The Third Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 14 to August 14,  2013

Kirilee Barker
Queensland, Australia

Kirilee Barker

Iím a bit of a jack-of-all-trades (and master of none!). Iíve bounced around from the SCA to steam-punk, with brief stops along the way at Victorian and Regency. Iíve been sewing for about seven years, when I taught myself on my grandmotherís old treadle-peddle Singer machine. During my time in the SCA, I focused more on embroidery and accessories, so Iím a true novice to Italian Renaissance costume, having never attempted even a camicia.

For the challenge, Iíve been inspired by Fasoloís Portrait of a Lady (ca. 1565-1570), specifically its use of embroidery. Iím hoping to make a camicia, a pair of bodies, my own spin on the Fasolo gown, a loose gown, and a zibellino, chopines, and two other things I havenít yet figured out for my accessories.

Week 1

After a regretfully late birthday night spent watching bad 80s fantasy movies, I dove into the IRCC3 challenge with bleary eyes and hands dreading spending the week sewing boning channels. But sew I did. I used the instructions on Drea Leed's amazing Elizabethan Costume website to draft out a custom pattern of stays (correct terminology be damned) for myself, using the dubiously historically accurate unstrapped version for practicality. I'd just received Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Costume in Detail for my birthday and, after pouring through the pages, decided on sewing the channels in a contrasting thread. Unfortunately that meant hand-sewing. Lots and lots of hand-sewing. Thank goodness for 'The Borgias'.

Week 2

This was a bit of a mix-and-match week for me. I finished off my hand-sewn boning channels. I fussed around with knitting some stockings I may or may not ever complete. I cut out my drawers in linen, based on the 1600 pair of drawers (found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) from Patterns of Fashion 4: The Cut and Construction of Linen Shirts, Smocks, Neckwear, Headwear and Accessories for Men and Women C. 1540-1660. I started decorating one leg with a mix of long-stitch and couching, completed the other leg with couched gold thread and embroidery floss, and abruptly decided I liked the second pattern better and scrapped the first.
But I suppose my biggest project this week has been my busk. I knew that I was planning on boning my stays with the traditional reeds, but I hadn't yet worked out what I was going to do for a busk, which was recommended to get that straight line down the front of the bodice. After hunting around the web collections of the V&A, Kyoto Costume Institute, and the Met, I finally settled on a 17th century French busk made of ivory. Of course, I wouldn't have access to ivory (or even want to - the real fur I'm using is bad enough on my conscience), but I loved the pattern etched into it - the entwined love hearts, the delicate leaves and flowing vines, the motto. So I copied part of their pattern for my own busk, to be worked in wood. The entwined hearts would become a single heart (as I haven't yet found my matching heart), the vines and leaves a repeated motif leading to the heart in the centre, and the motto my own SCA persona's, in Latin, but translated to, "With wings and mind".
Over an extremely dust-filled and dirty morning, I shaped the busk out of wood, making sure to curve the edges on a sander so that they won't poke through the material of my stays. Then I drew out my design and got to carving. I've never attempted anything of the sort before, but it turned out to be not that hard - all I needed was a small penknife, a lot of patience, and hardy hands. Over the next couple of days, it took shape... but there was still something missing. Taking inspiration from the ivory busk, I outlined my carvings in black to give them definition. Then it was a simple matter of rubbing some beeswax into the wood for a nice shine and the busk was finished, ready to slip into my stays and never be seen again. Sometimes I think our ancestors were extraordinarily silly people.

Week 3

This week I feel has been filled with an awful lot of nothing. Logically I know that I'm making progress, but emotionally I'm seeing the end of the month coming up in big red lights marked WARNING! WARNING! TIME RUNNING OUT!. Really, working full time has played merry hell with my sewing time... such an inconvenience, having to work to live. Why can't we all be ladies of the manor with nothing to fill our days but incredibly fiddly embroidery?

Anyway, most of this week was taken up with hand-sewing the ribbon binding on my stays - an activity that I've now come to view as something akin to having teeth pulled by an eighteenth century dentist with rusty tools. The main problem has been evenly navigating around the tabs... and it has resulted in some serious speared fingers and forced contributions to the theoretical swear jar, let me tell you. I've almost finished the dreaded tabs, however, and am looking forward to smooth sailing from here on in. On a related note, I'm about halfway through lucet braiding the cord for my stays and am enjoying the process immensely. Who would have thought that winding crochet yarn around a bent fork would be so satisfying?

I've started on my other sleeve for my camicia. I was lucky enough to get one sleeve done before the challenge started, but now I'm remembering just how long that one took. I'm basing my camicia extremely loosely on the extant one found in the Civic Museum, Milan: mainly it's the sleeves I want to emulate, with their gorgeous bands of drawn thread work. I'm also planning on doing a small amount of embroidery around the neckline and some faggoting stitching to join the panels... hence the flashing warning lights of time rapidly draining away. If I'm lucky I'll get the sleeve finished by the end of the week, and if not then it'll eat into next month's time, but I don't mind because it's just been an absolute blast to do something that I've never tried before.

The other main thing I've worked on this week is my zibellino, affectionately nicknamed (with no imagination at all) Zibby. I'd originally planned to leave him to the end with the rest of the accessories, but I bought some 'Sculpey' and couldn't resist having a crack at shaping his mask, which is based on the one in Moroni's 1552-53 portrait of Isotta Brembati. I bought a vintage fox fur for Zibby, with his little feet still attached and everything. After not-so-quietly freaking out at how creeped out I was by it, I managed to overcome my disgust by sitting him up on my shoulder like a pet that the Addams Family would approve of, and then set about to sculpting. I covered his face in alfoil so that I could get a decent impression, worked the clay out into a sheet and went to town. His ears insisted on coming out different sizes, but I'm just treating that as a lovable quirk. I also made some raised patterns for decoration on his mask, including a simplified version of the embroidery I'm doing for my ladder-laced dress. After baking the mask, I painted it with a metallic paint with actual metal in it, which almost gave me the vapours, but had the advantage of making the clay look like real gold. I then jewel-bombed Zibby with plastic jewels and pearls. I call him my Hipster Zibby, since it looks like he's wearing gigantic glasses.

May 6 - May 13

This week was a time of desperation, bleeding fingers, and much self-deception. Of course I'll get my drawers embroidered and sewed, I told myself. And I'll totally have time to finish off the other drawn thread work sleeve of my camicia as well. Easy as pie. There should really be lying contests, because I think I'd come in first (and then lie and walk away with the second and third as well). Out of all my plans, I managed to finish off my drawn thread work for the camicia. I feel slightly better about that because Saturday was a no-show sewing wise thanks to having an amazing time wedding dress shopping with (and for) my best friend.

This week culminated in me learning how to do insertion stitches. After a four hours of fruitless attempts, when I finally figured it out, I swear I could hear the theme music from Chariots of Fire. As I've written previously, I'm basing my camicia in the Civic Museum, Milan, which looks like it has narrow bands of drawn thread work down the main body. Well, since I had already spent way too much time doing the drawn thread work on the sleeves, I decided to cheat and do insertion stitches instead. I cut my linen into twelve equal strips, hemmed each of them, and had at it. Right now I've done three strips, but I'm getting faster at them the more I do, so I hope to have the rest of them done by the end of the week, when I should really get into my Layer 2 stuff.

May 14 - May 21

I REALLY hated the way the hand-sewn binding looked on my stays, so this week was the first of the "Argh, oh goodness, why am I doing this?" dreaded revisions. Though pulling out the thicker ribbons felt like pulling out my hair, I toughed it out and replaced them with thin, machine-sewed ribbon of the same colour. I also hand-sewed some eyelets. Finishing off my lucet-braided cord completed the trifecta and the stays themselves. I'm actually quite happy with the way they've turned out. As much as I hated doing it at the time, I think the re-ribboning was a good move.
I've also been plugging away at the embroidery for my camicia. I've decided to use a square yoke and gather the fabric onto it. This will hopefully give the camicia the wide neckline that shows up in so many portraits. So, of course, I look at the plain linen band and think, "You know what this needs? MORE time-consuming embroidery." I've based my pattern on A Lace Border in the 'Blackwork Archive', but I've faffed about with it as well, using blue embroidery cotton thread that matches my dress.

May 21 - May 28

I made a 'day-glo' orange and green petticoat. That really sums up this week nicely. I'd originally ordered some coral silk and linen for a petticoat, since most of the petticoats of the era were red. Unfortunately, when the fabric arrived, it looked more like something that safety officers would wear. Screw it, I said, determined not to let silk go to waste. No one's going to see it anyway. So what did I do next when faced with silk of such brightness that even a fop would say, "Really, you need to tone that down."? I decided to cut three guards out of my dress material to decorate it. And now, when I wear it, I look like a spokesperson for Bunnings Warehouse.

I've pretty much abandoned my attempts at sewing historically accurately - it's a modern sewing machine all the way, baby. I couldn't imagine hemming the lengths of these skirts by hand, though more power to people who attempt it. To finish the petticoat off, I hemmed it with a jute band. This stops the fabric from tangling around my legs when I walk.

I also started a corded petticoat. I'm basing my pattern off of Jennifer Rosbrugh's awesome pattern, which is geared towards the 19th century, but will work just as well for me. I didn't want to make a farthingale, since I didn't want something quite so rigid, and thankfully there are records of women in Italy wearing petticoats with cords in them to shape their skirts. Of course, with my mutant flare-y safety petticoat, I may not need it. We'll see how I go.

May 28 - June 14

In a stunning display of my short attention span, I decided to skip right over the main dress and start work on my zimarra. The main shape is based on the 1610-1615 loose gown in Patterns of Fashion. The first weekend was spent sizing up the pattern, fiddling around with it, and making sure that it fit... an incredibly boring task, but sadly one that I had to spend the time on if I don't want to look like a sausage splitting out of its skin. The pleats were also the result of a lot of experimentation and rather saltier words than I'm proud of. Since I'm broader in the back than the original wearer of the loose gown, I had to play around with getting equal pleats that fit the width across my shoulders. Luckily, after two many time pricking my fingers with multiple pins, I ended up with a 3:1 ratio that worked out pretty well.

After the boring initial base construction and lining with maroon linen, the fun began. Luckily, I had a whole lot of inch-wide bottle-green velvet ribbon left over from a previous project, some new maroon ribbon bought specifically for the IRCC, and a butt-load of pearls. Embellishment is always my favourite part of construction, and I went to town on the zimarra. It's still not finished - I've got to add the fur lining yet, and, probably after the challenge ends, I'd like to add some of the wide open sleeves that you often see on Spanish/Italian loose gowns - but I think it's going okay so far. Depending on how long my gown takes, we'll see how much more 'bling' I can add to it before August.

(Please excuse the way the zimarra is hanging on my sewing dummy - she's decided that she likes living near the ground and doesn't want to adjust to my height, so all of my garb has the unfortunate tendency of looking it was created for a member of the Lollipop Guild.)

June/July Update

This month I decided to push myself to get enough of my garb finished to enter into the costume competition at the Abbey Medieval Festival. This resulted in mucho late nights, curses flying (mostly about how annoying fur is to sew by hand), panic attacks, and second place (whoo!). Unfortunately, it also resulted in me hitting a wall so high that the combined efforts of the US pole vaulting team and the entire Hun army couldn't get over it. So I'll provide a proper update next month, but for now this'll have to do.

Final Update (do do do dooo, do de doopdoop doo)

In a stunning display of my procrastination, I ended up limping across the finish line with a couple of hours left. The whole last month has been a bust for me for various reasons, so I only managed to finish off my drawers and my corded petticoat.

Layer 1

Camicia: drawn thread work sleeves, faggoting stitch connecting the panels of the body, embroidered yoke, machine stitched except for sewing the yoke down.

Pair of Bodies: entirely had sewed, including boning channels (yeah, that was fun -_-), ribbon edging, 20 hand sewn eyelets. Handmade and hand carved busk. Lucet-braided cording.
[Bella's note: I just love Kirilee's choice of headwear! Very rakish. ;-) ]


Drawers: entirely hand sewn. Couched embroidery around legs based on 1543 Bronzino painting of Eleanora di Toledo.

Layer 2

Corded petticoat: oh-so-very much machine sewed, and annoying at that.

Petticoat/underskirt: machine sewed. Bodice: hand sewn. Gold-work embroidery based on 1543 Bronzino painting, hand sewn pearls on embroidery, hand sewn trim. Hand sewn eyelets for side-lacing. Sleeves: Machine sewed, hand sewn trim. Skirt: Machine sewed. Hand cartridge pleated.


Layer 3

Zimarra: Basic form machine sewed. Trim hand sewn on. Pearls on trim hand sewn. Hand sewn embroidery down front, plus hand sewn pearls on embroidery. Fur hand sewn down front plus fur collar. 70 hand wrapped and handmade buttons with pearls down front.


Layer 4

Zibellini: Handmade mask and feet.

Stockings: wool, incomplete.

Overall, it's been a wonderful experience and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I learned so much and had such an amazing time challenging myself to really go as far as I could in pursuit of making something that looked vaguely dress-shaped. The best thing about the four months has been the camaraderie, and I want to thank everyone involved in the IRCC, and especially Bella, for offering encouragement, suggestions, and sometimes a simple reassurance that yes, it's okay if you accidentally sewed that part on upside down... though you might want to think about fixing it if you don't want to look like a playing card. Here's to next year!