The Second Annual

Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 15 to August 15,  2012

Margaret Roe

Margaret Roe
Maryland, USA

I have been reproducing historical clothing and costumes for more than sixteen years, with a focus on early Elizabethan clothing, and recreating late sixteenth and early seventeenth Italian dancing for more than a decade. I am looking forward to using this opportunity to further one art with the other.

I am not a novice seamstress, and I have made many gowns in what the English called the "Italian style," but they are different than what the Italians wore, so I think I am a novice in that way.

I want to make a full kit more appropriate for the dancing I teach, so I will be making an Italian gown of the 1560s-1580s. I fell in love with the Tuscan styles, especially the veste, so I will be aiming to at least produce a pair of bodies, underskirt, veste, and standing collar, but hopefully I'll manage a few more layers as well.

For years now, I've been heavily involved in Italian dance of the Age of the Galliard, which is a style of dance practiced from the early 16th through the mid 17th centuries. The sources we have all come from about the 1540s to 1620s, and those manuscripts with known authors mostly come from central Italy. To better demonstrate and understand these dances, I decided to build a complete and appropriate kit.

Back in December, I bought a piece of brown silk twill on sale to make this gown, and a piece of French collar canvas to interline the bodice or a pair of bodies. I also have several large pieces of linen in my stash and a few small pieces of silk that I hope I can use for linings, trimmings and sleeves.

After some searching, it became pretty clear that there really aren't a lot of portraits of Roman women, and even fewer past about 1550. However, there are plenty of portraits from Tuscany, and I have always been drawn to the Tuscan veste, so I am going to aim for a Tuscan gown from the mid-sixteenth century. After some additional searching, I found that the veste was rarely made in brown, but there are a number of sottane in brown and a number of veste appeared to have an underskirt that was either a brown or dark golden yellow. So the current plan is to make a sottana in the brown silk, with a veste over it. I am still looking for the right fabric and color to put over it, but most of the portraits seem to use black, bright red or maroon.

Before I settled on the sottana with a veste over it, I had begun a busto. After examining Eleanora of Toledo’s inventories, I found that although none of her busti listed any boning, most were linen and interlined with heavy fabrics, and the linings were usually the same color as the exterior. Given this, I decided to make mine out of red silk taffeta, lined in red linen and interlined in French tailor’s canvas. I used Eleanora’s burial busto as pattern, adjusting Janet Arnold’s conjectured pattern to more closely resemble the busto after conservation was made. Once I decided on the sottana in the brown silk, I decided to complete this garment to use it for fitting the sottana, so it was machine sewn.

I also cut out a camicia based on the two women’s shirts in the Museo del Tessuto on Bella’s site. This style of camicia will give me the most versatility in the future - I can use it with a lot of late 15th through late 16th century styles. I assembled it using the machine for now, but rather than making French seams like I usually do on the machine, I stitched a standard seam allowance, and then turn each side under and hemmed it. It was extra work, but it means that I can come back later and redo the hemming and the seams by hand, when I know I have the time to get it done.

I had noticed before that one of the shirts had embroidery done in small x's, a lot like another shirt in the V&A. Baroness Kathryn Goodwyn has posted several 16th century pattern books, so I picked out two simple patterns from one of these books and to create a similar look in my embroidery.

The brown silk I originally bought for this project was only 36” wide and 6 yards long, so I knew when I started this project that I was going to have to be very careful how I laid everything out. Both the Pisa gown and Eleanora’s burial gown have gored skirts, as do all of the skirts in Alcega’s pattern book. From past experience, I knew I wanted at least twice my waist size at the top for the pleating to lay nicely, and at least 115” at the bottom. So I broke out the graph paper and started playing with shapes to scale. (See below. You can also see it here).

When Eleanora’ busto and bodice patterns from Patterns of Fashion are laid over one another, the busto is clearly longer than the sottana bodice under the arms. Since these were done before the restoration of the gown, I can’t say the originals were really this different, but when I coupled this information with the gussets below the waist in the back of the busto that are absent in the sottana bodice, it led me to believe that the busto was longer - ending below her natural waist -yet the sottana sat at her natural waist. Since I had already made the busto and knew it fit me correctly, I used that pattern as a guide, but cut it 2” shorter in the back so it would end closer to my natural waist, and added 4.5” to the bottom front and tapered it to the sides until I got the right look for the point in the front. I had the lining cut out, I realized that the straps of most sottane were worn slightly off the shoulders. I worried that I would need to recut the straps on the bodice, but when I put the lining together and fitted it, it seemed to work just fine, so I decided not to modify the pattern for the rest of the pieces.

Looking again through Eleanora's inventories, many of the sottane were lined in both starched or glued cloth and with flannel, so I decided to interline the bodice with French tailor’s canvas and cotton flannel. I had just enough canvas to cut two layers for the front, but not enough to do any of the back, and since I intend to wear this gown without a busto, I felt the double layer in the front was more important. The flannel will soften the lines of the canvas, should it wrinkle when I wear it, and give the bodice a bit more stability in the back. The entire gown is lined in green medium weight linen, since the silk was too fine to be left unlined.

I wanted this layer to be fairly simple and subdued but there aren’t a lot of simpler sottane in portraits – most have many bands of complex embroidery or a lot of pinking and slashing – but this gown fit the bill: simple and elegant. 

I bought a piece of “camel” velveteen online, sight unseen, but it was on sale so I thought I had a pretty good shot at it working. Much to my surprise, it matches very well. At some angles, it is almost exactly the same color as the silk, while at the opposite angle, it is several shades lighter. So I used this velveteen in 3/4” bands around the neckline and from the corners of the neckline to the waist. I decided it looked too busy with three rows, so I stopped after the second set of bands.

When you get a good resolution copy of the portrait above, the bands on the sottana appear to either be piped on the edges or stitched down slightly in from the edge. The artist paid too much attention to the detail of the zimarra fabric and the wrinkles in the bodice for this to be an accident. To mimic this look, I top-stitched the bands down by machine, 1/8” from the edges. I stitched them to the silk and flannel together, because the silk was too wobbly to get consistently straight lines.

Once I had all of the bands of velveteen stitched to the bodice, I stitched the silk and flannel bodice pieces together at the shoulders, and then repeated this with the linen linings. I then laid the bodice out flat and hand quilted the French tailors canvas to the front of the bodice, being careful not to catch the silk with my stitches. Finally, I laid the linen over the silk and stitched it all together, leaving it open around the neckline to turn it.

I knew I wanted to hand-stitch the skirt to the bodice, because the lines of stitching are easier for me to hide at the hem than at the waist, so I started by stitching each piece of the skirt (except the small corner gores) to its lining and turning it all right side out. Next, I stitched all of the skirt pieces together, making French seams so that all of the raw edges were finished off. Then I made two slits where the side-back openings would line up and bound them by hand in strips of the brown silk. Finally, I stitched the skirt to the bodice, just above the edge on the inside, since on the Pisa gown, the skirts appear to be attached in a similar manner.

I now have half of the eyelets left and the neckline to be sewn, since they are all being done by hand and my arthritis isn’t cooperating, and the hem to finish.

Camicia (Shirt) Embroidery
Since my last update, I began the embroidery on the camicia neckline. I ended up deciding that I didn’t like madder red against the brown silk of the sotanna, so I used some black silk embroidery thread I had leftover from another project. I designed this embroidery so I could do it in stages if necessary, and I’m grateful that I did because I’m running out of time. However, only this row of the embroidery should show when I’m dressed, so it will still be wearable in this state.

Calze (Drawers)
I made a pair of navy linen calze loosely based on a pair in the Met. This pair has a drawstring waist and a small bit of lace around the hems. Both the fabric and trim are leftover bits from my stash. I deviated from the original pair in making the legs wider at the hems – I have problems with my knees that makes anything tight at my knees problematic.

Sottocalze (Hosen)
I made a pair of linen sottocalze based on the extant pair of Maria of Aragon in Moda a Firenze 1540-1580: Cosimo I de Medici's Style. I used a remnant of turquoise linen that went nicely with the brocade remnant I had set aside for shoes, and finished the seams because these sottocalze will be under a lot of stress and use. Like with the calze, I deviated a little from the original, making them longer and a little fuller around the knees.

Pearl Necklace
In May, I made prizes for a contest which included fifteen pearl necklaces that I strung and hand-knotted. I had some pearls leftover, so I strung an extra necklace for myself.

Saccoccia (Pocket)
I made a saccoccia out of a remnant of red cotton velvet for a hat I had made a while back. There was just enough velvet for the pocket, but not enough for finished seams inside, so instead I bound all of the edges with black bias tape. I like the contrast, both in color and texture, that it ended up creating.

Sottana (Kirtle)
The sotanna is pretty much done now. I got the hem trimmed, stiffened with two layers of felt, and finished off. And I finished the neckline and eyelets.

Zimarra (Loose Gown)
Probably my favorite piece that I have made so far is the zimarra. I had a piece of black and tan herringbone twill wool that I bought online a few years ago to make a cloak, only to get the fabric and find there was not the full yardage in the package and the company refused to fix the problem, so there it sat. Luckily, after playing with yet more graph paper, I determined that there was enough, of both the wool and the dark brown silk lining I had bought for it, for not only a zimarra, but a Dutch cloak (which I have cut out, but may not get around to before the contest ends)!

I decided that since the Vest would have should rolls and the sottana sleeves (when I wore them) would also have rolls of a sort, I wanted the zimarra without any shoulder treatment. So, the sleeves are sewn straight in, by hand. I also didn't want the slits over the shoulders on this gown. I've done them in the past and prefer how the gown wears without them. Finally, I really liked the zimarre with bands of linear trim over the ones trimmed with bands of heavily embroidered floral type patterns. My arthritis has been bad this spring, so I decided to go easy on this gown and raided my stash for trim. I found a black braid and some narrow black soutache that when layered together looked very similar to the linear trims.

And internally, I decided to stiffen them hem of the zimarra with a double layer of felt, just like I had stiffened the hem of the sottana. I like how the hem of the gown hangs when stiffened, so I may repeat this on a lot of my sixteenth century garb from here on.

Future Planning
I only have one more week of sewing left until I leave on vacation, so I need to use it carefully. Although I could finish here and have a fabulous outfit to wear, I would still really like to make a veste, since I tend to prefer the doublet styles. There really isn’t enough time to do the pretty embroidery I had hoped to do, so I’m playing around with a few other ideas using trim already in my stash.

Final Update

This project changed on me several times as it went, morphing from just a Veste in the beginning, to a Sottana as the main garment, to a little bit of everything. The pieces I am submitting for the contest are as follows:

Layer 1: Sottocalze (linen hose), Calze (drawers), Camicia (shirt), and Busto (corset)
Layer 2: Sottana with removable sleeves 
Layer 3: Zimmara with set-in sleeves, Veste
Layer 4: Hand-knotted pearl necklace, pearl drop earrings, Saccoccia (pocket), Colletto (collar), pinked Maniche (sleeves)

Layer 1
Sottocalze (Hosen)
I made a pair of turquoise linen sottocalze based on the extant pair of Maria of Aragon, but a little longer and fuller around the knees, for health reasons. I finished the seams because these sottocalze will be under a lot of stress and use.

Calze (Drawers)
I made a pair of navy linen calze, trimmed in lace, that are loosely based on a pair in the Met, but wider at the hems for the above mentioned health reasons.

Camicia (Shirt)
The Camicia is made of white linen, patterned after two shirts in the Museo del Tessuto, and embroidered by hand in black silk with a design from Flowers of the Needle. I did get around to re-stitching the shoulder seams by hand, but the rest of the shirt is still machine sewn and the seams are roll hemmed so that I can come back later and finish it of by hand, but still be able to wear it now. I also decided after wearing it, that I like the shirt better without cuffs on the sleeves – I often need to roll up my sleeves when I’m working, and it is remarkably easier without cuffs. It was quite a happy accident.

Busto (corset)
The busto is made of red silk taffeta, lined in red linen and interlined in French tailor’s canvas (a glue stiffened linen). The busto is patterned off  Eleonora of Toledo’s burial busto, but I used hook and eye tape in the front for ease of construction. I had an opportunity to wear the busto under the veste at Pennsic, and was pleasantly surprised at how well it supported me, despite the lack of boning.

Layer 2
The sottana is made of brown silk twill, trimmed in bands of lighter brown velveteen, and lined in green linen, with a double layer of French tailor’s canvas in the front of the bodice. The bands are machine sewn on to imitate the ridge along the edges of the bands on the original portrait, but the skirts were attached by hand and the bodice edges and eyelets were completely sewn by hand. I added a doppio to the skirts of two layers of felt sandwiched between the skirt and an extra layer of the linen lining, and a tuck just above the bands at the hem. I was very pleased at how well this held out the skirts on its own, and the skirts till move very nicely as I dance. Since I knew I would be wearing the sottana under other gowns as well as on its own, I made a pair of matching sleeves that tie into the shoulders of the sottana, so that I can remove them and reduce the bulk at my shoulders when I have other gowns over it.

Layer 3
The zimarra is made of a black and tan herringbone twill wool and a dark brown silk Habotai lining, trimmed in black braid and black soutache. Since the sottana and veste both have baragoni (shoulder treatments), I kept the zimarra more simple and stitched the sleeves straight into the shoulders. The hem of the zimarra also has a doppio.

I managed to get most of the veste done just in time for Pennsic, so I could finish the hand sewing portions while on vacation. I bought a lovely piece of black silk poplin, since a few portraits show a veste in black with a brown or gold forepart and white sleeves. I had a roll of gold braid in my stash which I used to trim the gown like this portrait and this one, and I used the red linen in my stash for the lining. The baragoni (shoulder treatments) had to be entirely hand sewn because the tabs are offset and sit on a flat base. The buttons and loops are hand made and the skirts are also hand sewn to the inside of the bodice. I wanted to see how this gown would wear over the sottana without a doppio, so the hem is simply bound at the bottom edge. I’m still not sure if I want to go back and add a doppio to the veste, but it seems to be okay over the sottana.

Layer 4
Pearl Necklace
I hand-knotted a strand of pearls for this gown, but ended up deciding they were too long, so I went back and made a second strand. I experimented a little with the second necklace and stitched it onto ribbons, instead of attaching it to a clasp. I really like how the ribbons allow me to change the length as needed.

Pearl Drop Earrings
I also made a pair of pearl drop earrings to go with this outfit. They are set on hooks rather than rings only because that is what I had on hand.

Saccoccia (Pocket)
The saccoccia is made of red velvet finished in black bias tape.
Colletto (Collar)
The veste is typically worn with a white collar edged all around in a ruffle. My colletto is made of the same white taffeta as the pinked sleeves, with a layer of heavy white linen interlining the base for stability.

Maniche (Sleeves)
The maniche for the veste are made of a remnant of white silk taffeta lined in heavy white linen, with rows of diagonal slashes separated by bands of black soutache. Although many portraits showed vertical slashing on the sleeves, several had diagonal slashes (like this and this), so I went with those. When you can see the wrists in portraits, the sleeves are often edged with a row of tiny tabs, which I imitated with a slashed band of the white taffeta. The sleeves tie into the veste, so that I interchanged them with other sleeves.

Final Notes
I wanted to try a few experiments with the contest, to see how different things would work, and was fortunate enough to get a test run at Pennsic. 

Since most of Eleonora of Toledo’s wardrobe mentioned gowns and bodices with buckram (a heavy linen) or glue-stiffened linen linings, but none mentioned stiffeners as we think of (reed or baleen), I wanted to try something similar to see what results I would get. I used French tailor’s canvas as an interlining in both the busto and the sottana. I was please with the amount of support it gave, but, as you can see in some of the pictures, it creates a slight wrinkly immediately under the bust. I will want to do more experimenting with using these types of stiffeners to see if I can achieve a better result.

I also wanted to experiment with different methods of stiffening the hems, and how the stiffened hems interacted with each other. I found that the sottana was much easier to dance in with a stiffened hem, but stiffening the over-gowns’ hems had such little affect on how the skirts reacted that it was virtually a waste of time. I have not yet determined if that is because the second layer is redundant, or if it may have something to do with the over-gown’s skirt being split in the front, thereby breaking the continuous line of the doppio. Again, I will need to do more experimenting with this.

Finally, I wanted to see how well the sottana would work under both a zimmara and a veste. I found that it is very comfortable under both gowns, but the long lines of the 1550s-1560s sottana bodice do not work well under the 1570s-1580s veste lines, especially where the sottana extends below the waist around the sides and back and the veste does not. I need to do further research to determine whether the sottana bodice shortened in the later decades or if it was never worn in such a manner with the veste.

Sadly, a drunk driver hit me on the Sunday before the completion of the contest, so many of the pieces I had intended to enter are nearly completed except for a few final touches, but I could not finish due to the injuries I suffered. Once I am sufficiently recovered from the accident, I will be able to add a handkerchief, pantofole (slippers), bonnet, girdle, and cappotto (Dutch cloak) to this kit. My injuries also limited the pictures I was able to have taken, since I could not dress myself and only had limited movement. Despite this setback, I am very pleased with what I was able to accomplish for the contest and for this kit.