Fabric for Welsh costume gowns and skirts is usually plain or striped, but there is some evidence that checks were also produced.
There are several terms for check fabric all of which are produced by weavers: check, plaid and tartan: the first two terms were used by tourists to describe Welsh costume.
Plaid (sometimes plad) and tartan are associated with Scottish fabrics. The plaid was originally a long, rectangular piece of fabric with check patterns worn around the body: the term became associated with the pattern rather than the article of clothing and it was frequently used to describe check patterns on bedgowns and aprons.
It is now thought that the different tartan patterns which are supposed to represent the clans of Scotland are not ancient patterns, but the closely woven, bright-coloured check patterns became popular from the middle of the 19th century, partly as a result of Queen Victoria’s fondness for them.
Distribution of check fabrics in Wales
Surviving fabrics and illustrations suggest that check fabrics were restricted to south Wales, between Neath and Newport but the evidence from tourists suggest that it had a wider distribution although it was probably far less common than striped or plain materials. Lady Llanover was keen on check fabrics (see below).
There are some surviving samples of check patterned fabrics in the National Museum of Wales and Swansea Museum, collected in the 1920s but they are difficult to date. Some were made at Gwenffrwd Mill on the Llanover estate.
The use of the terms ‘check’ and ‘plaid’ in tourist’s accounts.
The people in Glamorgan, particularly the women, dress themselves in a stuff resembling in every respect Highland plaid.
Sulivan, Richard, Sir, Observations Made during a Tour through Parts of England, Scotland, and Wales, in 1778. In a Series of Letters, (London, 1780), p. 107
1796 [north Wales]
The women and children in this country all go without shoes and stockings, a shocking nasty thing I think, they and the men wear a sort of woollen stuff made at home, that looks something like the plaids they [sic] in Scotland only that here they are not loose, but made into waistcoats, bedgowns etc.
Anon, NLW MS 4489
1803 North Pembrokeshire
The Flemings … appear determined to exhibit their different origin in their mode of dress. That of the women in the Welsh [north Pembrokeshire] part is a jacket and petticoat of checked worsted, or lindsey wolsey stuff.
Evans, John, B.A., Letters written during a tour through South Wales, in the year 1803, and at other times … (C. & R. Baldwin, London, 1804)
The dress of the Welch woman … brown or plaid cloth jackets and petticoats.
Barber, J.T., (1774-1841), Tour Throughout South Wales and Monmouthshire, (1803), p. 74
The dress worn by the Welch peasantry are very different from the English, being principally of woollen, striped, checked etc.
Pyne, W.H., British Costumes, (1805)
The women, particularly the elder, wear loose gowns of cloth with striped or plaided flannel petticoats and checked aprons.
A.M. Cuyler, Recollections of a visit to Llanbeder in the County of Brecon … , NLW add MS 784a, p. 167-168
The women’s dress is made of wool and flax, which they call linsey-woolsey; and this they have woven into pretty chequers of blue and white, or red and white stripes on a blue background.
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.
Spence, Elizabeth, (1768-1832), Summer Excursions through parts of Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Herefordshire, Derbyshire, and South Wales, volume 2, p. 112-3
… the Glamorganshire lass, … dressed in a slammakin [untidy loose gown] check wrapper of cotton and wool, utterly shapeless, and tied about the middle like a wheat-sheaf, or a faggot of wood : possessing, however, the peculiar conveniences that it could be put on in an instant, without the loss of time in dressing tastefully, and that it would fit every body alike, as it is neither a gown nor a bedgown, but between both, and without a waist.
T. J. Llewelyn Prichard, The Adventures and Vagaries of Twm Shôn Catti, (1828), pp. 45-49
It was market-day, and they were coming in troops into the town. They [the women] wore a man’s hat on their heads; an open kind of short bed-gown, made of a chequered stuff woven in the country; an apron of blue cotton; black stockings ; and very short petticoats.
Anon, (Fiction), The New Estate or Young Travellers in Wales & Ireland, (1831), p. 65-66
Ladies attending Bangor fair this morning, and in particular elderly ladies [wear] the dress [of] generally dark linsey woolsey check or stripe, … [Some] Young ladies … promenade in a bedgown and black stuff or check or strip linsey woolsey petticoat.
North Wales Chronicle, 25.6.1833
and certainly nothing can be more graceful than the scarlet whittle accompanied by the chequered tunic as worn in some of the vallies of South Wales, especially those of Glamorgan;
The Glamorgan Monmouth and Brecon Gazette and Merthyr Guardian, 17 May, 1834
The plaids peculiar to this valley will be seen in the engraving; each mountain, glen, and district, has a distinguishing pattern. The plaid has from the most remote periods on record been a Celtic Garb.
Young, William, Guide to the Beauties of Glyn Neath (1835), opp. p. 78
The engraving is entitled: ‘Costume’. It is a portrait of a barefoot woman in foreground with Welsh? hat, check bedgown, check apron, and red shirt. In background is a Car Llusg; three men and a woman in a tall hat. Beneath are drawings of two examples of ‘Glyn Neath Plaids’, one red, black and white, the other black and white; both small check.
Grateful thanks to the Neath Antiquarian Society for the use of this image.
The moderns in some instances seem to have doffed the gwn [gown] , content only with the pais [skirt]: it is made of flannel, as they call it; of a dark brown or puce colour, variegated in south Wales by lighter stripes, intersecting each other at right angles, checquerwise; but in the north, these stripes run only parallel to one another from top to bottom … Light and dark red seem to have endured thro’ centuries, and maintained their places till today, for it is in these colours that their flannels are principally dyed.
Anon (Pedestres), A Pedestrian Tour of Thirteen Hundred and Forty Seven Miles through Wales and England (1836), vol II, Chapter 1 p. 3-6
The Women’s dress is made of wool and flax or … Woolsey which is woven into pretty chequers of blue and [?] stripes on a blue ground, [.]
Williams, Richard, [Doctor of Aberystwyth], ‘Observations on Parturition amongst the Poor In the Upper District of Cardiganshire’ (N.L.W. 12165D), p6 folio 9r – p. 7 folio 11r.
1843 South Wales
The bedgown is invariably formed of what they call flannel, which is a stuff formed by a mixture of wool, cotton, and sometimes a little silk. It is often striped black or dark blue, or brown and white, with alternate broad and narrow stripes, or red and black, but more frequently a plaid of several colours, the red and black being wool, the white or blue cotton, and often a narrow yellow stripe of silk, made in plaid patterns of every variety of size and colour.
From ‘The South Wales Farmer: his modes of agriculture, domestic life, customs and character’ written in 1843, published in Alfred Russel Wallace, My Life: A Record of Events and Opinions, London, 1905, vol I, pp. 207-222
I there saw women, dressed in the linsey-woollen garments of the country, loading … barrows. I questioned one of these women. She wore a red and white Welsh plaid woollen gown, gathered up behind, black petticoats, sleeves of blue cotton, a white apron, a neat cap, and jaunty Welsh hat.
Ginswick, J., (1983) Labour and the Poor in England and Wales: Letters to Morning Chronicle, 1849-1851
watercolours by Traharne which include a number of women in check fabrics
A series of questions by ap Morris, answered by the editor. Question 3. What is the Welsh plaid (pattern)? The Welsh plaid is of various patterns, according to the locality where it is worn.
Anon, The Cambrian Journal, 1858, pp. 365-366
1863 The Gower
The Flemmings … Their garments are chiefly homespun. Some of the plaids are pretty, although not equal to those of the vale of Neath
Anon, Journal of a Tour in south Wales (Pembrokeshire, Carmarthen, Swansea, Cardiff), Cardiff Central Library, MS 3.272, pp. 69-70
The dress of the Welsh women who came to Tenby Market generally consists of a … linsey plaid petticoat.
Mason, R., A guide to the town of Tenby and its neighbourhood, (1873)
‘Almost a sensation was created in Swansea on Saturday August 10th (according to a south Wales daily paper), by the appearance in the streets and markets of several young ladies, daughters of some of the principal families dressed in Welsh costume. The dresses were of course made of the very best Welsh flannel, the ‘bedgowns’ and under petticoat being of black and red plaid reaching down to nearly the ankle, with white and black plaid aprons, the corners being pinned back in accordance with true orthodox Welsh peasantry fashion.
Cambrian, 16.8.1878 (editorial); Repeated almost verbatim in Bye-Gones, August 1878, p. 83 and other newspapers
Lady Llanover and the THE ABERGAVENNY EISTEDDFODAU, Monmouthshire
The two surviving examples of gowns of check fabrics associated with Llanover (one owned by privately, the other at Abergavenny Museum), the costume of the Llanover harper and Abergavenny Eisteddfodau competitions show that Lady Llanover was keen to revive what she described as National stripes and checks, and sponsored prizes for Eisteddfod competitions for good examples, although occasionally, there were no entries.
Augusta Charlotte Hall [Lady Llanover’s daughter], (1824-1912) then thirteen years of age, ‘looked very nicely in a checked jacket and petticoat of silk in imitation of Welsh colours, with an apron to match’
Lady Greenly, 1837 quoted by Maxwell Fraser, NLW Journal vol. XIII, p. 219. She is thought to be the subject of a portrait of a young woman in a checkered gown standing by a harp. (Cambridge University collection). It is thought that one of the two surviving gowns of this type is the one in this painting.
The best specimen of real Welsh flannel or woollen in colours and woven in any of the national checks or stripes. Prize given by Charlotte Guest, won by John Thomas, Glynnedd.
Abergavenny Eisteddfod, Cambrian (newspaper), 20.10.1838
List of dresses worn at the Llanover ball during the Abergavenny Eisteddfod, 1838. The whole of the above were exact costumes of Wales – woven in satins, checked and striped, on purpose.
Monmouthshire Merlin, 20.10.1838
In 1840 a prize of 5 guineas was offered by the Ladies of Abergavenny for ‘the best specimen of Welsh woollen woven in any of the national stripes or checks, to be dyed and manufactured within the district of Gwent and Morganwg (the merit determined by the brilliancy of the colours). The object of this prize is the improvement of the dying of the Welsh woollens which are now frequently deteriorated by the mixture of worsted, introduced on account of the superiority of its colour. Mr John Daniel stated that the judges were unanimous in their opinion that the specimens far surpassed any sent in on former occasions. They regretted extremely that the best specimen was disqualified from not being woven in one of the national checks or plaids; it was of great beauty, and contained 26 colours.’
Abergavenny Eisteddfod, Cambrian (newspaper), 17.10.1840, 31.10.1840; The Welshman, 9.10.1840
A prize of three guineas, by Lady Morgan, of Tredegar, for the best coloured Welsh Woollen Whittle, in the national stripes or checks. Awarded to Mr Samuel Harris of Gwenffrwd (Ab Harry)
Fifteenth eisteddfod of the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion by Cymreigyddion y Fenni, 1848, Extracted from the Hereford Times of Saturday October 21, 1848. (Printed at the [Hereford] Times Office, Hereford.)
In 1853 Augusta Hall under the bardic name, Gwenynen Gwent, became more ambitious. Her prize of £5 was offered ‘For the best collection of specimens of Welsh woollens (not less than three inches square each) in the real national checks and stripes, with the Welsh names by which they are known, and with any account of them which can be added. No specimens to be included which have not been known for at least half a century, whether of wool alone, or of wool with flax or cotton. The object of this prize is to authenticate the real old checks and stripes of Wales, and to preserve them, with their proper Welsh names, distinct from new fancy patterns. Open to all Wales, including Gwent and Morganwg.
No prize was awarded, presumably because the conditions of the prize were too strict, if not impossible.
1861 Aberdare Eisteddfod
‘la tartane à carreaux rouge et noirs ou à grandes raies rouges et blanches sur fond brun, et le manteau rouge que les femmes portent encore dans la campagne. (the red and black check or wide stripes of red and white on a brown background, the red coats [cloaks?] that women still wear in the coutryside.)
Henri Martin, Etudes d’archéologie celtique: notes de voyages dans les pays celtiques et scandinaves (Paris : Didier, 1872), notes on Wales section dated 1861, p. 56
Kindly translated by Dr Heather Williams
1862, Carmarthen and Pembroke
‘Les femmes des comtés de Caermarthen et de Pembroke s’habillent d’une étoffe à carreaux rouges et noirs.’,
(The women of the counties of Carmarthen and Pembroke wear a checked fabric of red and black.)
Picture of women in hats at market, p. 273
Alfred Erny, ‘Voyage dans le pays de Galles, 1862, texte et dessin inédits’, Le Tour du Monde, p. 266
Kindly translated by Heather Williams who confirmed that he meant check, not striped.