Staying True to Outlander: A Lace Shawl for Amanda Claire MacKenzie
For decades, including when I was visiting museums on school trips, 18th century costuming included the ubiquitous plain brown knit shawl. In those days costumes also included zippers, machine sewn seams, and occasionally, sneakers. Today reinactors are encouraged to create their character with as much historically accurate detail as possible, making sure any visible seams are hand sewn, and carrying authenticity right down to the underwear (or lack thereof) under the costume. There are a number of discussions on reenactment sites, some rather heated, on whether or not it is appropriate for women to wear knickers under their skirts. Apparently chaffing, in summer heat, can become very uncomfortable, and there’s a certain amount of partisan support for modern underwear.
But there is no support, not any more, for the lowly knit shawl on the Revolutionary battlefield.
We can trace the knit shawl into the 18th century. The art of knitting Orenberg Lace Shawls, from the Orenburg Region of Russia, is dated to roughly 1735, keeping it within the bounds of the Outlander experience. Orenberg sits on the border of Asia and Europe, near the Ural Mountains, on the steppes of Russia, in the perfect environment for the raising of a goat that produces a fine down, and on the trade routes which took silk to Europe. Legend has it the art of knitting these gossamer shawls from a fine blend of mohair and silk began with the wives of Russian soldiers looking for a way to relieve the boredom of the long cold winters as their husband’s guarded this distant outpost of the Russian Empire. Regardless of how it began the shawls became a cottage industry by the latter part of the 18th century, and were carried into Europe as trade items. Sadly, it is very unlikely Claire ever saw one. At least not in the 18th century, unless she happened across a Russian immigrant from the Orenberg district. And she hasn’t met one yet.
Which is a good thing, because I’ll let you in on a little secret: I can’t knit lace. Knitting lace demands an attention to detail I just don’t seem to have. Mind you, this might have something to do with tippling blackberry cordial in true 18th century fashion of an evening… come to think on it, perhaps lace knitting wasn’t popular in the 18th century because the consumption level of ale, beer, wine, brandy, cordial, cider, scotch and whisky, made keeping track of complicated patterns nigh on next to impossible. It took a more sober era to produce lace shawls.
Nevertheless, it seems such a practical and intuitive woman’s garment, the shawl. And so in Drums of Autumn Claire wraps one around herself and in Fiery Cross Bree drapes one over her shoulder to nurse her baby. It is inconceivable to think knit shawls weren’t part of a woman’s wardrobe in the 18th century, but they weren’t. They don’t appear in inventories, they don’t appear in descriptions of runaway bondswomen or slaves, and they don’t appear in period paintings.
Which isn’t to say women didn’t keep a length of woolen cloth handy for wrapping around themselves, Scottish women in particular would have been familiar with the arisaid, the women’s version of a man’s great kilt, a garment which belted at the waist and wrapped, cape-like, around the shoulders. But the 18th century woman, dashing for the privy, reached for her cloak. A young mother draped a blanket around her shoulders as she sat nursing in an evening’s chill.