2018 Conference blogs – Quilted petticoats in eighteenth century London: genuine and imitation, bought and stolen

Clare Rose, The Royal School of Needlework, London

Quilted petticoats in eighteenth century London: genuine and imitation, bought and stolen

Quilted petticoats played an important role in the development of the ready-to-wear clothing industry in Britain, as Beverly Lemire has shown. They had a tie-on construction that made them easy to manufacture, and easy to fit on most customers. They could be made in a range of fabrics, from heavy wool serge to delicate silk satin or crisp linen, to provide warmth and fullness under a gown. Quilted petticoats worn with open-fronted gowns or short jackets could add to the ensemble through colour contrasts or decorative stitching.  Petticoats made from corded quilting from Marseilles or yellow silk embroidery from Bengal could add an exotic touch to the wardrobe. Trade cards from London and provincial shopkeepers in the British Museum and London Guildhall Collections confirm the importance of quilted petticoats in retail practice, sold by traders describing themselves as mercers, linen-drapers, haberdashers, or milliners. The consumption of quilted petticoats by women at all social levels can be seen in the trial records of the Old Bailey, which note over 230 thefts of these garments between 1688 and 1805 (www.oldbaileyonline.org).

A closer analysis of these sets of documents reveals the strategies and subterfuges used to increase sales of these standardised garments. Retailers promoted their petticoats as ‘finest’ or ‘most neatly worked’; they offered them in a wide range of fabrics at a wide range of prices. Imported quilting from Marseilles and Bengal was imitated in British workshops, and sold as the real thing. By the 1760s, loom quilted petticoats (double cloth with a padding weft) were on sale as ‘marcella’, confusing them with French imports. Hand-quilted petticoats were often made by outworkers, who were vulnerable to exploitation both by their employers and by their peers. As standardised garments, petticoats were both desirable to thieves, and hard to prove ownership of in a court of law. Quilted petticoats with pocket slits at the sides might even be used as an accessory to theft, with their bulk concealing high-value items lifted from shop counters.

Fig. 1 T.306-1982 max

Fig.1. Green silk petticoat quilted in diamond grid, worn with a non-matching short gown. British, 1740-50c. T.306-1982. © The V&A Museum

The social and material variety of quilted petticoats

Trade cards in the Guildhall Library and the Heal and Banks collection at the British Museum show the variety of petticoats on sale: in 1767, Paulins & Coates of Tavistock Street, Mercers and Haberdashers (Guildhall Library)  listed  petticoats in ‘satin, sarsnet and Persian’ (silk), ‘all sorts of stuff’ (wool) and ‘callico’ (cotton). The implication is that these were hand-quilted, with an upper layer of decorative fabric, a lining of loosely woven wool, and a middle layer of carded wool wadding for warmth.  There were also petticoats made from ‘Indian’ or ‘Marseilles’ quilting, with outer and lining fabrics of undyed cotton or linen, with intricate patterns worked either in yellow silk or in inserted cords. These were cool for summer and could be washed, unlike wool petticoats. The terms ‘Indian’ and ‘Marseilles’ referred originally to the place of origin, but the distinctive techniques were soon imitated in Britain, either by hand or on specially adapted looms. Retailers deliberately blurred the difference between textiles stitched in France and woven in Manchester by calling them both ‘Marseilles’.

Consumers purchasing through an intermediary and unable to examine the goods in person had to pay close attention to clues such as where the quilting was placed on the trade card. For example, the 1792 trade card for William Stock’s Linen Warehouse listed ‘Marseilles’ quilting with woven goods (Heal Collection, British Museum).

The Old Bailey records of criminal trials include statements that clarify how consumers understood these distinctions. For example, in a trial of 7th July 1784 the victim was asked by the judge ‘Is that a Marseilles petticoat? – It is what they call a mock Marseilles, it is not a right Marseilles.’ (POB t17840707-60). ‘Mock Marseilles’ was presumably the woven rather than hand-stitched version. Two points of interest in this type of testimony are the values given to the stolen garments – 6 shillings for the petticoat and 10 shillings for a silk gown, both used – and the social level of the owner, in this case the wife of a man ‘at sea’, presumably a merchant or a naval officer rather than an ordinary sailor.

Displays of goods

The detailed narratives of thefts in the Old Bailey Papers also throw a light on retail practices, particularly the methods of displaying and showing goods for sale. A common method of display, particularly for lower-priced establishments, was to hang items outside the shop door where they could be seen by passers-by. However goods displayed in this way were vulnerable both to damage by rain and sun, and to opportunistic theft.  A trial record from 1775 states: ‘I saw the prisoner take the petticoat from a hook at the door post, I informed Mr. Judson of it, we pursued him and took him’ (theft from Richard Wallford, Mercer,  Houndsditch, 26th April, 1775. POB t17750426-99).

Fig. 2 Bermondsey shop fronts

Fig. 2. Eighteenth-century shop fronts in Bermondsey Street, London: a transom above the door to light the interior and wooden shutters secured with a lockable bar (author photo)

More valuable items might be displayed in the window, or on shelves behind the counter, and handed to customers by shop staff. However this system was not foolproof; customers would wait until the sales staff were distracted before filching goods from the window or from the counter. One way of distracting the shop staff was to engage them in a lengthy bargaining process, as in a case on 8th July 1719 when:

The Prisoner went to the Prosecutors Shop and cheapen’d a Quilted Petticoat, and while they were reaching some to shew her, she took an Opportunity to take the Gown from off the Compter, which was taken upon her… The Jury found her Guilty of the Indictment. Death. (POB t17190708-24)

The implication here is that the thief was not well dressed enough to be a plausible customer for the silk gown, but was a likely purchaser for a cheap quilted petticoat.

It was not only customers who posed a threat to shopkeepers, as the Old Bailey transcripts reveal.  Business premises were secured at night with heavy wooden window shutters held in place with a locked bar. Some merchants had junior staff sleeping in the shop as a further line of defence. Archdale Rooke, Mercer in the Strand, instead fitted shutters to close off the counter and shelves of goods: ‘ They went along the counter, and were put up of nights, and made it like a passage, with the goods within-side’. This was not enough to deter his maidservant, who picked the locks on the shutters and stole textiles worth £8 over a period of weeks in 1761 (POB t17610506-4).


Fig. 3 1782 Dighton A morning ramble or milliners shop colour - cropped

Fig. 3. Robert Dighton, ‘A morning ramble, or – The Milliners Shop’ . Hand-coloured mezzotint. 1782. 1935,0522.1.31 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Outworkers and subcontracting

The Old Bailey records also cast a harsh light on the systems by which goods were made up for sale in London shops. Merchants might claim on their trade cards that their quilted petticoats were in the ‘Genteelest taste and newest Fashion’ (Hermans and Broady, 1769, Guildhall Library) but the settings in which they were stitched were anything but genteel. A 1736 court case was brought by Mrs Battiley, a quilter making petticoats in her home for the merchant Thomas Street. Battiley subcontracted some of the work to an acquaintance who had fallen on hard times; but her ‘friend’ stole the petticoat and pawned it. When brought before the court the woman admitted taking the petticoat, but claimed that this was condoned by Battiley, who was selling sexual services and wanted her to put on a good appearance. This accusation laid Battiley open to double penalties, for theft and for prostitution; fortunately her protestations of innocence were accepted. The interest of this case lies in Battiley’s assumption that her acquaintance would have adequate needlework skills to work on a quilted petticoat without specialist training. The form of the counter-accusation implies that a quilter’s earnings were low enough that she might have to turn to prostitution as a side line.

Distinctive products

Without images of the products on sale it is hard to be sure how the design and workmanship of quilted petticoats varied between retailers, or even within the range sold by a single merchant. The Old Bailey descriptions of stolen petticoats refer mostly to wool fabrics in dark colours, or from the 1770s onwards to undyed cotton. Both these choices would be hard wearing and relatively inexpensive; it is likely that they were stitched in simple grids or wave patterns for speed and cheapness. Unfortunately these do not survive; all the examples in British and North American museum collections are faced with pale coloured silk satin.[1] These silk petticoats do reveal different standards of workmanship; most are worked in widely spaced stitches with motifs of stylised flowers or filled diamonds, placed around the hem where they would be most visible. A small group of surviving petticoats, two with matching gowns, stand out for their distinctive technique combining wadded and corded quilting and elaborate patterning of scrolls and feathers extending over the surface of the garment.[2] These are similar enough in design and workmanship to be from the same workshop, presumably one that catered to elite consumers. This kind of workshop is implied in the affirmation of a quilter in September 1782 that: ‘I quilted this petticoat for Messrs. Boucher and Alderson … I have quilted several, but never for any body else.’ (ROB t17820911-12)

CP566 0004

Fig. 4. A cream silk petticoat worked in a distinctive combination of wadded and corded quilting, one of a number attributed to the same London workshop. British, 1750-70c. 2009.300.894 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


This case study of quilted petticoats has indicated the many different ways that the Old Bailey papers can illuminate the history of retailing practice, from subcontracting manufacture to semi-skilled outworkers, to methods of displaying stock, to the protracted bargaining that was an expected precursor to the final purchase. They provide a means of evaluating the values placed on goods, and the steps taken to secure them. As the database stretches from the 1690s to the 1913, it could also be used to clarify the dates when new types of goods were introduced and when they  fade from use – or become so old-fashioned that they are no longer worth stealing.


[1] Clare Rose, ‘Textiles and Texts: Sources for studying 18th Century Quilted Petticoats’ in Sabine de Günther & Phillipp Zitzlsperger (eds.) Signs and Symbols – Dress at the Intersection between Image and Realia (Munchen: De Gruyter, 2017), pp. 89-114.

[2] Clare Rose, ‘Boutis de Londres: Marseilles quilting and its imitations in 18th-century London’, CIETA Bulletin vol. 76, 1999, pp. 104-113.

Clare Rose is a dress historian whose work frames object-based research with analyses of archives such as the Proceedings of the Old Bailey and the Stationers’ Hall Archive. She has published extensively on quilted goods, on children’s clothing, and on fashion before 1920. Her monthly blog on the French fashion industry during World War I is available at – www.clarerosehistory.com


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