There seems to be much confusion regarding what the léine was, what material it was made from, what it looked like, and even how the word was pronounced (LAY-nah). This survey of historical evidence is written with the intention of lifting some of that confusion.
The léine was not the same thing to all Irish people throughout history. The word means “shirt”. In the modern world, Irish speakers call everything from a tuxedo shirt to a tank top “léine” (plural “léinte”). As much as we re-enactors long for clothing terms that have definitive meaning, léine is about as specific as “top” and this fact should be not be overlooked.
This article will present the evidence of what the man’s and woman’s léine looked like in the 16th century, the time period about which we have the most information. The available information demonstrates that the 16th century léine for men and women was a calf- to ankle-length garment of white or yellow linen similar to extant Italian and French chemises of the period, heavily pleated in the body, utilizing up to 15 modern yards of cloth. The women’s garment is pleated onto a rolled band at the neck while the man’s gapes to show some of the chest. No collar of any kind is evident. Despite all this pleating, the pendulous sleeves, which for men stop at the elbow and for women continue to the wrist, are not pleated or gathered on the top of the arm as is commonly seen in the Society. We will see that these gathers and drawstrings were invented relatively recently and have no historical substantiation.
A very brief overview of Irish dress
In the ancient legends (which were written down in the 6th century C.E.), the word léine (other historic spellings include léne, léinidh, lénni, léni, lenid, and the plural lénti) was used often to describe men and women’s clothing. Many léinte are mentioned, but the shape of the garment is not described. Almost all of them are said to be wool and brightly coloured (brown-red, yellow, red, striped, and streaked are mentioned), but a few are described as linen or silk and some are white or gel (“bright”). The vast majority of these descriptions mention tons and tons of gold and red embroidery, from the chest to the knee in some cases(5).
In the Middle Ages, Ireland was the hinterland, the desolate island to which monks migrated to get away from the evils of the world. It was not a center of fashion or commerce. The Vikings raided. The Normans invaded. Aside from accounts of battles and political maneouvres, very little is known about the social history of medieval Ireland. Their musical and narrative legacy is rich yet they provide us with little concrete evidence about how they lived. Aside from one extant garment in the National Museum of Ireland (the Moy gown), the derogatory texts of the Sassanach (Norman/English), and some highly stylized illustrations in manuscript illuminations, there is little evidence as to what they wore. We have no way to guess what the léine became during this period.
As historians, we have all read references to “the distinctive dress of the Irish” which the English overlords railed against since, it seems, the beginning of recorded history. While we yearn to discover this style, we cannot fall prey to the practice of lumping the evidence from the 6th and 16th centuries together and filling in the blanks with guesses. We must not forget that there is a millennium of fashion evolution in between these two eras. To assume the léine remained the same over these thousand years is like saying that the 20th century English still dress like the Anglo-Saxons did before the Norman Invasion. As we shall see, the 6th and the 16th century léine could hardly be more different.
Evidence of the léine in the 16th century
In clothing research, the word “léine” has come to be synonymous with the 16th century “saffron shirt” (léine croich) of the Irish and Highland Scots. It is in this context that we call the garment the “Man’s Léine.”
In many periods of history women have borrowed fashions from men. The Woman’s Léine is no different. Worn sometimes as a chemise under English style gowns and sometimes worn with nothing but a mantle, the woman’s léine is simply a feminized version of the man’s. As we shall see, its overriding characteristics are its length and the fullness of its sleeves.
Despite the many wool items we have recovered from the peat bogs, a léine will never be found among them. This hardy garment, with its long history of being both revered and despised, was made out of linen, a fibre which does not survive burial in acidic (peaty) soil. All we have to memorialize it are these words and few illustrations. I hope I can contribute to its understanding with my research.
The first mention of a saffron shirt comes from John Major’s 1521 History of Britain.
“A medio crure ad pedem caligas non habent, chlamyde pro veste superiore et camisa croco tincta, amiciuntur… “
“From the middle of the shin to the foot they do not have boots, in place of an upper garment they wrap a cloak around themselves and a shirt colored with saffron…” — Latin translation by Abigail Weiner
All this tells us is that they were wearing a yellow shirt (camisa). We will have to look further to discern what it looked like.
The first documentary evidence of the shape and character of the léine is a letter from Henry VIII to the town of Galway, 28 April, 1536:
Item, that no man, woman, or child, do wear in their shirts or smocks, or any other garments, no saffron, nor have any more cloth in their shirts or smocks, but 5 standard ells of that country cloth.1
An ell in England in the 16th century has been interpreted as about a yard and a quarter of cloth.(3) Therefore, the léine was restricted to about 8 yards. This may not seem very restrictive to us. Modernly, our linen is 45″ or 60″ wide. Contemporary evidence suggests that the cloth used in Ireland in the 16th century was only 20″ wide. This would mean that 5 ells equaled roughly 2 2/3 yards of 60″ wide fabric or a little less than 4 yards of 45″ wide.
An act of Henry VIII forbade any person in Ireland after 1 May, 1539 to dress their hair in the Irish fashion or to:
…weare any shirt, smock, kerchor, bendel [band or ribbon], neckerchour, mocket [bib or handkerchief], or linnen cappe coloured, or dyed with Saffron, be yet to use, or weare in any of their shirts or smocks above seven yards of cloth to be measured according to the King’s Standard, and that also no woman use or weare any kyrtell, or cote tucked up, or imbroydered or garnished with silke, or courched [overlaid, embroidered] ne layd with usker [usgar Irish for jewels], after the Irish fashion, and that no person or persons, of what estate, condition or degree they be, shall use, or weare any mantles, cote, or hood, made after the Irish fashion.2
We can gather from these descriptions that the woman’s léine was as full as the man’s. We can also deduce that they were of a similar cut since they are lumped together in this legislation. Indeed, men and women’s underdresses (chemises, smocks, kirtles…) were often unisex in design. Also apparent from these quotes is that the women were as “guilty” of dyeing with saffron as the men.
We see further evidence of the Irish refusal to give up their large-sleeved léinte and conform to English styles in an ordinance proclaimed at Limerick in 1571 by Sir John Perot, President of Munster, which reads:
… and no maid or single woman shall wear or put any great roll or kercher of linen cloth upon their heads, neither any great smock with great sleeves, but to put on hats, French hoods, tippets, or some other civil attire upon their heads.
It is obvious that the legislation of three decades before had not had the desired effect.
It seems that the cloth restriction in the previous act was deemed too harsh for the nobler classes of society. An Act of Parliament at Dublin in 15413 limited the amount of linen cloth to be worn in the shirts of various classes thusly:
Noblemen 20 cubits (about 10 yards(3))
Vassal or horseman 18 cubits (9yds)
Kerne (turbarius) or Scot 16 cubits (8yds)
Groom, messenger or other servant of lords 12 cubits (6yds)
Husbandman or labourer 10 cubits (5yds)
To our modern senses, this is an immense amount of cloth. Why would they want to wear such a garment? Nothing ever develops in a vacuum. Even in remote Ireland, fashions were influenced by the clothing of other peoples. Wide and flowing floor-length garments, extravagant sleeves, pleating to excess – these are typical of the houppelandes of the previous century. From stone effigies in Ireland, we know that at least the Anglo-Irish ladies of the 15th century wore the houppelande. Léinte in the 16th century were reputedly made with 25-35 ells of linen. The Irish seem to have modified the continental style to suit their own tastes. The pendulous and bagpipe sleeves were also an element of early 15th century Continental dress. Apparently the 16th century léine was a continuation of this trend. Many verbal descriptions of the 16th century Irish mention their refusal to discard the clothing of previous eras and wear up to date, “civil attire”.
To understand what this plethora of fabric looked like, we must now turn to the pictorial evidence. The first we have for the man’s léine is from a print in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England. The picture is labeled “Irish Chieftains.” No other copy exists and nothing is known about its origin. From other evidence it appears to have been drawn in the reign of Henry VIII. Some have conjectured that it depicts some of Henry’s Irish recruits for his war with France in 1544. The details of this print are carefully drawn. A note on the border of the drawing claims that it was drawn in person as opposed to from memory (it is labeled: “after the quick” meaning “from life”).
The men depicted in this print represent Irish kern (catharnach) or non-professional infantry soldiers of the Tudor period. They are all wearing long tunics with wide dangling sleeves and short, elaborately decorated jackets (ionar). Some wear mantles (brat). They all carry swords. All are similarly bare-legged and bare-footed. Their tunics appear to be pulled up to knee-length and “bloused” over a belt. This would afford more freedom of movement to the legs. Additionally, even when the arms are down, the sleeve, though reaching the mid-calf in length, comes no lower down the arm than the elbow. This curious yet functional element will be seen again in later prints. Note that no gathers or pleats are visible on the top of the arm. The shirts gape open in the front, exposing the kern’s musculature and chest hair. No collar can be seen.
Chronologically next come prints by Lucas de Heere, a Dutch painter who lived in England from 1567 to 1577. His pictures are carefully drawn and provide good detail. Although he never visited Ireland, it is believed that he copied his figures from other documentary evidence that is no longer extant. For example, his kern echo the poses and dress of the print in the Ashmolean Museum. Because of the similar level of detail in his women’s clothing and how closely it resembles extant pieces, we can only assume that he had similar prints that have not surfaced. However, we know from a multitude of modern examples that copies are often imprecise. Keeping this in mind, we will examine de Heere’s work.
De Heere’s first print of a man dates to 1547. This illustration also closely resembles a man in the print from the Ashmolean Museum. His mantle is draped over his head, obscuring his sleeves. Even so we can see the same kind of decorated jacket or ionar at the opening of his cloak. Like the previous example, his tunic appears to be drawn up over a belt and pouched. This time, it is clearly of a yellow colour. The man is barefooted and holds a sword in his left hand under the mantle, as do kern in the Ashmolean illustration. His neckline falls in a gentle curve, showing no collar structure.
De Heere’s second print dates to 1570 and the two female figures in it are labeled “Edel-vrouwe and Burghers-vrouwe” (Noblewoman and Townswoman). Here, the accuracy of de Heere’s prints is definitely in question. It has been ascertained that he drew his prints from others dated 1547 and before. Yet the existence of ruffs, partlets, and stiff (possibly farthingaled) skirts in this painting make the 1570 date more probable. It must be taken into account that de Heere may have added the ruffs and stiff skirts in order to “update” the look of the clothing (i.e., make it as he assumed it would have become by 1570). Indeed, the ruff of the Townswoman (on the right) is not complete and it appears as if the artist changed his mind.
One thing is unmistakable: the size of the chemise sleeves. The Noblewoman is wearing a dress with “hanging sleeves”. This term refers to gown sleeves open at the bottom seam to accommodate full chemise sleeves. This type of sleeve is distinctly Irish and can be found on all of the extant 16th century wool garments in the National Museum of Ireland such as the Shinrone gown . There is no gathering apparent on the large léine sleeves. The sleeve appears to be smooth on the top of the arm and bag-like underneath. This construction would explain the legislation against such excess earlier in the century.
The next three sources are again de Heere prints. These date from 1575, but were likely based on early sixteenth century originals. Unlike the previous de Heere print, these do not confuse English and Irish styles and neither ruffs nor stiff skirts appear. They are drawn with more confidence. It is believed that the source works de Heere used were clearer than the ones of the previous prints.
The first print is labeled “Irlandois et Irlandoise” (Irishman and Irishwoman). The woman is wearing a pink, front-laced gown not unlike those of the previous figures. She is very similarly drawn to the Noblewoman of the former print. It might be supposed that this was de Heere’s second attempt at drawing the same gown, so alike are the details. It is obvious that this time he had more information. The woman wears a yellow scarf around her neck and tucked into the front of her gown. Her chemise is low cut yet we can make out the band below the scarf and above the bodice opening. The hanging sleeves of the gown reveal full chemise sleeves. Again, no pleating or gathering is evident on the sleeves.
The second print bears the title “Femme et Fille Irlandoises” (Irish Woman and Girl). The Woman wears a gown almost identical to the Townswoman in the earlier print. Again it might be said that this was de Heere’s second attempt for it is virtually the same as the former example. The Woman’s chemise is not visible at all. The Girl wears a similar gown, but has hanging sleeves. Her chemise sleeves are as full as the Irishwoman’s in the previous example. She also wears a yellow scarf around her neck. Unlike the Woman in this print and the Irishwoman in the last, the Girl’s chemise neckline appears to be very high, at her clavicle. Perhaps this was the custom with unmarried or young women. All these prints clearly show pleating at the neckline, indicating that the léine was constructed similarly to contemporary Italian and French chemises. Contrary to some conjecture, the léine does not seem to resemble a kirtle at all. Of course, a smooth-fitting kirtle or cotehardie could not accommodate the amount of fabric we know to have been used to make a léine.
A full man’s léine with pendulous sleeves is shown in the third illustration. Again it is worn with an ionar and brat by Irish kern. The sleeves touch the calves in length but stop at the elbow in width. No gathering is evident on the sleeves. Again, the men’s necklines fall open softly.
About the same time as these prints, John Derricke was traveling in Ireland with Sir Henry Sidney and his son, Sir Philip. Not much is known of Derricke, but it is believed that he was indebted to Sidney for a cushy job in the customs house in Drogheda. His Images of Ireland, dedicated to Sidney and his son, was written in 1578, the year he left Drogheda, and published in 1581. His intent was to make the Irish look as foolish (and therefore, in need of conquest) as possible. The woodcuts were made after he left Ireland, presumably by an English woodcutter to whom the outfits were described. The Englishmen are rendered well in these woodcuts, but less care is taken with the Irish figures. Few look like anything more than cartoons. It appears that the engraver was not working from sketches but from verbal descriptions he did not understand.
Women appear in two of the twelve woodcuts, but only one shows clothing other than a mantle. In this one, kern are setting fire to a house. The Lady of the House is standing outside with her hands raised in protest. Though extremely simplified, she wears a garment similar to the front-laced gowns in de Heere’s prints. A few horizontal lines represent the lacing. Her gown appears to have hanging sleeves with full chemise sleeves hanging down. The sketchy form on her head agrees with de Heere’s pictures of women’s headdresses.
In another of his woodcuts, Derricke shows a man’s outfit similar to the ones we have seen already. The subject is a courier delivering a message to an English lord. “Runners” were also members of Irish armies and would be dressed similarly to soldiers. The courier appears to be wearing close-fitting pants and shoes with his léine and ionar. In this illustration, one can see the “skirt” of the ionar laying over the lower half of the léine. In Derricke’s less carefully drawn engravings, this skirt is depicted as a ruff at the waist, resembling a ballerina’s tutu. Despite the Osprey series’ imitation of this fashion in its book on the Irish Wars, since no contemporary evidence of this ridiculous style exists anywhere else, we must assume that it likely never was. Derricke was in Ireland – not his engraver.
Derricke’s description of a “Karne” (kern) shows us why this illustration mistake was made, and also gives us insight into how they got 20 to 30 yards of fabric into a garment.
Their shirtes be verie straunge, not reaching paste the thie;
With pleates on pleates thei pleated are as thick as pleates maie lye.
Whose sleves hang trailing doune almost unto the Shoe;
And with a Mantell commonlie, the Irish Karne doe goe.(4)
Note that Derricke focuses on the amount of pleating in the shirt. He mentions the sleeves separately in the next line and comments only on their length.
The next documentary evidence of the léine is from Richard Stanihurst. Richard Stanihurst was the son of James Stanihurst, Recorder of Dublin. He was born into an English family that had been in Ireland since the 14th century. He had some reputation as a scholar and wrote a verse translation of Virgil. He wrote a “Description of Ireland” which appears in Holinshed’s Chronicles, and a four-volume Latin work entitled De rebus in Hibernia gestis, published in 1584. The following is from the latter work:
At meals they recline, couches being supplied. The first place at table is that of the mother of the family, wrapped in a tunic reaching to the ankles, often saffron-coloured and long-sleeved.
This doesn’t give any detail, but it shows that a long-sleeved shirt was being worn by women at the time of Derricke and de Heere’s prints. It also validates yellow as a colour for women’s léinte (no illustrations show women in yellow léinte).
An engraving in the first edition of Holinshed’s Chronicle (published 1577) shows léine-clad Highland Scots bow-hunting deer in a forest. They wear the same elaborately decorated, short, leather jackets over long, full tunics. The tunics are bloused over a belt. The sleeves dangle to the knees or calves, but do not come any lower on the arm than the elbow joint. This representation of hunters clearly demonstrates the reason for the sleeve construction. The sleeves do not appear to hinder the bowman in any way. Neither do they appear to encumber the kern in the earlier prints. This was the Gaelic way of making a fashion statement (and a statement of wealth as well) while not sacrificing functionality.
In conclusion, it is clear that the 16th century léine was a white or yellow linen calf- to ankle-length heavily pleated garment made from as much as 15 modern yards of 60″ wide linen. The garment had long dangling sleeves, which for men stopped at the elbow to facilitate wear while doing battle. The sleeve tops are not pleated or gathered. Women wore the garment under English-style gowns as well as alone under a mantle. They had necklines like chemises, dipping as low as the bust or riding as high as the collarbone. No collars are evident. Men’s léine necklines were loose fitting and gapped open. They also wore no collars. Men wore the léine bloused over a belt (to make it knee length) under a short elaborately decorated jacket, called an ionar. Close-fitting pants and shoes were sometimes worn, but men went barelegged and barefooted as often as not.
The Invention of Drawstrings and Pleated Sleeves
In all the evidence presented above, not one illustration depicts gathers, pleats, or drawstrings running along the top of the arm like those “léines” popular at SCA events and Ren Faires. There is a very good reason for this. In the late 1970s participants at the Renaissance Pleasure Faires in California invented the drawstring léine. This construction was an attempt to accommodate the tremendous amount of fabric reportedly used in the construction of a léine. The original version used a strip of trim or braid to hold the pleats in place so they would not have to be sewn individually. Later the drawstring construction created an even easier version.
Sharon Devlin Folsom, founder of the Irish traditional music group, Sheila na Gig, researched and made all the costumes for her group in addition to playing harp, drum and singing. They performed at Renaissance Pleasure Faire North from 1976 to until the 1980s. She was there when the drawstring or gathered léine first appeared at the Faire. She writes: “Because of the strong theatrical/geographical influence, costuming at the faire was more along the lines of hollywood medievalish than authentic to begin with.”
In recent correspondence, Sharon told me:
I believe that the drawstring approach to léinte making developed out of the popularity of drawstring clothes in everyday life during the 60’s and 70’s, combined with the original, primarily theatrical focus of Faire costumes. The theatrical approach is primarily concerned with giving an impression of the period in question to assist the audience in the suspension of disbelief. The drawstring down the arm seems to have developed from a line of trim or stitching shown in carvings of pleated shirts.
Her daughter, Branwyn M. Folsom, who has performed at Renaissance Pleasure Faire North since childhood, added her theories:
I would say that it has stuck around so long because of the dearth of available references to the contrary, and the variable, but often hot, climate in which most Ren Faires are held. The drawstring, is admittedly, a practical adaptation to a performing climate in which actors can be subjected to temperatures from 50 to 110 degrees F. The sleeves can be let down when the weather is inclement, and pulled up when it is hot. It’s more comfortable to the modern person, but still not accurate.
Maggie Pierce Secara, who in the SCA is Mistress Máirghréad-Rós Fitzgaret of Desmond (O.L.), was also there to witness the “birth” of the drawstring léine. She has portrayed the Countess of Southampton at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire South for twelve years. She recalls a washerwoman character at the California Faire who put drawstrings in her chemise sleeves in order to keep them out of the well water. The washerwoman was also a member of the Irish/Scots camp and a Scottish country dancer which may have lead to the confusion about the Gaelic origins of her sleeve construction.
Maggie-Rós claims to have contributed to the proliferation of the drawstring léine by writing an article for Tournaments Illuminated (vol 81, page 12) about this construction when she was editor of this journal. Entitled simply “The Leine”, she says it has come back to haunt her many times:
Once or twice a year now I have to both apologize and try to talk people out of using that article as primary documentation.
Maggie-Rós has more than made amends. Her “Compendium of Common Knowledge -1558-1603” is a virtual treasure-trove and a must-read for any Elizabethan re-enactor. You can access it at ren.dm.net.
When I asked her opinion on the construction of the léine, she said:
There’s no evidence for pleating on top of the arm. The drawstring trick was a specific invention of Clan MacColin’s washer woman “working the well” at Southern Faire back in the late 70s-early 80s. And they told two friends. And they told two friends…
I am indebted to Maggie-Rós, Sharon and Branwyn for sharing their memories with me so that we all might better understand the real origins this myth.
I hope this article has helped you understand what the léine was and gave you some idea of how it may have been constructed in the 16th century. My best advice is “Don’t trust any single source, not even this article.” If you are interested in the historical documentation of the léine, go to the library and look up the sources in the references section (McClintock and Dunlevy both show the original illustrations). If you come up with anything different, contact me. I would love to hear what you have to say.
Special thanks to Jennifer Munson and Abigail Weiner for going above and beyond the call of friendship in proofreading the text, Sheree Krasley for drawing the sketches, and all the visitors to my website for challenging and inspiring me.
- Dunbar, J. Telfer. History of Highland Dress. Philadelphia: Dufour Editions, 1964.
- Dunlevy, Mairead. Dress in Ireland. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1989.
- Humbarger, Grant. Period Metrology. The Compleat Anachronist pamphlet series, Volume 81, September 1995.
- McClintock, Henry Foster. Old Irish and Highland Dress. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, 1943.
- O’Curry, Eugene. On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish. London: Williams and Norgate, 1873.
- From Maxwell’s Irish History from Contemporary Sources, page 366, as quoted in McClintock.(4)
- From a Collection of all the Statutes of in use in the Kingdom of Ireland, Dublin 1678, ibid.
- Calendar of Carew MSS, 1515-1574, Vol. 1, page 180-183, ibid.
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