Image: The Art Archive / Musee de Beaus Art Rennes / Dagli Orti.
For those looking for a gift for Mother’s Day, we are offering a discount of 15% off Selvedge subscriptions, code at the end of the post. And to celebrate mothers (and babies) everywhere, we look back to an archive issue (Issue 4), where Sarah Jane Downing considers the history of swaddling clothes - the archetypal outfit for the best dressed babies for centuries across all cultures.
In the Middle Ages it was felt that the tight swaddling would protect the baby, preventing injury and ensuring the delicate limbs didn't fall off! The baby was dressed in a fine linen shirt and wrapped around the middle with a bellyband to support the abdomen and suppress the navel. In the 19th century French revolutionary ideals suggested far simpler styles for children and a high waisted, low-necked muslin shift was adopted for boys and girls alike. It offered more freedom, although a binder – a vestige of the swaddling bands – was still employed underneath.
Image: Federico Fiori Barocci or Baroccio. Portrait of the Newborn, Federico di Urbino, 1605. (c) Bridgeman Art Library.
In agrarian cultures it makes more sense to wrap the baby onto the mother; she knows where her little one is at all times; he feels her warmth and has the security of her heartbeat ticking away the hours of the day. The Khanga is one of the most universal and versatile garments. For centuries it has been a mainstay of the Kenyan woman's wardrobe, called upon to work as a scarf or a dress. This brightly printed rectangle of cotton can be refolded and knotted to become a baby hammock, sling or wrap, a light blanket, a cushion or rolled into a circle to cushion the head when balancing a basket. Traditionally made as a pair, best friends would share the brightly coloured Khangas and the proverbs and words of love that are printed along one edge.
Image: Darrell Gulin, Peruvian girl carrying, Ollantaytambo, Peru.
The Rebozo of Mexico and South America has the same versatility. Another garment steeped in history, it is soft and strong and allows even a young baby's neck to be supported as he is slung diagonally across the chest to be able to feed at will. The hand-woven fine cotton Rebozo is traditionally given to a Mexican woman at her marriage, and she will use it to carry her firewood as well as her baby until she is finally wrapped in it for her burial.
In the Shetland Islands they put their unique knitting skills to good use creating sturdy knitted square haps for everyday practicality and warmth and enchanting cobweb concoctions of lace to be worn for christenings. The soft, naturally white wool of the Shetland sheep, introduced to the islands by Neolithic settlers 5000 years ago, was perfect for creating shawls so delicate that they could be drawn through a wedding ring. In Dalarna, Sweden, Viking traditions lasted well into the 20th century with babies carried in a Bog, from which we derive the word bag.
Abridged version of Baby Bunting, Selvedge Issue 4.
For a 15% discount on Selvedge subscriptions enter the code MOTHERSDAY at checkout.