The Third Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 14 to August 14,  2013

Fiona Cousins
Western Australia

Fiona Cousins

Iíve been in the SCA for 3 years, mainly learning how to master t-tunics and a bodice or two. My Italian experience is limited to what I affectionately call my Ďdoona dressí: a easy take on the generic Italian style made from and old doona cover (a bedding thing) so I consider myself a novice to Italian renaissance costuming.

Iím planning on making a camicia, petticoat, gown, and partlet, hopefully with some more accessories. It is probably a lot more than Iím capable of but I figure Iíll learn a lot along the way. Although Iíve been sewing for years, Iím quite new to renaissance styles; Iíve made a few dresses but nothing as complex as the task Iíve set myself, but hey - a challenge is good and Iím focussing on learning some new sewing techniques and improving on others. Iím known in the SCA as Lady Catherine of Shirwode, proud inhabitant of the Shire of Dragons Bay, Lochac.

I decided to start on a foundation dress: what I would call a kirtle as I usually have an English bent to my costuming. I chose some bright canary yellow silk that I had already: I am determined to use fabric that I already own and am keeping records of what I spend on this outfit. (So far nothing!!) I had an absolute disaster with my first attempt, I had managed to measure my pattern wrong and made the bodice far too big. Ooooh, all that wasted time hand-stitching! I had to unpick the pieces and start again with the new and improved and much smaller pattern, which resulted in needing to do a bit of emergency patching. Determined to use fabric that I already have I couldnít recut the pieces. The patch ended up on a tab so meh... it will be under the skirt. 

Iíve based the patterning on a mish-mash of Vincenzo Campi styles which I really like, and will look quite nice as a stand alone dress.

Iíve deliberately made this bodice so it gaps at the side back lacing: I am working hard to get fit and tone up and I do not want to spend hours and hours on a dress that wonít fit me later at least this way there is scope for lacing up tighter! 


Overall, Iím quite happy so far, I think I need to redo the center front bands and make it a little lower on front: Iím still not that good at cutting bodices low enough. I am quite surprised how well the silk coped with the boning (I use cable ties) so I may end up boning the bodice of the overdress and not actually using this petticoat but at the very minimum Iíll have a bright yellow gown that will stand out for sure!

Well things have slowed down an awful lot due to a steam punk ball that needed a fabulous dress. The good thing is during the sewing of this outfit I learnt how to do a padded hem and also a corded petticoat which will be useful in this challenge. I decided to put the yellow dress on hold for now as Iím learning a lot as I go along. I decided to start on my main gown as this would probably be the most time consuming. My inspiration is the fabulous orange and green dress in the Lotto portrait. Iím planning on using some silver and burgundy silk that I already have: Iím determined to not buy any fabric for this challenge! 

I figured I needed to make an Ďunderstudyí gown first in order to work out the bugs in my design. Iíve used some blue and white corduroy for this as I already have it. I have a confession, I love making garb out of corduroy, it is thick enough and yet flows nicely. I know, I know; I just love it. I had to do some creative bodice pattern cutting to get the panels correct. Iím quite happy with it so far and actually think the understudy gown might get to be centre stage on more than one occasion! Now to pluck up the courage to cut the silk.

The other part Iíve done is a silk hose. Iíve only just recently tried hose making and have tried linen and wool ones so of course I moved onto silk. This is a very thin, labelled as Ďghost silkí which I bought over a year ago for a ridiculous $1/m. I wasnít hopeful on the hose but it has turned out wonderfully strong and feels quite luxurious. Now to make the matching leg. I also have the same silk in black and a bright turquoise so I think more hose will be in my future!

Between now and the next update Iím hoping to be able to show off my completed gown, and cross fingers the hose and a petticoat. Well, pending another fabulous ball invitation.

June/July Update

So this month of the challenge has been consumed with a whole heap of other things: making Tim Burton style dresses for my nieces (and who would turn down the chance to do that?) and writing what seemed like an unending cycle of job applications. Although it appeared like I had a lot of time to work on my challenge pieces I seemed to get even more behind schedule.

This dress is fast becoming the most frustrating thing Iíve ever sewn, and Iíve patterned and constructed some real doozies! The whole thing nearly ended up in the chimera many, many times, only being saved by a moment of sanity and the impending smell of burning silk. The sewing gods seemed to have picked me as court jester as Iíve had issues with fit, cutting, patterning and all out Ďwhat the berzeebers is happening!í moments every step of the really is turning out to be a Titanic of a gown. When I thought Iíd give up I looked at the painting: that lady really seems to say to me Ďwhat is your problem missy?í and got right back into it.

After stuffing up the bodice I had to recut so that made me lose some width in the skirt. I only had 3 m of each silk so I really didnít need this sort of wastage. Piecing meant I had to pay attention to what piece was to be sewn to what, well, I did a whole lot of unpicking so mushy brain reigned supreme. I also learnt that silk doesnít like to be unpicked. Poo to you silk! I ended up making a whole lot of bias strips to use which meant a whole lot of hand stitching which resulted in a whole lot of pin stick fingers. I seem to be stabbing myself a lot more as I get older. Blood and silk donít go together well either.

The sleeve was fun...not. I faced the slashes and then stitched the lower sleeve together, it felt a bit too snug around my bicep so I added a small triangle gusset. The top part of the sleeve I discovered was also cut stupid and was no way near wide enough to be 'foofy'. So I had to add sections in. At this point in time I was really, really glad I kept every last scrap of silk.


Iíve cut out the second sleeve, just need to pleat it together. 


The skirt panels are all sewn and the strips cut: this is a whole lot of strips! Iím tempted to sew the strips on by machine but I know Iíll hate it so Iíll just have to grin and bear the hand stitching.

This is the work so far: it looks very Gibson Girl to me which is fine as I like that era of costuming too. Iíve just pinned it on to the bodice to show how it will come together. It isnít that metallic: weird flash moment I guess! 


Without my beautiful singer and my bias maker I would have lost the plot on this challenge. Iím still not convinced that this dress will fit but I intend to wear the flippin' thing anyway! I still have a lot to do in the final month: and with the (hopefully) new job in the near future it will be interesting if I manage to get all four layers done. Hereís hoping!

Final Update

Yay!  I got to the end of the challenge with most of my wits intact; although my fingertips are missing some skin from all the hand stitching and my home looks like a giant sewing kitty coughed up a massive fabric and thread fur ball all over it.  Meh, clean up is for after the challenge ends. My outfit consists of:

Layer 1: Camicia and drawers
Layer 2: Red petticoat
Layer 3: Big silk gown
Layer 4: Stockings, pocket, balzo, necklace.

So this is me: happy in my new gown.   Four of the five Western Australian entrants got together to take photos and admire each other's work:  We looked amazing and I am looking forward to getting group shots with Clare who couldn't make it this time.  For me this was a real challenge as a Italian gown novice and I learnt a lot of new techniques which is the secret bonus and I'm so proud to be among such fabulous and creative people.

My inspiration was the Lorenzo Lotto gown, and I am ecstatic about how the silver and burgundy silk complement each other and shine so luxuriantly.  I really did feel like an Italian lady in this ensemble.  I also managed to stay with my promise to only use things that I had already, the exception being the camicia.  To my dismay and surprise I didn't have any white linen or substitute in my fabric stash.  I know, how embarrassing!  Okay, now to get onto describing the layers.

Layer 1: Camicia, and a layer 1 extra: drawers.

My camicia is made from white cotton lawn. The fine linen I needed was out of my budget and lawn does the trick in my opinion. I used the sample from Patterns Of Fashion 4 to draft my camicia and then cartridge pleated the neckline and sewed a band of lace to give it some extra 'bling'. The portrait seemed to show pleating at the neckline and I quite like the little pleated frill that this method gave me. I started to run out of time so the camicia was machine finished which did the job but isn't as neat as hand finishing would have been.

My drawers are based on those described in Patterns Of Fashion 4, my first attempt made 'Hammer Pants' (crotch at the knee). Highly amusing, but I unpicked the crotch gusset and inserted it in a less-knee-more-crotch region. I plaited some cotton for the ties and as they looked a little plain added some black lace at the hem that I had left over from my daughters ball gown. The fabric I used was a remnant of cream linen that I had no idea what to use it for: I must admit it was a linen/spandex blend which actually made the drawers super comfy. I will definitely be making more of these, perhaps in outrageous colours and patterns with more embroidery. (Dalek drawers anyone?)

Layer 2: Petticoat

Next layer is my red linen petticoat. I padded the hem with 2 layers of upholstery fabric that I would never use for anything visible and then covered with a layer of red linen. Upon suggestions given to me on the Facebook page I also repeated this at the waist to make the pleats stand out a bit to give more support to my outer dress. Two ribbon ties at the back allowed me to tie this on nice and snug. I'm really happy with this petticoat and plan to add a couple of roped channels as well to make it even 'foofier'.

I had planned to add an embroidered silk strip to the bottom but didn't get the embroidery completed because - silly me - 2.5 metres of embroidered trim would take longer than a couple of days! However, I intend to finish it and add it at a later date.

Layer 3: Over-gown

Okay, now onto the outer gown. Boy oh boy I love this dress! I drafted every piece of this gown and it gave me lots of challenges but seriously - big silk frock! I had only 3 meters of each silk to work with and this dress took a lot of thinking and planning to get the colours in the right order. I stuffed up the first bodice and also didn't make the sleeve tops puffy enough. This meant the skirts panels got a little bit narrower and there is some creative piece patching on the puffy sleeves which isn't that noticeable I think. The bodice is boned with cable ties and laced at the sides with hand made eyelets. I made this gown a little smaller at the sides to let me lose some weight and still wear it in the future. the sleeves are sewn in two parts and fully lined. I left the under seam of the puffy top part open to allow for ease of lacing and getting the gown on. The skirts are cartridge pleated directly to the bodice: this was my first time in cartridge pleating and I'm quite happy with the result. I think next time I will attach the pleats to a band and then sew to the bodice. The skirt is fully lined, the hem of the lining fabric has been padded to help hold the skirts out as well. Every one of the silk strips has been machine then hand sewn in place which was probably the most time consuming part of the whole construction. The dress is a bit long but works well with platforms shoes.

Layer 4: a) Stockings

Underneath I have my red silk stockings, hand patterned from creative draping, pinning and swearing at calico and patterning tissue. Swearing, like cats, is essential in good pattern drafting I believe. I trimmed the top with left over white lace that I used on my camicia.

b) Pocket

I also made a pocket out of scraps of the silk; another accessory that I foresee being made again and again in the future. I planned to make a second one but run out of time as the pocket covers up the red linen of the petticoat that peeks through the side slits of my gown. I made a necklace out of beads that I had leftover from a variety of projects. Jewellery making is not my thing so I just strung them together as best I could. I figured this dress needed a necklace so I put my limited skills to work.

c) Balzo

My balzo I made also from some instructions given by others and how they made theirs. I used a crown of a straw hat (I didn't have a wool felt one but now I will be looking for them in the op-shops) and some brown silk trousers that I've had in my sewing box for years. For the metal ring I used a, well, metal ring that I had as well. I think they may be used for wreath making or something. Not sure why I had one in my craft room, so that's a mystery. I padded the ring with some left over bamboo wadding strips, the crown I covered with a wool fabric scrap and then the silk. I used some ribbon and beads to decorate the crown and ring before sewing them together and lining with a linen scrap. I used another Lorenzo Lotto portrait as an inspiration for the pearl border, I was thinking about adding some brown silk bows but ran out of time. I was a bit dubious about this balzo at first, it looked way too big but once I put it on with the dress it worked. Now I love it and it reminds me of fancy, expensive chocolates so what's not to love there? 


d) Necklace

I would have also liked to attempt to make the necklace from the portrait but that would involve some sculpture and in all honesty was a bit out of my skill-league. So I made this one instead.

I was also planning to make a partlet but I was completely unable to find any fabric that gave the right amount of sheerness except poly chiffon that I wasn't that keen on so decided to not make one. A nice lacy hanky would have been good as well I think.

I would definitely do this dress again as I love it and it was a real challenge and can't wait for an event to wear the whole ensemble to. I have also picked out two potential gowns for the next challenge but I have promised myself to create a time line and stick to it next time!