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17th century

Knitted jacket

Knitted silk, gilt metal threads

Probably Venice, Italy

Follow the thread


Jackets like these were worn informally in the home from the late 16th century until the early 18th century. Finely crafted from expensive materials such as silk and gilt thread, it’s likely that they were worn to receive guests. The hand-knitted pattern imitates 17th-century woven and embroidered silk designs, which nearly always featured flowers.

There are a number of similar garments in European museum collections, which may have been made in centres of production like Venice. They are variously called jackets and waistcoats, but little is known of their provenance. Contemporary wardrobe accounts tend to refer to knitted waistcoats, either sleeveless or with sleeves as in this example, and indicate that the design was worn by both men and women.

Social Culture

This is a rare example of early 17th-century informal dress. Since fashionable dress of the time was distinguished by a distinctive high waist and full sleeves, the lack of waist shaping in these garments has led fashion historians to question whether these would have been worn over stays. It’s possible they were a form of elaborate undress, worn to receive guests while sitting up in bed.

While still rather elaborate to our eyes, this jacket is far simpler in style and construction than formal fashions of the period. It could be worn on its own as a jacket or with a loose gown over the top, and paired with fashionable lace or linen collars and cuffs. A series of regular holes along the front edges of the lining suggest it originally fastened with silk ribbons and metal points.

In the 17th century, there was a trend in English portraiture for ladies to be painted in their informal dress, blurring the lines between the public and private spheres in fashion. Portraits from the time tend to depict similar jacket styles rendered in delicately embroidered fine linen; contemporary depictions of this knitted silk version have proven elusive.

Craft Skills

This jacket is made up of five shaped panels: one for the back, one each for the two fronts, and the sleeves. Each panel would probably have been made by one of a team of knitters who would repeatedly create the same piece. The jacket is mainly knitted in stocking stitch, with a border of basketweave (alternate squares of purl and stocking stitch) edging the lower hem and wrists.

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