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One of the discussion topics at the Fashion, Function and Ornament symposium organised by Fairfax House in York (held on 19 September 2014) was about the fascinating project to try to recreate the last (and uncompleted) waistcoat that Elizabeth Cook nee Batts was making when she received the news that her husband – the famous explorer and hydrographer Captain James Cook – had been killed. Elizabeth was apparently a very good needlewoman who turned her talents to many items that could be linked to her husband (see more details at the National Museum of Australia).

(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

Alison Larkin, embroiderer and lecturer, presented an entertaining and informative talk about her involvement in the project to recreate this last waistcoat. Capt Cook Waistciat 2 Capt Cook Waistcoat 5    Capt Cook Waistcoat 1

Photos from:  State Library of New South Wales, Australia

To all intends and purposes the embroidery on the waistcoat is complete – though far simpler than was the norm for a gentleman’s waistcoat of the mid-18th century.  However, the pieces were cut and never sewn together.

Alison suggests that there may be several reasons why the waistcoat was much simpler than usual, including the fact that being a sailor’s wife she may have completed each group of related embroidery before moving onto the next so that should her husband return the item would be in a virtually completed state (ie would only have to be cut out and the pieces sewn together).  Additionally, it was possible that as the waistcoat was intended for Captain Cook to wear when attending Court (he had met King George III when he returned from his second voyage) and because both Elizabeth and James were of humble origins (James was the son of a farm worker and Elizabeth the daughter of an innkeeper) and had Quaker links it was not deemed appropriate for the waistcoat to be too elaborate.

I would like to suggest, however, another reason.  Captain Cook may not have been a man too averse to wearing more heavily embroidered waistcoats for Museum of New Zealand owns a silk-fronted garment (the back and lining are simple cotton) which is decorated with silk flowers, gold and silver thread and spangles.  However, the main fabric in this unfinished item was made from Tapa cloth – a non-woven fabric from the Pacific islands such as Fiji, Tahiti and Tonga.  Decorations are more usually painted rather than sewn on (The Museum of Natural and Cultural History has examples of this art work).  Could it be, therefore, that one of the reasons why the embroidery is simple on this particular occasion is because the cloth was proving to be difficult to work?

Tapa cloth

Example of Tapa cloth

This is, indeed, the purpose of the project – to compare the modern with the old and to understand how it would have been worn (the other known example of Cook’s waistcoat has been altered so the replica may well help to build a picture of the real Captain Cook), how the garment was made and even to retain Georgian skills that could be lost.

Alison has already made some interesting discoveries.  For instance, she has done the ‘shower’ test on the modern tapa fabric she has managed to acquire (this is not as fine as that used on Cook’s waistcoat which might be down to the fact that the material presented to him had been a royal gift) and the fabric does not like to get wet which begs the question of how the garment would have fared in the damp British weather.  She has also identified that some of the stitches were tamboured and that Elizabeth may have been left handed (apparently for tambour work if you are right handed it is best to work left to right and vice versa).

Replica Capt Cook

Part of replica waistcoat (from Alison’s blog)

I hold my hands up and confess that whilst I have no issue with making historical costume and accessories for myself and others I draw the line at embroidery – my Mum tried to teach me years ago but have no patience (!).  I truly admire anyone who are willing to take the time to be involved in this project.  Alison has even identified that the fact that modern threads and spangles (sequins) are manufactured differently today.  Fortunately, there is one company in the UK which does still produce traditional items that are being used in this experiment (Benton and Johnson) – a useful addition to the address book.

Whilst there is no intention for the waistcoat to be worn it will form part of the anniversary exhibition which will be held at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby next year.

Further information:

Captain James Cook – BBC
Captain Cook Waistcoat Project
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, Longtitude Punk’d 10 April 2014–4 January 2015
Explorer Captain Cook’s Waistcoat Seeks $1m in New Zealand Sale, Paul Fraser Collectible
Create Tambour Work Embroidery
Tambour Embroidery How to Video