Notes on Wool, Cotton Canvas, and Linen by Henry Cooke

Why Wool?

By Henry Cooke,

In short, its mid-April, and depending on when your company mustered, anywhere from pre-dawn to mid-morning at the latest. Early morning temperatures at that time even today can be as low as the upper 20s, but commonly are in the upper 30s and often a damp bone chilling cold. My recollection of Alex Cain's research was that it was chilly overnight and a seasonably cool day, not the kind of weather you would typically be going out and about in light linens.

The argument that has been advanced to me of late in favor of linen is that these were poor farmers who could only afford linen. However, the cost of most common woolens from England were not dramatically more expensive than garment quality linens that came from Ireland or the Lowlands, and gave you far more service over a wider weather/temperature range, aka, more bang for your shillings.

Folks also have to realize that the woolens encompassed a broad category of "stuffs" from lightweight worsteds, (including a wool damask waistcoat worn by a militiaman at Valcour Island in 1776) and camblets that were frequently worn for summer wear, to milled serges, everlastings, and meltons for more middling wear, and coatings, broadcloths, and such like for outer garments. Not all wool garments were heavy K&P cloth.

Looking at the clothing of working men in Boston, and likely working men elsewhere in New England, the largest proportion were woolen. Even if one accepts the relative poverty of a Middlesex County farmer (compared to whom, I don't know, but it seems to be part of the line of argument), wool made better economic sense because it would last longer, keep you comfortable over a larger span of the year. It has been awhile since I reviewed the Middlesex County Probate records compiled by Hallie and Steph for one of the "What they Wore" Hives, but in general the majority of men's clothing is of varying qualities of wool, with leather, hair plush, velvet /thickset, helping round out the field. I will try to get back to the probate file later this weekend, and give everyone a report on this as to what was worn and compare it with tailor's accounts as well to try to offer a more detailed account of the clothing of minute and miltia men in 1775.

Our historic counterparts also didn't live in centrally heated homes, but homes that were drafty and chilly, with fireplaces providing rather limited heating in the coldest weather, so wool and layering was frequently in practice, and even high end garments like silk waistcoats often had woolen backs and linings.

It was also the end of the winter, a lean time for the New England diet, and many of them didn't have the fat that we have on our frames for added insulation year round.

When the mustered on April 19th, they didn't step out of a heated vehicle at mid-day, they had to plan on being in the weather for a long period of time, which for many of them extended from pre-dawn to early evening, and even into the chill of the night. That is also why the uniform of all the armies of the western world at that time was an all wool uniform, only occasionally adding linen/hemp garments for the hottest part of the season, or for service in hot climates, which April in New England usually is not.


Cotton Canvas Was NOT Being Made

By Henry Cooke
February, 2019

Cotton canvas was not being made, as it was a waste of good cotton that could be used for dress goods, and it was inferior to hemp and linen canvas which were the staple canvases of the era, and only well worn old linen/hempen sail cloth was used for sailor's clothing. Extensive research into the clothing of working men in urban and rural Massachusetts, most particularly the 30 year of accounts of Boston merchant tailor William Waine indicates that cotton canvas was not being worn, nor was linen or hemp canvas, sailor's work overgarments excepted. The clothing of the laboring and working poor was wool, coarse or sometimes middling quality woolen coats, jackets, waistcoats, and breeches - the average wardrobe of working men was limited to a few garments, perhaps wool and leather breeches, and perhaps a pair of linen trousers or breeches for the summertime, perhaps a wool waistcoat, a jacket, or frock coat, and or a great coat, which was sometimes worn by the laboring folks in the place of a coat. - for more information on this, please see the paper "Why Wool?" attached at the end of the standards. Middling farmers and shopkeepers and artisans had more clothing, perhaps four or five pair of breeches, a coat or two, a jacoat or two, a great coat, and a couple or three or four waistcoats.

Minute Man National Historical Park

Last updated: July 16, 2023