Captain Cook’s inspirational waistcoats

Te Papa’s Captain Cook waistcoat

During Te Papa’s recent ‘Open House’ weekend many visitors on the Costume & Textile Store tour were captivated by Captain Cook’s waistcoat, or at least a waistcoat reputed to have been worn by the great explorer.

This silk and linen waistcoat embroidered with silk and silver threads,1755-1765, is reputed to have once belonged to Captain James Cook. At some point it has been adjusted to fit a shorter, more rotund man than Cook. Additional fabric panels have been inserted into the side seams. Gift of Mrs T. Matthews, 1967

The beautifully embroidered waistcoat is said to have come from a house where James Cook once stayed.  The donor, Mrs Matthews, reported that it originally had a label attached confirming it had belonged to Cook. As this was mislaid, it is difficult to authenticate the claim. The tantalising possibilities of its provenance has enticed researchers from around the world to Te Papa. Te Papa’s waistcoat is just one in the southern hemisphere attributed to Captain Cook.

The waistcoat illustrated below, which features on the Australian Dress Register, is also reputed to have belonged to Cook. Whereas Te Papa’s waistcoat has been adapted for a shorter, paunchier man than Cook (panels have been inserted at the side seams), the one below has been ‘upcycled’ to fit a woman – the waistcoat has been shortened, the buttons changed, and the pocket flaps removed and transformed into a decorative collar.

This waistcoat, which has been adapted for a woman, is reputed to have been owned and worn by Captain James Cook on his third and final voyage. Private Collection. Image: Australian Dress Register.

Elizabeth Cook’s embroidered tapa cloth waistcoat

The third, and most famous, Captain Cook waistcoat, is in the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney. Unfinished, it is made not from silk, but from Tahitian tapa cloth. It is believed that Cook bought the tapa cloth back from his second voyage and gifted it to his wife Elizabeth, who began to embroider it during Cook’s fateful third voyage. The unfinished waistcoat panels (which unfortunately came into contact with some black ink at some stage) have provided a poignant source of inspiration for researchers, writers and artists.

One of Elizabeth Cook’s unfinished waistcoat panels, circa 1779. Silk and silver thread on Tahitian tapa cloth. Collection of the State Library of New South Wales.

In Marele Day’s wonderful novel Mrs Cook: The Real and Imagined Life of the Captain’s Wife, the author imagines Elizabeth at her embroidery frame:

‘The silk thread was of the finest quality, and had the sheen of freshly washed hair, combed so that each strand was separate. It was smooth to touch, as Elizabeth imagined the hair of South Seas women to be. Smooth also was the cloth from which she would fashion the vest, once the embroidery was finished. It was not linen or English wool, but exotic tapa cloth from Tahiti. Elizabeth imagined the women beating the fibrous inner bark of the paper mulberry tree… She saw the rhythm of their work, their arms lifting clubs, and the arc and sway of their breasts… As she stitched the red tips of the English flowers she imagined exotic Tahitian flowers.

In the novel Elizabeth is working on the waistcoat when Sir Hugh Palliser arrives with the unbelievable news that her husband is dead. Elizabeth survived her husband by 56 years, and sadly outlived all of her six children.

The creation of a replica waistcoat

Alison Larkin, a passionate embroiderer from Hull, England, was our most recent researcher to visit the Cook waistcoat. Alison had set herself the task of recreating and finishing Elizabeth’s waistcoat ‘so we can see how it might have looked if he had returned to wear it to Court as Elizabeth Cook hoped’. She received an award from the Society of Antiquaries of London and the Normanby Trust to visit Australia and New Zealand to study the southern hemisphere waistcoats in person.

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‘I learned a huge amount from the various study visits. Examining the embroidery closely told me lots about the stitching: which parts are tamboured and which chain stitch, for instance. I also realised there are three tones of colour on each flower, which was not clear from the printed images. The size of the metallic thread was finer than the sample I took along, but the spangles were exactly right.

‘I’ve also got some useful measurements from the Te Papa Waistcoat, which was completed, to give me an idea about the size and pattern to use to make the waistcoat up. It is surprising how much you can get from a hands-on examination which is not always obvious from the images, however carefully they are photographed. When I checked the colours, NONE of the ones I had selected from the printed images to use for the sample piece were exactly right!’

We were thrilled that Alison was able to glean some useful information from our waistcoat, namely: chest size, construction methods and materials. As she worked on the replica, she came across many challenges – the tedium of pricking the pattern, the unfamiliarity of stitching on tapa, accurately matching the silver and coloured threads, and after 240 intensive hours of embroidering, the final construction. Alison had to go one step further than Elizabeth, and bravely cut the embroidered panels, in order to piece together the waistcoat.

Once the embroidery was completed, Alison had to cut the panels and complete the button holes. Photo courtesy of Alison Larkin.

Once the embroidery was completed, Alison had to cut the panels and complete the button holes. Photo courtesy of Alison Larkin.

On piecing it together Alison concluded, ‘James was a real string bean, even at the age of 50! 6′ 2″ tall and really slim. You can see this in the Webber portrait…’

Portrait of Captain James Cook RN. 1782 by John Webber Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra Purchased 2000 by the Commonwealth Government with the generous assistance of Robert Oatley AO and John Schaeffer AO Accession number: 2000.25

Alison’s completed waistcoat, which is a wonderful example of learning through the act of making, is currently on display in the exhibition Fashion and Fibres: Island Dress in Polynesia at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, England.  The exhibition, which focuses on the fibres and garments that Cook and his fellow voyagers collected during their expeditions, runs until 1 November 2015.

Alison Larkin's replica of Captain Cook's waistcoat on display at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby, 2015. Photo courtesy of Alison Larkin.

Alison Larkin’s replica of Captain Cook’s waistcoat on display at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby, 2015. Photo courtesy of Alison Larkin.

Alison, herself, can sometimes also be found on display at the museum in Whitby, dressed in period costume at her embroidery frame. She is now working on recreating Elizabeth Cook’s map sampler, which is held in the Australian National Maritime Museum. The map traces Captain Cook’s three voyages. As Marele Day imagines in her novel, embroidering such patterns was a way in which women could explore the new world themselves. For a recreationalist like Alison Larkin, it is a way of understanding the past.

Alison Larkin in costume as Elizabeth Cook. She is embroidering a replica of Elizabeth Cook’s map sampler of her husband’s voyages. Photo: Courtesy of Alison Larkin.

Read more about Alison Larkin’s projects on her blog.

 

 

4 Responses

  1. Patricia

    Waistcoats in history quite an amazing account linked to a great explorer, Captain Cooke. Ty

    Reply
  2. Claire Regnault

    Isn’t it a good story! And lucky you to see both the waistcoat and Alison in action. I visited Mansion House earlier this year, but alas ‘Elizabeth’ was not in residence that day.

    We are certainly looking forward to viewing Alison’s finished map, as I hear, via the Twittersphere, is the Australian National Maritime Museum.

    Reply
  3. Susan Whitford

    This is a wonderful textile story based on a waistcoat and I saw Alison’s beautiful replica in the Cooke Museum, Whitby this summer. I also saw her in the Mansion house, York dressed as Elizabeth Cooke embroidering the Voyages across the world map which promises to be an outstanding piece of embroidery, worthy of international interest.

    Reply
    • Claire Regnault

      Isn’t it a good story! And lucky you to see both the waistcoat and Alison in action. I visited Mansion House earlier this year, but alas ‘Elizabeth’ was not in residence that day.

      We are certainly looking forward to viewing Alison’s finished map, as I hear, via the Twittersphere, is the Australian National Maritime Museum.

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