Jerkins lend themselves to activity. Being sleeveless, they can be layered over a variety of pieces, making them a versatile choice for travellers. As they journey with the wearer, they become articulate expressions of place; acting as a canvas for rich embroidery and intricate patterns, they communicate much to the beholder about where the wearer has been.
They’ve been coveted by many cultures for hundreds of years as an expression of a particular location. As part of Norweigan bunad clothing, jerkins can be traced back to the 14th century – the folk costume tradition in the Setesdal valley in Southern Norway has remained almost untouched. Today, people choose their bunad based on the origin of their ancestors, making them an expression of identity and belonging. Made from weighty wool, the jerkins are richly embroidered with patterns such as wild flowers that act as a type of handwriting, tracing a thread to local flora, no matter where the wearer wanders.
Elaborate embroidery also decorates Romanian examples known as pieptar, which are interwoven with folklore. The patterns differ between villages; the motifs are passed down through generations and stitched entirely by hand. Intertwined with local traditions, the jerkins are made from leather for warmth, then embellished with colourful beading and thread. These decorative motifs link each to a particular location, identifying its place of origin and by extension, the wearer’s roots. Ancestral symbols such as the tree of life or sun recur, alongside specific flowers or plants associated with a particular geographical region. When the wearer travels, they take with them an echo of home.
The notion of jerkins as an expression of place is by no means solely understood by rural people. It can also be seen in the actions of royalty, such as King Charles II in 17th century England. The jerkins that so fascinated the King were those worn in the court of Emperor Shah Abbas, one of the most splendid in Iranian history, with an abundance of opulent and luxurious textiles which began to influence English style. According to a contemporary account, before long, ‘his Majesty put himself solemnly into the Eastern fashion of vest, changing doublet, stiff collar, bands and cloak, into a comely dress after the Persian mode.’ He announced his commitment to the style by royal decree, ensuring the courtiers around him would be wearing the garment. This drew a link to a distant land, creating a tie to a leader he so admired for his extravagance. But while influenced by pieces rooted in the East, the examples became a new English style, unique to their location. Vivid in colour and highly ornate, they ushered in a new era of flamboyance at court.
Today, as well as being worn by wanderers, jerkins have found an additional context, having journeyed to be housed in museums across the world. A notable collection of Romanian styles is conserved at the Maryhill Museum of Art; the founder, Samuel Hill, was a friend of Queen Marie of Romania. She donated over 100 works of art and personal items to the museum in the 1920s, and this gift was the beginning of a fascinating collection Romanian folk dress. In Norway, the Institute of Bunad and Folk Costume holds extensive archives and runs classes to share knowledge on traditions. Pieces in both museums are catalogued to include information tying them to specific villages, geographical regions or artisan workshops, preserving these vital contexts for future generations. Even when no longer journeying, jerkins are inextricably tied to particular locations, expressing a rich cultural heritage through intimate articulations of place.
Words by Alice Simkins.
Illustrations by Molly Martin.
Shop our latest collection including our Floral Print Jerkin, which is inspired by folkloric pieces and lined with cotton salvaged from the TOAST pattern room and production process.