The Fifth Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 1 to July 31,  2015

Carol Lewis
British Columbia, Canada

I discovered the SCA five years ago, developed an Italian persona, registered my name, heraldic device and badge, and eventually wrote a complete life story for my persona which became a novel titled The Painter's Daughter. My persona needed clothing, and so I began to research, design and create historically accurate 16th century Italian clothing, primarily based on portraiture. I do not consider myself a novice sewer, and having created several gowns now for my persona, I do not consider myself a novice to Italian Renaissance Costuming either. This will be the second time I compete in a Realm of Venus challenge.

I will be making: a camicia; a 'farsettina', either with a separate underskirt, or an attached skirt; an over-dress/gown with detachable sleeves; and accessories to a maximum number of four items/set of items, for example: a pocket; hat; wig accessory for the hair; a zimmara/loose gown.

April Update


April 1st, the much anticipated start date for the 5th Annual Italian Renaissance Costume Challenge arrived! My fabric for the camicia was washed, cut and stacked, ready for ironing and hemming. That was it, that was all I was able to do. My fabric for my farsettina and sottana was ordered WEEKS ago, but still has not arrived!!

I had to work a midnight shift, so took my camicia fabric with me to work on in my breaks. The camicia is a square block construction as laid out in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion 4. The making of under-linens was something done in the home -- fatta in casa -- for most people. I felt in touch with those ancient women as I stitched thirty-nine feet of hem on the cotton lawn squares to be assembled into my camicia. It will be completed with a basic Italian insertion lace joining every seam. I have tried this before and liked the results immensely.

The farsettino is difficult to find documentation on. In Jacqueline Heralds book, Renaissance Dress in Italy 1500-1500 (published by Bell & Hyman, London and Humanities, New Jersey, 1981) she describes a farsettino as:

"related to the farsettos, doublet of men's dress, (on page 128). A 'farsettino da donna' with 16 silver buttons appears in the inventory of Riccardo del Benne of 1411. It was probably a kind of undergarment, the buttons of which would show, it's collar rising above the neckline of the fuller garment worn on top."

This garment is further described as having a skirt attached.

Jennifer Thompson states in her article "Florentine Dress 1500-1525: notes of style and construction" that there was:

'an undergarment, similar to the bodice and perhaps a predecessor to a pair of bodies worn in the northern regions of Europe.'

She remarks that it is a quite tight garment called a farsettino and provided support for the bust, slightly flattening the torso.

April 2nd I decided to use a different fabric for my farsettina, and not wait for the fabric to arrive in the mail. So I washed and ironed the new choice, and cut out the bodice using Margo Anderson's Italian Renaissance Lady's Wardrobe pattern package. I don't sew from patterns. I have never been able to turn out a garment that fits me or anyone else using patterns. Margo's patterns are so much better designed than most I have seen, and it is possible I am just developing better skills, but this is my foray into sewing with patterns. By midnight the bodice pieces for the farsettina were cut, assembled and waiting to be sewn.

My farsettina will be constructed using two of the materials suggested in the myriad of theories as to what farsettos were made with. I am using a cream coloured linen lining, a cream coloured felted wool interlining, and a cotton top fabric. The fabric resembles the hand stamped cotton fabrics imported into Venice by the Polo family, and described in Marco Polo's journals of his travels through Persia and China. I will make my farsettino with an attached skirt. There are no recognized extant farsettinos to guide us in reconstructing historical accurate garments, but I believe I am using the research available to guide me in the right direction.

April was a C-R-A-Z-Y busy month! I had promised to make garb for a newcomer in our Barony for our Spring Masked Ball and did so, from the skin out. 16th Century Italian Renaissance of course! I also began my bathroom renovation, and part of that involved turning the water off in the house mid-month! I basically camped in my home! Challenges galore!

The work on the camicia continues, and slowly, slowly all the seams come together to make the finished garment.

Alongside the camicia, the farsettino came together surprisingly well! I had decided on using a fabric I had been gifted, instead of waiting for the fabric I had ordered, and am actually happy I did. I thought I might be able to finish it in time to wear to the ball but that didn't happen.

The outside fabric is cotton, and resembles the description in Marco Polo's journals of

'cotton fine and smooth as the finest of linens, decorated with beautifully stamped patterns, which hold their colour and shape'.

The lining of the bodice and skirt are linen. The skirt is tightly cartridge pleated and sewn onto the bodice one tiny pleat at a time, by hand. The plus side is that the fabric was a gift, so easy on the budget, and will be cool and comfortable for summer camping garb!

I also began my Loose Gown, or zimarra! The zimarra turned out to be another challenge right away. Again using another beautiful cotton fabric I was gifted with, I calculated the yardage I believed I needed, and THOUGHT I had enough! In actuality because the fabric has a design in it, I couldn't cut it the way I had planned when I calculated yardage! I didn't realize this until I had cut the pieces for the fronts and the back, basically rendering the fabric useless for anything else! So, the side gores have ended up being MASSIVELY pieced together, not one solid piece as I originally planned. Piecing fabric IS found often in extant garments, so is a period practice. My modern day self railed against it, but now my Renaissance self is accepting it as a good thing.

The weather here on Vancouver Island has allowed me to take my sewing outside in the sunshine, and these fabulous fabrics, gifts from friends, are warmed by the suns rays as my heart is warmed by the greater gift of friendship this garb will be a testament to.

May Update

April ended on an interesting note. I was taking out the recycling and missed the top step and fell down the rest! So I went to the emergency ward of the hospital nearest to me and walking in, caught my foot on a loose carpet and ran, stumbling, trying to keep my balance, until I summersaulted in front of the admitting kiosks! The nurses panicked appropriately, processed me while I was being prepped for x-Ray and by the time I was done in x-ray, the loose carpet was nowhere to be seen! Diagnosis? Badly bruised back and possibly sprained left wrist.

My camicia, finished all but the black Swarovski crystal eyes for the tiny dancing Golden Swans.

I kind of figured May's progress might be mightily slowed by this...

BUT....True to form, for us crazy costume builders, I decided just after I sprained my wrist to recreate a swan pattern, one I had admired on the trim of another SCAdians gown in August of 2014. HL Katherine of Akornebir kindly sent me a photo, which clearly showed the patterning for her trims embroidery, and I painstakingly (pain being the operative word) designed a blackwork pattern, building the trim for the neckline of my camicia, stitch by stitch in blackwork technique, using gold thread. I had done a little bit of very basic blackwork before, but this was a much more intricate challenge for me. I finished the swan blackwork trim, all but the addition of black Swarovski crystal 'eyes' and so happily was able to all but finish the camicia, completely hand stitched! I also added a short bit of Italian shirring, on the gathering for the front, which will show when the entire wardrobe is assembled. An easy chain stitch loop trim in the hem, and I love this garment!

My decision to hand stitch this entire wardrobe means it takes considerably longer to complete, but also means the work is portable! I can take it with me, and it is astounding how much one can accomplish in a half dozen five-minute sessions in a day!!

The farsettino is done, and I have worn it. It is very comfortable. I made removable sleeves for the farsettino, making it work as a sottana as well. Photos to follow after the Sealion War on May 30th, here in Victoria, B.C.

The construction of the zimarra, or loose gown, continues. The work stalled on the loose gown, as my sprained wrist slowed me down, AND I was using what sewing time my wrist could handle, to create the gold swan blackwork trim, so it was not quite finished, as hoped, in April, and may not be done by the end of May either. If it is, photos of me wearing it will be taken and added to my update.


I found a photo of a remnant of fabric which the Victoria & Albert Museum has in their collection. They have dated the fabric and pattern back to 1430 in Italy, and there is a weaving mill in Italy, where the pattern is still being woven even today! Costing it out, I just could not afford the price, shipping, handling and import duties for the fabulous wool fabric, but I was suddenly inspired by the description of the fabric, to create my own!

In October of 2014, I took part in the 30th Tournament of the Golden Swan, the longest continuously running SCA Tournament. It is also the SCA's pre-eminent Persona Challenge competition. I was successful, proudly joining the Sisterhood of the Golden Swan. The remnant fabric in the the Victoria & Albert Museum is described as a repeated pattern of dancing magenta burgundy swans, upon a field of gold. I digitally reversed the colours, so that I had golden swans on a field of magenta burgundy - Golden Swans for my persona, Diamante da Magenta! I then ordered the fabric for my sottana in this pattern. I fell completely in love with the fabric when it arrived and once it was washed and ironed, I was terrified to cut it! Now that the fabric has been cut, I am excitedly looking forward to wearing this gown! May has been crazy busy, and I am hopeful June will be a more peaceful time to concentrate on my entry pieces.

The photo of the fabric remnant in the Victoria & Albert Museum

Also in May, our barony prepares every year for the annual war between the Baronies of Lionsgate (Vancouver) and Seagirt (Victoria). There is a war-point for Arts & Sciences. The barony whose populace has the most entries in the A&S Largess competition wins the point. In aide of my barony I also worked at making largess entries, groups of six items suitable for largess. I decided many of these would also be suitable as accessories for an Italian Renaissance Lady, and so completed extras for accessories for my outfit and persona - a prayer bead tasseled chaplet, an apron, soccaccia and sculpted wax mullets - changing slightly the accessories I had committed to in my original entry. The competition permits us to enter a maximum number of four items/set of items which are accessories. I have made the pocket, called a soccaccia; I will submit the apron; I will hopefully still have time to complete the wig accessory for the hair; the zimmara/loose gown is coming along. The chaplet and the wax mullets are persona appropriate pieces which will help to round out the finished appearance of my entry.

May rapidly runs to a close, my roses are in bloom and the sun doesn't go to bed until after 9:30pm now. The forecast is for our island to experience one of the hottest summers in a very long time, making me very happy I chose lightweight cool fabrics. Bring on June!

May Update, Addendum

This photo was taken by Kathie Macdermid Dierk at the SCA 2015 Sealion War, in Central Saanich, B.C., about 12 kilometers north of Victoria. I am wearing my Italian Renaissance Costume Challenge farsettino and camicia.

June Update

In addition to completely gutting and renovating both bathrooms, and my kitchen countertops, island and kitchen sink, I embarked on the Italian Renaissance Costume Challenge, and by the end of May had completed my camicia; a 'farsettina' with attached skirt, and set of removable paned sleeves.

My zimarra/loose gown was a challenge from the very beginning. Starting with a scant three meters of cloth, I needed intense resourcefulness and lots of patchwork to make it possible to get all the pieces together to assemble it according to the instructions in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion 3.


The fabric for the zimarra was gifted to me, and I was also gifted with a roll of about 100 feet of soft satin ribbon, in the most delicate salmon/rose colour. I decided to use that ribbon as part of the embellishment on the loose gown.
Cutting the wide ribbon in half, I pressed it into a tri-fold strip and found it worked nicely for the shoulder wings. I added a cording I found in a tiny little fabric store, in a colour described as "light Magenta". Slightly deeper than that of the ribbon, the layering of tones,make loose gown just that much more Italian in its sumptuousness -- delicious and unexpected, like a dark-chocolate coating on rich chocolate ganache!

I also taught myself to make thread-woven buttons in June and will decorate my overdress with them as there are several extant examples of this style of button in the 16th century.

I completed a soccaccia (pocket), and a chaplet (rosary), as well.

I have the rest of June and July to complete a wig accessory for the hair; and a hat to complete, as well as my overgown.

I have cut out the pieces for an overdress/gown. It will have detachable sleeves, but I have not fully decided the style, so have not cut out the sleeves as of this update.

Finding time to work on this last item has been and will continue to be a challenge, as I am also constructing garb for two others at this same time -- one is complete garb from the skin out for a SCAdian with a Scottish persona, late 1500's, and the other is for a French Troubador, circa 1370... Quite different lines from the Italian.

June Update, Pt 2

It is hard to believe that 2015 is half over already! It is also difficult to believe that there is only one month left in this challenge! June, as aforementioned, was a very hectic month for me, but then, really, for all of us who embarked on this challenge, I see every month is a busy month.

While searching for documentable inspiration for my hairpiece I fell in love with Portrait of a Woman, painted by Paris Bordone in 1530. Not only did I love the artists interpretation of her hair, but I loved the tiny attractive little bows that fastened her gown. Paris Bordone must have been fascinated with women who fastened their gowns with bows, as I found another he had painted, around the same time, "Portrait of a woman with a child", its bows wispy and fragile.

I decided to finish my overgown, so that it fastened with bows, three groups of three. I ran the ribbons through lacing rings, and although I do like the look, I found tying the ribbons for the photo to be fiddly and time consuming. I will see how well they hold up in use, and if they cannot pass the 'use test' I can add a few more lacing rings and just lace it shut!

My gown came together rather well, though the cartridge pleats gave me the tiniest bit of grief as I was sewing the skirt to the bodice. Six meters of fabric in each of the skirt and the lining meant it was so heavy and bulky that I was only able to sew on it for short bouts of time before my wrists and hands fatigued. The finished gown is something I will proudly wear to The Tournament of the Golden Swan in October this year, and for many years and to many events after that!

The bodice is interlined with heavy-weight cream linen, for sturdiness without too much warmth, and it is lined with medium weight sunshine yellow linen. The fabric for the overgown was a special order I had made through Spoonflower. The trim is a commercially made tablet woven trim, in black bamboo/rayon blend, and it was a joy to work with. The ribbon ties are the same material. With the exception of the long seams in the skirt, done using a sewing machine, the rest of the overgown is stitched by hand.

The sleeve material I had chosen for the lower sleeve is a rich copper-shot-coffee-brown dupioni silk, with a fanciful embroidered flourishing.

I was only going to use it for the lower sleeve, but the more I look at it the more I think it needs to be a barogoni puffed top as well! I rather like the look of the barogoni sleeve in the Portrait of a Lady by Agnolo Bronzini, also done in 1533.

We shall see what July brings for inspiration! I think sleeves, a hat and a wig accessory should be potentially achievable with only a half dozen other projects on the go for the month of July!

July Update

The clock ticks!

Nothing is ever as easy as you would hope it would be. Half the year is over, July can't be over soon enough! "Will you paint me a banner?" OF COURSE, and then one turned into THREE! Three turned into six, and then I agreed to build a tunic as well! This seems to be the norm for those who do what we do because we love to work with cloth! With the non-IRCC projects and only sleeves, hair and hat left to complete, I THEN broke my middle finger on my right hand, and forgot my project pieces I was working on where I had stayed across the ocean! COULD IT GET ANY BETTER? So... Cut out new DIFFERENT sleeves, decided on a DIFFERENT style of hat, and spent a day digging through my craft room (which is buried in the renovation materials waiting for me to finish my bathroom renos) to find DIFFERENT hair to create my hair accessory.

The sleeves took just over 18 hours to complete, sewn by hand with a broken middle finger on my right hand, each puff sewn into the slashes individually to create the look I wanted, eliminating the constant fuss and inevitable fray that comes with traditional slashing.

I began the upper baragoni sleeve by pinning it onto the dress mannequin and draping it until I was happy with the look. I lined the upper sleeve with a scrap of yellow linen.

The lower sleeve was lined with blue summer weight wool. The lower sleeves CAN be worn on their own, but for this project I wanted the baragoni upper sleeve.

The hand made thread woven buttons were sewn onto the upper edge of the upper sleeve, and loops applied to the dress sleeve, leaving space to pull the camicia out in puffs at the shoulder where sleeve meets dress. Hand made thread woven buttons will also be added onto the lower sleeve to fasten the cuff snug when worn.

Next was the hairpiece. Much arranging and re-arranging of the hair units being used finally resulted in a design that I was pleased with and looked enough like the photo of the hair on the woman in the Paris Bordone 1530 Portrait of a Lady.

The hat was the last thing to begin. I ruched three meters of the same ribbon used for trim on the loose gown (zimarra) and hand stitched it onto the woven straw form. I created the form I used from a straw hat purchased at Value Village. I cut off the torn up brim and turned the straw up inside to make an even smooth edging and a 'cap' which just fits on the back of my head. These little caps were worn alone or with a light film of veil draping down the back of the wearer. I will use this cap when I want to have a finished look but don't want to wear a hairpiece.

My dear friend Denise Pearson of Imagic Photography will take the photos for the summary. I can't believe, with all the stumbling blocks and hurdles I have had throughout this challenge, that I have come to this point, where all the pieces I committed to make are finished and ready to be professionally photographed! I have enjoyed reading all the diaries of the other competitors and learned things from them as well! This has been a grand adventure that I am thrilled to have participated in! On to the photo session and summary!

July Update, Pt 2

On Tuesday July 21st I had a sore throat at bedtime. By Thursday July 23rd I was convinced I had the flu. Friday, the coughing started, and so on Saturday, feeling like I had several broken ribs, I did what any costumer would do... I put on my Farsettino, because of its corsetting capability combined with pyjama comfort, as I was in one of those Stay-at-Home, lounge-near-the-toilet sort of moods.

Naturally, as the wracking pain of coughing worsened, and the herbal and pharmaceutical remedies seemed to be failing me, I put on my overgown, as one does, hoping for the additional rib cage support relief. The stabbing pains in my lower ribs soon gave me cause to consider the lovely long look in the bodice I had so desired and diligently created, obviously needed a lovely long torso to go with it! I am a little short on long torso presently. After the tears, and rending of cloth, I sighed and realized it was RIPPER TIME!

So, the better part of Sunday July 26th was spent ripping out the minute stitches holding the skirt onto my bodice, trimming the bodice to the length and shape which better suits my REAL body and not that imaginary body I deluded myself into thinking I had when I began this gown, and sewing the skirt back onto THAT newly fitted bodice.

Did I mention how annoying the nine bows were, and how they refused to stay in place even while lounging all day in fits of fever and body-wracking hacking? Oh, well, they are not anywhere near as lovely to wear as they are to look at in portraits and dolls on a shelf... So IF I use them, I think they might be pre-tied and stitched into place, more decorative than functioning The front of the gown is now going to laced, as this seems to work best in my real world as well.

Raising a glass of ginger-echinacea-rosehip-garlic-rosemary-elder-mint-yarrow-lemon-honey tea to finishing in time for the photo shoot! Le sigh.....

Final Update

(Scroll below for details)

Exhaustion and Exhilaration

I began the 2015 Realm of Venus 5th Annual Italian Renaissance Challenge planning to make: a camicia; a 'farsettino', either with a separate underskirt, or an attached skirt; an over-dress/gown (also known as a sottana) with detachable sleeves; and a zimarra, or loose gown. I also chose to create accessories to a maximum number allowed for points, of four items/set of items.

For my accessories I originally chose: a pocket; hat; wig accessory for the hair; and a zimara/loose gown, but this last is not allowed in the rules. In the final ensemble, I am submitting a chaplet as one of my accessories, as it is an integral accessory for every 16th century citizen of the Italian City States, and to substitute an apron for the zimarra.

With pleasure, I present my Realm of Venus 2015 fifth annual Italian Renaissance Costume Challenge outfit, from the skin out.

Layer 1: Camicia

The fabric and threads used in making my camicia were purchased, commercially-produced goods, but every stitch was done by hand -- 39 feet of hem to finish the panels, which were joined using a basic openwork insertion seam lace stitch, a stitch documented by Janet Arnold in her book Patterns of Fashion 4, page 6, illustration XIII, second style illustrated from the top. I used the square panel design described in Janet Arnold's PoF4 page 112.

Layer 2: A 'Farsettino'

My farsettino, is seen here worn as it would have been historically, as a 'house dress'. A sottana would be worn over the farsettino when venturing outside the home, or entertaining guests who were not family members, in the home. I chose to make the style of farsettino with the skirt attached, as this was done in period.

Layer 2, Extra Item: Sottana

The sottana is an over-dress, worn when entertaining at home, with anyone other than close family members, and when venturing outside.

Layer 3: Loose Gown/Zimarra

The zimarra, also known as the loose gown, veste or gamurra, was an elegant addition to the Italian noblewoman's look. Some of them draped behind the wearer with enormous trains, and some barely skimmed the ground.

Materials used in the project:

LINEN: All the linings in my zimmara, sottana and farsettino are linen, as countless books, research papers and Internet sites indicate linen was a common garment lining used by most classes of people.

COTTON: Apart from the ease of care and the comfort of cotton, I decided to make my garments out of cotton because I had the cotton yardage for the camicia, farsettino, and zimmara on hand. The fabric for the sottana was a special custom order, the design based on a sixteenth century extant sample in the textiles collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London England. Cotton was the fabric I could afford to have it produced in.

Layer 4: Accessories

As allowed, I made four accessory items to count for points. I made additional accessories to complete the look.

1. Hat

Ruched stain ribbon on a frame of woven flattened grass straw, embellished with hand fired glass beads, which I made, and the same cord trim used on the loose gown, and peacock feathers, which the Italians considered to be the most elegant and regal of feathers.

2. Apron

I decided on Monday July 27th, that the outfit would not be complete without an apron, and so, on the very day of the photo shoot I pulled out my linen and made an apron. I hand smocked the top, hand stitched on the same ribbon use as trim for the zimarra and ruched for the hat, and added the same black swarovski crystals used in the handwoven buttons.

3. Chaplet

In addition, I made a string of prayer beads. Sixteenth century Italian city-states were fiercely religious, piously Roman Catholic. The 'accessory' of a chaplet, a miniature strand of praying beads, could make a life or death difference, as people who were not ‘with Rome’ were harshly ‘corrected’. Methods of worship evolve and change over time. With changes in ritual and custom, and sometimes fashion, come changes to the instruments of devotion. These prayer beads are based on extant originals or visual examples.

4. Wig

The inspiration for my hairpiece was the hairstyle in Portrait of a Lady by Paris Bordone, 1530. It was made from artificial hair, twisted, wrapped and braided, woven and embellished to approximate the hair from the portrait.

To truly make a hairpiece work, one needs to incorporate ones own hair into the hairpiece. I used a set of wire core foam curling wands, rolled into my own dampened hair and left overnight. I have straight BONE STRAIGHT hair that rarely holds a curl. it created the soft winding curls similar to those in the portrait which inspired my hair. In my research I discovered that women used heated bronze or other metal curlers that are a similar tool to the modern day curling iron. In the Brooklyn Museum they have a Hair Curler, in the shape of a woman, dated 1292 B.C.E. from the Egyptian XVIII Dynasty. You can view this curling iron in The Brooklyn Museums 3rd floor Egyptian Orientation Gallery, in the Egypt Reborn: Art for Eternity exhibit.

What I Learned

This project inspired me to reach further and learn more.

1. I developed a whole new craft skill in learning to make thread-woven buttons, which I have gone on to teach others.
2. Time allotment and management is something I generally have a handle on, but the expected mandatory updates inspired me to plot my goals and progress on a calendar and refer to the calendar daily, keeping me on track.
3. I have created several hairpieces, but always using an existing wig base. This is the first time I created a wig without a preexisting wig to begin with. It was an interesting journey in millinery and wig construction.
4. Blackwork is a new skill I have only just begun to embrace and this project allowed me to apply purpose to this art form, in the drafting and execution of the blackwork for my camicia neckline.
5. I have been dabbling with Lampworking for about a year now, and learned that there are HUGE differences in the bottled gasses as far as how hot they will get. I used a welders bottled gas, given to me by my next door neighbour who does stained glass, and found it much easier to produce the two glass beads on my hat. The little white pearl beads were commercially produced. I made several lumps of unusable glass before I was able to turn out the two singular beads used on the hat. Heat makes a difference!

I used a sewing machine for the long seams on the skirts of the farsettino, sottana and the long seams on the zimarra. The sleeve material for the baragoni/puffed sleeves came pre-machine-embroidered. All other sewing, embroidery, construction and embellishment was done by hand.