The livery badge: an Elizabethan logo

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In Elizabethan England, being a servant to a noble household was a respected profession, and a social step up for most people. Many sons and daughters of knights and gentry were in service to someone higher in station, and even earls and barons would have received basic training in service if they were fostered in another household.

Servants appearing in public would commonly wear the livery (uniform) of their employer. This could take a variety of forms, depending on social status and the employer's preference, from simple clothing in the household colors (common in the lower orders) to the elaborate gold chain and black cape of the Queen's Gentlemen Pensioners (personal honor guard), as seen in the Sherborne Castle picture of the Queen under a triumphal canopy. Jane Ashelford has an excellent brief discussion of livery in The Art of Dress.

Women servants were much less numerous than men, as most of the offices in the household, kitchen, and estate were filled by men as a matter of course. However the lady of the house would have her personal maids and companions, and they too might wear livery. Lady Anne Clifford records in her diary in 1616: "went to Church in my rich night gown and petticoat, both my women waiting upon me in their liveries." (Ashelford p.64)

A common form of identification was to have the employer's badge or crest on the front, back or left sleeve of the livery. The example most people have seen is the crowned monogram on the breast of the red livery of the guards at the Tower of London ("Beefeaters"). Jane Ashelford, Phillis Cunnington (The Costume of Household Servants) and Kay Staniland (Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers) all refer to this practice, although unfortunately there are, as far as I know, no actual surviving examples of servants' livery from before 1600. Interestingly, the Wilton Diptych (painted around 1390) shows the young Richard II and the Virgin Mary accompanied by eleven angels, all of whom are wearing Richard's necklace of broom pods (a Plantagenet badge) and have his personal badge of a white hart on their left shoulders. (This must be some king if even the angels wear his livery!)

Badges could be cast in metal or worked in embroidery; David Lightbown's Medieval European Jewellery shows a few examples of metal badges from one of the major London livery companies. Michel Pastoureau's Heraldry shows an example of an embroidered badge of the Dukes of Burgundy from horse trappings captured by the Swiss at the Battle of Grandson, 1476. This is, as most such badges probably were, worked in couched gold thread and split stitch in silk, on a sturdy background fabric which was then appliquéd to whatever the badge would adorn. Ashelford cites a regulation of Queen Elizabeth (1597) permitting servants (who could not otherwise wear silk) to wear "badges and cognizances or other ornaments of velvet and silk" on their livery coats and cloaks. Staniland cites similar stitches and materials, and Jane Lemon shows several examples of heraldic badges worked in these techniques: a Tudor rose and pomegranate from the Westminster chasuble (early 1500s), a heraldic dolphin on St. Gregory's Pall in Norfolk (early 1500s) and the banner of the Worshipful Company of Broderers (1564).

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When I began playing the role of a liveried servant at Renaissance Faire, I decided it would be an interesting challenge to embroider my employer's badge on my left sleeve, and to do the same for my friend Justin, the other servant in the same livery. Most of the liveried servants in my guild (St. George) are new to Faire, and often new to costuming, and so livery badges (let alone hand-embroidered ones) are not the usual practice, but I am proud of my position and thought it would be an interesting piece of re-creation.

I already knew that the livery colors of my "employer," Sir Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, were blue and gold, and my gown in those colors was well underway. (A notable exception, by the way, to the rule that livery colors are the chief color and metal of the bearer's arms: Baron Hunsdon's arms are argent and sable. See Woodcock and Robinson, plate 19) The family crest is a white swan rousant, and the first challenge was to find a good drawing of this that would translate well into embroidery. The first swan I tried looked entirely too much like a goose! After several tries I found one I liked, although I unfortunately didn't record the source.

I decided to embroider the swan on a spare piece of the sleeve fabric -- a fairly good decision, as it turned out. The embroidery would also have gone more smoothly if I had backed it with reinforcing fabric before I started. As it is, the background is a bit distorted and doesn't quite lie flat on at least one of the examples. Each, when finished, was reinforced with a canvas backing cut into an oval shape, pressed thoroughly, and then appliquéd onto the appropriate sleeve.

The design was rather complex, and dark blue corduroy is not an easy fabric to mark. I wound up transferring the design by drawing it on thin tissue paper, then working very fine white running stitches through all the outlines into the fabric, tearing away the paper when it was finished. This works quite well and is in fact a period method of transferring a design (at least for clothing patterns, according to Janet Arnold).

I worked the badges in split stitch (my first experience with this stitch) and some padded satin stitch for the wing coverts. A few internal lines were necessary to show the edge of the wing and to separate the two wing tips and the swan's neck, and I worked those in thread matching the background. I discovered later that outlining parts in dark thread (though it's usually black) is part of the Opus Anglicanum style of split stitch, as is the practice (which I also did) of working the split stitch so that its "grain" and direction mimic the way the feathers lie on the bird I was embroidering.

The major place where I departed from tradition is in my choice of materials. As mentioned above, embroidered livery badges were probably worked in silk and couched metal threads. I considered silk floss, but instead chose cotton, both for reasons of cost and for overwhelmingly practical reasons. As a Renaissance Faire costume, this livery constitutes "working clothes" and it sees hard wear. By our modern standards, it needs washing every week or two, and it's designed to be thrown into the washing machine. Silk would not stand up to that kind of treatment, but the cotton floss seems to have weathered it quite well.

An interesting side light is that I got more experience in appliqué than I originally expected on this project. One of the two swans was originally embroidered on a different fabric, one that turned out not to match the sleeve fabric as well as it appeared at first. I made the decision to cut out the finished swan and applique it to a piece of the sleeve fabric, turning under edges where I could and stitching over them in thread matching the background to hide the areas that could not be turned under. It turned out looking quite nice, if I do say so.

(This was only one of several mishaps that dogged this project; these are actually the second and the fifth swans I started, and the second one was lost for nearly a year before it finally turned up again. )

The entire project took me more than a year to finish, partly because I took the opportunity to work on one of the badges at Faire, using it as an educational tool to start conversations with customers about what I was doing. This gave me a chance to discuss embroidery, livery, and the duties of a servant, and it worked quite well. The second year I had the pleasure of wearing mine, and (once I'd finished it) seeing the one on Justin's sleeve flash at me from across the Court Glade.

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Bibliography

Arnold, Janet; Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c1560-1620. Macmillan, New York, 1985, ISBN# 0-333-38284-6

Ashelford, Jane; The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society 1500-1914. The National Trust, Harry N. Abrams, Publishers, 1996, ISBN# 0-8109-6317-5

Cunnington, Phillis; The Costume of Household Servants from the Middle Ages to 1900. Adam and Charles Black 1974, ISBN# 0-7136-1393-9

Lemon, Jane; Metal Thread Embroidery: Tools, Materials and Techniques. B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1987, ISBN# 0-7134-5577-2

Staniland, Kay; Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers. British Museum Press, 1991, ISBN# 0-8020-6915-0

Lightbown, David; Medieval European Jewellery. Victoria & Albert Museum, 1992, ISBN #0-9481-0787-1

Owen, Lena Cowen; Elizabethan Households: An Anthology. Folger Shakespeare Library, University of Washington Press, 1995, ISBN# 0-295-97464-8

Pastoureau, Michel; Heraldry: an Introduction to a Noble Tradition. Discoveries Series, Harry N. Abrams, 1997, ISBN# 0-8109-2830-2

Saul, Nigel; Age of Chivalry: Art and Society in Late Medieval England. Brockhampton Press, 1995. ISBN# 1-86019-146-0. (The Wilton Diptych is Plate 2.)

Woodcock, Thomas, and John Martin Robinson, The Oxford Guide to Heraldry. Oxford University Press, 1990, ISBN# 0-19-285224-8 (Especially Chapter X, "The Us; of Heraldry as Decoration.")