Friday Fashion Folly – Thermal Shrouds? The Act for Burial in Woollen

For my return to the Friday Fashion Follies I was thinking about all the wool produced in Australia and how little wool is still spun, woven/knitted and worn here compared to the past (a state of affairs which has come about for a number of socio economic reasons which should probably be discussed in a non-folly post!). This evening we are interested in folly…

Historically, governments have often taken measures to protect local industry from foreign competition, often done in the form of limiting access to exotic luxuries but one of the most bizarre – and lucrative – campaigns was seen in England between 1666 and 1680 with the Act for Burial in Woollen which required all deceased subjects to be buried in garments or a shroud of wool.

“No corpse of any person (except those who shall die of the plague) shall be buried in any shift, sheet, or shroud, or anything whatsoever made or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold, or silver, or in any stuff, or thing, other than what is made of sheep’s wool only.”

This law required members of the clergy to check and declare that each person they buried was indeed dressed in wool, and imposed a £5 fine for those who did not comply; an enormous sum for the period. The perceived necessity of this odd law came about through fear of a flood of foreign luxury textiles on to the English market. The push to support the local wool industry was logical in some respects but had two major flaws:

The first being that the wealthy upper classes of the court of King Charles II were not at all phased by the prospect of a fine and continued to wear their French and Italian silk, gold and silver embroideries, Flemish and Venetian lace and fine imported linens as indeed did the King himself.

Portrait of King Charles II of England, by Sir Peter Lely, circa 1670 National Maritime Museum, London

The King is richly dressed in an impressive array of luxury “foreign” textiles which certainly did nothing to boost the English wool industry.

The other problem was with those who could not afford to pay the fine; it is all too easy to forget that once upon a time the poor only had one or two sets of clothes and in most European countries at this time the undershirt or smock was generally made of linen, albeit a coarser, home-spun variety which was far from the fine linens being imported for the aristocracy. These smocks were often embroidered with motifs relating to the wearer’s profession, family or position in society, so to not be buried in this garment was, in some cases, to strip the deceased of a form of identification and consequently identity.

Late 16th Century Linen Smock, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This smock is a classic example of the undergarment worn by all classes during this period (with obvious differences in the quality of materials and workmanship according to the means of the owner)

English Linen Smock, Circa 1860 Victoria & Albert Museum, London

This smock from around two centuries later demonstrates the enduring importance of the linen smock in dress.

Another aspect which caused considerable concern at the time was the deep belief that Christ had been buried in linen and that a good Christian should also be in a shroud or garment of this fibre.

The Shroud of Turin: Although it is actually a Medieval textile this simple linen sheet has become an icon of extraordinary importance and in some ways  a reference point for Christian burial.

Was this law successful in protecting and boosting the local wool industry? That has remained unclear, what is clear is that those with power and means continued to do as they pleased while the poor paid the price of this particular folly!

Have a good weekend,


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