What Did Mary Brewster Wear?

What did Mary Brewster and her family wear? To celebrate the release of Mary Brewster’s Love Life, I thought you might enjoy learning a bit about how people of her class and time period dressed. The Brewster family clothes most likely resembled those of other common folks; they had to be sturdy and practical. The most common material for clothing was wool, which people spun into yarn. First, they sorted the wool, then carded, or combed it into yarn. They then wove the yarn into cloth on a loom. They dyed the wool, using a variety of natural materials such as plants and nuts to provide a variety of colors for their wardrobes.

Dyes that rendered clothing red, purple, or indigo were expensive, thus most Separatist women wore clothing dyed brown, yellow, or blue. Many of the exiled Separatists living in Holland before sailing aboard the Mayflower worked in local textile factories. Some had looms in their homes where they made material to sell.

Not All Black and White

 All those paintings and images you’ve seen depicting Pilgrims dressed in black or gray and white, with buckled shoes and hats, are more legendary than accurate descriptions of their clothing. Buckles were expensive and didn’t become common until later in the seventeenth century. Most days people wore various colored garments, reserving black or gray outfits for special occasions and the Sabbath.

Their undergarments were made of linen. Only the rich could afford cotton or silk. Women typically wore a petticoat, smock, shift, or chemise made of linen or wool with a wool dress over it. The dress consisted of a skirt and bodice, with sleeves connected with laces. The outfit was completed with a linen apron, which helped keep the skirt clean and could easily double as a sort of bag to hold things from the garden.

Government Regulations?

Washing one’s hair was a rare luxury. Men and women wore hats to keep hair in place. Mary wore the typical linen cap, known as a coif. By the mid-1500s English law required men to wear a woolen cap on Sundays, perhaps a government subsidy plan to support the wool cap makers.

Buttons were reserved for decoration. People used laces or pins to hold clothing together. Fur garments came from cats, rabbits, beavers, bears, badgers, and polecats. They also used leather laces to tie their shoes. Women who could afford to do so hung containers of sweet-smelling spices, called pomanders, around their waists to disguise the horrid smells in the streets! Or in the case of Mary Brewster and her peers, to cover the foul smells aboard the ship.

Pack Very Lightly

Those who decided to emigrate to the New World had very limited space to pack personal items such as clothes. The chest the Brewster family brought with them on the Mayflower is on display at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, MA. The 30” high by 50.5” wide by 19” deep chest had to hold everything the family would need for the long journey and their first months in their new home. It is made of Norwegian pine, readily available in Holland due to frequent trading between Holland and Norway. A chest was functional not only to hold their meager possessions, but could double as a table, a place to sit, or even a bed. People in that era often preferred to sleep sitting up; so a chest against a wall would make an adequate resting place.

As for what to carry in the chest, Mary probably relied on the suggestions contained in the “Provisions Lists” compiled by earlier settlers to Virginia. The lists suggested the amount of clothing, tools, household implements, and food each colonist should bring to last for the first year.

“Bring a Good Store”

Fellow Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow advised others planning to join the fledgling Plimoth Plantation colony to “bring a good store of clothes and bedding with you. Bring every man a musket. Bring paper and linseed oil for your windows, with cotton yard for your lamps.”

Being several months along in her pregnancy, Susanna White perhaps also convinced her husband William they had to bring along a cradle when they left Holland. She delivered Peregrine in November 1620 while the Mayflower was anchored in Provincetown Harbor. The infant’s name means “traveler” or “pilgrim. The cradle is on display at Pilgrim Hall. Since all the women continued to live on the ship for months as the men built their first houses, it is likely our Mary Brewster took a turn at rocking baby Peregrine to sleep in the cradle.

After they sailed away from Europe Mary Brewster and the others had to produce everything they needed until the next ships from Europe sailed into Cape Cod Bay. Eventually, they were able to get new supplies from Europe and life improved. When he died in 1643/4, Mary’s husband Elder William Brewster left a will that listed his possessions. The list included, “oneblew clothe suit, green drawers, a vilolete clothe coat, black silk stockings, skyblew garters, red grograin suit, red waistecoast, twany colored suit with silver buttons.”

Information for this article came from Local Histories, Learner.org, Mental Floss, and Pilgrim Hall.  Photo credit: Plimoth Plantation, Collection of Henry Price.

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Mary Brewster’s Love Life and Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures:
available wherever books are sold.
Bookshop.org (Support local Bookshops)
Autographed copies are available from my website.



  1. Maggie McJannet

    Very chewy post,,,lots there,,,,
    but guess what I am remembering as it comes time to comment?
    Cats!!! They used cats for fur.
    As I type this my ‘Puss’ is purring on my right arm

    Maybe I will come back later and comment,,,
    but right now,,,I am a wee bit discombobulated

  2. In all my research I never came upon anything indicating that our Pilgrim ancestors used cats for fur clothing; though I did just learn that they may have come along on the Mayflower. That was news to me. I’ll have to dig a bit deeper.

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