The value of these simple and inexpensive instruments has been proved in too many cases to need any argument in their favour

So I finally made a costume which, when shown to the husband got the following reaction, “Amazing, can I try it on, I want one!” Its taken a while, he has a bit of a costume phobia to be fair, however it turns out he is more than willing to dress up as a 1854 Lifeguard.

Today’s life jackets are light, simple to put on and fairly easy to wear, I own one which I wear when coxing.

However early life jackets were a different story “personal flotation devices” in one form or another date back nearly as far as boats. They where not part of the standard equipment issued to sailors until the early 19th century, despite the fact very few of them could swim and many were press-ganged into serving, they worried they would use them to try and escape! I have a distant relative who fought in the battle of Trafalgar (seadog stock that I am) and I find this fascinating.

However when formal lifesaving services started to be established, the need for reliable PFD’s started to become clear. These brave men and women (see Grace Darling, who took a rowing boat out in a storm and saved lives…in early Victorian skirts and petticoats, she rocked) were heading out in terrible conditions trying to save lives while risking their own, again many could not swim, not that swimming would make much difference is a storm, however the need was established.

Captain Ward, a Royal National Lifeboat inspector created a cork vest in 1854 to be worn by all lifeboat crews. It was designed to allow some freedom of movement for rowing or swimming but more importantly, should they go overboard keep them on the surface and give them a fighting chance of getting back in the boat alive, this is the style of lifejacket I am recreating.


This style of life jacket was worn for about fifty years and was responsible for saving many lives before being replaced by a new design using kapok, a soft, fibrous vegetable material, which made the jackets much lighter. These are styles worn on the titanic that helps most people visualize them, thanks to the many retellings of this story!

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 10.25.56

Back to our Life jacket: You can see an original serving cork life jacket from this period and learn more about the history of life jackets here:

To make my replica I’m working from the original design for this jacket, in addition to this I was able to visit the RNLI Henry Bloggs Museum In Cromer and have a closer look at another replica, the husband kindly modeled, although it should be noted he is wearing it back to front as unlike modern life jackets this jacket does up at the back.





The first challenge is sourcing the cork, as this is the main ingredient!

So what is cork, other than something, which comes in the top of wine bottles? Well Cork is a bark tissue primarily from the cork oak tree, it is both impermeable and buoyant material. It can be harvested again and again (every nine years or so) without killing the tree making it fairly sustainable

Our cork came from Portugal where about 34% of the worlds cork supply comes from, each piece was cut and shaped to match the original design before being shipped to me saving me a lot of work and mess!

If you want to see pictures of the cork extraction process try this site:

You will open your next bottle of wine with a new respect for cork!

The first thing I needed to do was draw up a pattern based on the original drawing, which has lots of helpful notes and measurements for construction, the jacket is a one size fits all number with adjustable shoulder and waist straps.


The based of the jacket is Canvas, the original is quite a dark tan coloured canvas and a colour which is quite hard to find now, as most canvas is sold in a milky cream colour more like artists canvas, you could dye it to suit but I managed to find a good match for the original in a weatherproof cotton canvas which I have used before for making turn of the century explorers outfits. The husband didn’t mind these ether, although sometimes I feel like I am hogging all of the glamorous costume jobs! (Give me cork and canvas over feathers and sequins ANYDAY)

The buckles and eyelets were brass and I needed to find both a good tactile and visual match, this took some hunting on the buckle front, as the design in the original patent is quite distinctive, After much searching I finally found a match which also had some weight to it, the eyelets were matched to the buckles rather than solely to the design, so the belt fastening would function properly.

Next the cork needed to be cut to allow them to be stitched to the canvas vest, Rather than stitching through the cork you cut a slit into each piece then run the thread through this to hold it firm. I imagined a small light hack saw would do the job, but cork is quite hard and I had to keep up grading! I marked each piece with chalk first, checking they matched both the reinforcement stripes on the vest and each other before cutting. It dint have any spare cork so could not risk any mistakes!


Next the cork pieces needed to be matched to their place on the vest and lines chalked on the vest to ensure they are stitched in the right place, a few millimeters in the wrong direction and the whole thing will look wrong.


The original jackets used twine to stitch each cork piece to the jacket; I used a similar looking thick cotton thread. The cork is stitched so that when the jacket is worn it does not move, I stitching the cork to the canvas by running the thread through the slips and tying it off on the inside. This get harder to do the more pieces you have attached, as the jacket will only fold inwards and the whole thing has to be fully flipped flat to access the wrong side, cork is also quite heavy so the whole process is quite physically hard. Once completed the whole jacket weights about half a stone, 4kg, which makes it seem impossibly heavy for something which is meant to keep you afloat! It is also quite large, it makes my husband xx ins larger around he chest when worn which would make it harder to row in, perhaps one day we will be able to test this theory out, wouldn’t that be fun…


Life jackets were sold to merchant ships by the RNLI in wooden chests, and seeing the size of the completed jacket you would need a good sized chest to keep a few in!

Anyway here is the completed life jacket; I’m rather pleased with it




About lholmes4keats

I have worked with Museums across the UK for the last ten years making costumes for exhibitions on everything from The Titanic to Tyrannosaurs. I have Run workshops and lectures on costume both nationally and internationally, my work has featured in exhibitions, films and theatre productions both nationally and internationally. In 2011 I curated The Needle is always at hand, an exhibition of dress based on Fanny Brawne's life while she lived at Keats House.
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4 Responses to The value of these simple and inexpensive instruments has been proved in too many cases to need any argument in their favour

  1. Hi, I’m about to undertake a very similar project! I’m a student at Arts University Bournemouth and I’d love to chat to you in a bit more detail about your work.The task of reproducing a cork lifejacket is rather daunting! Could you possibly email me directly at I’d be incredibly grateful. Many thanks.

  2. If for some reason that email address isn’t working, my business address is Can’t wait to discuss this amazing project! 🙂

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