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The Palmwood wreck and the precious clothes that survived almost 4 centuries at the bottom of the sea

Information from the website of:
Museum Kaap Skil
Heemskerckstraat 9
1792 AA Oudeschild, Texel

Hundreds of ships were wrecked in the area once known as Texel Roads, in the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands. Texel is the largest and most populated island of the West Frisian Islands.
This occurred mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries due to storms, lightning, fire or a ship running aground on the sandbank. Nothing remains of most of the ships, but some were covered by mud and sediment shortly after sinking. This prevented further decay, ensuring that these wrecks were preserved as time capsules on the seabed. Since the 1970s, the sand has sometimes been washed away, causing the wrecks to be discovered. If nature takes its course, they deteriorate quickly. Divers monitor the wrecks for this reason.

In 2010, the discovery of the Palmwood wreck was first reported. The wreck lay on the Burgzand, a part of the Wadden Sea east of Texel, where many others have been found. In the summer of 2014, the wreck was so exposed that divers were able to recover artefacts from it.

Many boxwood logs were found on the upper layer of the wreck, which may have been the deck. The wreck owes its name to this high-quality hardwood, also known as palm wood. Palm wood was mainly used for tool handles and for making luxury furniture.

Very few 17th century textiles are preserved in good condition and these are almost never found in wrecks. This is due to the fact that textiles are the fastest to deteriorate. When textiles are found in a wreck, they are almost always small fragments of woollen maritime clothing. The fact that the textiles from the Palmwood Wreck are mostly still intact makes these finds so unique. Real treasures are, in addition to the silk dress, finely worked silk stockings, an oriental caftan and a silver wedding dress: super-luxurious dresses that only the elite could afford.

Silk dress

The 17th century dress that emerged from the bottom of the Wadden Sea has become one of the highlights of Museum Kaap Skil’s collection. The precious garment is still in surprisingly good condition despite the fact that it remained at the bottom of the sea for almost four centuries. It is a unique discovery; very few garments from the 17th century are so well preserved. Scientists think it will take years to answer all the questions the dress has raised.

The dress is made of silk satin, decorated with a woven floral pattern. In the 17th century, it would have been referred to as a gown or tabard. Although the dress now has a coloured appearance that includes cream, red and brown dyes, it is likely that the dress was originally single-coloured. It is likely that the initial dyes have perished, while stains have occurred due to dye residue from other garments in the same chest.

The dress consists of a bodice with a wide pleated skirt that fans out at the front. One or more petticoats would have been worn underneath. The bodice has attached sleeves with wide flounces and sleeve covers. Silk tassels would have adorned the sleeves and been decorated with silver or gold buttons. All that is still visible of the buttons are the impressions in the fabric. A raised collar of linen or lace would have been worn around the neckline, supported by a supportasse or rebato: a metal construction on the shoulders. The garment would have been further decorated with silver and gold detailing on the collar, bodice, sleeves and skirt.

The style of the dress is very similar to Western European fashion in the early 17th century, between about 1620 and 1630. We can see several similar garments on paintings from this period. There seem to be slightly greater similarities with English costumes, but the dress would also fit the style of the Dutch Republic or other parts of north-western Europe. It is not excluded that the garment was made in one country and transported to another place. After all, the garment was travelling. For some time it was thought that the dress had belonged to the English countess Jane Ker but this hypothesis was later abandoned.

The expensive materials used and the connection to the fashion of the time suggest that the owner belonged to the upper classes and was very wealthy. The dress would have been suitable mainly for everyday occasions. For important occasions at court, such as coronations and weddings, the garments would have been worn with more extensive use of silver thread and gold or silver cloth.

The dress and other unique finds from the Palmwood wreck are on display in a spectacular new exhibition. A special oxygen-free display case has been created for the dress, which will optimally preserve this precious piece and allow it to be viewed from all angles

Wedding Dress

Among the textile finds that have made the Palmwood Wreck world famous is a second extremely unusual dress. Research has shown that it was probably a wedding dress. With the woven silver discs and embroidered silver thread motifs it must have been, literally and figuratively, a dazzling dress!

Compared to the other Palmwood Wreck dress, the wedding dress consists of several separate parts. The main parts of the garment, consisting of the bodice and skirt, are still attached. The attachment seams of smaller parts, such as collars, sleeves and oversleeves, are probably deteriorated. It is also possible that they were never attached to the dress. These parts were often only fastened with pins during dressing. The other parts have been found but are not all on public display.
At first glance, this appears to be a brown dress, but this would not have been the original colour. The dress was most probably made of lightly coloured silk (probably white or cream) and the entire surface was covered with silver decorations. These consisted of small silver discs woven into the silk in the shape of love knots. This is a repetitive pattern of hearts knotted together: very appropriate for a wedding dress! Silver fades and decays rather quickly in the salty environment of the Wadden Sea, but traces and patterns of the original decorations are still visible.

Because it was so richly decorated with silver, the dress would have had a formal, light and glittering appearance. It must have been one of the most unusual dresses that a lady of the upper classes in Western Europe would have worn in her lifetime. The dress was suitable for special occasions such as engagements, coronations and weddings. If it had been worn as a wedding dress, the bride would have been the dazzling centrepiece of the wedding ceremony. Which immensely rich lady would have promised her husband eternal fidelity wearing this exclusive dress will always remain a mystery. The style and origin of this wedding dress are very similar to the other Palmwood Wreck dress, but the two dresses differ in size.

Red bodice

The red bodice is one of the best preserved articles of clothing found in the Palmwood Wreck. The colours and ornaments are still beautiful to see and there are various well-preserved details on the front and back. This makes it possible to determine precisely how the garment was made and how it would have been worn.

The bodice would have been worn with sleeves, most probably of a different material. It includes loops to which a separate belt or skirt could have been attached. The loops sewn around the neck could have been designed to attach a collar, or perhaps for jewellery or pearls.
The bodice consists of several parts of the motif: two wide front parts, two narrow side parts, fourteen decorative flaps at the bottom – all made of red brocade – and two back parts of dark red damask. The back parts have at least thirteen eyelets and the lower part of the front parts has five more. Inside one can see the remains of a simple beige silk lining. The entire bodice was probably lined with this material. Imprints of whalebone reinforcements are also visible.

The details in the design of the bodice correspond to typical clothing styles of the early 17th century in Northern Europe. These types of garments were worn in the German regions, Bohemia, Denmark and the Dutch Republic.

Katfan

Most of the garments found in the Palmwood wreckage are of western origin, but there are also some with an eastern appearance. One such example is this velvet robe, which may have been a caftan.

The robe consists of two parts: a jacket and a short skirt. Since the torn edges match, it is assumed that the pieces were connected. The oriental-style robe was possibly a kaftan of the Ottoman Empire, although it differs in many ways from the well-known Ottoman kaftans of the 17th century. The garment also shares similarities with a number of preserved garments from Eastern Europe. The style of the large silver buttons appears to be Persian and two buttons appear to be missing.

Although the origin is not entirely certain, it is clear that the kaftan-style garment was once extremely valuable. The bright red colour comes from American cochineal, one of the world’s most exclusive dyes in the 17th century. The fibres of the garment are very fragile.

You can find much more information on the Museum