The life and legacy of Thomas Coram

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A memorial stone

Memorial stone dedicated to Thomas Coram outlining his life and legacy

The exhibition ‘Thomas Coram: My Life and Legacy’ brought to life Thomas Coram’s overseas work and travels in America, and his 17-year campaign to establish his charity, then known as the Foundling Hospital, the first home for babies whose mothers were unable to care for them.

The  exhibition featured information panels and historic items, such as his prayer book and pocket book, as well as a replica of his famous red coat created by historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila, whose work has been seen in programmes including BBC 4’s A Stitch in Time.

Marking the 350th birthday of Thomas Coram it ran from September 2018 to May 2019.

Thomas Coram's prayer book

Thomas Coram’s personal prayer book displayed at Coram Campus in London

Discover Thomas Coram: My Life & Legacy

View our slideshow of Thomas Coram: My Life and Legacy exhibtion panels

Thomas Coram’s famous red coat

View our slideshow showing cutting and pinning the replica coat and the buttonholes

Thomas Coram sits proudly in his portrait by Hogarth. He is surrounded by items symbolising his work as a shipwright and travels. In pride of place, he is holding the charter  signed by King George II, granting him the right to open his Foundling Hospital. A striking red coat wraps around him, implying grandeur and strength. We wanted to create a replica …

The ‘Tudor Tailor’

An image of Ninya Mikhail, the 'Tudor Tailor' at work

Ninya Mikhail, the ‘Tudor Tailor’ at work recreating Thomas Coram’s coat

We got in touch with Ninya Mikhaila, the ‘Tudor Tailor’. Co-author of the best-selling book The Tudor Tailor: reconstructing 16th century dress, published by Batsford in 2006, she is a maker of high quality reconstructions and replicas of historic dress, working to the individual needs of heritage sites, museums and private clients. Clients include Historic Royal Palaces, The National Trust, English Heritage, The National Archives and the BBC.

Ninya aims to create museum quality garments and accessories, with each item handmade in appropriate materials with fastenings and trimmings reconstructed to be as close to the originals as possible and we knew she would be the right person to help us.

As Coram’s portrait is painted from the front, Ninya had to decide what was most likely for the back of the coat. She found a picture of a greatcoat that was held in the Royal Ontario Museum that is very similar to the one Thomas Coram wears in his portrait so she could see what the back of that was like. She also used her many books that had coat patterns from the 18th Century, and was able to find a likely template for the coat in the portrait.

Ninya drew around the pattern pieces onto broadcloth material, using tailor’s chalk and then cut them out. She said:

The high quality of this fabric means that you can just cut the edge completely raw and it won’t fray. It also means it hangs really beautifully because it doesn’t have turned bulky hems. – Ninya Mikhail, the ‘Tudor Tailor’

To sew the pieces together, Ninya used unbleached linen thread as “with period garments that survive we can see that the constructional seams that are going to be hidden away on the inside of a garment are always sewn with this undyed linen thread which is very strong and very functional”. Matching silk thread was saved for visible stitching, such as the button holes, and sewing on trims, the more decorative aspects.

For the button holes, Ninya uses a button-hole cutter. The holes look long, but only a small section is functional. “First I’ve sewn around a little box of running stitches to hold the layers of the facing and the top fabric together, and then the hole is cut, and then the functional button hole is worked and then the decorative part of the button hole is worked and that doesn’t have any opening at all”.

Sewing up the pieces

Ninya sewed all the pieces together with the help of her mock up …

This is a calico mock-up which I’ve made based on an original greatcoat in the ROM in Canada. I’ve made it exactly as that original and then compared it with the portrait of Thomas Coram to see what the differences are.  One of the differences is that in the portrait you can see that Thomas Coram’s cuffs are very large, so I’ll be extending those to be longer.

And I’ve altered the shape of the cape or collar a little bit so this is Thomas Coram’s finished cape with the silk velvet on the top. Although it looks very simple on the front of course it will have the detail of the button holes and buttons. There’s a pocket [in the back] which will have three button holes and buttons, and then a slit in the back which would make it much easier to sit either on a chair or a horse. It’s quite a simple and functional garment but made from extremely good quality materials and very typical of its time.

Ninya Mikhail, the ‘Tudor Tailor’

Ninya made a mock-up in calico before sewing the final garment