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Man's Waistcoat Pattern, 1772–80

Man's Waistcoat Pattern, 1772–80

This pale yellow silk taffeta panel was embroidered to form with the outline of every piece that would have been needed to make the visible parts of a man's waistcoat. A panel like this one allowed a gentleman in the American colonies to own a custom-tailored, embroidered waistcoat even though he lacked direct access to the embroiderer. It was therefore possible for him to wear European-style finery without having to leave home. American milliners and tailors imported waistcoat patterns like this one from professional embroidery studios in Europe and Asia. This panel is still uncut and unsewn, just as it would have been sold to an eighteenth-century consumer.
The customer took the pre-embroidered fabric to his tailor, who cut and sewed it according to the man's measurements. The tailor adjusted the waistcoat's breadth at the side seams, and lengthened or shortened the fronts by cutting them at the level of the lowest button and then setting the pocket flaps over the seams. Note that the pattern did not include fabric for the back and lining of the waistcoat. These parts would have been made from plain linen because they would never be seen.
This particular waistcoat pattern was embroidered in Europe using a tambour hook, a technique that produced rows of very fine chain stitches. Traditional chain-stitch embroidery was done with a threaded needle. The entire thread had to be pulled through the fabric, which often stripped the thread before it was all used up, and each loop required two needle jabs to execute.
Tambour embroidery was more economical for several reasons. The embroiderer used a fine hook to draw a small loop of thread through the fabric, and then immediately pulled another loop through the first one. Each stitch was accomplished with a single action and a very small amount of thread, which allowed a skilled embroiderer to work several hundred stitches per minute. The efficiency of tambour work helped to reduce the cost of the final product, thus making luxury goods available to more men.
This 22 by 49 in. panel of pale yellow silk taffeta would have produced a medium-short waistcoat with a spread-pointed skirt. The pieces that are embroidered with two-ply silk thread on the pattern include one entire waistcoat front, one upper front, one skirt, two double-scalloped pocket flaps, sprigs to cover thirty buttons, and two knee bands for a pair of breeches.
The eighteenth-century concept of the “noble savage” is interpreted on the skirt and pocket flaps, where aboriginal figures are depicted sitting under palm trees on islands as well as shooting arrows and holding fruit. The center front and borders of the pocket flaps are embroidered with pink, green, and blue garlands of roses and light and dark brown ribbons, and the waistcoat ground is embroidered with scattered sprays and sprigs of pink and green tulips. Pink and green sprigs are provided to cover buttons. Each selvage has three woven red stripes and holes spaced irregularly every 1.5 to 2.5 in. The holes were probably created when the fabric was tacked onto an embroidery frame that was large enough to accommodate the entire panel.
To see a waistcoat pattern being embroidered, link to a view of A French embroidery workshop, depicted in the L'Encyclopedie Diderot & D'Alembert (1751–77). To see an embroidered waistcoat as it would have been worn by a fashionable man, link to the portrait of John Dart, about 1772–4, by Jeremiah Theus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. John Dart′s waistcoat would have been embroidered on a large panel of fabric before it was cut, just like the one shown here. Instead of tambour work, however, his garment would have been embroidered by hand with a slower, more laborious, and more expensive type of stitch.
This Web entry was made possible in part by a generous grant from the National Association of Men's Sportswear Buyers, in memory of Joseph S. Klein.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Waistcoat Fabric
Date made
overall: 49 in x 22 in; 124.46 cm x 55.88 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Amy Pleadwell
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Costume
Clothing & Accessories
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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