I have a basketful of textile-related Easter scraps for you to enjoy.
The Cambridgeshire town of St Ives traditionally held its famous medieval cloth fair over Easter. The fair was established by royal charter in 1110 and was, in its heyday, one of the largest in Europe. It sold everything from fine silks and brocades (several kings bought their textiles there) to the coarsest linen and hessian. The purveyors of the latter were based in St Audrey’s Lane, giving rise to the word ‘tawdry’ (referring to cheap and gawdy finery) or so the story goes, though I suspect OED lexicographers might well roll their eyes and dispute this. I think I can state with some certainty, however, that it was this St Ives (rather than the Cornish one) which gave rise to the rhyme ‘As I was going to St Ives I met a man with seven wives’.
For centuries, new clothes worn at this time of year appear to have symbolised the spiritual renewal of Easter, as well as reflecting the irrepressible regeneration of spring. The superstitious belief that neglecting to make some kind of change to one’s clothing could encourage lasting misfortune seems to have been widespread. It is corroborated by this eighteenth century English doggerel:
‘At Easter let your clothes be new, or else be sure you will it rue.’
And wearing new clothes to church at Easter became viewed as essential to ensure good fortune; this made it a particularly fortunate time of year for tailors and cobblers. For those who couldn’t afford to replace what they wore, alterations and embellishments – a new lace trim, for instance – were viable options. Here’s an entry from Samuel Pepys‘ diary for 30 March 1662 (Easter Day):
‘Having my old black suit new furbished, I was pretty neat in clothes to-day, and my boy, his old suit new trimmed, very handsome.’
In Wales, at least one new item of clothing, preferably brightly coloured, was to be worn on Easter day. It was also traditional to baptise children today, their new clothes suggestive of the new character they would assume.
The custom of clúdóg was observed in Ireland; children visited relatives or godparents in their best clothes, carrying woollen stockings in which gifts of raw eggs, cakes and sweets were placed. The youngsters would then wander out to find a spot for some al fresco egg-cooking and a picnic. Knowing how often it rains in Ireland, one wonders how much success they met with. Eggs were also boiled with laundry blue to colour them, or with onion skins (to turn them yellow), before painting them.
In Brittany, new clothes, coifs and shoes were worn to mass, and hard-boiled eggs given as presents in knotted handkerchiefs.
A vestige of this focus on new or overhauled clothing has come down to us with the notion of the Easter bonnet, often embellished to excess with ribbons, frills, flowers, etc, even if that too is pretty much a distant memory. Thank goodness Irving Berlin immortalised it thus. Enjoy your eggs!