Not long ago, I did a short run and leap onto a fancy bed made up at a hotel. Coincidently, it was located in the financial district of Manhattan, a place known for luxury. The space was design to attract Europeans, hipsters, those who love striking art deco and those who scored a 50% off discount like me. When I rolled over, I noticed the diagonal weave on the expensive pillow cases... it was serge. While I am use to smooth cotton pillow cases like most Americans, this fabric was a little stiffer, with a slight grain when sliding your hand across it. I wasn't sure if I could sleep on it, but sleep I did... no problem. This might explain why the children of 17th century New York had caps for their heads and clouts for their bums made from it without complaints. And... as I was flipping through my database I found this:
1682, Ashman of Jamaica, NY, Farm, Three “paire” of sheets two “payere” of pillow “serge”.
The Ashmans seem to really like serge as did many people. Their 1682 inventory also included, “twoe” “sutes” of “clothes”, one “cloath” [Laken] and one serge “sute”. As we move through different material goods, you'll start to notice a trend, New Yorkers never seem to change whether they live up in Albany and Kingston or Brooklyn and Manhattan. As they expanded out to Rochester, New York, you'll notice they took their exspectations with them. There is a consistent preference for small wardrobes made of the highest quality fabric they could afford. There is also not a huge difference between the wardrobes of farmers, trades persons, shop keepers, and small merchants. The jumps occur between laborers to farmers, and small merchants to mega merchants (or those in the slave trade). There is also a disparity between those living between Brooklyn to Albany and those out on Long Island. After 1700, Long Islanders start to catch up to everyone else, but the the tendency to have a bulging middle class seems to continue through to the French and Indian war. This is a point that is commented on by people during the 18th century. Outside of the mega merchants, there is not a considerable disparity between folks, a place where everyone appears middle class. We will discuss why this seems to be in a later post. But fabric has a lot to do with this, and serge is one of them. There is a distinct lack of kersey and says in inventories as compared to serge (summer weight) and woolens (winter weight). For reenactors of 17th century New Netherland or New York serge and laken are defining fabrics.
It is important to note that woolens and worsted fabric in the 19th, 20th and 21st century are not easily comparable to the ones in the middle ages through the 18th century, unless the mill overlapped the centuries. While mechanized weaving and the availability of certain types of wool have changed over time, so have terms and definitions in part because manufacturers wanted to sell people on products, to make old fabrics "new" again. The article "Three Centuries of Luxury Textile Consumption in the Low Countries and England, 1330-1570" by Munro describes the following, "we must first examine the physical differences between the wool-based textiles grouped into three categories: says or worsted, woolens, and a hybrid category, commonly called serge." Worsted, woolen and hybrids are all woven with a twill which is made with a 'two [threads] over" pattern, which creates the diagonal cord effect in the weave.
We have to be careful here, while "woolens" are defined consistently, there are modern authors of books who flip the definitions for says (worsted), serge and stuff (both hybrids). While Munro separates says and serge and stuff by thread types used, even he, later in the study, groups them together when made in the same factory. This is because much depends on the era and location of the manufacturer, in addition to if the manufacturer was for instance first a say producer who then added on the production of serge, or vis versa; which happens in the famous Flemish sayetteries. Then to complicate it, many Protestant say makers leave Catholic Flanders for England, set up shop and start making "serge or stuff". The resurgence in light weight wool fabric production in England is called "New Draperies". Whereas, these industries are centuries old on the continent. Due to their weight, says, serges and stuffs are classed as "lichte drapery" in Flemish, or "light draperies". On the continent, the manufacturers are called sayetteries and serge industries; and in England they are call "worsted" industries. The take away is that says and serge should not be interchangeable but be aware they are consistently interchanged by authors, and likely related to which factory they use as an example. For New York, we have to use the thread types; "say = worsted" and "serge = hybrid" because the products are being shipped from both the the Netherlands/Flanders and England throughout the 17th century.
When you look at the two photos below, both fabrics are woven in Leiden, Netherlands, you'll notice the twill pattern and the colored lines at the edge. The colored lines were mandatory to show that all sections of the fabric were of the same width. The top is a summer weight serge, the bottom is a say. The major difference? The serge is made from better wool, finer cord, and will last longer. Generally, says had a looser weave, though not obvious in the photo below. Says are sometimes defined as having worsted warp and weft, but also as a hybrid, serge is always a hybrid.
When serge is exported to America it is found in inventories from New Amstel (Delaware) to Pavonia (New Jersey) and Manhattan to Beverwijk (Albany, NY). Its use spans the whole of the 17th century both under Dutch and later under the English soveriegnship. Serge found in inventories prior to the 1660s, and even up to 1674, are likely Dutch, because England's serge production ramped up during the second half of the 17th century. During the second half of the century it could be either, however, it is best to look at where a merchant was purchasing their goods and if they owned their own ships. There are 1690s merchants traveling to Holland and shipping goods back to Albany, NY just as there are merchants out on Long Island, NY who are obviously ordering from England.
1659: Brill, New Amstel, a gray serge man’s coat.
1665: Imbroch, Kingston, serge breeches
1693: Van Bommell, NYC, 1 “Read” “Sarge” petticoat
British settlers in the area also used serge. In 1669, Widow Partridge of NYC had "6 yards &1/2 of serge 02.10.00" and 1680 Peirson in Southhampton had "a yard of “rod” “broadcloath” and 4 yards 1/2 “rod” “serg” 003:00:00. The Widow probably had Dutch or Flemish serge due to the date and the Southhampton inventory probably had English.
Serge is a fabric found in farmer's and merchant's inventories. The Ashmans had a small home in Jamaica, NY with an orchard, yet had a fair amount of serge. While Imbroch was a doctor who also had serge breeches. Serge is a work horse of fabrics, durable, and can be worn in the spring, summer and fall. Serge fabric is found in black, gray, red, "woman's blue" [possibly sky or Dutch blue], green and "colored" in inventories. Interestingly, a "striped" serge was available in a 1690s store inventory. This may of been from Scandinavia. They had developed stripped wool fabrics early on and are found in Sweden.
One final inventory, an older mulatto female slave and a mulatto girl slave who were valued at 5:00:00, in the 1687 Taylor of NYC inventory owned the following clothing:
Cloaths belonging to the “negerin”:
a parsol of old things 0:12:00,
1 black “gowne” & “petticoate” 01:10:00,
1 Serge “gowne”, “petticoate” & Stays 1:10:00,
1 “p” of “brawles” [a textile] 00:04:06.
Taylor did not have a wife or known children. It is possible that the adult female slave and child were his relations. This might explain the reason for Taylor paying out 2:20:00 pounds for a complete set of clothes for them including stays [ a type of corset]. The black gown and petticoat probably belonged to the older woman, and the serge gown, petticoat and stays to the girl. A Note: Stays are rather expensive, for the black gown and petticoat to be worth the equivalent of the serge gown, petticoat and stays, it must of been made of fine material or was new. But clothing that is new or old, is usually labeled as such in NY inventories.
Inventories have the ability to reveal a lot about the lives of early settlers, from the spread of culture, social acceptance or disparity and how one values relationships.