This is the webpage of a group whose aim is to improve the kit and clothes of a UK seventeenth century Civil War reenactment group, using the most up to date references and research. Feel free to comment on any of the subjects raised here and return often as I want to keep the discussion lively and ongoing.

Please look at the extra tabs on the right hand side. The newbie section is the place for basic kit if you're just beginning to reenact the 1640s. Haberdashery has lots of detail about colours, buttons, tapes etc.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

A New Soldier's Coat

Last year I was lucky enough to visit the store rooms of Colchester Castle Museum and examine a coat in their collection. The coat was found in a chimney of a house in Maldon in Essex in the 1940s and although not precisely dated it is thought to be late 17th century in origin from the style of the cut. Whilst I wrote a report and took photos I was asked by the Museum staff not to blog my thoughts as Kate Gill had been given the job of conserving the coat and producing a report and a replica of the coat to be displayed in the museum. If you are interested, follow this link to Kate's website with some photos of the coat and replica. I am convinced that even if the coat isn't proveably from the 1640s, all the sewing techniques and the pattern used are spot on for a coat from the Civil War period.

So, in lieu of a report I have made my own coat using the construction methods of the original, but reducing the length and changing a few other small details to better represent the style and cut of soldiers coats from the English Civil War.

The original coat is made from closely woven wool, felted so that when you cut the fabric it will keep the edge without fraying and lined with a coarse linen fabric. Luckily there are still suppliers who can provide a decent, though not exact approximation to seventeenth century broadcloth. All the edges of the coat are left raw, the lining is turned under and the two layers sewn together with running or fore stitch.

It's not a modern method of tailoring, but it is seen in several 18th century coats as well as the Maldon coat and still used for Guardsmen's coats in the English Army. What is does do is make for cleaner lines and more accurate cutting as well as using less cloth because you don't need to add seam allowances and thus you can butt the pattern pieces together on the cloth when you are cutting out. The threads used to sew the original coat were a contrasting colour to the fabric used so I've used a brighter coloured linen thread, (dyed with rose madder from Mulberry Dyer) which makes the stitches visible, but also I believe more authentic.

In the photo above you can also see a worked bar of the same thread at the lower end of the side seam. There are three of these on the coat, one at each side and one at the back to reinforce the end of the seams and prevent ripping.

The cut of the coat is not exactly square, there is a noticeable waist and the coat flares out at the bottom. This copies the original but also mirrors coats that appear in woodcuts. The main body of the coat is in four pieces, the sleeves made from two pieces and slightly curved. I've not added cuffs or turn backs. Though the Maldon coat has cuffs, they are thought to be a later addition and a lot of soldier's coats have this kind of simple finishing to the sleeve. I also decided against shoulder wings, firstly because the original doesn't have them, but also because the woodcuts seem to indicate that wings only appear on coats that have turn-back cuffs.

The collar is a simple folded strip oversewn around the neck opening, the bottom edges again left raw. This is a common method in 18th century coats as well as the Maldon one, and makes perfect sense for the raw edges will not be subject to any wear.

The buttons are flat pewter shanked ones. The Maldon coat has wooden cores covered with knotted threads (turk's head) but I decided to use the pewter ones mainly for speed, but this kind of button turns up occasionally in archeological digs from the period and makes logical sense if you are making many coats quickly for an army issue, like the coats made in Oxford or Nantwich in 1643 for instance.

I secured the buttons by pushing the shank of each one through the outer wool layer and a strip of coarse canvas and then oversewing with a single thick linen thread. The museum one has a strip of linen behind the buttons to stiffen the front edge and also help secure the buttons. This ensures that each button sits nice and tight against the surface of the cloth and is quicker than sewing each one separately. You can also use a strip of leather if the shanks are big enough.

You will notice also that the buttonholes are quite open. Reassuringly the original buttonholes aren't anywhere near as fine as that on some posh doublets I've seen and making them more open means you spend about half the time you would normally on doing those annoying buttonholes!

Here's a view of the inside, showing the lining and the inside of the collar and buttonholes. The buttonholes aren't pretty from this side, but I think that's quite authentic judging by some I've seen, (including the Maldon coat). I didn't secure the sleeve head of the lining to the shell of the coat, but this was an option in tailoring of the period. Next time I will experiment with sewing the sleeves in as separate items after I've sewn the body and lining together, tacking the seam allowance of the body of the lining to the outer around the armhole, before whipping in the sleeve lining.

So some surprises here for anyone used to modern methods. Everything is very logical. Though it's made using techniques that are counter-intuitive if you have a sewing machine, for hand sewers it all makes perfect sense. The raw edges were a surprise at first and the very simple technique of sewing together with running stitch rather than neat hemming seemed unusual, but it works. The worked bars to secure the seams are logical and the loose buttonholes together with the method of securing the buttons also result in a garment which is quick and relatively easy to make. All that remains to be seen is if it will stand up the the rigours of my son wearing it in the pike block. Watch this space!


  1. I notice they allowed him to be uncuffed on one wrist for the purposes of the photo but the wardens would still be close by I suppose.

    On a more serious note; I'm fascinated by this coat and thanks for showing it. Counties had to provide coat and conduct money for their recruits to the army. The money paid for their travel and sustenance from home to the border of the county/parish or even all the way to the army if required. The coat was provided locally during the Bishop's wars and, as I can find no standardization, quality may well have varied greatly. I have made several coats like the one in the picture but they have all been toils which have no seams and are only runnning stitched for fitting purposes. I'd be interested if the original showed any sign of being worn to rule out the theory it was made as part of a construction process.

    I'm very interested in the buttons. All the soldiers' coats I've made have had cloth or covered wooden buttons. Cloth and wood are perishable and since very few pewter buttons are found on battlefield excavations, I have always considered them the exception rather than the rule. Bearing in mind there were around twenty thousand soldiers on some of the battlefields, the percentage of metal buttons is small so I've always avoided them. I don't have access to attended databases, but metal button excavations were less common than finds of metal tops from bandolier boxes when I last checked.

    Raw edged C18th Guard coats is news to me too! I'm learning something here. The thing that most puzzles me about such a cheaply turned out coat is the expense of fulling the cloth. I've seen records of cloth being sent to Holland for such 'finishing' and there being some political and military posturing between our two countries when James tried to attract clothiers to London to carry out the process here. Why such an expensively prepared cloth for such a poorly turned out coat? But then, why if it was meant as a toil, would it not be made of felt? I'd like to rule out the toil notion if possible.

    Still, this is a fascinating find and it would provide another method of defining ranks within a regiment - quality of cloth, cut, fit and finish denoting purchasing power. Any further information would be much appreciated.

    I enjoy all your pictures and look forward to messages in my email telling me you have found another little gem.

    Thanks Ian.

    Kind regards,


  2. Hi Graham.The original was definitely worn extensively and the sleeves were altered at one point to fit a second wearer, so it's not a toile.

    I was advised that metal buttons were a good alternative. The fact that not many turned up in the archaeology surely indicates that they were sewn on properly. Why would loads of buttons just fall off coats during a battle? I would also suspect that any bodies would have had their clothing removed before burial.

    I'm not an expert on fabric manufacturing techniques, but I'm pretty sure there were fulling mills all over the country in the 17th century. I know there were in Stroud where they made the famous red for instance.
    The original coat is quite crudely made and has fulled wool for the body, as has the Abingdon boy's doublet, so I'm not convinced broadcloth was just for the elite. In fact most of the doublets I've seen are of a much finer fabric. There is a raw edged coat in the V&A that belonged to James II and it was standard for frock coats, so why not the coats of the Civil War?

  3. Good to rule out the toil. Thanks for letting me know. Buttons are as likely to fall as are metal bandolier tops with two strings holding them on I'd have thought. I'm not convinced about metal buttons even though I've heard stories of musketeers firing them in the absence of bullets but it is a moot point. As for a raw edged coat worn by James I, I really am truely amazed. I'm sure fulling was done in England but I don't know where and it would certainly be an additional cost but maybe it outwayed the cost of turning up hems. Perhaps, I'm more likely to have seen the finer garments in places such as the V&A and they needed to be properly seemed and hemmed. In the 1970's I used 'The cut of men/women's clothes' as my pattern book and I still have a copy boxed up somewhere I can't get to but I do have a vague memory of having to add seams to the patters.

    From a personal preference I've almost always gone for fulled woollen cloth as it feels and looks better to me. I once had a very loose thread that I thought to be kersey at the time, which was provided to me by William Pennyman's (ECWS) regiment but that was more than thirty years ago - it still hangs in the wardrobe but, as is the case with all old garments, it seems to have 'shrunk'.

    I think the thing that strikes me about buttons, and I don't want to give away the secrets of someone who has been writing a thesis on the very subject, who incidentally supports the theory of metal buttons, it is so much easier and cheaper to use fabric or wood. I've 'kitted out' entire regiments before now. I have hands sewn every part of the garments and there is always waste fabric no matter how you cut it. The waste is perfect for button making - they are easy to do and FREE so it makes a great deal of practical sense to me. Any evidence of buttons being ordered Ian? I found orders for shoes, cloth for coats, shirts or material for shirts. I even found one order for gloves, which surprised me at the time but I don't remember any for buttons. I know someone who would be very interested in any order you can find for metal buttons so I do hope you can find some.

    As for burials of bodies. I was at the York 113 excavation. You might have seen me on the TV programme. The series was called 'History Cold Case'. Clothing was included in the burials and they were all thought to be soldiers. No buttons were found at all. One of the researchers said it was so unusual not to find at least on button, perhaps even dropped by one of the grave diggers. The York 113 were thought to be part of the siege of York and could have died of camp fever. There was even a reference that could be tied to their burial and it was of an entire company that was left to die in 'quarantine'. I suppose no one wanted to touch the bodies to avoid infection. They were in the Fairfax 'quadrant' and his troops were known to be poorly equipped, paid and dressed.

    Please let me know if you find some references to metal button purchases Ian and thanks for letting me know it had been worn.

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