How to Make a Basic Essential Layette
Swaddling not only kept the baby warm and ensured the straightness of its limbs, it also afforded a measure of safety in a pre-industrial family where everybody over the age of five had other work to do than baby-tending. A swaddled baby, all its body encased and its wobbly head securely fastened, could be left in very inexperienced hands, or by itself, with little risk of harm. By the mid eighteenth century, only the more progressive parents had begun to reduce or eliminate the swaddling clothes their babies wore.
A swaddled baby was first dressed in a front opening linen shirt (not a shift) and its clout or diaper, then wrapped in a barrow or bed, which was a square of wool flannel roughly 24" x 24". The bottom of the barrow was turned up over its feet. The swaddling band was a piece of linen roughly 3" x 120" wound spirally from chest to feet and then back up again. As a midwife of 1671 put it:
". . roul it up in soft cloths and lay it in the cradle but in the swaddling of it be sure that all parts be bound up in due place and order gently without any crookedness or rugged foldings; for infants are tender twigs and as you use them, so will they grow straight or crooked. . lay the arms right down by the sides that they may grow right. . After four months let them loose the arms, but still roul the breast and feet to keep out cold air for a year till the child have gained strength. Shift the child’s clouts often for the Piss and Dung." [quoted in Buck, p. 24]
Although she recommends swaddling for a year, by the mid 18th century, babies were usually swaddled for only the first two or three months, the exact length of time depending on the weather, the child’s constitution, the family’s resources and other factors.
Over the swaddling band, the baby would wear a waistcoat, mantle or robe, sleeved or sleeveless, open down the front, made of linen, wool or silk, and extending at least 12" below the baby’s feet. Over that went a bib about 12" long.
Babies wore two or three biggins or caps until one year of age, plus the forehead cloth, 2" x 15", which passed over the top of the baby’s head and was pinned to its shoulders to securely stabilize the head and neck. Sometimes the forehead cloth was replaced by a more elaborate garment that passed over the top of the baby’s head, pinned to its shoulders, and extended down both sides of its body all the way to the feet. This was called the "long stay".
Over everything else went two or three blankets . . In actual practice, you could leave off a good many of the period baby’s layers and no one would notice. A reasonable minimum for a reenacting baby is a linen shirt, linen clout (diaper), linen or wool barrow, linen cap, a linen belly band about 3" x 45" to secure the barrow, and perhaps one light wool blanket. If hot weather is a problem, remember that linen is far and away the coolest fabric to wear and well worth the expense.
(quoted from Burnston, "Portraying the Eighteenth Century Baby & Child", Muzzleloader, Jan/Feb 2004, Pp. 49-50)
In other words, if your objective is a quick-and-simple infant wardrobe, swaddling is period-correct and has much to recommend it. It requires just a shirt, a cap, a diaper or "clout", a "bed" which is a 24" square of well-washed wool flannel, and the roller, a hemmed length of linen roughly 3" x 120". The roller holds everything else in place and tape-ties hold the roller in place. Any supplemental layers, such as a forehead-cloth, are attached to the roller with straight pins, but the baby, theoretically at least, is so well secured by its wrappings that it should not get hurt by the pins. With only a little practice, it won’t take "considerable time" either, to swaddle and unswaddle a baby, as some modern authors would have you believe.
What’s more, the latest advice on infant-care indicates that swaddling is now back in favor, widely recommended as beneficial to a baby’s well-being. Swaddling is hailed for its efficacy in soothing restless babies, particularly colicky ones, in facilitating sleep, and even in reducing risks of SIDS. A Google-search will provide you with a plethora of testimonials on the benefits of swaddling, advice on how to swaddle using a blanket, and all sorts of the latest-model of proprietary swaddling-gadgets you can buy. (Most testimonials are accompanied by a caution about the risks of a blanket-swaddled baby becoming overheated, an important consideration at warm summer events.)
However, the traditional mode of swaddling, which employs the roller bandage secured over the "bed", or light blanket, isn’t currently being touted. It’s considered a skill, something of a lost art. So, if your baby already enjoys the sensation of blanket-swaddling in "regular" life, there is no reason you cannot blanket-swaddle him at events, using a light-weight period-looking blanket. But if you wish to swaddle your baby in the correct 18th c. manner, you must understand that you are doing it at your own risk. Before you take your baby swaddled 18th c. style to a reenactment, you should consult your pediatrician.
For liability reasons, I AM NOT RECOMMENDING 18th c. SWADDLING.
Quite frankly, if it were me, I would try it, but I cannot recommend anyone else to. You really must understand the swaddling process, know your baby, be a very tuned-in parent, know how to interpret your baby’s signals of comfort or distress, and be prepared to accept the consequences if anything should go wrong.
As regards 18th century baby clothing, there were other commonly-used garments intended to support an infant’s abdomen, including a belly-band, (which is essentially an abbreviated swaddling band, roughly 3" x 45" with tape ties at one end), also miniature stays, and something Hannah Glasse called a "surcingle":
". . a surcingle made of fine buckram two inches broad covered over with sattin, or fine ticken, with a ribbon fastened to it, to tye it on, which answers every purpose of stays, and has none of their inconveniences." (Glasse p. 44)
(Unfortunately, Mrs. Glasse doesn’t say how long the surcingle was supposed to be made, nor how to prevent it from slipping.)
Since we in the 21st c. believe that an infant does not really require abdominal support, and since we in the 21st c. are much more concerned about entangling, choking and other such hazards, I feel obliged to recommend that the roller, the belly-band and the surcingle all be dispensed with. The wide waistband of the petticoat will be sufficient to hold your baby’s shirt closed. As stated above in the instructions for the petticoat, you can, if you desire, add interfacing to stiffen the petticoat waistband, which will give it more of the effect of a support-garment. Nobody is likely to object that your baby is lacking an extra separate layer of abdominal support, and if they do, you can explain your concern for your baby’s comfort and safety, which should be quite sufficient to justify your having chosen to eliminate this layer.