In 2018 I had the pleasure of being a David Walker Memorial visiting fellow at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. The Bodleian Library contains one of the largest collections of guild records (MS Morrell series) relating to tailoring outside of London. My research aims were to learn more about these trades and their craft in England during the seventeenth century and to see if I could find any evidence of body-making or farthingale-making in this guild or indeed the city.
Although I found no evidence of these separate branches of tailoring in Oxford, the MS Morrell records reveal fascinating and important insights into the everyday life of tailors and the role that these artisans and their guild played in the social and economic community of Oxford at the time. In 1621 it was estimated by the Oxford guild that the trade directly supported a population (tailors and their families) of five hundred people in the city and surrounds. Various donations to poor members or the guild for things such as clothing and burial expenses during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries demonstrate the importance of the guild to this community.
The records that yielded the most interesting information were the guilds ordinances, meeting books and wardens books, as they contain both company orders and fines given out when those rules were disobeyed give detailed information about the daily lives of tailors. These records reveal the quality control measures that took place within the trade (and fines received for poor quality work), how tailors were and were not allowed to approach customers, where and when tailors could ply their trade, descriptions of certain aspects of shops and working chambers, and the complex relationships between Masters, Journeymen and Apprentices.
Select examples from the records include a fine issued to Thomas Day in 1600 for “begging worke of other mens customers” and in 1604 a Richard Palmer was fine “for suffering Robert Baylie to worke in his house & to carry home worke to his owne house & to his owne vse, forfeyted & paid.” Tailors in the city were clearly expected to attract their own customers without begging and not to undertake work in living chambers, but rather in commercial spaces like shop fronts.
Other fines were issued for the behaviour of tailors and their apprentices, indicating that the company sought to uphold the behaviour and hierarchies of respect within the profession. In 1622 John Ffayrebeard was fined “for calling MS [master] Steevens late MS of the company Jack a Napes and foole” – jack a napes here meaning a monkey. The most common fine in the guild’s books are aimed at tailors who were “workinge disorderlie” – what this actually meant though is hard to gauge as very little detail is offered beyond this description, so it likely covered a wide range of offences.
The records also reveal measures taken by the guild and its members to maintain the monopoly on the types of garments that were made by tailors. For example, records reveal that during the 1660s to 1680s the guild had ongoing disputes with both the Glovers and the Milliners who were accused of selling garments that were usually made by tailors, such as leather breeches, or ready-made clothing in Oxford, which threatened the tailoring trade. Many tailors were also punished for selling ready-made clothing, which undermined the relationship between tailors and their customers, and the bespoke nature of the tailor’s work. This is all crucial information that allows us to build a picture of the tailoring trade, whose skills and knowledge were taught orally and tacitly from Master to apprentice.
Additionally, these records offer insights into the roles that women played in tailoring and the guild. Female apprentices do not appear in the tailors guild records, except in a few instances where their Masters received fines for employing a woman which was against “ye bylaws of th[e] Company…” Widows do appear in election records, meeting notes and quarterages paid, however, this was not until the 1610s. This indicates that it was only at the start of the seventeenth century that widows, who were continuing their husband’s business after his death, were recognised as legitimate members of the guild and could hold similar powers within the guild as their male counterparts, such as voting in elections. Various records relating to meeting and fines also reveal that widows could have apprentices, hire journeymen and were fined for disobeying orders, just as other members of the guild were.
For example, in 1626 John Wildcroose was fined for trading in his own house under the “pretext of Widdow Bolton whose name and freedom was merely vsed by his craft to bolsten out his fraud”, while later in 1666 the widow Jane Slatter was fined for “setting a journeyman to work without him being sworn.” It was expected that widows should employ their own journeymen or apprentices, as another fine issued in 1626 to Robbe Mooney for “makeinge a contracte wth widdow Norland that for paieinge… he should have the use of her shoppe.” One particular widow, Ann Dudly, was repeatedly fined between the years 1660-70 for refusing to attend meetings when summoned and for “sending to the Master a very sleight answer”, indicating that widows held a similar position in the company as their male peers.
All this information about tailoring in Oxford gives insights into the production of clothing in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England and the gendered distribution of labour within such trades. I’ll be using some of the research I did in Oxford, alongside the archival work I undertook at the Drapers’ and Clothworkers’ Companies in London, in my forthcoming monograph in a chapter on making and selling foundation garments in early modern England.