The Victorian Infant’s Layette
Image shows vintage baby style, between antique and modern.
Through the ages babies have had to survive cold and hunger, often never reaching their first year. In chilling conditions they were smeared with animal fat and swaddled tightly to keep in body heat. As many centuries passed, little changed until modern times when families could settle in permanent homes and enjoy spending a regular wage that provided a new standard of living that was not so desperate.
The manufacture of wool into skeins and the flourishing of shops meant mothers, now less burdened with the raw basics of life, could readily knit tiny items for baby. More servants gave even more hours per day that could be spent not just on the needs of baby but developing patterns that were decorative to the point of being astonishing. By late Victorian days babies were less restricted, well fed and gowned and bonneted like wedding cakes.
The poor were always there of course, but the middle-class housewife took full advantage of her more comfy position and united with other women to produce that most sweet and wonderful thing “the layette”. The infant, born into a better life than before could now be adored as a rosebud. Exceptionally beautiful lace dresses and shawls were knitted in fine wool on thin steel needles and kept the female relatives busy for months before the arrival of the “little stranger”. Indeed, some of the poor but skilled women earned a small income from knitting and intricate knitted lace was in demand.
Even today, spending a nostalgic afternoon carefully turning the pages of far outdated knitting books and magazines, the splendor still touches. One is reminded of the “fancywork hour” and ladies circle where these patterns were knitted as a ritual. The wheel has rolled around again and babies are back to simple, no-fuss clothing (though we may not grease them and sew them into skins). We are past physical survival, so the modern reason for uncomplicated clothing is largely lack of time as we busy ourselves with our financial commitments. What a twist it is that never before have we had so much in the way of quality yarns, needles and access to patterns. The choice is spoiling. Knitters are discovering the gossamer designs of yesteryear and recreating them – an excitement looms. However, where is the time?
List of “first clothing” for a late-Victorian baby:
Four vests of fine woven or knitted wool or of silk and wool
Four long flannels or barracoats (barrowcoats)
Four woollen night-dresses
Four monthly gowns – delaine (lightweight wool mousse), nun’s veiling or other woollen material
Six flannel squares
Twenty-four Turkish towelling napkins
One or two small Shetland shawls
Four pairs knitted shoes
One large Shetland or knitted shawl
One woollen hood
(It is not usual to prepare the short clothes before the birth of the baby – these are required after the first three months).
“…how many loving thoughts are interwoven with the minute stitches in which it is her pride to excel…” (The Woman’s Book Edited by Florence B. Jack (1911) – contains everything a woman ought to know.
After being diapered and vested, a flannel petticoat (or barrowcoat) was placed on baby, buttoning either up the back or for convenience on the shoulders. The styling of these varied with the date and country. Long or short frocks followed, then the booties, bonnets, bibs, headshawls, and any outdoor wrappings. Many of these were sewn from plain cloth with embroidery to taste, but again, returning to the rich, we see museum articles that are so fine and precious they need to be viewed with a magnifying glass. If ever you get the chance to observe bonnets worked as beaded knitting, do so. The tiny glass beads are knitted (on the most delicate thread) following a charted pattern which requires the beads to be threaded in the order that they will be needed – permitting no mistakes. Booties have always been a popular knitted gift for babies and they could be fancied up with a silk crochet edging.
A Victorian baby’s bassinette and toilette basket:
“There should also be a tiny hot-water bottle — an ordinary ginger-beer bottle with a tight screw and a woollen bag will serve the purpose. The little mattress may either be stuffed with hair, or, if this is too expensive, dried fern leaves, cocoanut fibre, fine shavings, or chaff all make good substitutes, and it is much wiser to use one of the cheaper materials and renew frequently than to stuff the mattress with hair and go on using it in an unhealthy state. The basket should contain the following: a tiny hair brush, a fine soft sponge, good pure soap in a soap-box, refined Fuller’s earth or fine talcum dusting powder, a closed puff-box, a pot of white Vaseline, boracic lint and some old soft handkerchiefs, a pin-cushion with good supply of safety-pins, needles, white cotton, a thimble, a pair of scissors, narrow tape, a bodkin. Then on the top might be laid a set of clothes reading for the little stranger’s arrival – a flannel binder, a knitted woollen vest, a flannel nightgown, soft napkins, a fine white shawl, and a square of flannel. Other requirements: a little bath, one or two soft bath-towels, and two bathing aprons for nurse.”
Regarding the location of the nursery for sunshine we are advised that children “are like the flowers which droop and grow pale if they are left in the dark.”
We will begin with making two styles of vests, a pink and a blue. The first is knitted sideways in rib and the blue vest in knitted in the round on double-point needles. They are typical Victorian baby patterns and are tiny. They are lovely practice projects for layettes of the time (use pure wool and silk ribbon). The outer layers of the set will become more lace-like. Perhaps you have two baby dolls you can make the outfits for and display them in an antique pram or bassinet.
INFANT’S FIRST VEST PINK
1 x 50g ball 3ply soft baby wool
Three double-point needles 3.00mm/UK 11/US 3
Pure silk satin ribbon for neck edge
Matching pink cotton or silk thread for seams
Cast on to one needle 100 stitches. Knit two rows, Purl two rows, Knit two rows. Work 40 sts and with the third needle continue to work on these for 22 rows. Leave these sts on the needle. With the third needle cast off 20 sts for the shoulder of the 60 sts left on the first pin. Knit on the remaining 40 sts 22 rows for the back the same as for the front. In the 23rd row, cast on 20 sts for other shoulder, and knit them on one needle with the 40 sts left from the front (100sts). Knit 6 rows as at the beginning. Cast off the stitches, and sew up the sides under the arms, leaving the armholes open.
A crochet edging is worked around neck and shoulders: Row 1: One slip stitch crochet into edge of knitting, two chain, miss 1, one slip stitch into next. Repeat. Row 2: One double crochet (USA single crochet) under two chain of last row, three chain, one double under next two chain. Repeat. Thread satin ribbon through the first row of crochet around neck and tie into bow at centre front.
INFANT’S FIRST VEST BLUE
1 x 50g ball 2ply soft baby wool
Set 4 double-point needles 3,00mm/UK 11/US 3
Crochet hook 3.00mm/Uk 11/US C2
Cast on 104 sts (52 on one needle, and 26 on other two). Work in the round. Knit 8 rounds of K1, P1 ribbing. Knit 6 rounds plain. One round K1, K2TOG, K46, K2TOG, K2, K2TOG, K46, K2TOG, K2Tog, K1. Knit 24 rounds plain.
Front: Take the 50 sts on first needle and place on holder 2sts at each end. Knit 48 sts in one row plain and one row purl for ten rows. Then K10, K1, P1 for 28 sts, P10.
Shoulder: K8, K2TOG, turn, P9, K7, K2TOG, turn, P8. Continue till only 6 sts are left, place on holder.
Cast off 28 sts across the front, K2TOG, K8, turn, P9.
Continue till 6 sts are left, place on holder.
Back: Knit as for front, joining shoulders together (6sts each) in 3 needle cast off or weave together. Sleeves: Pick up 46 sts around the armhole. Knit 6 rounds of K1, P1 ribbing. Do not cast off. With crochet hook work 2 sts together (slip stitch decrease) and five chain. Repeat around. Finish off all ends neatly. Crochet a chain and run in through the links around neck edge. Make two tassels and sew firmly to each end.
Muslin napkins were used on a newborn baby, being soft and very light. After three months swansdown fabric was hemmed into squares and pinned on by manner of pins, which were extremely dangerous. The safety pin came in later years. Swansdown was so-called because it had a snowy, fluffy side resembling the softness of a swan’s downy feathers. The outer side was plain weave. Rubber pants (pilchers) were usually frowned upon for baby’s health, but nevertheless used for important outings. Knitted versions were often used but of course did not protect the clothing from dampness as well. In earlier days rags were used as napkins and were kept on by the swaddling garment.
Swansdown can still be purchased in some manchester (linen) houses (shops), but if not then cotton may be used. All that needs to be done is to mark a square in the most suitable size for the baby and hem top and lower edges. The selvedge is pre-sized on napkin fabric like towelling. A wool pilch can be knitted simply by casting off required stitches for front waist, working down in garter stitch for depth to top of legs, then decreasing as needed to middle crotch. Work in reverse to this up the back. Sew side seams. It is usual to put a ribbing at the waist or eyelets to thread a twisted wool cord through. Or buttons may be used at the side instead of seams. Underneath the napkin was a navel support band which was put on baby at birth and was designed to bind the tummy so as to keep the navel protected and held in. This was quite often a knitted band some six inches wide and is easy to duplicate.
VICTORIAN BOOTIE PATTERN
4oz of 4ply wool
1 yard 3/4″ wide white ribbon One set needles size UK 14 /2.00mm/US O
Commence at the top of the leg. Cast on 39 sts – 12, 13, 14 on each of three needles. Knit one round plain. Begin pattern:
Round 1: Cast on seven, cast off seven, knit 3, repeat. (To cast on, knit the stitches on to the left-hand needle; to cast off, when two stitches are knitted, slip the first one over the second).
Round 2: Plain
Round 3: Plain
Round 4: Knit one *pick up the stitch at the end of the point of the seven stitches of the 1st round, knit it together with the next stitch on the left-hand needle (take the second one first, but after the first take each one in rotation), knit two, repeat from * end with knit one.
Round 5: Plain
Round 6: Plain These six rounds make one pattern. Make two more patterns rounds.
Round 19: *Knit one, purl one* repeat, end with knit one. Round 20: *Purl one, knit one* repeat, end with purl one.
Continue 19th and 20th rounds for 30 more rounds.
For the heel: Take off exactly at back 25 sts on two needles, 12 one and 13 on the other; knit the 25 sts in one plain and one purl reversed, but always knitting one plain st at each end for 18 rows. Work 4 plain rows to make two ridges. The right side of the work should now be on the needle to be worked. Knit 17, turn, knit 9, turn, take one st from the side eight, knit it together with first one of the nine, knit seven, knit next st together with the first st of the other eight, turn, knit nine, turn, take in one st at each end as previously, then work a plain row. Continue till all the side sts are knitted in.
From the right side of work knit the nine sts pick up 12 sts down the first side of the heel, knit them plain. Knit the 14 sts across the front in plain and purl sts reversed; take up twelve sts on the other side of heel, knit them. Keep the whole of the sole sts in plain knitting and the fourteen across the front to be reversed in every st; this is to be continued now until the boot is finished. Work 16 rounds.
Then for the toe: First decrease round at sole, knit 5, knit two together, knit 19, knit two together, knit 5, then knit the 14 reversed stitches. Work 3 rounds, not decreasing. 5th round: Knit 5, knit two together, knit 17, knit two together, knit 5, then knit the 14 reversed sts. In each decreased round there will be two stitches less. Make altogether 9 decreased rounds with 3 rounds not decreased between each.
Now at the sole take 3 sts from each side, and put them each side of the top sts. Turn the bootie inside out, put the sole sts flat at the back of the top sts and cast them off, taking two from the top to one at sole, excepting at each end, when there must be three at the top to one from sole.
Crochet round top of bootie:
Round 1: One double (US sc) in every stitch.
Round 2: 3 chain, one double in back of every stitch.
VICTORIAN PATTERN FOR A 5 STITCH CORD
Cast on 5 stitches, Row 1: slip one, knit 4. Row 2: slip one as if for purling, knit 3, purl one at the back. These two rows are repeated alternately. This is suitable for passing through a row of holes to draw up pelerines, petticoats etc. or will make a good garter by casting on 15 stitches.
We will end the layette with some interesting information about the governess:
“For their early education children are often placed by parents under the care of a governess, and many girls receive their entire education from childhood to young womanhood in this way. Parents cannot use too much discrimination in choosing the lady to whom they are to trust the tuition of their little ones, but, incomprehensible though such a course would seem, as a rule they place economy before all other considerations, and where they would pay their cook twenty five pounds a year without a qualm, they grudge even twenty pounds a year for the salary of their governess. This point of view is altogether wrong. Can parents ever be sufficiently grateful to the lady who conscientiously fulfils her duty towards her charges by giving them a good foundation upon which to build their future education? Is the welfare of their children a matter of such indifference to parents that they grudge even a living wage to her to whom the children will owe so much, if her task is well done? The erroneous economy practised in this respect is responsible for the large number of uneducated young women who fill the position of “nursery governess”. They are content to do indifferent work for indifferent wages; in fact, in many cases they are not much above the level of the ordinary domestic servant, being called upon to combine the duties of governess, nurse, and general help, with the result that the children are not only badly taught, but badly cared for as well. Such a state of things should not be; it is much better to let the children remain in the care of a good nurse, taking their first lessons from their mother until they are of an age to put in the charge of a fully qualified lady. When children are six or seven years old, if properly trained, they have been taught to do little things for themselves, and the care of them does not entail so much work and worry as that of the very little ones. There are well-educated ladies fully equipped for teaching in every way who are quite willing to take entire charge of children of six years old and upwards, and who would certainly not wish to be classed as nursery governesses. There would be more room for the many well-educated girls and woman who find it so hard to get positions, if mothers would realise the fact that those in charge of the tuition of even very little children must be ladies of good education if they are to adequately fulfil the important task entrusted to them. There are also many other considerations by which parents should be guided in engaging a governess. The day of the harsh, unsympathetic disciplinarian is passed, or should be, with parents who have the welfare of their little ones at heart. A young bright girl who is fond of children in infinitely preferable to an elderly spinster whom age and care will probably have hardened, and who often has but little sympathy with understanding of youth.
Employers cannot be too tactful in their treatment of their governess. It must be remembered that a lady so situated fills a rather anomalous position in a household, being of the family and yet not of it. They should remember that she is a lady, and treat her accordingly. Children and servants should be taught to look upon her with respect. Some people make a practice of constantly finding fault with the governess before the children. Such conduct is as harmful as it is ill-bred. The authority of the governess must be upheld in every way by the patents, who must punish the children for any serious breach of discipline that is reported to them. Having assured themselves of the efficiency and reliability of the lady they have chosen, they must be content to place their confidence in her. But they must first take particular care of assuring themselves of her reliability. A mother can exercise gently supervision during the first week or two of the lessons without in any way appearing to do so. In this way she will be able to form a fair judgment in regard to the character of the governess – whether she is just and has the power of self-control. If she has not these qualities, she is unfit to fill the position she occupies, however great her learning may be. In most houses the governess will join in all the family meals with the exception of dinner, which she will take by herself in the school-room or another sitting-room. She should have her evenings free as much as possible”
The Woman’s Book Edited by Florence B. Jack (1911)