The Fifth Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 1 to July 31,  2015

Holly Taylor
South Australia

I am an SCA member, with a special interest in sixteenth century English and Italian clothing. I really enjoy historical embroidery and I like making accessories. I sew at an intermediate level and I plan to create an Italian outfit to wear to SCA tournaments.

April Update

I have been very excited to start this challenge, because I need the motivation to get on and make some new garb.

For the first item for this challenge, I decided to make an Italian chemise (because I really need some new ones.) I have always been hesitant to make chemises the 'period' way because I am terrible with underarm gussets and find them difficult to get my head around. I have been to a chemise making workshop before, but never actually constructed one. Previously I have used a commercial chemise pattern with a scoop neck and inset sleeves.

Extant chemises suggest that piecing together of square and rectangular panels was a popular method of construction, and there are some great extant examples on Bella's Realm of Venus site. This style makes sense, given that it is an economical way of using valuable fabric, and makes good use of the fabric selvages.

I raided my stash and found several pieces of cotton that I could use to make the chemise. The front and back pieces were large rectangles, and the two sleeve pieces were smaller rectangles. I sewed the panels together in the manner you see here, although I did make the back neckline higher than the front because I am terribly prone to sun damage due to my medication.

(Image from Festive Attyre.)

To try and make the gussets easier, I made the underarm square larger and then cut it in the middle to make two triangles. This worked quite well but made an extra seam under the arm. I used a zigzag stitch to edge all the raw panels first to reduce fraying. The side seams on the body pieces were on the selvage anyway, so didn't need edging.

I was hoping that I could finish the seams inside so that it would all be neat and tidy. Unfortunately, that was harder than it sounded. It is not too bad, but I think next time I would finish the edges on all the panels by hand and then whip stitch them together or use an ornamental joining stitch like a faggoting stitch.

I needed to take a little off the bottom to even up the bottom hemline, because I changed the height of the back panel to make it sit higher on my neck. I need to factor that in when I cut the panels for the next chemise.

Once the panels were sewn together and tidied up, I ran a running stitch of about 5mm around the neckline to gather it up. I put ties at the front and back for ease of adjustment. I tried the chemise on and got someone to help me adjust the ties to get the neckline to sit where I wanted it.

Then I began the process of hand-sewing the gathers into place with bias binding. I went around and sewed the front of the binding down by hand, then went back and did the back (inside). Even though I just used a cheap commercial bias binding, I was very pleased with how the neckline turned out.

I planned to make gathered sleeves for this chemise, as I always do. But when I tried the chemise on during the fitting of the neckline, I really liked the way the sleeves looked ungathered. I recently acquired a hemming foot for my sewing machine too, so I decided to play around with it.

It produced a really nice even hem, but it was a little lumpy at the join in the sleeve. I obviously need a lot more practice with it. In the end, I decided to sew the sleeve hem down by hand.

I was disappointed to find that the fabric had a couple of little holes in it. They looked quite a lot like pinholes. Luckily one lot was on the back panel and the other was low down on the front where no-one would see them. I darned the holes with sewing thread. If I could do it over, I would use embroidery thread.

The finished chemise. I am extremely happy with the result of my first attempt. This style of chemise is much more comfortable than the commercial pattern styles that I have used in the past. It sits better and there is less pulling under the arms when wearing a corset. I will make this style of chemise again, and at some stage I would like to experiment with an Elizabethan style smock and a fully hand sewn Italian chemise. Please ignore the bra, jeans and sneakers; I wasn't sure how transparent the cotton would be in the sun!

May Update

May has been a busy month for me. I decided to use this Challenge as an opportunity to try new techniques and experiment a little. This month I worked on a new tourney dress. I decided to try a front lacing dress with a large gap, and also to make it without boning. This was a big step for me, as I really like the support and smooth lines that boning gives.

My inspiration was this style of dress as painted by Ghirlandaio. I looked at many variations on this style and decided not to copy any particular one specifically.

I adapted an existing bodice pattern to make the neckline higher and more rounded. I cut my cotton fabric, lining and two interlinings and zigzagged all the edges. Then I sewed all the pieces together so I had an outer layer, two lining layers and an inner layer. I stab stitched all the seams open but did the rest on the machine to save time. Then I sewed the bodice layers together inside out, clipped the seams, and turned it all the right way out. I hand sewed the neckline the bodice and armholes closed.


Part way through hand-sewing the neckline and armholes

The lumpy seam allowances showing through the fabric near the seams

I have used this technique successfully in the past with boned bodices; I think that the plastic hoop boning that I like to use for bodices gives a thickness to the bodice and hides any bulk. I would not use this technique again for an unlined bodice because there is no hiding the bulk of all the seam allowances around the seam lines.


I added brass lacing rings along the front of the bodice just to try a new option. I was a bit worried about using lacing rings on this bodice because I was worried that the rings might pull away from the fabric. I have worn the dress with a lightly boned pair of bodies, and it was fine. I just need to remember not to ''yank'' on the lacing in the way that I might do with a bodice that has lacing holes reinforced by boning. I think I do still prefer lacing holes though.

I sewed a line of purple gimp braid along the neckline edge for decoration, and added some lucet cord ties around the shoulder so that sleeves could be tied on. Thank you to Heather for making the cords for me.

Testing out how the braid and lacing rings look

I cartridge pleated the skirt onto the bottom of the bodice. I usually use 5mm pleats; this time I marked out 1cm pleats. My skirt was made of three equal rectangles of fabric joined together and finished at the top. I then turned the finished edge over to hide the machine sewing. Then I marked out a line of dots 1cm apart and went joined them up with a thick thread. Usually I use two parallel lines of quadrupled sewing thread to make my pleats. This time I tried out a short cut by using one piece of crochet cotton. It worked a treat and saved a lot of time, but I may just have been very, very lucky that the thread didn't break and cause me to have to start over again. I probably would go back to using a double row of threads next time, just to be on the safe side. Having said that, I managed to get the whole skirt marked out and pleated on in an evening, as opposed to the whole day that it usually takes me. I whip stitched through the centre of each pleat with a quadrupled strong thread to anchor the skirt to the bodice. I left a small split at the middle front of the skirt to make it easier to put on and take off.

After my trusty helper pinned my hem up for me (thank you Sharyn!), I trimmed it and sewed it into place by hand. I added hooks and eyes at the front skirt split, but actually ended up just pinning the front into place when I wore the dress because it meant that I could adjust the lacing tighter or more loosely depending on how I felt on the day. I am considering whether to add a line of purple ribbon around the bottom edge of the dress skirt.

Hand sewing the hem up

Adding hooks and eyes at the front

I also drafted a pattern for a ties on sleeve in matching fabric. I added purple ribbon, lined it in a light batiste, and hand sewed it together.

Laying out the ribbon to be handsewn

The completed sleeve with handsewn seam

Making the eyelets for lacing the sleeves on

For the next two months of the challenge, I plan to make an over-garment, at least one more pair of tie-on sleeves and some accessories.

The gown is not completely finished, and I am not completely satisfied with it, but it is wearable, and I am glad that I have tried a few new techniques.

June Update

June has been a busy month for me, but unfortunately Italian garb has had to take second place to some urgently needed early period clothing.

I still had an opportunity to sew trim onto my coat, but haven't manage to get it completed yet.

I have also enjoyed playing around with some jewellery experimenting with necklace styles, and have adapted some op-shop finds to make them more suitable for Italian Renaissance wear.

I have also been working on getting the pattern for a ''Juliet cap'' right. I am not completely happy with it yet, but I have a felt model that is wearable.

I am looking forward to pulling everything together next month, and finishing the outerwear and accessory components of the challenge.

July Update

There have been several moments during this final month of the competition when I really doubted that I would finish the last items to meet the competition requirements, so it is with great satisfaction that I can announce that I am finished! This month I really enjoyed playing around with beaded necklaces.

A short and long beaded necklace set with clock pendant

Another seed bead necklace

I also forced myself to finish the short coat which has been lingering for a couple of months and needed a lot of fiddly hand sewing on the trim.

Trimming the short coat

The completed short coat

Final Update

(Scroll below for details)

Layer 1: Camicia

I made this camicia from cotton fabric (although in period it would have been made from linen). I cut the fabric into rectangles (and squares for the underarm gussets) and edged the fabric with zigzag stitching to prevent fraying. I machine sewed the long seams and sewed the hems by hand. I gathered the neckline by hand and then hand sewed bias binding along the neckline. The fabric (although bought new for the project) had a couple of holes in it which I didn't spot until it was cut, so I embroidered some little flowers over the holes. I didn't gather the wrists because I wanted to be able to wear the chemise to events without the oversleeves.

Layer 2: Under-dress

This dress was inspired by the Italian styles portrayed by Carpaccio; usually from around 1490 to 1510. It would have been made of wool, silk or linen in period, but I used cotton drill for budgetary reasons. To save time, I used a construction technique that I have never used before. I cut the lining and fashion fabric layers, and two layers of calico. I edged all the pieces to reduce fraying and machine sewed each layer together. Then I put the pieces together (wrong way out) and machine sewed around the edges, leaving the bottom edge and armholes open. I clipped the seams and then turned the bodice the right way out. I over-stitched the edges and turned the armhole edges and the bodice bottom edges under, handsewing them down. Normally I would have enclosed boning within the inner layers of the bodice, but I wanted to see how the bodice would work without boning. I added lacing rings along the front of the gown and lucet cords (made by Heather) at the shoulders so that the sleeves can be tied on.

I would not use this construction technique again; I found that the seams ended up being very bulky and affected the lines of the garment. I prefer light boning in the bodice, because I think that the bodice sits better with boning and I feel more secure with a piece of boning supporting the eyelets or lacing rings.

The skirt panels are simple rectangles. I machine sewed the long seams and cartridge pleated the skirt on. I allowed an overlap for the skirt, and sewed on some hooks and eyes to ensure that it is closed. Sharyn marked the hem for me and I turned it up and hemmed it by hand.

I adapted the sleeve pattern from an existing pattern I made in the past. The sleeves were cut from the same drill as the dress and lined with thin cotton. I trimmed them with vertical satin ribbons which were hand sewn down. I made eyelets in the sleeve heads for tying the sleeves on.

The dress was laced using lucet cord made by Heather and the hemline was marked for me by Sharyn.

Layer 3: Short over-dress

This garment was inspired by a fresco (by an unattributed author) in a ''what Life Was Like In The Renaissance'' by Time Life Books. I adapted the pattern from an existing coat pattern. All the materials for this garment were from my stash. Both the outer and lining are 100% cotton fabric. The main seams were machine sewn and all the edges were zigzagged before sewing. The armholes and lower edge were hand sewn. I sewed maroon gimp braid down along the edges and inserted some green ric-rac braid under the gimp braid so only half shows. This style of trim can be seen in some of Vecellio's fashion woodcuts. The ric-rac braid was secured with stitching. The centre front has a hook and eye for closure.

Layer 4: Accessories

1. A Small Cap

The small cap was based on portraits by Ghirlandaio and Carpaccio. It was made out of felt covered in a mesh fabric and edged with bias binding. Some gold braid was then added. It has wig clips on the ear pieces, but actually holds in place quite well with no clips. I am not completely happy with the shape, but it is very comfortable to wear.


2. A set of jewellery

The jewellery was made from metal beads and glass beads strung on tiger tail wire for strength. The lucet cord necklace was made from cord knotted by Heather.