How to Make a Basic Essential Layette
for Eighteenth Century Re-enactor Infants
Blanket, Bedding, Basket
Squares of white wool flannel, roughly 24", would have been used for the "bed" under the swaddling band, and will also serve all the functions of the modern "receiving blanket"-as a light blanket, a bath towel, an improvised changing pad, or just a clean extra layer to put down so Baby can lie on it. Larger similar squares, roughly 36", will also be useful, especially as Baby grows. If they are well washed and the edges don’t ravel, you don’t even need to hem them. You’ll also want at least one heavier blanket. The size of this is up to you. If you’d like this to be in some color besides white, red was the traditional color for "bearing cloths" at christenings.
Many period images show cradles made of wicker or cane basketry. A basket-type bassinet is therefore a plausible choice for your baby’s sleeping arrangements. With luck, these can sometimes be found in local housewares stores.
Any padding or trimming that comes with your "Moses-basket" will probably be modern-looking, so you’ll want to remove them, or purchase a basket without them if you can.
If you’re doing a military camp-follower impression, you probably wouldn’t have special infant sleeping furniture. In this case, you might consider using a regular oval wicker laundry basket, as it will look more like you have improvised a bed for your baby. Christina Neitz reminds us that it’s best to choose one with vertical sides.
If you’re doing a civilian, domestic site interpretation, your site might like to consider acquiring a replica cradle correct to the time and place they interpret. But that’s getting out of the realm of a discussion of baby-linen. . .
Anyway, any of these will suffice for the first two or three months or so, but Junior will be learning to roll over before you know it, and will then be at risk of tipping over his basket. A properly designed cradle is relatively tip-proof, but even so, whenever you put your baby down to sleep by himself, you must, of course, be careful and stay mindful of all possible hazards.
Whatever you choose for Baby’s bed, you’ll want to equip it with some kind of padding. You can get a foam pad cut to fit your basket or cradle, and, for safety’s sake, be sure that it is cut to fit tightly. You’ll then need to make a fabric cover for the foam. But bear in mind that if you do use foam for Baby’s mattress, you’ll also need a waterproof layer to protect the foam from getting wet. Since none of the convenient modern waterproof materials are period-correct, you’ll have to factor authenticity and appearance into this decision. (You might consider whether the waterproof fabric made of a rubberized layer bonded between two layers of white cotton flannel is period-looking enough to suit you.)
Another period-looking, but washable, mattress can be made from a quilt-batting material called Warm-n-Natural. This is a cotton quilt-batting bonded to a virtually invisible synthetic layer, so that it will hold together in the washer and dryer. Pre-wash it and cut it to fit your baby’s bed, cutting as many layers as suits you. Stack the layers and then tack them together at roughly 4" intervals, to keep them from shifting. You’ll then make a linen or cotton mattress cover for it. It’s not as soft as a foam mattress, and you’ll want to add some kind of ties or other method of securing it in the basket, as it won’t stay wedged in place the way foam will. But it can be machine washed and dried, and, in looks and feel, it should pass muster with even the most hard-core purist.
Another possibility to line a baby basket, instead of a mattress, is a washable sheepskin, the shearling kind with the fleece still on it. If you get a larger one, you can cut it in half, giving you two pads for the baby basket, one to use while the other is being washed.
Ultimately, the best plan is for you to shop around, consider your options, and make your own compromises, with Baby’s safety and comfort as your first priority. Whether historical accuracy or your convenience becomes your second priority. Ah well, that’s your decision!