This page includes:
- Date of surviving examples
- Contemporary descriptions
The type of gown found in Cardiganshire (Ceredigion) and Carmarthenshire (Caerfyrddin) and occasionally to the north and east of these counties normally had a low-cut bodice with short sleeves and integral long tail. Almost every one was made of very dark blue or black flannel with red stripes. The skirt was normally of a matching fabric
The distinctive fabric used for these gowns and skirts was not used for any other purpose, except briefly for trousers (see below).
The photographs are of gowns in Ceredigion Museum’s collection, but they are very similar to examples in Carmarthen Museum and at branches of the National Museum of Wales (the Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagans and the National Wool Museum, Drefach Felindre). A few other museums have examples (e.g. some examples at Newtown Museum which came from Cardiganshire, and four unprovenanced examples at Cyfarthfa Castle Museum which might have come with those who moved from Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire in search of work), and several are privately owned.
These are normally referred to as bedgown / betgwn and especially as petticoat and bedgown / pais a betgwn but it has been agreed that this particular type of apparel is better referred to as a gown, to distinguish it from the smaller, simpler bedgown and the jacket.
For more see gowns and bedgowns
Of the surviving gowns, these are by far the most numerous (over 80 are known to survive) and it is this type which became adopted towards the end of the 19th century and during the 20th century as part of the national costume, especially for folk dancers. Their survival may reflect the preservation of objects and traditions which appear to have lasted longer in Cardiganshire than any other county in Wales. Most of the surviving examples are in excellent condition, with only a few small moth holes in them. There seem to be more gowns than skirts in this fabric, but this might be because the fabric from the skirts could easily be used for other purposes.
It is extraordinary that so many gowns of this type, almost all in excellent condition, have survived. It seems likely that most of the surviving examples were made for special occasions (such as St David’s Day), and for performers at Eisteddfodau and concerts. Very few show any sign of wear, and many retain the smooth, shiny surface which results from pressing, implying that they were never washed. Most have slight sweat marks on the calico under the armpits, which might have resulted from wearing the gown for a few hot days.
Date of surviving examples
No reliable method of dating the surviving examples is known but it appears that a few gowns have been dated by informed guesswork. The few gowns which have good provenances and are said to have been worn by named people (e.g. at weddings) place them from the 1840s to the end of the 19th century, but some of this information is considered unreliable. Most of the surviving gowns of this type may be later than 1860 or even 1880 and it is possible that some date to the early 20th century.
The Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire gowns were made of flannel of very dark blue or black fabric with red stripes. Examination of similar fabrics used on Welsh costume dolls shows that some examples were of plain wool, while others had a cotton (or in one case, linen) warp and a wool weft, known as linsey-wolsey.
The pattern of equal width red stripes between alternating broad and narrow black / dark blue stripes is common but only two of 40 examples examined are identical. It is therefore unlikely that they were produced by one factory, or for a special occasion (such as for a choir). No 19th century illustrations or descriptions of choirs who wore Welsh costumes indicate that they wore this sort of gown.
The fabric is beaten in water, creating a nap on the surface in which individual threads become invisible. This is known as felting and it makes the fabric more waterproof. On some gowns the nap is raised then calendered or pressed, giving it a slightly shiny surface which has survived any washing process which it might have undergone.
The individual red threads are just visible in places on the above example. The deconstructed gown has similar areas where the threads are visible in places on surfaces of the fabric which might have rubbed against itself.
This type of fabric was not used for any other purpose except briefly during the mid 1820 and 30s when ‘Welsh trowsers’ were made of fabric ‘of Welsh manufacture, the colour dark blue, with small red stripes; being the very identical material of which the females of the counties of Merioneth, Cardigan, and other parts of Wales, from time immemorial have made their gowns and petticoats.’ (T.J. Llewelyn Prichard, The New Aberystwyth Guide (1824), p. 179.) No bedgowns of this sort are known to have survived from Merionethshire (Trefaldwyn).
In 1833 John, Lord Ormathwaite and his family stayed in Aberystwyth. His wife wrote: [The women] all wear a peculiar kind of Black cloth striped with crimson (which is so pretty that John and the children have got some Trowsers of it)
Letters, September-October 1833, from John Walsh to his mother, NLW Ormathwaite Papers, G44, October 7th 1833
Woollen fabric of dark red and blue wool was seen outside a pandy at Penmachno, Caernarfonshire in 1804 showing that the fabric had a wider distribution than other evidence suggests. Descriptions of Welsh costume in central Wales are rarer than elsewhere, partly because fewer tourists visited it.
‘Pandy Penmachno – striped cloths on the tenters – dark red and blue for women’s gowns.’
Davies, Walter, (Gwallter Mechain), (1761-1849), NLW MS 1755Bii, notebook 2, Journal etc. continued from no VIII (Severn) [sic],23 March 1804
Most examples are between 110 and 120 cms from the top of the back of the neck to the bottom of the tail.
The narrow waists would comfortably fit a 24 inch (60 cm) waist. This suggests that these gowns were worn only by young women.
The width of the top of the back and the small size of area around the arm pits also suggest that they were worn by women with a small frame.
An unwanted gown was taken apart to examine the method of construction. see The deconstructed gown which illustrates the ingenious method used to cut the various pieces, especially the back.
For gowns of this type on dolls, see Welsh costume doll gowns
A few gowns have had extra panels added to the flaps which covered the bosom, and thus could have been worn by a fuller figure.
Front of the jacket
The front of the bodice consists of two small, low-cut flaps (as above). This is the only part of the gown which had flannel fabric on both outer and inner faces. The pieces on the inside were often small patches (i.e. the maker used up scraps after the main pieces had been cut out), but sometimes they are of a slightly different pattern of stripes to the main fabric of the gown. These flaps were occasionally widened to fit a filler figure.
The gowns have a very wide tail, all of which hung down the back.
The tail is made wider by one or two gores (triangles) of the same fabric sewn into each side of the skirt.
A few gowns subsequently had much of the tail cut off. This may have been done simply to shorten it for wearing like a jacket or to use the tail fabric for some other purpose, for example, to make a skirt for a child’s Welsh costume.
Alignment of stripes
The stripes on the body are normally vertical while the arms always have the stripes parallel to the edge of the cuff.
The stripes are the weft of the fabric, hiding the warp which was set on the loom before weaving began.
The back of these gowns have complex tailoring. The two pieces of fabric at the top continue in one piece down to the bottom of the skirt, and are pleated at the waist where the two buttons are normally attached.
Most of the surviving gowns have two buttons, covered in fabric, near the middle of the back at waist level. It is possible that these were originally used to hook the corners of the tails up but no surviving gowns have button holes anywhere on the tail.
Some surviving examples and illustrations show the tail hooked up, but not to the middle of the back.
The inside of the top part of the gown (the jacket or bodice), was lined with white or off-white calico, also very well tailored.
Although almost every surviving example is slightly different, their similarity, in pattern of fabric, cut and construction, suggests that these characteristics were well recognised by those who made them, but absolutely no evidence has been found which provides even the slightest clue as to who made them. It is assumed that the complex and fine tailoring of these gowns was the work of professionals, but there is very little evidence of this: for example
July 1802, Lampeter
Domestic Manufacturers … No Mantua makers, women’s gowns, cloaks etc. made by Taylors …
Davies, Walter, NLW MS 1760A Notebook 3, VII, Itinerary, 1802, Cardigan, f. 1v
It seems probable that the pattern for cutting out the fabric for a smock was commonly available or that the cloth was sent to a specialist to have the pattern marked out. The similarity in size of most of the surviving gowns suggests that only one size was available and they were not made to fit a particular person. If, as is supposed, most of the surviving examples are late 19th century to early 20th century, it is very surprising that no information about their production has yet been found.
Were gowns made manufactured on the same lines as smocks?
It is possible that there were professional gown makers working in the same way as those who made working smocks – ranging from a single woman who made all the smocks for a village to the Newark smock-frock industry for which 10 manufacturers are known to have worked between 1826 and 1872. Hereford Museum has a smock which Mary Bufton of Hereford used as a sample to take orders. The smock industry at Abingdon, Oxfordshire won a medal for their work at the Great Exhibition in 1851.
Hall, Maggie, ‘Smocks’, Shire Album 46 (1979), pp. 19-20.
All surviving examples are very similar to the two prints of the Cardiganshire girl, part of the set of 13 prints said to have been commissioned by Augusta Hall (Lady Llanover) in about 1834, down to the watered silk on the sleeve. It is unlikely that watered silk would have been worn on original working costumes. The position of the silk band on surviving examples is generally lower on the sleeve than on this example.
The similarity of the gown with that illustrated in 16th and 17th century Dutch (and some other European) images might suggest a link with the Flemmings whom, it has been suggested, influenced the culture of south Ceredigion, east Pembrokeshire and parts of Carmarthenshire. There is no known surviving evidence for this.
Design, type 2 (images on Peoples Collection Wales)
This type of gown of which at least three examples survive, is of the same type and pattern of fabric as the rest of the Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire gowns but has a tail made of a rectangular piece of fabric gathered and sewn along the straight bottom edge of the bodice. Unlike the other type, these have a very high neck. The upper part of the sleeve is ‘leg of mutton’ or balloon shaped of a style fashionable during the 1830s and illustrated in the fashion plates of Welsh costume probably commissioned by Lady Llanover. It is almost certain that the example illustrated was embellished with ribbon and piping sometime during the 20th century.
Other contemporary illustrations
Photograph by Charles Edwards of Fishguard of Mrs Catherine Davies, of New Quay, c. 1900. This is one of very few photographs which show a side view of a woman in full Welsh costume illustrating the extent of the tail of the gown. She has a shawl tucked into the top of the gown, and is wearing separate sleeves on her lower arms. (Ceredigion Museum, 1993.8.1)
Selected contemporary descriptions
The women universally wear a petticoat and a jacket fitting close to the waist, of striped woollen cloth and a man’s hat. A blue coat many of them had, but it is reserved for dress
Catherine Hutton’s letters to her brother Thomas at Birmingham, dated Aberystwyth, July, 1787, Catherine Hutton Beale, Reminiscences of a Gentlewoman of the last century; letters of Catherine Hutton (Birmingham, 1891), p. 52
The Cardiganshire women’s dresses, in fact—generally blue, with red stripes, and bound at the bottom with red or blue tape—are entirely of wool, solidly woven and heavy, consequently more expensive than those made of linsey or minco, or of the common intermixture of wool and cotton, and presenting an appearance of weighty warmth more desirable than either a comely cut or tasty neatness.
T. J. Llewelyn Prichard, The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shon Catti; Descriptive of Life in Wales (1828), p. 49)
Women uniformly dress alike, viz., men’s hats over their white caps, blue or black and red gowns with short sleeves with linen arm covers, dark blue stockings and cloth habits or cloaks of a dark colour.
Masleni, Thomas John, Sketch of a Tour of Scenery in Wales, 1826, NLW Mss 65a, p. 49