Upcycled historic costuming tutorial: Making 18th century mitts out of linen napkins

Mitts make a nice accessory to add depth and authenticity to your 18th century costume. As a simple project, you can easily make a reasonably accurate pair of mitts from materials that you can find at your local thrift store! This tutorial contains instructions for upcycled mitts made from recycled napkins.

Firstly, you will need a mitt pattern. You can use a pre-made pattern, or you can make your own. Various historic pattern makers sell patterns, "Costume Close-Up" and "The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking" are books that include mitt patterns, or you can use online patternmaking guides such as this guide by Sew Loud. I also generally recommend the 18th Century Notebook mitts page as a resource for research and links.


Part 1: Research

Here are some extant examples of single-layer linen or cotton mitts. (If any of the links stop working, go to the relevant museum site and search for the accession number.)

Metropolitain Museum of Art Cotton mitts ca. 1770. Accession number 2009.300.2130a, b

Metropolitain Museum of ArtLinen mitts 18th century. Accession number C.I.44.8.9a, b

Colonial Williamsburg Cotton mitts 1785-1840. Accession number 2009-43,6A&B

Muesum of Fine Arts, Boston Cotton mitts, late 18th or early 19th century. Accession number 38.1247a-b Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Cotton mitts, undated. Accession Number 44.367a-b

Museum Rotterdam Linen Mitts 1700-1800. Accession number 20890-1-2

Augusta Auctions Cotton mitts, 1790-1800. Auction number 2433


Some general notes on design and construction:

Single-layer: There are multiple surviving examples of mitts made out of a single layer of cotton or linen.

Points: Most examples do not have points that fall over the fingers. I have not found any purely single-layer examples with unlined points. In the one single-layer example I've found that has points, the points are lined in silk.

Embroidery: Most examples show simple embroidery in the form of decorative lines on the back of the hand. One example has embroidered bands at wrist and knuckle, and another example has floral embroidery (note that these are later examples).

Piecing: Most examples show some piecing to the body of the mitt, especially near the elbow. (Bias cut items are particularly wasteful of fabric, so this makes sense to conserve fabric.)

Faggoting: Faggoting is a type of stretchy stitch commonly used for the side and thumb seams of leather mitts; inset lines of faggoting are also often added at the wrist for extra stretch. You also see faggoting on mitts made of other materials. These unlined cotton/linen mitts tend to use little faggoting; some have faggoting only at the thumbhole and others have no faggoting at all. I have seen no examples of inset faggoting lines at the wrist. (This makes practical sense; cotton and especially linen has good bias stretch, so the extra stretch from faggoting is unnecessary.)


Part two: Making the mitts

So why use napkins?

1) An inexpensive source of extremely high quality linen; a lot of vintage napkin linen is much nicer than anything you can readily obtain these days, and being designed for napkin use means it copes well with the stresses mitts are subjected to.

2) Pre-decorated: the accuracy may vary, but some napkins have embroidery or other ornamentation that you can incorporate into your design.


Here is the napkin that I will be using in my example; it's made of a fine, close-woven linen with a small embroidered floral motif. I am able to get one mitt out of each napkin, so I will need two napkins total. When buying napkins, make sure that the straight edge of the napkin is at least as long as the length from your middle knuckle to just below your elbow; if you have very long or very wide arms, go bigger.


Fitting note: These mitts are cut on the bias, meaning that the woven threads run diagonally across the arm rather than running horizontally/vertically. This is done because woven fabric naturally stretches on the bias, meaning that the mitts will stretch enough to allow you to squeeze your hand through the wrist hole. However, different fabrics have different amounts of stretch, and you don't want to finish your gloves only find that you can't fit your hand through the wrist hole!

For this reason, I recommend first pinning a short (1 inch or so) tube in your fabric on the bias, the same measurement as the wrist measurement of your pattern, and checking to make sure you can fit your hand through it. You want it to be snug, so it take a little work to get your hand through, but if you can't get your hand through at all you need to add ease in the wrist area of your pattern. Adjust the pinned tube until you can get your hand through and use this tube measurement as your new wrist measurement.

Note that fabric can stretch a surprising amount on the bias - especially over the course of a day's wear - so if you cut your mitts with the perfect amount of ease at the beginning of the day, they may end up bagging dreadfully by the end of the day. For this reason, I recommend using less ease in your pattern than you think you might need. The linen mitts shown in this tutorial were cut with no ease at all.

When cutting your pattern, be sure to lay the pieces out on the bias. You should be able to place it so that the original point of the napkin becomes the finger point of the mitts (if you want points).


If you use this placement, you will need to piece the palm of the pattern. Depending on the size of the napkin, you will probably also have to piece the pattern near the elbow, so clearly mark the pieced edges (remember to add seam allowance to the pieced edges!). Be sure to remember to flip your pattern over to create right and left gloves.


Begin by piecing your main mitt together (if necessary). (Here I have kept the original pre-sewn hem edges and sewed the pieces together with a fine blind-stitch, but if preferred you can sew regular seams.) The mitts will be under a fair amount of strain as you pull them on and off, so use a good sturdy stitch such as back stitch for all seams and flat-fell or otherwise finish the seams to prevent fraying.

(The perspective is off in this photo; the fabric is not actually skewed.)


Sew the side seam of your thumb pieces and hem the top edge.


Pin the thumb piece into the glove and sew into place. I usually start from the bottom center of the thumb hole and sew until I reach the point area, then repeat on the other side; this helps hide any unevenness in the already wrinkly thumb fold if you don't have a perfect fit between the two pieces.


Sew up the side arm seam, then hem the top and bottom edges. Done!
Note that the finished mitts WILL wrinkle as you wear them; this is a side effect of the bias cut and does not indicate a poor fit.




Tutorial copyright "Penwiper" 2020