and the making up, would have been done by hand. 

It is not impossible to imagine that these little mittens were made by an amateur seamstress, perhaps even by a child.  Embroidery was both a professional and a domestic activity at this time, with stitching done at home part of a young girl’s education, and it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between amateur and professional work.

But even in the early 18th century, grown-ups commented that things were better in the past. English Needlework quotes an older gentleman contrasting the perceived lack of interest of two young girls in tending to their embroidery with the diligence of the older generation:  “… a couple of proud idle flirts sipping their tea, for a whole afternoon, in a room hung round with the industry of their great-grandmothers. Pray, sir, take the laudable mystery of embroidery into your serious consideration”.

These embroidered mittens come with a matching pair of sleeves. These are just two examples that could be found on the long list items of garments, known as a layette, which infants in the 18th century might wear at their first dressing.

A new born baby would start off in swaddling clothes, a practise which was known from at least the 14th century, but which passed out of fashion during the 18th century. A midwife called Jane Sharp described swaddling in 1671:

“…roul it [the baby] up in soft clothes and lay it in the cradle but in the swaddling of it be sure that all parts be bound up in due place and order gently without any crookedness or rugged foldings; for infants are tender twigs and as you use them, so will they grow straight or crooked… lay the arms right down by the sides that they may grow right… After four months let them loose the arms, but still rould the breast and feet to keep out cold air for a year till the child have gained strength.”

  • Child in Swaddling Clothes in 1605, by Baroccio, Wellcome Collection

Once out of swaddling clothes, the 18th century child could expect to be clothed in many garments, which might include a biggin, which was a plain close-fitting cap covering the ears, a mantle, a wrapping outer garment generally without sleeves, a clout, a length of cloth, or a pilch, a flannel cloth that covered the child’s napkin, (which today we would call a nappy, or a diaper).

  • Mrs. Sharp and Her Child, by Joseph Highmore, 1731. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

There is one poignant footnote about baby’s separate sleeves in the 18th century. The archive collections of The Foundling Museum in London show that sleeves were often kept as identifying tokens of the babies who were left at the Hospital.

These separate mittens and sleeves are on display in Glove Stories at the Fashion Museum Bath until 1 March 2020. To celebrate we are highlighting one fabulous pair of gloves, or a single glove, from this wonderful collection every week.

Glove images Courtesy of the Worshipful Company of Glovers of London.