The Fifth Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 1 to July 31,  2015

Celeste Wheater
Western Australia

Hi! This is my second time entering this challenge. I have been playing in the SCA for approximately five years now, and have been mainly focusing on circa 1490-1497 garb for almost 3 years. While I still feel I have a lot to learn from this period, I have decided to play in a very slightly later sand pit for this challenge.

I am planning to create an outfit of a lady of approximately 1510 Milan, with a red & yellow overdress based on a coloured etching that is very similar to other portraits and frescos of that time and area. I will also be making a camicia and underskirt, and for the accessories I am planning an ostrich feather fan, stockings, a hair-bag and perhaps a partlet if time allows.

April Update

This month has been a busy one – although I’ve not gotten anywhere near as much done as I would have liked to! Hopefully that will change now I’ve gotten my sewing machine off lay-by after the death of my poor old faithful.

I decided to focus on smaller projects this month – I cut out a pattern for my hose (with some help for the fitting!), and decided to use some nice dark red wool I found in New Zealand last year for them. I used the instructions from ‘A Medieval Tailors’ Handbook’ for the instructions, and I think they’ll be really nice once they’re done. I'm a bit worried about how they might fit as the fabric is stretchy even for wool, but I'll find out I guess! Rather than making my own garters I will be using a strip of velvet ribbon.

I also spent a lot of time on the train to & from work making lucet cords to lace the red & yellow dress up once it’s done, rather than using the usual Russia braid from the local Spotlight store.

The main piece I worked on this month has been the underskirt – which, unless I have some extra time at the end – is done! I did some research into possible underskirts around this era & could only find 4 frescoes & 1 portrait with ladies displaying possible underskirts between 1495 & 1520. Only one was from the same time period as the sottana – a Carpaccio portrait from 1505 (the two courtesans). Of those found, two were a tawny or yellow colour (one with possible decoration/two lines of visible hem stitching) and three were a dark green colour (two with decoration at the hem, neither of which were strictly allegorical). When seen, the decoration appears to be quite simple - lines with hatching, zig zags, etc.

As I already have a green underskirt which I am very fond of, I decided to to make a tawny-oloured underskirt. Luckily, I just happened to have a piece of pumpkin-yellow linen, just barely large enough in my stash waiting for me to pay attention to it! As I didn’t have a sewing machine at this point, it’s entirely handstiched & finished. I decided to use two eyelets and some more matching lucet braid I made as a closure, so if I lose/gain weight, I don’t need to worry too much & I believe this to be a plausible period closure for it. I also decided to use box pleats - mainly because I like them, but also because box pleats were just going out of fashion at this time, so I don't think it too unlikely that they may have been used.

May Update

I’ve managed to get a bit more sorted this month, but mainly focused on my first layer – the camicia – mostly because I have a new sewing machine and I wanted an excuse to play with it, and I needed to re-teach myself how to sew a straight line! Very little of the camicia tends to be visible in most artwork – however, from what can be seen at the neck and wrists, they appear to be square necked and gathered or finely pleated on to a band which may be decorated.

Only one camicia obviously showed further decoration (Bernardino de' Conti, Milanese School, Portrait of a lady from the Trivulzio family, 1515) during the 1495-1515 timeframe in Milan, although more decoration becomes visible in the late 1510’s – early 1520’s when necklines became significantly lower. The camicia visible at the wrists and shoulders were often very wide and likely ended around the knuckles when the arm was relaxed, or the finger tips when un-poofed (Is that a word?).

Renaissance Dress in Italy, 1400-1500 (pp 197-199) states that Spanish embroidery was very popular throughout northern Italy and mentions that in 1501 the inventory of the Contessa di Mesococo’s wardrobe included specific mention of five embroidered camicie and one with a green silk trim and gold fringing.

As the Realm of Venus includes a photo of a white-worked extant camicia from the sixteenth century, and other extant camicie also appear to be well embroidered, I believe that most upper-class camicie would also be decorated in some manner at this stage. The extant camicie appear to be full length where hems are visible. As such, I modified a version of the Realm of Venus’s camicia pattern by widening and adding some length to the sleeves to more closely match those seen in portraits of the time and in my reference picture. I opted for some light cotton lawn, grabbed my scissors and measuring tape and went at it.

Oh my gosh but there is a ton of fabric in this camicia! I opted to gather the neckline as I’ve not done a gathered one before and I’m running low on pins! It took a bit of fiddling and cursing, but eventually I was able to get the fabric to cooperate. All that I need to do to complete this layer is the neckband and to shorten the sleeves and insert a drawstring, such as found in this extant camicia from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston – my hope is that this will help the garment be more versatile and practical. As embroidery and I rarely seem to get along, I am aiming to decorate the neckband only at this moment in a simple Spanish-style black-worked pattern, similar to the one seen in the above portrait.

This month I also made the pattern for my partlet, which I have based off the pattern in Birbari, which I found on Jen Thompsons’ site. I had to fiddle it a bit, and then allow for my apparently wonky shoulders, but I managed to get a pattern that sat nicely.

I then cut the pattern out of the nice stiff faux-organza fabric I had and tried to figure out how to hem it. Unfortunately, after a day or so of swearing, pleading and glaring, the thing is refusing to co-operate. As it will sit on the outside of my dress, I don’t want to bind the edges, so I decided to leave it alone and sulk for a little before coming back to it later.

I have also today cut out my bodice, using a modified version of my basic toile. I have used a claret-red silk for the outer layer, some horrible itchy wool felt for interlining and some heavier cotton for the lining. I have used the felt as interlining, because I have found in the past that it tends to give a smoother line that seems to more closely match the portraits of this time than a canvas layer might without being too insanely bulky. I have no idea why my red fabric is photographing only as bright pink or apricot! I will whip-stitch the outer-fabric down onto the interlining/lining layers and then attach the two bodice pieces at the shoulder. This will make it easier to shorten the straps if I need to in the future and considerably reduce the bulk.

June Update

This month was a bit of a hodgepodge, with not much achieved: I finished construct 1 of 2 hose, figured out how to finish the edges of my partlet, onstructed my bodice, and did maths. I also decided to go back and add a row of felt to the bottom of my underskirt – I found some sumptuary information indicating that ‘underskirts with bands of felt’ (presumably in the Spanish style) had been banned at the turn of the century in Milan, so a single band of felt at the bottom of the skirt seems plausible to me.

My main focus was constructing the bodice – this took a lot longer than allowed because I think my Sewing Mojo went on holidays, but at least it’s done!

Red appears to have been a relatively common colour in lady’s garb in Milan both before and after the 20 year time frame which I was looking at, followed by the tawny shades. There appears to have been a wide variety of colours and decorations used on the dresses, including what may have been cutwork, tassels, brocade and velvet trims – in total 10 of the 20 dresses I surveyed had some form of decoration. (One day, I will make that tassel dress!!!) Only one other dress examined had any evidence of regular striping during this timeframe (Sleeves of Portrait of a Lady (Supposed to be Bona Sforza), Lomabardian School, 1500-1505). However, a sculpture of Isabella d’Este by Gian Cristoforo Romano (Who painted & sculpted both Beatrice & Isabella) also shows obvious stripes across the bodice – although not Milanese, Isabella lived in Mantua which was quite close to the Milanese border and was well known to have an extensive wardrobe, so it does not seem unlikely that she would own a dress in the Milanese style.

Necklines at this time appear to be fairly uniformly rounded at the back and tended to be square at the front.

I decided to use a black trim around the edge of my partlet as I have been having some interesting issues trying to hem it, and it has since started to fray like no-one's business. I currently intend to fold the trim in half once sewn on to hopefully stop the edges from fraying away completely and because it reminds me of the trim in Raphaels’ Ritratto di Maddalena Doni.

Serves me right for using cheap stuff instead of the ‘real thing’, I guess!

The single hose I have completed has been a real learning curve for me – I’ve learned more about modifying toiles and how not to make the pattern pieces fit together! I now just need to finish the top, but that can wait until I have the other one completed, just to be sure that they end up the same length.

July Update

July has been another crazy month – I got a promotion at work which was great but left less time and energy for sewing. On the upside, I’ve now pretty much finished my outfit – just in time.

I’ve finished my camicia. I’ve used drawstring in the sleeves as discussed back in May. There is an extant example of this, and now I’ve started looking for them, I’ve noticed that they’re reasonably common in overdresses as well. I had to give up on an embroidered band for the neckline due to time constraints and because I tend to be something of a perfectionist. The sleeves are quite long (down to my fingertips or so) as it seems to have been quite common to have a fair amount of it hanging out of or pushed up over the end of the overdress sleeve.

I’ve also assembled the skirt on my dress – unfortunately I’ve now realised I did so the hard way, but at least I know for next time. It also frayed like crazy! I used a roll pleating method to pleat it onto the bodice. This is the first time I’ve attempted to do stripes so getting everything to fit and sit nicely was interesting.

I also made sleeves! I couldn’t quite make out how the sleeve was fastened, so after looking at a variety of other portraits/frescoes from a similar time period I went with bows – although tassels was another option that very nearly won out.

I also have my Scuffia (aka hair bag) – this was something of a Spanish fashion that was prevalent in both Venice & Spain until the early/mid 1520’s. It often seemed to be held onto the head with a cord (which was sometimes decorated) but I found at least one clear case of it being pinned onto the hair which seems to work better for me, at least for a short time.

I now have two hosen. Although there isn’t a lot of proof from this particular time as to colours of hose, I feel that dark red is likely to have been a popular choice – it certainly was later in the century – as it is practical (it shows little dirt) and red is a popular colour throughout both men and womens’ clothing at the time.

My partlet has also been finished.

I attempted to make a feather fan as originally outlined – unfortunately I was unable to organise my ostrich feathers in a way I was happy with and have sidelined the project for another time. Instead, I have made a silk saccocia out of some scraps. I find these to be useful for keeping keys or small change in.

Final Update

(Scroll below for details)

What I Did Well

I’m really happy with the way I made my patterns for this challenge. I’m also very proud of the fact I persevered to the finish as it has been a very challenging few months for me personally.

I’m happy with the way the sleeves turned out in particular & find them to sit as I had hoped. As many of my friends are aware, I have a bit of a thing for big sleeves! I’m glad to have finally made a pair. I’m happy with the way the over-all outfit turned out and am already planning to add to it to make a more complete, versatile look (A mongil will likely be the next big-ish project)

Overall, the way my outfit has turned out is something I am quite proud of – there are certainly things I would, could and hopefully will tweak, but I feel the end product is of a reasonably high standard for my skill level. The IRCC has again helped me to find a new sewing ‘sandpit’ to play in and continue to extend my skills, and am very glad to have completed it!

Layer 1: Camicia

Layer 2: Under-skirt

Layer 3: Dress

Layer 4: Accessories

1. Hose



2. Scuffia



3. Partlet


4. Pocket

What I Learned

I covered a lot of these points in my write-ups, but I learnt a fair bit during this completion – including straight lines on the machine!! The hose were a learning curve all by themselves – I learnt more about 3D patterning and easing and there is a whole host of things I would do differently next time on the hose alone – but I’m really glad I made them though as they’re something I’ve wanted to make for a while. I’ve now started to learn about piecing fabric in a consistent manner – not something I’ve had to do often considering modern fabric widths and the Italian preference for rectangular construction where possible. This is one of the skills I would like to continue to try and expand in future projects. I have also learned to try and remember that there is no such thing as perfect, and sometimes a good job is enough.I also learnt a lot about how fabric choice can influence a design (In particular, in the cutting & finishing process) – for example, the partlet would have turned out pretty differently if I had chosen a different type of sheer fabric or the sleeves could have appeared quite different if I had used a heavier material to line them.

What I Would Do Differently

I would construct the stripey skirt in panels rather than making long strips which were then sewn together in panels. Also, I would set an alarm on my clock so I remember to take more photos!!! There was one accessory that I made that I got no in-progress photos of at all, and as such had to decide not to include it as part of my outfit. I’m intending to make another pair of hosen using a modified pattern and using a linen lining as finishing the seams was a nightmare. That would also allow me to embroider the tops! I would like to look into making garters at some point in the future. I also intend to make another scuffia, but to make the bag/pocket somewhat deeper – although it worked well as a pattern, the finished product did not hold the hair well. I would also add a velvet ribbon facing inside the headpiece to help it grip onto my hair when pinned.