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A black and white photo of a body armour and helmet of layered cotton 2 cm thick with a smooth surface

Cloth body armour with shoulder flaps and helmet with cheek and neck flaps, captured from Tipu Sultan in 1799, Victoria and Albert Museum catalogue numbers 3517:1to:6/(IS)

Sultan Tipu was a warrior king, and like a warrior king he died when his enemies stormed his palace. Those enemies seized his treasury and hauled it to London, and as London has not been sacked since, most of his treasure is still there. Amidst the jewelled patas and the musical automata is a cloth armour.

Lord Egerton of Tatton described this armour on page 124 of his Indian and Oriental Armour (1896):

589. QUILTED HELMET AND CUIRASS. Worn by Tippoo Sultan. The helmet, which is very large and provided with flaps at the back and sides, is composed of many thicknesses of a coarse cotton fabric compactly quilted together. It is covered with dark green silk or satin, and lined with velvet of the same colour. On the inside of the flap at the back is embroidered an inscription to the effect that the helmet has been dipped in the holy well of Zam-Zam, at Mecca, and is therefore impenetrable.

The cuirass, nearly an inch in thickness, is composed of the same material, covered with green velvet. It is fastened by lacing in front, and provided with armholes and epaulettes at the sides. Presented by the besiegers of Seringapatam.

Today the silk has darkened to a purplish colour. A closeup photo shows how difficult it is to see the quilting marks, although the seams between different wedges of cloth are visible.

Helmet covered in smooth silk with flaps for the cheeks and back of neck

A colour closeup photo of Tipu Sultan’s lucky helmet. Although the armour is quilted, only the seam marks and the coloured embroidery are visible. Victoria and Albert Museum, catalogue number 3518(IS).

These Indian “petí” cuirasses are the functional equivalent of the tube-and-yoke armour popular in the Classical Mediterranean. A line drawing would depict the surface of the armour as smooth except for the seams and embroidery. Half a dozen examples of similar armour from India, China, and the mountains between are known, but this one has a clear description and a known origin. A British antiques dealer has posted some photos of another example:

Closeup of the bottom front of an armour, with undyed second layer visible through holes in embroidered velvet covering

Closeup of a cuirass in the style of those captured at Seringapatam in 1799, from collection of Ashoka Arts, England. Collector states that “the backing of patterned silk covers the main body of thick leather, with some slight central padding, the front is covered with bright red velvet embroidered in patterns with coloured silks. two double rows of silver rings allow the girdle to be worn around the waist, and a cord with metallic thread detail and a green semi precious stone form the means for tying it on. There is some minor wear to the front velvet mainly on the lugs holding the silver rings, and the silk backing survives in extremely fragile condition.”

Documents from 15th century Europe also proscribe armour made from many layers of linen cloth. Early armour scholars like Charles ffoulkes spent long days going through dusty parchments and volumes of documents to gather these texts, and longer hours turning them into books. Most of these texts just say that the armour was made of a certain number of folds of linen, sometimes covered with leather, and imply that the armour was put together like any other garment. Medieval European armours stuffed with rags, tow, or raw cotton were certainly quilted together, since a number such armours survive and have been described in print. Because of their loose filling, these armours often have visible quilting lines so resemble Greek armour less closely.

Hoplite armed with plate greaves, a soft cuirass with shoulder flaps, and a bronze Corinthian helmet

A hoplite wearing armour with shoulder flaps pours a libation in an Athenian red-figure vase (early fifth century BCE, catalogue number and location not known).

Another kind of Indian soft armour, the “coat of a thousand nails,” was covered with velvet, lined with silk, and ornamented with large rivets and small nails in a complex pattern. H. Russell Robinson wrote that these nails “were simply bent over at the back” and when I read his book I thought that he meant that they were bent over on the inside of the armour. A few years ago some conservators at the Hermitage were cleaning and restoring one of these armours, and they took a photo of it with the velvet cover removed. I will let you see for yourself what is inside:

A "coat of a thousand nails" undergoing cleaning and restoration.  Seems to be same armour sketched in H. Russell Robinson, "Oriental Armour" fig. 52d.  Photo c/o Department of Scientific Restoration and Conservation, State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad (Link).

A “coat of a thousand nails” undergoing cleaning and restoration. Seems to be same armour sketched in H. Russell Robinson, Oriental Armour fig. 52d. Photo c/ Department of Scientific Restoration and Conservation, State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad (Link).

Puffy quilting is hidden under the velvet cover! The nails are purely decorative! They just go through the outer velvet! Even though this armour is thin and has a hard, squared appearance there is soft material inside which the quilting has compressed. The velvet stretches over these quilt lines and hides them. An artful tailor can hide the quilting lines on an armour stuffed with soft, compressible material. I see no reason to believe that the linen-armourers of classical Athens were any less artful than the cotton-armourers of eighteenth-century Mysore.

I know of a dozen kinds of cloth armour from five continents which were sewn and quilted together, but I have never read of a historical piece which was glued together. Thanks to the loving labour of scholars like Tatton, Charles ffoulkes, and H. Russell Robinson, and the good works of Dover Press which continues to reprint their work, a range of useful texts and descriptions are readily available in English. In the history of armour, good ideas often reappear thousands of miles and thousands of years apart, so there is no need to resort to pure imagination to interpret poorly-documented types of armour. I would recommend that anyone who wishes to recreate a Greek “breastplate of linen” experiment with layered and quilted cloth and leave the glue-pot in the cupboard.

Further references: V&A catalogue entry for the armour (larger photo available), V&A catalogue entry for the helmet (larger photos available), Ashoka Arts catalogue entry for their cuirass (more photos available), collection of sources on European jacks, H. Russell Robinson, Oriental Armour (1968, Dover reprint available), Lord Egerton of Tatton, Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour (1896, Dover reprint available), a pata or gauntlet sword (Metropolitian Museum, NY, accession number 36.25.1538), and Tipu’s musical tiger automaton (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, accession no. 2545(IS)).