A whittle was also sometimes called a mantle and occasionally a cloak. There is no word for this type of shawl in Welsh, but the term ‘whittle’ is sometimes used for the siôl magu (nursing shawl) and for what was otherwise called a shawl. The English word ‘whittle’ was used in Welsh language adverts (see 1881 below), but it was not uncommon for English terms for costume to be used in Welsh language adverts and articles.
The whittle was a large rectangular or square shawl, normally of plain white, red or blue, and often with a long fringe on two or all sides.
Whittles were worn around the shoulders and also folded around the waist for carrying bread and other goods.
It is not clear exactly what difference there was between the whittle and the nursing shawl, except that the earlier descriptions of whittles show that they were often red and the nursing shawl was of softer light-coloured fabric.
The colour of the whittle, however, is reported to have varied from place to place. See various references below.
The whittle seems to have been originally restricted to the Gower, the Swansea area and parts of Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire. Some suggested that its distribution was a result of Fleming influence. (The Flemmings were settled in parts of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire by Henry I in the early 12th century and they are credited with influencing language and culture in the area.) However, by 1814 ‘Welch’ whittles were being advertised by firms in different parts of Britain, including north Wales.
References to whittles
The term whittle was mentioned by Roger North in Dorset in 1680 and by Celia Fiennes in 1698 in Devon.
Samuel Johnson, in his first edition of his dictionary (1755) defined whittle as ‘a white dress for a woman. Not in use.’
1791 south Wales
I am particularly struck with the simplicity of their mantle, or cloak. It is nothing more than a square piece of white flannel, bordered with coloured binding. This they throw carelessly over their shoulders, and fasten with a hook and eye, or tie with a piece of binding. They do not put it on crosswise, as we do a handkerchief, but with the straight side about the neck.
Morgan, Mrs, A Tour to Milford Haven, in the Year 1791, (London, 1795), p. 274
Llanddarog women wear whittles, a very old fashion and bad, not for its age, but because the modern rural cloak is much more convenient and comfortable than the whittle; utility is the only thing that should fix fashions, nor should anything but a greater utility be permitted to change them; but let the Carmarthenshire lasses, retaining their perfect innocence and pleasing simplicity of manners – wear their whittles forever rather than run like some of the Glamorgan harebrained wenches into the follies of fashion.
Edward Williams (lolo Morganwg): Journal of an Excursion into Carmarthenshire in June, 1796
The woman’s whittles (a kind of short cloak – or piece of flannel – pinned or tied around their shoulders) one of the same make as described by Mrs M[organ, Tour to Milford]; save that those in Cardiganshire are red, and a long deep fringe; how much the colour and garment contributed to the … consternation [of the French] is too well known to be mentioned.
‘Cymro’, [Theophilus Jones (1759-1812)] Cursory Remarks on Welsh Tours or Travels (1799), Cambrian Register II, (for 1796), pp. 440-441. He is referring to the red shawl known as the Frenchman’s terror, (following the submission of the French when they invaded Fishguard in 1797), possibly because many women in men’s hats and red shawls masqueraded as soldiers.]
The women throughout the northern part of Cardiganshire were dressed in blue jackets, with petticoats of the same colour; and sometimes the addition of a blue rug over the shoulders. About the middle of the county, their appearance began to vary. The blue mantle gave place to white; and in a few instances to red ones; and as we approached nearer the town of Cardigan, the number of the former diminished, and the latter increased. In the vicinity of Aberarth we saw some of the worsted, of which these mantles were made, just after it had undergone the process of dying.
George Lipscomb, G., Journey into South Wales … in the year 1799 (London, 1802), p. 168
(1801) Taff’s Well, Cardiff
Girl about 16, supported on one side by a crutch and the other by a venerable female friend; the girl was attired as is usual in this part of the principality in a little beaver hat similar to those worn by men, a neat plaited mob cap was tied under her chin and over a blue jacket a whittle was substituted for a cloak and thrown gracefully over her shoulders.
Manby, George William, 1765-1854, An historic and picturesque guide from Clifton, through the counties of Monmouth, Glamorgan, and Brecknock, (Bristol, 1802), p. 171
1803 The Gower
The dress of the female in Gower is a short jacket and petticoat, with a straw hat, and a piece of coarse red cloth, about two yards long and one wide, with a deep fringe on one side, carelessly thrown over the shoulder; hence denominated a Gower whittle. …
If the addition of a cloak becomes necessary, they throw over their shoulders a whittle of the same heavy cloth with the gowns, but generally white or scarlet.
Evans, John, B.A., 1768-1812 (Jesus College, Oxford) Letters written during a tour through South Wales, in the year 1803, pp. 195, 257
The whittle here only appears occasionally, and is a distinction on which the wearer never fails to value herself highly. It is a short red mantle, with a very deep fringe, hanging over the shoulders, and communicates a most awfully military appearance, as General Tate can testify.
Malkin, B.H., Scenery, Antiquities and Biography of South Wales, from materials collected during two excursions in the year 1803. (London 1804), p. 482
1803 The Gower
I have already mentioned the provincial red mantle, called a whittle, worn by the women of this district, and the English part of Pembrokeshire; for they are the same people. Lady Mary Talbot generally wears a fine mantle of this kind instead of a cloke [cloak], in the precise fashion of the country, especially at church ; and many other ladies, both here and in Pembrokeshire, are beginning to follow her example. (Malkin, B.H., Scenery, Antiquities and Biography of South Wales, from materials collected during two excursions in the year 1803. (London 1804), p. 591) [Mary Thereza Talbot (1795-1861) of Penrice Castle, William Henry Fox Talbot’s cousin]
The dress of the female in Gower is a short jacket and petticoat, with a straw hat, and a piece of coarse red cloth, about two yards long and one wide, with a deep fringe on one side, carelessly thrown over the shoulder; hence denominated a Gower whittle.
[Pembrokeshire] The Flemmings … appear determined to exhibit their different origin in their mode of dress. … If the addition of a cloak becomes necessary, they throw over their shoulders a whittle of the same heavy cloth with the gowns, but generally white or scarlet.
Evans, John, B.A., (1768-1812) Letters written during a tour through South Wales, in the year 1803, and at other times : (London, 1804), p. 257
In Carmarthenshire they wear an oblong piece of red flannel deeply bordered with black ribband, which they throw across their shoulders, and which since the taking of the French who landed at Fishguard last war, have been termed the Frenchman’s terror. Meyrick, S. R., The History and Antiquities of the County of Cardiganshire, 1808, pp. cci-ccii; 2nd edition, 1907, p. 91
The women here are habited in a long jacket or bedgown of checked worsted with a petticoat of the same. They are chiefly without shoes or stockings and instead of the long blue cloak, a piece of scarlet woollen (not unlike the Scotch plaid in shape), with a fringe of the same colour, half a quarter in length at each end. This loosely hung over the shoulders and pinned at the bosom is called a whittle.
Spence, Elizabeth, (1768-1832), Summer Excursions through parts of Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Herefordshire, Derbyshire, and South Wales, volume 2, p. 112-3). [Half a quarter probably means half a quarter of a yard which is 4 1/2 inches = 11.5 cms]
1814 Welsh (or Welch) whittles were distinguished from other sorts of shawl:
Advertisement. India and British Shawl Warehouse – Everington. Splendid selection of India, Scotch, Parisian, Abyssinia, Patent Seal Wool Cashmere, Vigonia, La Plata, Valencia, Merino, Welch Whittle, and Don Cossack Shawls. (The Morning Chronicle, February 21, 1814)
The south-west of Gower is inhabited by the successors of a colony of Flemings, who do not understand the Welsh language. They are distinguished by their dialect and provincial dress and rarely intermarry with the Welsh. The women wear what is called a whittle, made of fine wool, and dyed scarlet ; it is nearly two yards square, with a fringe at the bottom called ddrums. It is thrown across the shoulders, and fastened with a pin or broach; anciently it was fastened with the prickle of the blackthorn.
Swansea Directory, 1816; The New Swansea Guide, (1823), p. 77, and quoted in Hall, Mr S.C., and Mrs, ‘The Companion Guide (by Railway) in South Wales’, The Art Journal, 1860, note p. 312 and in Hall, Mr S.C., and Mrs, The Book of South Wales, the Wye, and the Coast, (1861), note, pp. 347-348.
Purchased some Welsh whittles and gave 24/- each for them.
Coare, Mary, Diary, 1816, Kent Record Office U1823/8Z4, p. 9
There is a … a woollen factory a mile & half [from the town] The Whittles are made there. [On the page opposite the first surviving page of the diary is the following: ‘Mrs Pugh, Castle Inn, Haverfordwest, Welsh Wittles 1.1.0 each] Coare, Mary, Diary, 1816, Kent Record Office U1823/8Z4, pp. 1, 10
1819 Carmarthen to Lampeter road
The dress was also different from that of the Pembroke people, being somewhat similar to that worn in Glamorganshire – many of the women wore whittols [whittles].
Sandys, William, (1792-1874), Sandys, Sampson, (1797-1880) ‘A Walk through South Wales in Oct. 1819’, Cwrtmawr MS 393C, p. 79
Advertisement. Waller and Co, late Hurndall and Co, St James House, [Bristol] Includes Welsh whittles.
The Bristol Mercury, September 6, 1819
‘The shortest cloak used, called the whittle, is said to have originated here.
Evans, Thomas, Walks through Wales; containing a topographical and statistical description of the Principality (1819, Second edition), Part II, p. 144
How frequently do we now see the hale and robust mother of fifty, and even grandmother of eighty, returning from church or market secure from the storm, under the protection of the warm Woollen gown, and comfortable cloak or whittle of Gwent or Dyfed.
Hall, Augusta, (Lady Llanover) The Prize Essay ‘On the Advantages Resulting from the Preservation of the Welsh Language and the National Costumes of Wales, Prize winning essay, Gwent and Dyfed Eisteddfod, 1834,’
Both young and old throw a scarlet whittle across their shoulders, which completes their dress. In North Wales, the costume is similar, except that the whittle is superseded by a large blue cloak.
Charles Augustus Goodrich, The Universal Traveller:… , 2nd edition, 1836, p. 227 (subsequent editions: 1838, 1842, 1843, 1845), repeated in Blake, A View of the World, 1841, p. 86
Throughout the day this wild village on the mountain presented a most animating scene gay groups were scattered on every side, most of them attired in our own picturesque national costume – handsome woollen plaids of home manufacture – the comfortable as well as graceful scarf, or whittle of Gwent – and the neat and serviceable beaver hat.
Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan, Monmouth, and Brecon Gazette, 29.4.1848
1863 The Gower
The Flemmings – their physical form is different, their costume somewhat peculiar … Their garments are chiefly homespun. Some of the plaids are pretty, although not equal to those of the vale of Neath, and most of the women wear a whittle, generally died scarlet – a sort of scarf-like shawl with a fringe at the bottom called Darums [?] which has often a very picturesque appearance, and within which infants are bound [siol magu] and carried on the shoulder in order to enable their parents to use their hands in household duties or knitting. In the old time the whittle was fastened with a prickle of the blackthorn.’
Anon, Journal of a Tour in south Wales, Cardiff Central Library, MS 3.272, pp. 69-70.
1877, Laugharne, Pendine and their Neighbourhoods.
A Welsh woman, when dressed for church, or visiting, or going for a holiday, always carried her shawl folded lengthways and thrown over her arm, and many do so now; it is called a “whittle.” When covered with a pattern, like carpet pattern, they are called “carpet shawls.” They are of wool; sometimes have a mixture of cotton and silk. Curtis, Mary, The Antiquities of Laugharne, Pendine and their Neighbourhoods. (written in 1877), 2nd edition 1880, chapter 1 part IV, p. 40-44
Advertisement: C Howell, 1 Queen Street, Cardiff. Has 1800 Welsh square whittles and travelling wrappers in plain stripes and cheques, plain white, blue and scarlet.
Western Mail, February 7, 1877
Advertisement. Griffith Davies, general Drapery and Furnishing Establishment, High Street, Bangor. Welsh Unshrinkable Flannels, Welsh Whittle Shawls, Welsh Tweeds and Shirting Flannels, Welsh Hosiery, Welsh Newtown ‘Leek’ Flannels.
North Wales Chronicle, August 23, 1879
Stephens of Merthyr (a good authority), states plainly that the Swansea Valley costume is “a red whittle “ worn by male and female, formerly with fringes or tassels…. I would be glad of every volunteer at least wearing the red whittle plaid “so royal.”
Letter in the Cambrian (Newspaper), 21.10.1881, just before the visit of the Prince of Wales.
A Red Welsh whittle was presented to the Princess and Mrs H Hussey Vivian of Singleton by Mr J Parry Reynolds. They were made from wool from sheep on Pentrecoch Farm Llantwitjuxta-Neath. The wool was made into shawls in its natural white colour, then dyed scarlet at the Cwmpandy Mills. They had a 12 inch fringe.
Cambrian (Newspaper), 21.10.1881
Advertisement Ffynnonau Llandrindod, W Thomas, Emporium Canolbarth Cymru. Gwlaneni Cymreig Gwynion a Lliwiedig. Tweeds Cymreig, Snowdon Whittle Shawls etc.
Baner ac Amserau Cymru, May 25, 1881
Advertisement. John Meyrick Jones, Meyrick House, Dolgellau. The Snowdon and Idris Welsh whittle shawls.
North Wales Chronicle, May 5, 1883
Wedding of 3rd son of W.E. Gladstone, M.P. Presents included Welsh whittles from Mr Parry Jones, Newtown and Mrs Evans. Western Mail, January 31, 1890
Advertisement for B Evans and Co, Swansea. Includes Real Welsh hand-made flannels for shirts, Ladies’ and Children’s costumes, aprons, Gentlemen’s wear, nightshirts, and Real Welsh Whittles, shawls, wraps and Turnovers in light and heavy makes.
Western Mail, October 24, 1893
1897 Advert for Morris and Son, Cambrian Establishment, Barmouth, (Welsh Tweed and Flannel Establishment),
Celebrated Welsh Snowdon Whittles and Leek flannels which were exhibited and gained the Medal of Merit at the International Exhibition, 1871 and the Grand Medal of Merit, Vienna Universal Exhibition, 1873. The Official report (Div 2, part 7), stated: The Welsh Snowdon Whittles, on account of there extreme purity and perfection; the Leek Welsh Flannel on account of texture, durability and non-liability to shrink fully sustain the reputation of Welsh flannels.
Ward Lock’s Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to North Wales … (post 1897), p. xxviii
1897 Advert for John Meyrick Jones, Meyrick House, Dolgellau
manufactured by hand … made of the pick of the pure Mountain wools, … patronised by HRH Princess of Wales,
THE SNOWDON AND IDRIS WELSH WHITTLE SHAWLS …
Advert in Ward Lock’s Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to North Wales … (post 1897), p. xxx
A Gower woman by Delamotte in Swansea in the 1820s. This shows a large red, fringed whittle worn over the shoulders, and a blue one worn around the waist.
NLW DV271, (PB4886)