Duster Coat Study 

So the first thing I have learnt about doing a research study is – make sure you keep a note of which photographs relate to which pieces. At the time it felt like it would be very obvious but now I’m home looking at at least 153 photographs of 3 very similar garments I’m pulling my hair out trying to work out what relates to what. Silly me! Luckily I did keep my notes very seperate and I’m hoping that as I work through this blog, it will all become clear.

The first garment that I viewed at the Shropshire Museum Resource Centre in Ludlow was an early twentieth century cream linen driver’s duster coat. It was recorded as a men’s garment, which it is very likely to have been. By modern day standards it looks far more like a women’s coat but we have to take into account the changes in the size and stature of humans over the last 100 years or so. This coat would look quite strange on a man now with it’s narrow sholders and tapered design.


The linen fabric felt quite rough, it gave the impression of having been boil washed without any softening agents, it was scratchy and very light weight. This garment has seen plenty of wear over the years, it’s covered in all types of paint and oil stains. 

As I worked with the coat, looking in detail at the markings and damage, images came into my mind of Agatha Christie style dramas; of dashing young men, throwing up gravel, pulling up in front of manor houses. Having a jolly good jape, running grumpy old villagers off the road into dirty ditches and scaring the ladies with their dizzying driving speeds of up to 20 miles an hour. The coat, then shoved into the hands of a straight faced butler or a shy, coy housemaid to be left on a hook down in the depths of below stairs. To sit and wait whilst the men grow up, the cars change and the servants leave, not to be replaced as the families money slowly dwindles away and the costs of maintaining the manor rises. Much later, to be rescued by a young lady, to be worn to cover her clothes as she gamely slaps some paint on old damp walls to brighten up the rooms that after years of neglect are still worth living in. 

There is no evidence that the coat came from anywhere but Britain, it looks very English but there were no labels or information in the museum notes to give any more clues as to it’s actual origins. 

In truth I’m not really interested in the facts or the actual providence of the coat. It just felt wonderfully nostalgic and inspiring to enjoy the garment as it is now. As a complete object its no great beauty, it’s appeal lies in the results of the years of wear, it was a veritable smorgersboard of texture, gentle detail and delightful whisps of fluffy frayed fabric. 

And, one of the advantages of chosing a functional item, that’s already seen better days is that you have more leeway when it comes to handling the fabric. Whilst still being respectful and gentle I was able to examine the coat inside and out. I was able to manipulate the fabric so I could examine and photograph specific areas of interest.

As is typical of linen, it was very clearly woven, probably with a flax/cotton mix which gives a light worsened thread that varies in thickness.  The stitching was done by machine and was very neat and finished well. The stitching was very ordinary but had a delicate beauty bought about by the similarity in colour between the linen and the sewing thread.

In a few places there were small frayed holes where the fabric looked like it had been eaten away by the liquid that had dropped onto it, the liquid was a deep russet colour which enhanced the beauty of the holes by adding a sharp contrast to the cream of the linen. 

A stain on the front of the coat, which was almost a stamp makes an interesting composition of shapes created using negative space and just to add a contrasting element there’s a small circular buttonhole. 


The collar was very frayed, indicating plenty of wear. Very surprisingly no one appears to have made any attempts to repair the damage, which was lucky for me because the rips and the fraying provides me with lots of subject matter for drawings with texture and tone. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that the material inside the collar that can be seen through the rips and holes looks thicker and denser. I could find no evidence of difference fabrics being used so is this simply just an optical illusion? 


The main buttons on the front of the coat have been removed but the tough bone buttons on the cuffs remain.  I was delighted to find a small metal ‘eye’ below the collar on the neckline though there was no coordinating hook on the other side. Just an unrepaired retched hole, maybe the hook had been resewn and ripped off so many times that in the end it just wasn’t worth replacing.


In addition to the photographs I also did some quick on the spot drawings, I was limited to using a pencil by the sensible museum rules but it was relaxing being able to focus on the subject matter as time was limited and I’m glad I didn’t have to put lots of thought into selecting the right medium’s and papers to use. 

This was my only attempt to draw a large area of the structure and folds in the fabric but it soon became evident that there would not be enough time to do the subject matter justice. Looking at the sketch I decided that it didn’t provide me with any additional information than that provided by the photographs. In fact I was forced to write down what I had drawn because it wasn’t immediately obvious from my scrawl.


These little sketches were better and I felt that I was starting to learn more about the fabric and was beginning to gather better information and inspirations. I was improving at effectively expressing the shapes and motifs that I would need to use during the process of formulating ideas, looking at options and then considering how I could express what I have seen and learnt into interesting compositions and designs. 

This quick stetch is of the russet stamp like stain on the front of the coat. I tried to get a feel for the flow of the lines of the ink/paint that created the impression of cream squares in the negative spaces between the brown squares. I used notes where I didn’t have the time to fill in the detail and used words that would help me remember what the image looked like. 

Please excuse the spelling, that really should say parallel. 

I was fascinated by the little rips in the delicate fabric, looking at then make me feel vaguely uncomfortable, I experienced a strange type of anxiety, worryed that at any minute the hole could catch on something and be ripped right open or that gravity would start a domino effect of unravelling. 

I wonder if this is a mild form of PTSD  peculiar to knitters and specifically to my own fear of dropping a stitch or getting a rip in a sweater and having to frantically  try to re-hook the loose stitch and re-loop it back in to patch the steadily widening hole. 

As I looked closer I could see that the fabric was more robust than I had at first thought. The weave was doing it’s best to stay together. Over time I am sure the hole will slowly widen even if left alone and not significantly manipulated, just the gentle movement of the limited handling of a museum item will cause small changes that will eventually be clearly visable.

My initial ideas for progressing into the next stage of Recording and Capturing are to focus on the fraying on the collar, the stamp like mark on the front of the coat and the oil/rust stained fray on the back. I have also taken a number of photographs of the coat when it was hung up to enable me to make a photo montage in a similar style to the ones by David Hockney


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