18th Century Linen Clothing

Linen was commonly used for shirts, shifts, functional aprons, and the linings of many other garments (including waistcoats and gowns). Linen is also used as the ground for some embroidered garments and accessories, such as women’s petticoats and pockets. Several women’s waistcoats are made of quilted and/or embroidered linen, too.

Some people recommend linen for re-enactment clothing (especially for outdoor events in hot weather), but others note the relative lack of garments specifically described as being made of linen or the lack of extant garments. See the Additional Resources on this page for some discussion and analysis of descriptions of linen clothing.

This page collects links to extant linen garments from the 18th century, along with references to linen clothing. There are sections on white linen clothing, linen clothing with embroidery, linen clothing with printed patterns, buff or natural linen clothing, solid-colored dyed linen clothing, and checked or striped linen clothing.

White linen clothing

Etienne Loys’ 1753 portrait of Guillaume Barcellon with a tennis racket probably shows a white linen waistcoat similar to the examples below. Likewise, An Edinburgh Auction shows James Graham, “wearing his accustomed suit of white linen with black stockings.” I suspect Noel Desenfans is also wearing a linen suit.

For more on white linen clothing worn in hot climates, see “For the heat is beyond your conception”: men’s summer dress in the American south during the long eighteenth-century.

  • MFA 43.672 and 43.673, white linen quilted and corded petticoats, one with a floral design, the other with a Chinoiserie-inspired design, England, early 18th century
  • National Trust 1349000, a white linen waistcoat decorated with corded quilting; retains one Dorset wheel button; 1720-1740
  • HD F.075, a white linen waistcoat that has been quilted to shape with corded designs, probably English, 1725-1750
  • National Trust 1366510.1 and 1366510.2, waistcoat fronts with floral motifs in drawn thread work, some areas with trapunto, 1730-1770
  • KM 2463, a quilted white linen shortgown from the 1740s from Sweden
  • National Trust 1349001, a sleeved waistcoat trimmed with whitework down the front and on the hems, possibly German or Scandinavian, 1740-1750
  • Met C.I.44.8.9a, b, a pair of linen mitts, probably European
  • Museum Rotterdam 20890-1-2, a pair of white linen mitts
  • Met 43.130.8, a French waistcoat
  • Met 21.136.4, a Swiss waistcoat
  • Augusta Auctions Nov 11 2015 Lot 239, knee breeches in white pinstripe linen, American, 1760-1770
  • National Trust 1350470, a child’s cream linen gown with the bodice and sleeves lined in heavier linen; neck and sleeves edged with narrow lace; 1770
  • Connecticut Historical Society 2001.49.6, a small boy’s waistcoat in white plain-woven linen with Dorset buttons, 1770s
  • Linen short gown, late 18th century, America
  • Colonial Williamsburg 1993-46, boy’s linen breeches in coarse tabby linen, America (Maine or New Hampshire), 1775-1800
  • Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum 1932.51.o, a cord-quilted linen pet en l'air worn by Mary McDowall of Johnstone Castle in Scotland, made c. 1780-1781
  • Connecticut Historical Society 1841.5.0, white linen waistcoat worn by Col. William Ledyard when he was killed in 1781; the linen is woven in alternating reversing twilled stripes, the buttons are linen-covered wood. Matching breeches are CHS 1962.43.7
  • Colonial Williamsburg 2008-113, a man’s double-breasted waistcoat in white linen with thread-covered white buttons, made in England c. 1780-1800
  • Henry Ford 35.596.22, a waistcoat, c. 1780-1840
  • DAR 2389.2, a child’s waistcoat; “Main fabric is a damask with a geometric pattern, while white plainweave linen is used to line the front facing. Two 1" deep pockets; standing collar. Closes with four sets of white cotton tapes all the way to the collar,” probably c. 1790
  • Met 1988.342.3, linen trousers made in Europe c. 1793
  • Henry Ford, a jacket, c. 1800
  • Met 2009.300.1685a, b, a pair of linen mitts made in America c. 1800-1824

Text references to white linen clothing (other than shirts, shifts, aprons, etc.)

White linen clothing with embroidered designs

Many embroidered petticoats and embroidered pockets also use a white linen ground.

Additional Resources

Of the Callico-Printer, The London Tradesman (1747)

White linen clothing with printed designs

From Identifying Printed Textiles in Dress 1740-1890:

a) Because of linen manufacture being a home industry, printed linens like fustians were not subject to the prohibition of 1722 to 1774. Nevertheless, relatively few printed linen garments survive to represent this period. By 1770, linens were being printed in the regions of London, Manchester, Carlisle, Glasgow and Dublin. Scottish printers appear to have made a speciality of handkerchiefs, but the distribution of garment printing of linens has not yet been studied.
b) Printed linens enjoyed wide sales in both the home and export markets. That printed linens gained some measure of fashionability is demonstrated by examples in the Barbara Johnson album, in which both plate-printed and block-printed examples occur. Printed linens gained an association with country wear that was well developed by the 1780s. In a novel of 1789, the heroine disguises herself “as country lass, in a fine flowered linen gown, pink petticoat, straw hat, and white cloth cloak…” [Bennett, Agnes Maria. Agnes de-Courci, a domestic tale. Bath, 1789, p.206]. Another country maiden attired for a rustic fête wears “a little straw-hat, lined with pink, and a flowered linen gown, tied with ribbons of the same colour, and pinned back to shew a pink petticoat…” [Keate, George. Sketches from nature; taken, and coloured in a journey to Margate. London, 1790, p.121.]
c) Linen is not an easy fibre to print, and it is more difficult to obtain the same depth of shade as on cotton. This may be why it is usually found printed with simpler colour effects than cotton. Madder colours were often used as these could withstand the laundering (bucking with alkalis) that linens were expected to endure.
  • National Trust 814614.11, a doll’s gown in linen block printed in red with leaf, bird foot, and triple-dot design, 1740-1760
  • In Fitting & Proper: “Woman’s gown, c. 1740-60, altered c. 1775-80, an open robe in beige linen, block printed in two shades of brown, lined with beige linen and with blue and white checked linen”
  • Fries T1957-450, a house dress or contouche in white linen printed with a red design, c. 1750-1799
  • Centraal Museum 11020, a girl’s caraco in ivory-colored linen printed with a sprinkled pattern of red and blue flowers, lined with white linen, c. 1750-1775
  • Met C.I.37.2, a coat (bedgown), American, third quarter of the 18th century
  • Historic New England 1998.5875, dress with blue copperplate printed floral pattern on cream ground, worn by Deborah Sampson, 1760-1790
  • Chertsey M.1989.13, “white linen open robe block printed with bamboo and flowering branches design in rose madder, brown and blue,” c. 1770-1773
  • KCI AC7621 92-34-2AB, robe à la française in white glazed plain-weave linen with a blue floral print, France, 1770s
  • Manchester 1970.199, a white linen dress “White linen, block printed in spaced pairs of narrow lilac stripes with related pattern of sprigs and a light scattering of smaller sprigs inbetween in red, yellow and brown. The sprigs are 'pencilled' by hand.” See also Identifying Printed Textiles in Dress 1740-1890.
  • Met 26.265.48, a quilted petticoat in linen with two different printed designs, France, late 18th century
  • Centraal Museum 14571, a jacket for an infant in printed linen, c. 1775
  • Fries Museum T1956-436, a printed linen handkerchief, c. 1775-1799
  • V&A T.230-1927, a gown in block-printed linen, England, 1780s
  • From Fitting & Proper: Woman’s shortgown, c. 1780-1800, “brown and off-white figured print cotton, lined with off-white linen and with brown and off-white floral printed linen in the sleeves”; also a woman’s underpetticoat, c. 1780-1800, “an off-white linen petticoat trimmmed with bands of two different brown and off-white linen floral prints, one on the inside of the hem and one on the outside”

Text references to printed linen clothing

Buff or natural linen (probably undyed and unbleached) linen clothing

Solid-colored dyed linen clothing in colors other than white

Text references to linen clothing in colors other than white

The predominant color in the text references – as in the extant examples above – is brown. However, “brown linen” may also refer to unbleached linen, like the natural/buff colored linen garments listed elsewhere on this page.

Neal Hurst, associate curator of costume and textiles at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, writes:

In Williamsburg the 2nd Virginia regiment is having their osnaburg hunting shirts dyed purple: “It is Expected that each Capt. will with all Expedition Provide Legins for his men & hunting shirts Dy’d of a purple Coulour…” (Orderly Book of the 2d Virginia Regiment, October 27, 1775)

If we continue on the hunting shirt trend, of which are generally made of linen for the continental army: In 1776, a German officer who faced American soldiers at the Battle of Long Island, described them wearing “black, white, and purple linen blouses”
Bernhard A. Uhlendorf, Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals 1776-1784 of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1957), 38.

American artist Charles Willson Peale also described a multitude of colors worn on hunting shirts in the Philadelphia area and claimed that “very often these shirts were dyed brown – yellow, pink, and blue black, any colour according to the fancy of the companies.”
Jules David Prown, Art as Evidence: Writing on Art and Material Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 170. [This page is viewable via Google Books.]

The backcountry traveler John Smyth also claimed that its inhabitants chose a wide variety of color and said “Their hunting, or rifle shirts, they have also died in a variety of colours, some yellow, others red, some brown, and many wear them quite white.”
John Ferdinand Smyth Stuart, A Tour of the United States of America (Dublin: Printed by G. Perrin, 1784), 116. [You can also read this in The English Review or The Scots Magazine.]

For more of his research on hunting shirts, see “kind of armour, being peculiar to America”: The American Hunting Shirt.

Striped or checked linen clothing

Text references to checked or striped linen clothing (other than shirts or aprons)