A 16th Century Muff (Snuffkyn or Skimskyn)
Muff Side A
Muff Side B
Black silk satin muff, lined with grey rabbit fur. The muff is appliquéd with slips embroidered in tent stitch with colored stranded silks over 26 count linen canvas, and has a decoration of freshwater pearls.
Muffs became fashionable in Italy during the early 1570’s, and from there it spread pretty much everywhere. Harrison, as quoted by Janet Arnold, records that “Women’s Maskes, Buskes, Muffs, Fanns, Perewigs, and Bodkins, were first devised and used in Italy by Curtezans, and from thence brought into France and there received of the best sort for gallant ornaments, & from thence they came into England about the time of the Massacar in Paris.” (St. Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August, 1572).
Cesare Vecellio, in the second edition of his fashion book Habiti antichi, et moderni di tutto il Mondu, published in 1598, shows a woodcut entitled "Winter Costume of Venetian noblewomen and wealthy ladies." On a closer inspection, the lady appears to be carrying a large muff (Figure 1). We can even see the little tufts of fur coming out of the borders, as well as what appear to be large buttons. It is difficult to tell from a woodcut what shape this accessory would have had, but it appears to me that it looks more envelope-shaped than tubular. My theory is that an envelope-shape would have made sense for large muffs, as a tube would have been much less practical to carry around. Just look at the size of the muff worn by the lady featured in an embroidered valance, c. 1588-90, which is currently in the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum (Figure 5). I believe that a large, semi-soft envelope-shaped affair might have been easier to slip on those sleeves and carry around than an unwieldy large tube.
There is, however, plenty of pictorial evidence showing tubular muffs, one such can be found on a miniature in the margin of a poem written by Georges de la Motthe, a Huguenot refugee, and presented to the Queen in 1586, which exists in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (MS Fr. e.I, f.13v) (Figure 2). This illuminated miniature shows Queen Elizabeth, wearing a silvery white cloak, or possibly a shoulder rail, over a black gown, a black muff embroidered with gold thread hangs from a ribbon. Also of note is the portrait of a lady said to be Eleanor Verney, Mrs William Palmer, Queen Elizabeth’s god-daughter, attributed to Sir William Segar, c. 1590, (Figure 3). This is part of the Collection at Parham Park, a detail of which you will see below (Figure 4). In that regard, those tubular muffs seem to be narrower than the large, envelope-type ones.
|Figure 1: Venetian costume of noblewomen and wealthy ladies. c. 1598.||Figure 2: Illuminated miniature of Queen Elizabeth carrying a muff. c. 1586. Bodleian Library, Oxford.||Figure 3: Eleanor Verney, Mrls. William Palmer. c. 1590. William Segar.||Figure 4: Detail of the portrait of Eleanor Verney.||Figure 5: Detail from an embroidered valance, c. 1588-90. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.|
According to Andre Blum, in his volume "The Last Valois," it is reported that King Henri III of France was fond of "perfumes and cosmetics, ear-rings, velvet or satin muffs lined with fur -- in fact, a whole range of modes formerly reserved for the use of women." Another reference to Parisian fashion for wearing muffs appears in Janet Arnold’s "Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd (QEWU)": “Amyas Paulet was also instructed to get Elizabeth [Queen] a muff or ‘countenance (so they call it here)’ in Paris in 1579. He sent one, ‘the best I can find at this time thinking it better to send this as it is when there is some cold stirring, than to wait for a better till the cold be clean gone. I have caused this countenance to be furred as well as it can be done in this town, but have not perfumed it because I do not know what Perfume will be the most agreeable to her Majesty.”
Other terms for describing a muff would have been "snuffkyn," "skimskyn," or "countenance."
It is important to note that there are no extant muffs from this period. Part of the charm of making a piece like this is to bring to life an object of beauty that has been lost for centuries, that no one has seen except in paintings and engravings, and the details of which we can only surmise from period descriptions and inventories. I have based the design of my muff in the description contained in the 1588-1589 list of New Year’s gifts to Queen Elizabeth, which describes the following item: “By the Lady Walsingham, one skimskyn of cloth of silver, ymbrodered all over very faire with beasts, fowles, and trees, of Venis gold, silver, silke, and small seed pearles, with fyve buttons of seede pearles, lyned with carnation plushe; a peire of perfumed gloves, the coaffe ymbrodered with seed pearle, and lyned with carnation velvett.” (I have added the italics for emphasis.)
Another interesting feature is that, unlike post-period muffs which have the fur lining in the outside, 16th Century muffs are lined with fur in the inside. This makes a lot of sense, since it helps keep your hands warm and toasty. In this case, I used grey rabbit fur following a description contained in Janet Arnold's "QEWU," which reads: “[Adam] Bland also worked on muffs, ‘furringe of a Snufken of heare colour Satten enbraudered with ghre blake Jennett skynnes.” Also, the warrants for the Bland’s work (one of Queen Elizabeth’s furriers), indicate that he used quantities of “Luzarnes,” “Jennets,” “powdered Armyons,” “lettice,” “Sable skynnes,” “mynkes skynnes,” “blak and grey coney skynnes,” “callaber,” “mynever,” “gryzeled coney skynnes,” “callaber wombes,” “rouse squerilles,” “red lambe skynnes,” and “wolves skynnes.”
As for the outside shell of my muff, I used black a silk satin ground appliquéd with embroidered slips, and freshwater pearls for embellishments. According to period descriptions, silk and velvet would have been the materials of choice for a muff of this kind and pearl buttons were frequently used, as were wrapped buttons. In this case, I had some freshwater pearls available and that is what I used for buttons. Wrapped buttons will probably be my choice for future projects.
For the core of the muff, I made a quilted foundation out of linen stuffed with raw cotton batting. Period descriptions such as those mentioned in the preceding paragraphs talk about the way the muff looked or the kind of fur or lining that was used, but do not describe the actual construction. Therefore I have no way to know whether a similar foundation would have been used or not. However, it seemed logical to me that a foundation of some kind would have been necessary to achieve the desired shape and to mount the inside and outside shells. This one worked very well, although next time I will probably replace the cotton batting stuffing with raw wool.
Once I had decided on the design and materials for my muff, I was presented with the issue of the actual decoration. Pictorial and documental evidence shows that decoration varied from muff to muff. I particularly liked the description of the muff presented to Queen Elizabeth by the Lady Walsingham which tells us that it was "ymbrodered all over very faire with beasts, fowles, and trees, of Venis gold, silver, silke, and small seed pearles." This description got me looking into other extant embroidery samples that contained such "beasts, fowles and trees," and found that there was no shortage of them in a variety of stitches and styles, particularly in pieces appliquéd with "slips." Typically, those slips are designs embroidered in silk on linen canvas.
Figure 1: Long cushion cover embroidered with slips, c. 1600. Victoria and Albert Museum.
Figure 2: Embroidered slip, c. 1600. Pansies. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Figure 3: My version of the embroidered pansies at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Figure 4: Embroidered slip, c. 1600. Cherries. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Figure 5: My version of the embroidered cherries at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
I found my inspiration in a long cushion embroidered with slips, c. 1600, that is currently at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Figure 1). It shows a design that contains precisely "beasts, fowles and trees," (not to mention some nifty little people prancing around), embroidered in silk over linen canvas, using tent stitch. Slips of this kind were commonly used on textiles and furnishings such as draperies, curtains and pillows, not actual clothing. Since a muff is not a piece of clothing, but rather an accessory, I decided that using slips for decoration might not have been out of place.
Once I decided what I wanted to do in the way of decorations, I started searching for designs that might fit the size of my muff. Obviously the design on the pillow would never fit on something as small as my project. Nevertheless, since the theme was fruit and flowers, I decided to embroider a version of the pansies and cherries on another set of slips, c. 1600, also at the V&A Museum. (Figures 2 and 4.) I embroidered my slips in stranded silk, using tent stitch and outlining with back-stitch, over 26 count linen canvas. (Figures 3 and 5.)
After I finished the embroidery, I "sealed" the borders with tiny buttonhole stitches to prevent fraying, after which I cut my slips as close as I could to the border (very carefully!). Once this was done, I took a stick of fabric glue and rubbed it gently on the back of the slip before placing it over my satin ground. This helped keep the slip in place while I stitched to the fabric. (The use of glue on slips for this purpose was commonly done in the 16th Century, although it would obviously not have been a glue stick!) This method of appliquéing slips results in a spectacular "3-D" effect.
Finally, I had some large freshwater pearls that had been languishing in my sewing room for several years. When I placed them on top of the black satin, they sort of "lighted up" the fabric. The combination of the black satin, grey rabbit fur, embroidered slips and freshwater pearls was one of stunning elegance. I love wearing this muff everywhere and I am planning on making others!
1. Donald King and Santina Levey, The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750, V&A Publications, 1993, 160 Brompton Road, London SW3 IHW.
2. Santina M. Levey, An Elizabethan Inheritance: The Hardwick Hall Textiles, 1998, National Trust Enterprises, Ltd, Great Britain.
3. Cesare Vecellio, Vecellio’s Renaissance Costume Book. Dover Publications, Inc., N.Y.
4 Blum, André, The Last Valois 1515-90, George G. Harrap & Co, LTD. London, England.
5. Janet Arnold, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, Great Britain, W.S. Maney & Son, LTD, Hudson Road, Leeds.
6. John Nichols, The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth (London, 1823)
7. Lanto Synge, Art of Embroidery: History of Style and Technique, The Royal School of Needlework, Antique Collector’s Club, Woodbridge, England.
8. Mary Rhodes, The Bastford Book of Canvas Work, BT Bastford, Ltd., London.
9. Mary Thomas, Dictionary of Embroidery Stitches, Hodder and Stoughton, London.
10. List of New Year's Gifts to Queen Elizabeth I. From the webpage of Mesterinde Karen Larsdatter.10/ Victoriana.com Online information on 16th and 17th Century slips.
11. The Renaissance Tailor Online information on wrapped buttons.
12. Netstitch Link to tent stitch information.