A Brief Look at Pre-Clearances Clothes for Women

Recently, I’ve started going along to SCA (Society of Creative Anachronism) events. You might say, “But Rachel, of course! You are both creative and an anachronism! Why haven’t you gone before?”

Well, to be honest, I always thought it was a little weird. And in Adelaide, most of the things they were at were things I was also at, but in another capacity (fiddler, Scottish radio presenter, member of a Clan, and so on). But then I found a SCA College listed on the uni website and thought, “Well, when I move away, I’ll join.”

It’s been good, so far, too. I mean, people in my res House have gone out a couple of nights and got drunk, which really isn’t my scene… Sitting on the lawn in period dress, sewing while a bunch of men in armour whack the living daylights out of each other with sticks is definitely more my scene. And there’s less alcohol, too.

I started researched pre-Clearances Highland clothing long before I ever considered joining the SCA. I suspect it might have been in relation to a Doctor Who fanfic (I’m a fan of Jamie McCrimmon), but that’s really how I do fanfics – copious research with little to no actual story produced. Anyway, since the Highland dress has now become my SCA garb, purely by virtue of it being the only suitable clothing I have, I thought I’d explain it a little.

Pre-Clearances includes the 18th century, so it’s a little later than the SCA period, but Highland life had changed relatively little in the preceding thousand years or so, so it stands to reason that women’s clothes hadn’t changed much, either.

In the initial research, I disregarded SCA sources as much as possible. And there was a reason for that. A lot of the SCA-based information on Highland dress came along with phrasebooks for Gaelic, and those were… not the most accurate, shall we say. I mean, not bad, but not accurate either, considering how much Gaelic there is available on line these days. And a lot of the same mistakes crept into a lot of the lists, so I suspected that the SCA lore on Highland dress, like their Gaelic phrasebooks, were based more on hear-say than on actual research.

There are two or three items of clothing which are essential to making the Highland woman’s outfit, as far as I’m concerned: the earrasaid, the headcovering, and possibly the shawl (but only if you want there to be no mistake about where you’re from).


The Earrasaid

The earrasaid is essentially the girly version of the fèileadh-mòr (known in English as the “great-kilt”). Both are giant rectangles, like bedsheets, of traditionally wool (but I live in Australia, so I’m not using wool), belted at the waist. There are a few differences: men’s are checked, and women’s are striped; men’s are in darker colours, women’s have a lot of white and yellow; men’s are pleated at the waist and fall to the knee, women’s are gathered and fall a few inches above the hem of the dress.

Point 2 on colour is actually very interesting. Modern “dress tartans” are variations on the standard tartan with a lot of white in it. The common assumption is that a “dress tartan” is more formal than the standard, ancient or hunting tartans, but actually “dress” means “dress”, rather than “formal” – it’s the girl’s tartan.

M. Martin, Gent., wrote in 1791 describing how women dress in the Western Isles:

“The antient Drefs wore by the Women, and which is yet wore by fome of the Vulgar, called Ariʃad, is a white Plad, having a few fmall Stripes of black, blue, and red; it reach’d from the Neck to the Heels, and was tied before on the Breaft with a Buckle of Silver, or Brafs, according to the Quality of the Perfon. I have feen fome of the former of a hundred Marks value; it was broad as any ordinary Pewter Plate, the whole curioufly engraven with various Animals, &c. There was a leffer Buckle, which was wore in the middle of the larger, and above two Ounces weight; it had in the Centre a large piece of Chryftal, or fome finer Stone, and this was fet all round with feveral finger Stones of a leffer fize.

“The Plad being pleated all round, was tied with a Belt below the Breaft; the Belt was of Leather, and feveral Pieces of Silver intermix’d with the Leather like a Chain. The lower end of the Belt has a Piece of Plate about eight Inches long, and three in breadth, curioufly engraven; the end of which was adorned with fine Stones, or Pieces of Red Coral. They wore Sleeves of Scarlet Cloth, clos’d at the end as Mens Vefts, with God Lace round ‘em, having Plate Buttons fet with fine Stones. The Head-drefs was a fine Kerchief of Linen ftrait about the Head, hanging down the Back taper-wife; a large Lock of Hair hangs down their Cheeks above their Breaft, the lower end tied with a Knot of Ribbands.”

I definitely need a better belt and a buckle. Actually, I really need a buckle or a broach for under my chin. But overall, the earrasaid is really comfortable and cozy. And practical. If you tuck it right, there is so much pocket storage space you don’t even notice the drink bottle and purse. If it didn’t look so weird, I would wear it a lot more. Possibly all the time. I’m a massave fan of the earrasaid.

R. R. McIan’s Tartans provides useful colour pictures of highland dress, including two of earrasaidean worn by the Urquhart and Matheson ladies:



The Shawl

If there was any tartan involved at all in the Highland woman’s dress, this is where it is. The Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland describes the tartan shawl:

“The plaid is the undress of the ladies; and to a genteel woman, who adjusts it with a good air, is a becoming veil. But as I am pretty sure you never saw one of them in England, I shall employ a few words to describe it to you. It is made of silk or fine worsted, chequered with various lively colours, two breadths wide, and three yards in length; it is brought over the head, and may high or discover the face according to the wearer’s fancy or occasion: it reaches to the waist behind; one corner falls as low as the ankle on one side; and the other part, in folds, hangs down from the opposite arm.”

The edition I read from also adds the clarification from Martyn’s Western Islands,

“The plaid is made of fine wool, the thread as fine as can be made of that kind: it consists of divers colours; and there is a great deal of ingenuity required in sorting the colours, so as to be agreeable to the nicest fancy. For this reason, the women are at great pains, first, to give an exact pattern of the plaid upon a piece of wood, having the number of every thread of the stripe on it. The length of it is commonly seven double ells; the one end hands by the middle over the left arm, the other going round the body hangs by the end over the left arm also. The right-hand above it is to be at liberty to do any thing upon occasion.”

On the topic of tartans, it does bear adding this: there’s a common belief that clan tartans were invented by Victorian English nobility and aren’t a true Scottish thing really. So I was interested to read M. Martin’s description of men’s plaids:

“Every Ifle differs from each other in their Fancy of making Plads, as to the Stripes in Breadth and Colours. This Humour is as different thro the main Land of the Highlands, in-fo-far that they who have feen thofe Places, are able, at the firft View of a Man’s Plad, to guefs the Place of his Refidence.”

Bearing in mind that location is basically synonymous with clan, we can definitely see that regional clan tartans were well-established in the Highlands and islands by the end of the 18th century, and were foreign enough as a concept to an Englishman to be worth commenting on

R. R. McIan’s Tartans shows shawls worn by the Sinclair and Lamond ladies:


The Headcovering

People who know me will know I take headcoverings seriously. It’s not just some “oh, look at that interesting historical headgear” for me. I look at an historical headcovering through the eyes of someone who wears one all day, every day. I want something that’s comfortable, practical, and secure.

That has nothing to do with anything, really, but I felt like saying it before describing the Highland headcovering. In Gaelic, the word “brèid” can refer to many different squares of cloth, from tablecloths to sails and of course headcoverings. The LearnGaelic dictionary has a whole list of sayings involving the term, and most of them have to do with head-kerchiefs.

Brèidean are strictly for married woman, and “brèideach” means “married woman”, and there’s a waulking song I encountered in the EBI library which uses “put on the brèid early” as a synonym for “had an affair before she got married”. Despite that, I am wearing a headcovering with my outfit because I don’t like the hairstyle for unmarried women. I’ll cover that in a minute.

So my final plot of the brèid I have based largely on an air or love-song I know which is found in the Carmina Gadelica, as well as on a selection of other descriptive terms for the brèid which I’ve encountered. The two verses of the air with which I am concerned are:

“A cul dualach, camlach, cuachach,
Her tresses curly/braided, coiled, bowled,
Ann an sguaib aig m’ eudail,
In the broom of my darling
‘S ge boidheach e ‘s an stiom a suas,
Although it’s beautiful in the headband down
Cha mheas an cuailean breid e.
Not worse the curls in headcovering.

“Gur a math thig breid ban
That becomes well headcovering white,
Air a charamh beannach dhut
On the position pointed/horned to you
Agus staoise dh’ an t-sioda mhin
And cords to the silk soft
‘G a theannadh ort.
Approaching it on you.

There are no pictures of the headcovering, it having been long replaced with frilled bonnet-caps or babushka-style veils by the time people started painting pictures of Highlands women, so all I have to go on is that it’s somehow mountain-like (beannach), and it’s attached to the head with silk cords. It’s white (brèid ban) and looks a bit like a crown or three (brèid cuimir nan [tri] crun), with three corners (currachd tri-chearnach), possibly held up with some sort of support (brèid an crannaig).

So it’s certainly not a simple kerchief tied around the head! It’s quite elaborate, actually. I recall hearing or reading somewhere that gold and silver pins were used, although I can’t recall where – but based on Martin’s description of belts and broaches, it seems quite likely. From the evidence, the headcovering is done in some way in which the three points look like crowns or horns. One of the descriptions, “brèid an crannaig”, uses the same word that’s used for a pulpit or the base of a statue, so that provides some clue – there might be a wooden support inserted under.

This is the style I’ve settled on, which I think does justice to the evidence. It’s quite comfortable and reasonable secure, although it tends to pull back a little bit if I bring the earrasaid up over my head. I’ll take step-by-step pictures to put on my headcoverings blog sometime when I’m home.



Girls’ Hairstyles

Young unmarried women continued to wear their hair in a single ribbon near the hairline, binding the plaits or curls up, well into the 18th and 19th centuries, so we have pictures of that.

From R. R. McIan’s Tartans:


Two details from David Allan’s 1780 A Highland Wedding and Blair Atholl:

A headband is called a stiom, and has been transliterated as “stem” and translated as “fillet” by early English commentators.

That air I mentioned earlier describes the hairstyle:

“A cul dualach, camlach, cuachach,
Her tresses curly/braided, coiled, bowled,
Ann an sguaib aig m’ eudail,
In the broom of my darling
‘S ge boidheach e ‘s an stiom a suas,
Although it’s beautiful in the headband down
Cha mheas an cuailean breid e.
Not worse the curls in headcovering.

So it looks like it might be several plaits or two-strand ‘rope-plaits’ tied back off the face with a wide ribbon.




5 Headcovering Patterns

So, I was “tidying” a filing cabinet I used a few years ago and found a couple of sewing patterns. Well, actually, I found a lot of sewing patterns. Well, I found a couple of branded sewing patterns and half a dozen back-bodice-front-bodice-sleeve combinations (I think I must have drawn myself a new pattern every time I needed a new dress for a few years there). And three complete headcovering patterns I’d completely forgotten about.

I thought someone out there might be interested in them – any headcoverers out there? Anyway, so here they are. The grid is meant to be 1cm spacing, so you might have to print-and-scale-copy-by-hand or something if you want to use them.

Hanging Veil

Headcovering - Kite VeilAlso known as “kite veil”, “simple veil”, or a million and one other things. This basic idea seems to be the most common sort of headcovering amongst non-denom Christian women at the moment (not that I really hang around much on headcovering sites these days).

It’s a fairly simple one-piece proposition, and best made out of polycotton knit, lycra, or some other sort of stretchy material – that gives the best drape. An old t-shirt is a good option.

You can adjust the size by measuring head circumference (that’s the horizontal length) and also from hairline to wherever you want it to fall (that’s the vertical length).

First, trim the front and back. You can do a simple seam (use a zig-zagging stitch) or attack elasticised lace. Then, I sew it together on the straight bit opposite the fold. This makes it into a tube-like thing which is simple to put on – just pull over your head and attach at the front. The whole process takes maybe an hour to make (I hand-sew) and about thirty seconds or less to put on in the morning.

Simple “Kapp”

Headcovering - Bonnet Cap

For something “simple”, it’s the most complicated pattern here in that it has three pieces. I think I originally adapted it from a how-to at Shepherd’s Hill Homestead, although I can’t find it anymore and can’t even get onto the site at the moment.

I wore it for a while, but eventually decided that a kapp-style headcovering simply did not work with my head – it needed constant readjusting.

First, sew the front (and sides) of the brim.

Next, pleat the crown. I did 5 pleats up each side (opening down) and 4 pleats along the bottom (opening out), about 1cm deep. Pleats should be as long as to the grey line marked, and you can iron or not iron as desired – depends on the look you want. You could probably even sew them down into darts if you wanted – I think I did that once.

At the very least, sew the pleats down along the edge before you attach the brim. Finish it off with the binding – it probably doesn’t need to be as wide as in the picture, but apply it like bias-binding. I used to do it all the way to the front of the brim to finish it off nicely all the way along the bottom. You can also cut the binding longer if you want to make it into ties, but I found the angle was a little awkward, although that might be better if you make the pattern larger – which I probably would if I made it again, since it sits a bit further back on the head than I would like.

“Common Mennonite” Veil

Headcovering - Common Mennonite VeilThat’s the name that was written on it by the lady that gave it to me, anyway (although I don’t think she was Mennonite). It’s the one from which I developed the hanging veil pattern I use. I might refer to this one as a “brimmed veil”.

Upon reviewing her instructions, I’m pretty sure the piece I’ve labled “brim” was actually meant to be a bias of some sort, but I believe what I did at the time was gather along the top and wear it with a brim, a bit like a cross between a veil and an open-back kapp. I found the press-stud closure (it’s labled “snaps closure” on the original pattern) to be a bit impractical and ended up pinning it, I think, although as I look at the pattern now, I think I might attach strings to the brim if I did it again, perhaps.

Open-Back Kapp

Headcovering - Open-Back KappI couldn’t find the brim pattern for this one, so I’ve put in the brim from the last – I’d probably cut it a bit wider, though, or perhaps use the brim from the simple kapp. I think I probably conflated the two patterns when they were given to me, which is why I ended up making the other one like an open-back kapp.

Anyway, the original pattern has noted on it “this one pattern can be done a few ways for different looks”, and there are options for a smaller fit or fewer pleats (place the fold an inch in), a straight hem at the bottom (which would be easier to sew, apparently), and also a notation that the curved hem could be turned into casing for elastic.

I think with the gathers, brim, and elastic at the bottom it could become another simple kapp pattern, although I suspect it might have a back-shape reminiscent of Lancaster County Amish ladies (you know, the distinctive heart thing). I just don’t like gathering anything – I’d rather pleat any day (it must be the Scottish in me, but I honestly used to have nightmares about gathering. I could never get the hang of it). I presume that you should add ties at the edges of the brim.


Headcovering - SnoodThis one was already on my computer; that’s why it looks different. I don’t know that I ever made it up, but it looks like it should work well enough, although perhaps with a wider brim than that.

I would probably use some sort of stretchy material like for my hanging veil headcoverings; sew the two bags together along the sides at bottom (top is to the left of the picture), sew the front of the brim, gather the front of the bag and attach the two. I’m wondering about attaching some sort of drawstring, elastic or tie to the ends of the brim.

I sort of want to make a snood now, because I think it might make things easier on those days I can’t be bothered putting my hair in a bun or if I have a headache or something like that. But I can’t seem to get anything to stay put on my head, even with some sort of pin or clip, unless my hair is tied firmly back, so there wouldn’t really be much point since I’d have to tie my head back anyway.

Other Patterns

For another headcoverer’s take on the hanging veil (plus a pattern and lots of step-by-step pictures, check out the Seven Farmgirl Sisters’ Headcovering Tutorial.

You can also get lots of patterns from Candle On the Hill, who also offer the Friends Patterns patterns for various regional Amish headcovering/kapp styles. I haven’t used any of these patterns, though, so I don’t know what they’re like, and you have to pay for them. Candle On the Hill does offer a free headcovering (hanging veil) “pattern”, but what it actually is is a list of instructions basically amounting to “cut out a circle and hem it”.

Another note – I started off attaching the headcoverings with straight pins, which worked surprisingly well (although it looks a bit like you’ve stapled the headcovering to your head, according to several people who commented on it at the time). These days I use little white (1.5-inch) bobby pins, which you can find if you search online at cosmetic supply shops. I’m currently working through a 120g tub which should last me… the rest of my life. My headcoverings are mostly white, with a few pastels, so it works, but occasionally I revert back to wearing a bandanna-style covering, which I did for a while, and I sometimes pin those if they’re darker colours.

You don’t need a pattern for the bandanna-style covering – just take a large square (not smaller than 50cm square), fold it into a triangle, and tie it under your bun. I don’t really like how they sit – I always get annoying “wings” and it gets assymetrical very easily (yes, I’ve been accused of being OCD). But if you use a reasonably drapey material, it’s not so bad.

I think that’s about everything. A shout-out to any headcovering ladies out there! I hope you find the patterns useful.

Oh, another note – I mentioned at the beginning the bodice-and-sleeves patterns I used to make. I did it by tracing around a dress I liked, if memory serves, and toyed for a bit with measuring myself and drawing my own patterns. I had varying degrees of success (but got better at it when I was about 12 and realised sleeves were meant to be shaped at the top!).

These days, I use a pattern from Gehmans Fabrics, from whom I also buy my dress material (I cannot speak highly enough of the material offered at Gehmans – do yourself a favour and buy it rather than go to Spotlight. It’s worth the shipping cost) – although I do add an extra inch to the bodice and a few inches to the skirt and arms – I’ve come to the conclusion that the Germanic Mennonite women must simply be a bit of a different shape to me, but the dress pattern is simple (just six pieces, including separate cape pieces) and very easy to use, and comes on very sturdy paper.