Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Discovering the Secrets of a Suit

April 7, 2022 Archive Insight
Moss-green man's suit on mannequin; knee-length breeches and long-open coat with embroidery all along front seams and on cuffs
Men’s Suit, circa 1800. / THF29848


Textiles are some of the least durable artifacts that we have in the collections of The Henry Ford. Early textiles are usually made from the “big four”—cotton, linen, silk, and wool. All these materials can disintegrate, be eaten by insects, make homes for mice, and be degraded by mold and mildew. In addition, heat and light affect the color and the integrity of the fabrics. Here at the museum, we are fortunate to have a representative sampling of garments and textiles from the 18th century to modern times.

What We Know about Our Suit

Even though we don’t know who wore the suit or exactly when, it still directs us to a point in time.

This suit has no known provenance (specific history), having been acquired from Anna Brix, an antiques dealer who lived in Philadelphia. The suit is believed to be French or British, but we have no records linking it to a person or even a family. We don’t know exactly when it was made, but this style lasted through the 18th century. By comparing it with similar garments, we can agree that it was probably worn for the first time in the late 18th century. We can tell it is a late-18th-century jacket because the fit is slim, the front is worn unbuttoned and curves to the back, and overall the cut is shorter than in previous decades. It was likely worn to court, or at least to very formal occasions. A suit such as this would have been worn with a highly decorated waistcoat, silk stockings, a cotton or linen shirt with fancy cuffs, and a jabot (frill or ruffle). The back has dual tails and three vents, making it easier and more stylish to wear when mounted on a horse. The colors are all natural dyes and have held up well with age.

Moss-green fabric with floral embroidery in pinks and yellow
Close-up of embroidery. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

The Making of the Suit Coat

Suits such as this were made to attend court and other high occasions, often mere days before they were needed. Hence, the use of embroidered panels, which reduced the time the tailor needed.

Rectangular fabric panel with smaller rectangular extension at top; has floral pattern most elaborate at center and bottom
Embroidered panel for a different waistcoat, uncut. / From the collections of Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (1962-54-31)

The coat is made of silk taffeta and was embroidered before the suit was made with silk threads using French knots, satin stitch, and stem stitch. Well-to-do men would visit a merchant to select a color and embroidery pattern, often from the shelf. The merchant would then coordinate with a tailor to custom-make the suit. The embroidered fabric, shown in the example above, even included embroidered rounds that would be crafted into fabric covered buttons by the tailor.

Detail of moss-green suit pocket and part of cuff with elaborate embroidery; an arrow points to a seam coming off the top of the pocket
Showing cut to shorten jacket at the top right of the pocket. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

The embroidered silk was originally made for a taller man than ours. If you look carefully at the image above, you can see where the embroidery was shortened at pocket height. It is blunt cut—sometimes the embroiderers were brought in to camouflage the adjustment and make it less visible, but not in this case. This is the normal position for a height adjustment, as when the wearer stood with their hands clasped in front of them, the seam was covered.

Moss-green fabric with elaborate embroidery; arrows point to two buttons covered in embroidered fabric and embroidered semicircles surrounding each
Embroidery on buttons on back of coat. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

Additional piecing is visible on the back of the garment at the top of the side vents where curved embroidered pieces back the accent buttons.

Discovering the Secrets of the Suit

Being able to look closely at the suit, both inside and out, was a rare treat.

Detail of moss-green coat sleeve with elaborate embroidery and embroidery-covered buttons; two arrows point to two slight picks in the fabric above the cuff
Markings from original button placement are visible above top of cuff; also, the slightly lighter color of silk shows the depth of lengthening. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

Upon closer examination, the outside of the suit tells us even more. The jacket sleeves have been made about two inches longer. There is less wear above the cuff and pin pricks can be seen where the buttons were originally located. It is interesting that the cuffs both show significant wear at the bottom from before and after remodeling.

The knee breeches were refitted to accommodate a larger person. Each side seam was let out, and there, similar to above the coat cuffs, you can see lighter silk with less wear. Finally, the back of the breeches have a wedge of silk inserted to give more room. Small areas of stress at the waist and the drop flap were mended to provide strength, but the breeches are in good condition structurally.

Weighted Silk Is Fragile

Silk has a long and harrowing history, and this suit is a good example of why the use of weighted silk has been greatly reduced in the last century.

Detail of beige silk coat lining with many rips and frayed edges
Shattered silk at the right shoulder and collar. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

We estimate that the coat was relined in the mid-to-late 1800s, as the lining was shattered throughout because it was made using weighted silk. Then and now, silk was sold by weight. When raw silk is processed, up to 30% of its weight is lost when the sericin (the protein that holds silkworm cocoons together) is cleaned from the tough but delicate fibers. Manufacturers compensate for that loss by adding metal salts to the silk, which adhere to the fabric, causing it to weigh more. What they didn’t know then is that this will forever damage the fabric. Shattered silk cannot be repaired and continues to disintegrate with age. The practice of weighting was regulated by the Federal Trade Commission in 1938 to require labeling of silks containing more than 10% metal salts (15% for silk colored black).

The suit’s shattered lining was in poor condition (see image above) and we decided that it should be replaced with modern, non-weighted silk in a matching color. This also allowed us to see what was inside the garment—where the story continues.

A Rare Treat: Viewing the Inside

Seeing the internal structure produced answers and questions.

Numerous patches in various fabrics, layered messily upon each other
A quilt of patches, buckram, and pocket provides insight into the speed with which the coat was made. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

Suits such as these were often hastily made. The outside was sumptuously beautiful with even, neat stitches, but the inside, not so much! The inside would never be seen.

It took many hours to extract the lining from the suit. The stitches that attached the lining to the coat were exceptionally fine and firm. Removing them took small scissors, tweezers, and, at times, a magnifying glass. With the lining separated from the jacket, more interesting things were revealed. It isn’t often that you get to see the original inner-workings of an 18th-century tailor’s creation (see image above).

Moss- and yellow-green fabric with white mildew and white fluff on it
Mildew and fibers from wear prior to vacuuming. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

One thing that was immediately noticeable was that the light blotches on the outside of the garment were caused by mildew. At some point, the suit was stored in a humid environment. The mildew was an old problem, since our museum storage is climate controlled, but the residue still had to be removed. Since a liquid cleaner could not be applied to the silk, the inside of the coat was vacuumed through a screen, then a stubby paintbrush was used to lift mildew spores before vacuuming again. This treatment made a noticeable difference in appearance.

A coat interior lies flat on a table, revealing a patchwork of fabrics and stitching inside
Buckram stiffens the inside of the front of the coat. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

Inside we see the use of buckram as a stiffener around the edges of the front, much as interfacing would be used today. Buckram was and is made of a coarse hemp, linen, or cotton fabric. The buckram was pieced, perhaps because it was scraps, or perhaps that was how wide the fabric was. Cream-colored silk had been sewn over the buckram from the pocket level to the collar, possibly to reduce friction between the silk and the stiffening fabric (see below).

Fabric fraying, stitched together but with gaps revealing stuffing underneath
The left shoulder linen tow shoulder pad covered with the original silk. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

Linen tow was used as padding to create the sloped shoulder shape popular in the late 18th century. This linen waste is full of bits of the stem of the flax plant and it has held together and done its job for over 200 years. The tow was—and is—partially covered by the original white silk lining.

A History Mystery

Anytime we deal with historic objects, there are often more questions than answers. It is interesting to try to suss out the “why?” and apply what we know to arrive at possible solutions. However, some mysteries will always remain mysteries.

Beige fabric with dark brown staining and squiggly stitching
Squiggles on the right pocket—partially for mending, but they beg the question, why? / Photo by Joan Sheridan

The stitching used inside the coat is often coarse. A larger thread was used to bind seams, keep the shoulder pads in place, and attach silk to the buckram. Inside is a patchwork of fabric. The linen pocket linings revealed another interesting find. Both pockets had holes that were inexpertly darned with a snakelike pattern that continues from the darning. We can surmise that the original wearer of the suit was right-handed because the right pocket is very stained—by tobacco or a handkerchief, perhaps?

Replacing the Lining

The lining adds support to the garment, transferring stress to itself and away from the fragile and elaborate embroidery and construction.

Cream silk fabric with many rips and gaps lays on top of gridded paper
Pattern making from the shattered silk lining. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

Once removed, the fragile lining was separated into pieces to be used for making a new pattern. From the pattern a polyester sample lining was made and fitted into the jacket. Adjustments were noted on the paper pattern and revisions made until it was as close as it could be. Polyester is not a substitute for silk, as it behaves differently, but it did serve a purpose—knowing that the pattern was close enough.

A tape measure, spool of white thread, needle, and small auger lay on top of moss-green fabric with elaborate embroidery
Small tools and thread are less likely to damage the delicate fabric. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

With the modified pattern in hand, the cream silk was cut and sewn in with a few minor modifications. The lining was attached using a long blind stitch, unlike the original whip stitching. Changing the stitch type reduced the number of holes that had to be put into the garment, and fewer stitches mean less damage to the original green fabric.

Detail of mandarin-style collar of moss-green jacket with detailed embroidery
The finished collar and newly lined coat, before pressing. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

With the body lining sewn in, the neck lining was next. The edge of the collar was quite worn and treatment was required. A piece of bronze tulle (fine netting) was sewn to the outside edge of the collar next to the main body of embroidery, but not over it. It was then stretched over the damaged area and attached to the inside of the collar. The collar lining was cut freehand because the original is in many pieces. Once the lining was in place, the tulle mend became nearly invisible.

Finishing the Work

The sleeves are very of-the-period. They are curved in shape and tell the story of a suit that was worn often and remodeled in its second life. The sleeve remodeling was likely done at the time the lining was replaced in the mid-1800s.

Detail of moss-green fabric with stitching and wear
Two levels of wear are evident on the sleeves. / Photo by Joan Sheridan

Conservation Specialist Claire Zimmeth completed the project by mending the sleeves and sewing in the sleeve lining. Since there was damage at the end of the original sleeve length and at the end of the remodeled/current length, it was decided that the entire area should be covered with tulle. Again, the tulle was placed to avoid covering embroidery (see the work-in-progress image below).

Detail of moss-green coat sleeve with detailed floral embroidery on cuff; tulle extends from end of cuff
Covering the sleeves with tulle (in progress). / Photo by Joan Sheridan

Bringing It All Together

This suit is an excellent example of 18th-century tailoring, style, color, and embroidery talent. It reminds us that court styles didn’t change much over more than a hundred years and didn’t keep up with the current fashions.

Working on this garment was challenging, mainly in that there is always concern about handling fragile, antique textiles. It was a privilege to work on the suit and be able to explore the history of the suit via the wear, stitches, and inner construction. Even though this jacket has no formal provenance, it still has a story to tell. The suit will be on display in the Fashion and Nature exhibit at the Grand Rapids Public Museum from April 23–July 23, 2022.

Smiling woman in black glasses and black shirt sits at a work table on which is laid out a moss-green jacket with detailed floral embroidery
Photo by Mary Fahey


Joan Sheridan is Volunteer Textile Specialist at The Henry Ford.

making, fashion, conservation, collections care, by Joan Sheridan, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Facebook Comments