The Third Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 14 to August 14,  2013

Chantelle Gerrard
Auckland, New Zealand

Chantelle Gerrard

I have been designing and making costumes for theatre and film for the past ten years working mainly in New Zealand. Currently I am splitting my time between Secondary teaching and costuming. I have made several self-funded research trips to the U.K. and Europe in the last four years to see as much ‘history’ as I can as we are rather starved for anything visual other than books in New Zealand. Historical costume is my passion, and as always every new project has its challenges and new things to discover research and learn from. I am an active member in the SCA in Lochac, and enjoy learning and creating within all the aspects of the society. I have previously attempted a 1520’s front lacing Italian gown and have recently patterned a late 15th century outfit for a friend. 

My outfit will be based on ‘Portrait of a Lady’, Pier Francesco di Jacopo Foschi (1502-1567), circa 1530-35. 

I have been wanting to make this for a while, I have been experimenting with creating a bodice that gives the ‘anti-gravity’ (sleeves as we have dubbed them) and support required to create the right curve seeing as I am quite large busted, which all stemmed from another friend being told she couldn’t possibly do the 1480s Italian styles as she was too large…so we took up the challenge.

My outfit will consist of :

The camicia with black-work – this will be a challenge as I have never done black-work before (or any embroidery at all).
The under-dress 
The over-dress
And the girdle. 
I will also be making the head piece and the arm warmers, but I know that does not count. 
I will be hand sewing it all. 
I recently found the perfect soft pink wool for this, finding the right material had been the only thing stopping me from starting the project. 

Seeing as it is a fairly basic dress and under dress, I have decided to hand sew the entire outfit from start to finish. Because I have time (I will make time...) and due to recent discussions and a lot of reading about period hand sewing techniques, I have decided to also make two bodices, one sewing the neck together and turning it inside out, and the other flat lining to experiment with the different theories about how they sit and the time they take etc. 

I will also be back stitching the seams that will take a lot of pressure and will flat fell, instead of doing whip stitch for all seams as is popular with some groups of thought - as the support garment and the over dress bodice will need to be very strong at the seams.
I will go into the researching of the hand sewing techniques later.

The first task I have set is to make the under dress that will give a lot of the support and hold my chest in place. I suffer like some from a rather large endowment, and this can get in the way of some things and styles....sigh....

I experimented with making an under dress in maroon wool and linen before starting this project or knowing about the competition. I copied the pattern that I made for my friend down in Southron Gaard in the Cresent Isles (for non S.C.A. that is Christchurch in the South Island New Zealand) who was wanting to re-create a late 1400's outfit and I got my friend up here to fit the pattern on the sides to me as it was virtually impossible to pull the fabric tight enough to pin on myself. The shape achieved in the bust and the 'off the shoulder but not slipping bodice' is what I was aiming for, it has been coined anti-gravity sleeves up here in Ildhafn (Auckland N.Z.) by Katherine.

From this pattern I cut out my green wool under dress and adjusted the neck line to be like the one in the painting, as the one on the original dress was done for the late 1400's as previously stated.

Construction: bodice outer sewn together by backstitch; interlining sewn together by backstitch; bodice inner sewn together by backstitch - all sewn like this for extra strength; seams flat felled...

Flat-felled bodice with backstitching

...interlining of linen basted onto lining; lining and outer sewn right sides together at the neck, turned inside out and then the sides and arm holes sewn with invisible stitch to finish.

Bodice ready to be invisible- stitched

Bodice basted together at the bottom

The skirts sewn on the seams with running stitch, box pleated and sewn with running stitch, then attached onto bodice with running stitch.

I have quickly sewn on lacing rings to the sides of the bodice as I have been losing a little bit of weight recently and did not want to go to all the effort of sewing in eyelets to the sides, just to have to cut them off and put them in again later if I continue. The lacing rings allowed me to do up the dress and see if it had the desired effect. I will be taking a photo next week when I have other people there in the studio to take one for me. The first bodice is done.

This one: I back stitched the pink wool together; I back stitched the white silk; I back stitched the linen interlining. I flat felled all the seams; I basted the silk to the interlining; I put good sides together of outer and lining and sewed them at the neck; I tuned them inside out and invisible-stitched the sides and armholes.

Basting silk lining to linen interlining

Bodice showing re-enforcing at the sides

Bodice basted at bottom showing turning at neck method

The sleeves have an interlining on the forearm of linen, and a silk lining. The puff of the sleeve is taken from the pattern that I made for my front lacing Italian dress I rushed to make just before Canterbury Faire this year - I made it front lacing as I was basing it on a portrait I had seen at the Prado in Madrid, and I knew I could fit a front lacing outfit myself - therefore I could do it faster than other dresses. 

Both sides of sleeves

Sleeve inside out with lining already attached to forearm

Since my last post I have been researching into period hand sewing techniques. Because of that I can now move on with my project and have made two fitted French gowns c1390-1420 with all the other things along the way that I have learnt that I wore to Great Northern War in Australia to test and they worked well.

I have found out a lot of interesting things, had good discussions, got so far into the forest I couldn't see the trees worrying about the right way to do it...and then realised that how I have done it in the the way that will be most effective and 'right' for what I am doing.

I have re-made the bodice sewing it with the two layers of linen interlining, being cut smaller than the outer, and the outer bodice being folded over and whip stitched to the interlining. The bottom was then basted and so were the sleeve holes

The sleeves were already constructed and I was happy with that, so a double layer of wool was whip stitched onto the sleeve head and there was then another triple layer square of wool that was whip stitched slightly out from the sleeve head about 5 inches each side of the shoulder seam. This was to give the right amount of support and 'puff' to the sleeve heads. Next I sewed the upper sleeve lining to the forearm lining and the sleeve head which helps with the puff.

The black velvet was then steamed and whip stitched to the pink bodice.

I then sewed the sleeves into the sleeve holes and managed to sew one in the wrong way round (we won't go has to happen a few times in one's sewing life - right?).

I then tried it on. It worked but I realised that I had gotten the neck line wrong in terms of the square in reference to the picture. 

So, I unpicked, cut and re- did that section of the pink and black.


With that now done I got my friend to take a picture of me in it. I apologise for the way it gives me insane cleavage - but you will see that it is the right shape on the side on and the original picture has a high neck chemise so it will not be that scary in real life. 


The next part was to sew the seams of the lining of the skirt (I cheated on this and machined them). I then placed the tops of the skirt and lining together and sewed them. Then I box pleated them as the painting showed.

I am now in the process of attaching the skirt to the bodice and I will cover the interlining with the lining and re-cut and make an under dress in the same hand sewing fashion I have made the over dress, and match the neck line. 

This is it not hemmed and without the underdress, but it is getting there...

More soon.

June/July Update

The pink dress is now hemmed. Before I lined it, I took the lead from the earlier French and Italian fitted gowns that I have just made and experimented with, and placed a strip of tabby woven silk ribbon on the edge where it would be laced up to strengthen it.
I am contemplating doing this around the neck before I attach the lining like I did for the other dresses also. 

The next step will be to sew on the lining and the lacing rings on to the lining. I will be cutting the lining out of linen, and not the silk of the skirt due to the lacing rings pulling on it once they were sewn on, I thought linen would be more stable.

Arm warmers
I decided to make them out of the same black velvet as on the dress, and I always try to use real fur when I can. For my Christina of Denmark Loose gown I waited years till I had enough possum, so snugly. For the sleeves I stumbled on a fur coat at Save Mart (our local charity warehouse) so I have cut the sleeves from it and then I cut the black to match. I will be slipping the sewn ‘covers’ over the arms and sewing them to the fur when I get back from overseas.


Other stuff
I have been working on ideas for the girdle, but I haven’t had time to research it yet. So I think the real girdle will need to be an after the competition thing, but for now I have a lot of fake pearls etc that I was planning on putting together if I can. However they will need to be drilled all the way through as they are only partly pre-done. I will just go for a black velvet one that has tassels attached to the end of it if I don't find the information I need to feel confident enough to created what is in the pictures. I really want to research into the white silk with the tassels on the end / knot-work etc in the picture before I go ahead with it, so we will see.

Still to do and start thinking about….
The chemise – with the black work. 
The head wear.

Final Update

My layers:

Layer 1: Shirt with black-work (hand-sewn). Complete.
Layer 2: Under-dress 1 - green underdress to be worn (if at all) under a different outfit as it will not fit under the pink dress (hand-sewn). Complete. Extra layer: Under-dress 1- brown underdress (hand finished). Complete. 
Layer 3: Pink over-dress (hand-sewn).
Layer 4: Sash (hand finished). 'Arm warmer' lower sleeves (hand finished).

The above are worn with a cross – purchased from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and silk stockings purchased from Pennsic markets. To be made in the future: balzo and girdle.

Layer 1: The Shirt
I was going to make a chemise/camicia for this project, but I have more use for a shirt for when I wear boy garb, as I can wear it with girl garb as well – seeing as all you see is the neck, chest and sleeves. So I decided to be cheeky. Again I looked in numerous places, trying to use more than just Janet Arnold’s patterns of fashion. I did notice in that that at the end of the day there were a few different ways to do things – especially in patterns of fashion - and that essentially hemming and then whip stitching the shirt together for this project seemed to be the most sensible thing. I wanted something that wouldn’t show the stitches up too much where they could be seen on the shoulders etc.

The shirt without the collar band.

I also looked around for different examples of 1530’s Italian black work and 'how to'. I knew I had limited time left for the competition, so I made two neck bands – one that I could place on that was plain if I didn’t have time, the other I was going to try my hand at embroidering. 

I looked at numerous paintings of black-work around the 1530’s Italian period. Due to time being tight, never having done embroidery or black work before and literally having a day to decide if I was going to do this or not and a day to do it in, I chose to go with a simplified version of what was on the collar in the portrait. The shirt and embroidery were complete by the last day. I did a simplified version of the black work. I had started to sew a piece completely with black silk thread – in order to achieve the back edge that the frill has in the painting, but I needed a lot more time and dedication to getting this perfect than I had time for. So I put this aside and did what you will see in my photos below. The shirt also has a worked cross bar to stabilise the bottom and prevent tearing as found on some extant shirts.

Layer 2: The first under-dress
I created the green underdress as I was asking questions and reading. I hand-sewed it in the ‘machine’ sewn method…the only one I thought I knew at that stage. Sewing the good sides together at the neck, felling the seams and then turning it, I then sewed up the sides with invisible stitch. The green sat fine and looked like the paintings when turned, but I was unconvinced that this was the way from my recent observations and discussions.

Layer 2 extra: The second under-dress
This was made from brown wool and rayon lining. I had some on hand and with no more money to put towards the project this seemed sensible. It was made exactly the same way as the pink dress. The neck line was also cut lower than the pink dress. Eyelets were then sewn into the side.

The under-dress under construction. At this stage it needed to be taken in on the sides as the tension of the lacing at the sides, is what gives the bust its lift. The second picture is the finished product. The shoulders sit off the side - you can see the un-tucked cord for lacing up the side.

Layer 3: The over-dress

I hemmed the pink dress and before I put the lining in I used what I had learnt from making my 1390-1420 French /Italian fitted gowns and put tabby woven silk ribbon facings on the parts that would take the most strain. In bodice #1 it was the equivalent of the extra layer of canvas I referenced earlier. The silk is thin and strong – and therefore there will be no bulk on the sides, but it will give stability.

Layer 4: The 'arm-warmers', and a sash.

The Arm warmers are very simply done: 

  • I took a fur coat, cut off the sleeves.
  • Cut my black velvet (to match the velvet on the bodice) and the sleeves to the right length.
  • Sewed them all together – making sure the black was a little shorter than the fur, as the fur puffed out of both ends in the painting quite a lot.

The sash as you will see from the final pictures is just black velvet. 

This has been a great experience. I honestly don’t think I would have done so much, so quickly… for me. I rarely get a chance to make garb for myself, but this project not only produced the Pink Gown, but also my fitted gown, which I am very happy with also. 

I haven’t enjoyed the rushed research, and I know I am going to go back and re-read it all and change my ideas/opinions about a lot of things, and cringe at some of my choices…but it has been a huge learning experience and I am very happy with my result. The outfit needs help to get in and out of, as it is side lacing, but it does go on and off – and nothing has ripped or pulled. I can bend, lift, carry and I have full range of movement with my arms in the dress without restriction and without it falling off my shoulders. It stays in place where it should as I move, dance and work.

I will finish the rest of the accessories for the outfit in the next three months – the balzo is the most important in my mind, because even though I know I will look funny with a round thing on my head it will complete the outfit and look right, and I will be able to wear it with my mushroom dress.  All in all I have had a great overall experience with this and I now know how to do things I had never done before and will know what to do next time.

Some final shots sent post deadline...