Baby’s First Clothes – Clothing New-born Infants in Rural Ireland in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

By Anne O’Dowd

In 1940 the Irish Folklore Commission circulated a questionnaire – Old time Irish country dress – to schoolteachers in primary schools in the 26 counties of Ireland. It was devised to collect facts and traditions relating to clothing in a rural context regarding those with very little disposable income and who made their own clothes from homespun fabrics, and those with money to spare to buy both material and clothing, and to employ local tailors and dressmakers to make their clothes for them. It was a very long and detailed questionnaire. Despite this, it elicited 217 comprehensive responses pertaining to clothes worn in the period c. 1870-1920.

The section on new-borns asked for information on the clothing which was prepared for infants; the names, the colours and the makers of the individual garments; the materials from which they were made; the everyday clothes of babies and traditions regarding the first born vis à vis new or borrowed clothes.

Swaddling, or wrapping new-born children tightly in blankets or lengths of cloth to restrict movement, has a long and universal history. It is a practice which was frowned upon in the mid-18th century yet it survives as a tradition in many parts of the non-industrialised world. It was practised in a modified form throughout Ireland during the period as a means of soothing babies and helping them to sleep more soundly. Immediately after birth the baby might have been wrapped tightly in the mother’s nightdress, if a girl, and in the father’s shirt, if a boy. They might also have been wrapped snugly in lengths of white woollen material for the first few months. The first purposeful garment, as such, was a swaddling band which helped to support the child’s back. It was a narrow length of wool flannel or calico which was tightly wrapped several times around the infant’s body from the underarms to the hips. It was referred to descriptively as a ‘binder’, a ‘bandage’, a ‘swade’ or a ‘roller’ in English dialects and a binndelán in Irish.  Over this the baby wore a small shirt, also of calico, with either simple slits for the arms or short inset sleeves. It overlapped at the front where it was secured with cotton tapes. Napkins, which were also known as ‘hippins’ and ‘hiptuns’, and clúidín in Irish, were made from squares of old sheets or old shirts if the household budget did not stretch to buying more absorbent materials like towelling or flannelette. A ‘whittle’, also known as a ‘pilch’, was a triangular-shaped wrapper worn over the napkin. It was secured at the back of the child with a cotton tying. The most frequently mentioned garment was the ‘barrow’, or ‘barrowcoat’, and pluideóg or ceirteóg in Irish, which was made from wool flannel, an old blanket or one of the father’s old shirts. It was also a swaddling garment and it took the form of a long petticoat which was secured round the body at the waist. It stretched to below the feet where it was either pinned, or tied with flannel or cotton tapes. It was a garment which encased the babies’ feet and kept them warm, and it was believed to ensure that the child’s shins grew straight. The barrow was worn for the first four to five months and the binder for about twelve months. If the household budget could stretch to it, the mother dressed her new baby with a flannel frock or cotton dress over the ‘barracoat’, and occasionally babies wore small white cotton or linen caps for several months for both protection and warmth.

NFC MS755:405, Sketches of infant’s clothes from Áine MacLean, Falcarragh, Kilmacrenan, Co. Donegal, 1940

NFC MS 747:224 A sample pattern for a baby’s shirt of linen, from Brighid Ní Fhloinn, Kilmacshalgan, Tireragh, Co Sligo, 1940

There is a good deal of tradition surrounding the clothes we wore generally and none more so than with the clothing for babies where the belief and practice focussed on protection from both supernatural harm and physical illness. There was a connection with the colour red. A little red woollen quilt was placed over the child in the cradle, the swaddling binder was frequently red and a red ribbon was tied on a baby before it was taken from the house to be baptised. Regarding the first born child, it was unlucky for the mother to make the clothes – they were made by her mother, sisters, aunties or women friends.  Some of the clothes for the first born were to be made from old cloth and no new cradle was to be used. In fact the cradle could not be either made or bought by the parents, and unless the first child was rocked in a borrowed cradle there was a danger that the child would die or be spirited away by fairies. If this was not practical and a new cradle was made, it would have to include part of an old cradle in its making. As iron had the power to keep the fairies away, a tongs was placed across the cradle. This was a very strong tradition throughout Ireland and one which is connected with the mainly north European belief in the changeling, the belief that a baby or young child could be abducted by supernatural beings and replaced with a sickly ‘fairy’ child.

In many places it was also not lucky to make any clothes before the birth as the baby might die. The mother-to-be or her mother or other female relative prepared the material for the clothes, but none were made until the infant was safely delivered. With the introduction of community nursing and midwifery services in the early 20th century, visiting midwives and nurses no doubt contributed to the demise of this particular tradition by insisting that clothes be prepared before the birth.

Daniel McDonald’s, The discovery of the potato blight, 1847, and a detail of a baby with what is probably a red swaddling band wrapped around its stomach and back.

If a few babies in a family died in succession at a very young age, the parents promised to dress the next healthily born infant in white clothing for the first seven years of its life. A mother did not cut her baby boy’s hair until he was a few years old, otherwise the child would be delicate. And the infant’s nails were never cut but rather bitten off by the mother. They could be cut when the child reached the age of twelve months or so, otherwise the child would grow to be a thief.

As the child grew and developed and began to crawl around and even learned to stand, the clothes were shortened and the predominantly white colour worn until that point was replaced with either blue or red. Unlike the fashion introduced in the mid-twentieth century to dress girl babies in pink and boy babies in blue, the tradition was often the other way around. Girls were dressed in blue and boys were dressed in both pink (a tint of red) and red, both common colours for adult clothing at the time.

Images courtesy of the National Folklore Collection (NFC), University College Dublin.