The Second Annual

Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 15 to August 15,  2012

Caryn DeCrisanti

Caryn DeCrisanti
Connecticut, USA

I first started sewing as a kid with a LOT of help from my mother. A few years ago, I found the SCA and decided to try sewing renaissance clothing. Several false starts over a couple years and I finally (mostly) finished my first set of garb and followed it up with a still-incomplete kirtle. Since I tend to stop when I run into a problem, the inspiration and motivation of the challenge will help push me through.

At this starting point, I have no idea what I'm going to do exactly. I started drooling over Florentine dresses after I fell in love with Bronzino's portraits of a young woman with a book and Bia de Medici. While I hope to someday make a dress similar to theirs, I want to make a later period dress for this competition with a kirtle underneath for support, but not the perfect smooth front that those portraits show. Right now, I'm looking somewhere between 1550 and 1600 and will go where my fabric and trim finds take me. Fortunately, I can make my drawers and kirtle without regard to the gown.

Dress diary:

Layer 1
My plan: drawers based on Kat's Florence Files.

Layer 2
My plan: An orange linen sottana and/or and underskirt.
 SOTTANA (main dress)
"Sotto" means "under" but was used as a dress on its own; roughly equivalent to the English petticoat; usually had detached sleeves; was stiffened with cardboard, hardened linen or padding; generally square-necked; closings were typically side-back
Frequently worn beneath a veste with just sleeves or a doublet; may have been a decorative skirt front with plain fabric in the back; used in place of a farthingale with felt-stiffened hems; frequently had a "tuck" in addition to the stiffened hem

Layer 3
My plan: A grey veste in the French fashion.
A close-fitting overdress; could be referred to as a "French style"; does not require a separate sottana; frequently worn with an underskirt and sleeves and/or a doublet;

Layer 4
My plan: A back-opening partlet with figure eight ruffle.
It's a partlet not much to say.

My Concept:
Picture 1 below is my inspiration, or at least, the closest compilation of the elements I want to mimic. My plan is to make a high-necked veste with small shoulder rolls and split over sleeves with contrasting undersleeves and underskirt.

Picture 2 shows more of this style of dress than picture one, particularly the matching undersleeves and underskirt. Picture 3 is an interesting one of both a later period and different part of Italy, however, it clearly shows "changeable" cloth for the underdress. Lastly, picture 4 shows that the partlet is connected in the front the ruffles have a distinct, continuous line this is why I am going to try out a back opening partlet.

1. Portrait of an unknown woman, Alessandro Allori, circa 1580s

2. Portrait of Isabella de Medici, Alessandro Allori circa 1555-1558

3. Portrait of a lady, Giovanni Batista Moroni, circa 1556-1560

4. Portrait of unknown woman, Alessandro Allori, circa 1570-1575

A bargain hunting trip to Joann Fabrics found me this "crinkle" grey taffeta for $6/yard and a changeable red/black upholstery taffeta for $3/yard! Add in Joann's coupons and this was a total score, even if they are unidentified plastic fibers. The grey will be the veste and the changeable red will be the underskirt/sleeves (like picture 3 above). I don't know if the crinkle is strictly period, but I like it! I spent some time in the trim aisle and decided to go with some black velvet ribbon, though the final layout will require some testing for prettiness. After a week's contemplation, I suddenly realized that I could use the silk velvet remnants my aunt gave me a few months back and make my own guards/trim in black, or I think there is a red velvet also. 

While I was all ready to dive in and go nuts sewing, I'm now having some concerns about my basic concept, as well as the period accuracy of those initial plans.

My original plan was to employ a recent kirtle making class to develop a supportive underdress for my veste, without additional shaping garments. I initially adopted the term gamurra since this seemed to be a close match to the English kirtle, however, I now think it's too early and generally incorrect. Sottana seems to be the correct word, but I have some concerns with its appropriateness for this project: sottanas appear to be of a rich fabric and decorated for use on their own; they also appear to have a very stiffened front which looks too stiff for the softer front of a veste.

Now I am debating between a sottana, still made out of my orange linen, possibly with guards as decoration, to be able to wear it alone as desired. This will require an additional underskirt of my fashion fabric worn over the sottana but under the veste. And of course, the matching sleeves. If I go with this option, I'm going to be hard pressed to stiffen the front to match the styles of both the sottana portraits and portraits in vesti.

The alternative is to make stiffened stays, like Sarah Lorraine of Mode Historique. I am concerned that stays, while providing the right shape, might be too long in the waist and will be visible in the open front skirt of the veste

Since writing down my concerns above, I stumbled across a painting by Girolamo Machietti. I understand that allegorical paintings aren't the best source for clothing analysis, but in the close up on the right, the young lady appears to be wearing a simple sottana with a mimicry of baragoni and a partlet. The lines, style and adornment are not exactly matching to contemporary portraits, however the shape of the bodice where it meets the skirt, as well as the overall "feel" are similar to late 16th century sottanas and the lack of decoration can be explained because the family in the picture are supposed to be newly paupers.

If this painting is reasonably accurate to contemporary fashions, then this sottana was not as rigidly stiffened as Alessandro Allori's portraits suggest, therefore, it may be possible to construct my orange linen sottana and add an overskirt to achieve my plan.

The Charity of St. Nicholas, Girolamo Machietti, 1555-1560

I have already drafted and cut the white cotton for my drawers. The initial test hit a bump when I forgot about the gusset, but with that fixed, they're a great fit. I plan to trim the bottom edge with some black lace, then stitch them up. This will be done by hand as I will be away from home with the military for a couple weeks.

I've been slowly sewing away on my drawers but I made lot of progress. Since I don't read or follow directions, I had to resolve some situations that I know I created for myself. I had intended to do French seams all the way around because I don't like finishing my seams. Well, I eventually realized that I shouldn't have sewn down the top yet if I were doing French seams, and, oh yeah, how the hell do I do French seams with my crotch gusset? So I just barged ahead and gave up the French seam idea.

I had started with backstitching the bottom hem (takes forever!), but I used a hemstitch for everything afterwards - goes faster and wouldn't be visible if I were better at it. So, I folded the top edge over twice to make a space for the elastic waistband and proceeded to stitch it down. It was roughly after this point that I contemplated how I'd be able to put the elastic in after doing a French seam. When I realized I had made a few mistakes, I decided to finish all sides of my piece (x2 pieces) and then whipstitch them together a la Extreme Costuming's "Elizabethan Seam". So I went on with the third side, making the smallest possible fold (1/8th?) and basting it with running stitch. I then folded it again, hemstitched it and removed the running stitch.

I had decided to measure the elastic and cut what I need in half, and sew it into each half of the drawers - this was mostly because I screwed up, but also, I realized this would prevent my drawers from getting too twisted or unevenly bunched like my modern pajama waistband does. So, prior to hemstitching the last little bit of the side edge, I made up my own stitch and (hopefully) secured the elastic, then finished that edge accordingly. I got as far as the running stitch of the 4th side, will need to stitch down the elastic and hemstitch the side, then I will have one complete half of my drawers, excluding trim and "embroidery".

Finished the last side, stitched on the trim and began the other side of my drawers over the weekend. Since this is a small portable project, it is going to receive second billing from now on against the larger project of sewing my sottana, but I still hope to finish the drawers before the month is out.

I used a duct tape dress dummy to draft a pattern from scratch for the very first time. After many trials and revisions, I made a mock-up in my interlining (cotton duck) and used pins and laces for the "final" test.

Everything seems right, so there's nothing left to do but bite the bullet and move on. My interlining consists of the cotton duck and heavy white cotton. Both are cut cross grain, which was less stretchy, because this is the only supportive layer, so those two heavy fabrics need to be able to hold my bust in and up. I also stitched rows of Vs to hold the brown and white fabrics together, something I noticed other costumers did, mostly when using felt or padding in their bodices. I decided to do this because the outside of the sottana is linen and I wanted the stress on the heavy interior fabrics, not the outer shell. 

The lining was originally going to be an orange poly/cotton but after I inadvertently made myself hand sew the entire thing, it seemed stupid to use anything but linen, so the lining is now the same as the outer fabric.

I cut the interlinings and lining with no seam allowance and will roll the outer fabric over the edges of the interlinings and lining, similar to a bias edging, which is something I did with my previous yellow kirtle. 
My next step is to put in grommets (I feel reassured by their strength even though eyelets are surely strong enough, and period correct) and try it on yet again. I hope it works. I am putting the grommets only on the interlinings, I will then cover them with the lining and shell, then buttonhole with DMC floss. Again, something I did on my yellow kirtle it looks period accurate, but gives me security that my fabric won't tear when containing my large bust.

The lining was originally going to be an orange poly/cotton but after I inadvertently made myself hand sew the entire thing, it seemed stupid to use anything but linen, so the lining is now the same as the outer fabric. I cut the interlinings and lining with no seam allowance and will roll the outer fabric over the edges of the interlinings and lining, similar to a bias edging, which is something I did with my previous yellow kirtle.

Finally, the front and back of the bodice are fully stitched up and nearly all of the eyelets are finished. I also finished one of two finger-loop laces, roughly a yard long. I couldn't find aglets that would fit the small diameter of the eyelets so I decided to make my own. Not by rolling sheet metal, that's not a enough of a challenge amongst the other challenges. I decided it was time to experiment with Precious Metals Clay. Nearly $150 later, I have successfully made one pure silver aglet. I spent a lot of time making molds and running tests. I did have a second aglet but it didn't fire correctly and broke when I was polishing it. However, now that I have a mold of the correct size, I can whip out the other aglet for the other incomplete lace. 

I have patterned and sewn my skirt in a very small amount of time! After a lot of web reading, I finally landed on Katerina da Brescia's possible pattern for a sottana. It has some fantastic line drawings of skirt patterns, but what really drew my attention was an overlay on the Eleonora di Toledo burial gown.

The overlay shows a very simple pattern of squares and triangles and I decided to duplicate this layout. While there is a useful pattern already in the article, it wasn't *quite* what I wanted, so I used Microsoft Publisher to lay out my own pattern. I pasted the Eleonora dress with over lay and "traced" the lines so I had a duplicate of the line drawing. If the front panels of Eleonora's gown were each 22 inches, a common fabric width at the time, it would make the front pieces a total of 44 inches wide. My linen is approximately 58 inches wide, and I am satisfied by the similarity in width for the front panel(s). I made full use of the selvedges, making my front and back panels 58 inches wide with triangular gores at the sides. 

Next I will try pleating the skirt to the bodice I just want to see how the length lines up and whether it turns out generally even. I am hoping it will be perfect and I can take the skirt off, pad the hem and add a tuck before attaching it to the bodice. And somewhere in there is trim time, which I have already laid out on my dress dummy.

And I have completed my drawers and they are quite lovely! I had a snafu when I was sewing all the pieces together the thighs were too tight. I made a pattern piece to add width to the legs, made it up and stitched it in place. Lastly, I added a running stitch beneath the waist band as well as a bow in the front center for decoration.

My skirt was rather easy to put together, especially after the thought I put into the pattern. I left the seams unfinished inside, as I used mostly selvedge edges which are a little frayed and I expect the unfinished edges to fray as well. The top of the skirt measures 116 inches, just over three yards, while the bottom is 220 inches, roughly 6 yards. Once I finished the last seam, I put the whole skirt over the head of my dummy and fidgeted with it to see how it would look. Once it passed that test, I used the BBQ fork method for making wonderfully perfect pleats and whip-stitched the skirt to the bodice. I have been working on sewing the trim down the center front and along the bottom edge, but I have stalled in the area of padded hems. I wanted to do one, but now I'm thinking I might skip this idea and come back to it at some future point. 

Since I have realized I won't be able to finish the sottana and a veste, I have adjusted the scope of my IRCC:

Layer 1 drawers (complete)
Layer 2 underskirt 
Layer 3 sottana (getting there!)
Layer 4 pocket (see below) and maybe more.

The change of layer from sottana to underskirt means I can try the padded hem in a slightly smaller scale. I am currently evaluating some of my stash for appropriate underskirt material.

I detoured from IRCC for over a week, but I made a pocket with some on hand stuff to get me back into the renaissance mood. I will be adding eyelets and stringing it with a ribbon to tie around my waist.

After several days of patterning tests, I have made my undersleeves, with diamond slashings between rows of trim. I used fray check on the slashes, I hope it will fade with use/washings without allowing the slashes to fray. The slashes are also aligned to the bias. 

The upper sleeve is also patterned and cut, but I have unstitched upper and lower sleeves to add the linings. The undersleeves will be lined with some satiny gold lining I have laying around, to make the slashes a little more visible and I am lining the baragoni with white cotton duck to give it some shape.

As time gets short, more pieces of my outfit are being completed. My pocket has had a ribbon stitched on and been set in the "complete" pile. I have started (and finished) an underskirt, girdle, necklace and earrings.

A trip to Joann Fabrics during a bead sale found these amber colored "glass" beads. The color was in line with my project and pairing the big beads with the open chain evoked the simplicity of the Florentine time period I am working with.


I ran out of supplies and decided to make earrings until I could do so. Most of the portraits showed plain drop earrings, with only one or two exceptions. This was disappointing, but at least I had some drop "pearls" from some clearance earrings that I picked up last week. Again, knowing how reserved the Florentines were with decoration in the middle of the 1500s, I decided that it wouldn't be unrealistic to pair a tiny drop pearl with a small gold bead to add a touch of ornamentation. Big pearl, no accessorizing; little pearl, accessorizing!

For my underskirt, I used some clearance polyester fabric (3 yards-ish) and sewed it into a tube. I padded the hem using stiffened felt craft sheets. I cut each sheet into thirds lengthwise and triple zigzagged the edges together. I then offset this seam with a second strip of felt and got a decent poof to my underskirt. I cartridge pleated the top of the skirt, but I may rip that out one day and give it box pleats because I am dissatisfied with how the cartridge pleating looks with so little fabric.

Interesting (or horrible) construction note: Instead of using a separate doppia lining, I folded over the bottom of the skirt about 6 inches up. I then did a (machine) seam a inch from the fold, leaving space for slashes if I have time. I then tucked the felt between the two layers of fabric. I tucked the raw edge behind the felt and had a fully finished padded hem. For some reason, the idea of making a separate fabric to hold the felt to the inside of the skirt just seemed mind boggling. I decided this was an effective and easy way to accomplish the same thing and decided to use my modern method instead of the period way.

Final Update

After finishing the underskirt, I had a lot of trim to sew and loose ends to tie up. I did not finish the second finger-loop braid to lace the left side of the sottana. The underskirt does not sit well due to a recent weight gain, but I was able to get it into a better fitting position during the second set of sottana pictures. I closed the underskirt, sottana skirt sides and attached the sleeves with small delicate straight pins, a period practice but one I grow increasingly frustrated with.


The sleeves are not well put together as a result of the rush to finish - I tacked the top and bottom of the gold lining into place and did a running stitch to close the sleeves. It also made it difficult to properly fluff the baragoni. I was originally planning to attach the sleeves by buttons at some point in the future, but I may need to whipstitch the sleeves in place to get the proper appearance.

Lastly, the black trim on the skirt was not sewn down because I had inadvertently switched from a smaller trim to a slightly larger trim when I refilled. This is something I noticed in the eleventh hour when I prepared to sew the trim on -- but my fingers were thankful to be finished.

Though the dress is wearable (and hot!), I think I will rip the skirt off and re-pleat it one day -- I'm not satisfied with where the fabric bunches (side back rather than back). Similar problem with the underskirt - I cartridge pleated too little fabric in an attempt to give the sottana some spring and it resulted in a weird feel.

The pocket, drawers and jewelry all achieved what I set out to accomplish. I consider the project to be successful as I created a sottana bodice from nothing, mimicked the skirts of Eleanora di Toledo's burial gown and achieved a look proper to the period I researched. And I managed to complete the challenge, which is a success in and of itself!