“Like a second skin.”
“They breathe pretty well and they’re really comfortable.”
I was more than a little surprised. A group of Colonial Williamsburg’s tradesmen— wheelwrights, blacksmiths, shoemakers, and tinsmiths—were talking about their new leather breeches with great affection.
Here I was thinking they were suffering for the sake of authenticity, but I was only half right.
Military artificer Jay Howlett led the project to construct 11 pairs of leather breeches for tradesmen, a project made possible by generous gifts from donors. The Scott Eichelbaum Fund initiated the program and the program was extended until the end of the year through a gift from Fred Blystone and Louise Menges.
The beneficiaries of the work couldn’t be happier.
The tradesmen described the leather breeches as like wearing a favorite pair of jeans. But they also see it as another step towards greater authenticity.
For sure, the leather breeches were authentic. They were ubiquitous in the 18th century. They were practical working clothes: flexible, durable, and even fashionable.
They ranged in quality from very poor up to breeches with fine stitching, elaborate pockets, and decoration. As apprentice tinsmith Joel Anderson put it, “Country gentlemen going out to survey their property weren’t going out in ruffles and silk.”
George Washington is even wearing leather in the famous Charles Willson Peale portrait on display at the DeWitt Wallace Gallery. How can you tell? Joel explains that blue and buff were the colors of Washington’s Fairfax militia, and became the model for the Continental Army. “But his leather breeches are a slightly different color of buff than his waistcoat, and the way it lays on his body, especially the ripples on the knee, denotes the way it’s made from leather rather than cloth.”
On the other end of the social spectrum, some runaway slave advertisements described fugitives as wearing leather breeches. One 1766 notice in the Virginia Gazette, for example, said Charles “had on when he went away a pair of old leather breeches a brown kersey jacket and an osnabrug shirt.” Such details offer insight into the minutiae of daily life.
The project also included the production of leather stays (like the 18th century’s version of a corset) for apprentice blacksmith Aislinn Lewis. Tim Logue, and Jan Tilley, and Emma Cross joined Jay on the project (pictured left to right below), settling into the artificer’s shop behind the Armoury to complete the job.
Work began on May 31 and ran through the summer, but the spark came much earlier. About 15 years ago, Jay was working as a saddler’s apprentice when he decided he wanted to make a pair of leather breeches for himself. How hard could it be, right?
But as he looked into it, it seemed no one he spoke to had really done the research to establish precisely how they were constructed 200 years ago. A grant from the Early American Industries Association gave him the opportunity to examine about three dozen pairs of the real thing “up close and personal” in various museum collections.
“I took tons of notes, made tons of drawings, and then came back and made tons of mistakes,” said Jay. What he discovered was a construction “utterly different” from the other breeches, which meant experimenting with different techniques for patterning and joining the pieces together. And they would have to be made extra tight to start to account for the way they would stretch out (also like jeans).
As you can see from the picture below, the breeches are not especially stain resistant. A good scrubbing gets out the worst of the dirt. A monthly cleaning is all they’re likely to get. But keeping the breeches spot-free is not as much of a concern as keeping them from smelling. Eventually, they expect to overdye the breeches in blue or black just to get rid of the grease marks and stains. But finding out how long it takes to get to that point is just one more part of this experiment.
Down the road, hopefully we’ll be seeing more of the leather breeches. But for now, Jay and his shop are turning back to other work, which has recently included a bladder for bagpipes, portfolios, and cartridge boxes.