The Fifth Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 1 to July 31,  2015

Mandy L'Estrelle
Western Australia

This will be my fifth entry in the Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge so I am definitely not a novice. I have been sewing Italian garb for about 6 years now, and have grown in skill and confidence every year thanks to taking part in this challenge. I look forward to participating again and hope to be able to encourage many of those around me to take part and enjoy the experience.

The outfit I am looking to create will be based on a 1580-1590 high necked style gown, with sottana and ruffled collar shirt or partlet, and several accessories. I will be attempting another set of slashed sleeves, as I really enjoyed creating the ones i made last year. I am hoping to be able to complete this outfit with the minimum of shopping, focusing on using as much as I can from stash of fabrics and trims.

I have not started any handiwork for this project as I prefer to try and get everything done in the four month period.

April Update

I have decided to make a partlet based on the embroidered one in the portrait of Maria de Medici by Allori 1555. I have long admired this partlet and recently have been trying to increase my skills and patience at embroidery and this seemed like an ideal project.

First I simplified the pattern quite a bit as my skills are at novice level in embroidery. I carefully measured and traced this simplified pattern onto a cotton/linen blend white fabric. I am using a blend as I can not wear pure linen due to allergy but can tolerate a blend. I have been working the design in purple and turquoise DMC threads, as these are the colours from my heraldry and I am almost done on these colours. The next step will be couching on strings of beads or pearls, I have to do some rummaging in my bead collection to decide which to use as yet.

Well it was two weeks of hard work and sore hands but my partlet is completed! All the embroidery and bead work was done by hand, and most of the construction as well. It was quite a challenge getting the little groups of three beads onto the gold lace but I persisted and am really happy with how it turned out.

May Update

Well this month I have been a little distracted by other projects but I have managed to complete two parts of my outfit. Firstly I worked on my chemise. I chose some cotton/linen blend medium weight fabric from my stash, as I can’t wear 100% linen. The chemise has a plain ungathered, gored cut as I did not wish to have too much bulk as this fabric is quite warm for me.

It was a simple design, folded at the shoulders, the neck hole cut and the shoulder width measured across the fold, and then the length is measured down and this is flared out to give an A line effect. The should seam are straight, which allowed me to use lace along the seams to give some interest. I also split the sleeves along the top to allow for more lace. Around the neckline and cuffs I used a binding I had had purchased some time ago that had been lurking for too long in my stash, it looks somewhat like needle lace and gives quite a nice finish to the piece. Most of the sewing has been done by machine my any visible sewing is all finished by hand, even though my hands are still recovering from all my embroidery and beading on the partlet.

The second item I have completed is the under-gown or sottana. Originally I had planned for this to be made from black silk, but I found myself unable to move forward with this project and came to the conclusion that the reason I was sew-blocked was because of the colour choice. I have just recently made a black outfit which included a black sottana and I think perhaps I was unknowingly telling myself I did not need another black gown. So I spent a morning, with my beloved husband patiently helping, pulling out various fabrics from my cupboards and finally after many tries, and at least two cups of tea, we settled on a cream cotton damask fabric. It is a nice medium weight fabric that should be quite comfortable to wear.

The internal layers are two layers of canvas that are sewn into channels to take the boning, I use large cable ties, the other two layers are both cut from the damask. I found I only just had enough for the bodices and skirt pieces with none left for sleeves, which is fine as I have other plans for the sleeves of this outfit. I used my usual sottana pattern that I have altered and tweaked here and there over the years, I have got it to a comfortable stage and I know that it still has one or two minor adjustments to make to it, but at this stage I am happy with it.

The bottom of the skirt has been finished with a skirt guard made from a layer of wool felt and a random cottom fabric from my stash, it has been sewn to the inside bottom of the skirt and I have added two rows of white cotton velveteen ribbon just for interest and a little more stiffening to the hem. I recently wore another of my gowns with this hem treatment on a very wet day and found the wool guard stopped the water wicking up the skirt. the felt guard was quite wet but the moisture stayed in the guard. The stiffening in the hem also seems to help me stop tripping on my long skirts as they kick out of the way nicely when walking.

June Update

So I have been really busily sewing away this month and have managed to get my over-gown completed. This gown is made from a lovely teal silk I have had stashed away for a number of years, it told me it was time for it to come out to play.

I have used a pattern that I drafted and tried out on a previous over gown so I am confident of the fit. The 2 internal layers are of canvas, which just happened to be purple as it was on special at the time, and the lining is a cotton fabric of a similar colour to the silk.

I hand cut and made about twenty metres of bias tape from the silk which I have slashed and used on all the edges. I thanked my nifty bias tape ironing machine for saving me many hours of ironing it all by hand. I have used a chisel and mallet on a rubber cutting mat that has a grid of 1cm squares so the slashing of the tape was easy to get evenly spaced.

The trims I have used on this piece are the same gold lace I used on the partlet and a roll of trim that my darling husband bought me at a fair he went to. He brought it home for me as he knew I was working on that colour scheme. It was a little modern so I have spent many hours adding pearls and gold beads to it. I have only beaded the trim on the bodice and around the bottom of the sleeves as I don’t have enough beads to do all of the skirt and it would seem to be a bit of a waste anyway. It took me about 3 days just to hand sew all the beads on. All the trim on the bodice was hand sewn on and then the beads attached.

The upper sleeves are inspired by my main portrait and also another Allori painting as I liked the point on the bottom of the sleeves and also did not want the double rolls, so they have morphed into a mixture of the two. drafting the necessary shape was quite an interesting task!

The skirt is simply three panels of the fabric gathered into the waistline of the bodice. As the silk is so fine and needed a bit of lining to gather nicely, I used a gathering tape to give it support and save some time. I then bound all the edges of the skirt and added the trim. The lining is hand sewn over all the seams to give a nice neat finish as I like it to be neat inside and out. The front of the bodice is closed with hooks and eyes which are alternated in direction to stop them coming open.

I am quite amazed that I managed to get this entire piece done in eighteen days given the amount of bead work and hand sewing that was needed.

Next piece is the slashed and woven under sleeves!

July Update

So this month I worked on my undersleeves of slashy goodness. They were inspired by the portrait of Duchess Sybille of Julich Cleve Berg, by Lucas van Valchenborch, circa 1579/80 (Schloss Ambras Habsburg Gallery). Even though this in itself is not an Italian painting, the style of striped undersleeves can be seen in many Italian portraits of the same era, even in my other inspiration portrait I have mentioned in earlier updates.

I began by drawing up a pattern for the sleeves on calico, this included all the lines for each and every slash, this took quite awhile. I had to work out the dimensions so that the fabric would weave and not pucker or be too thin and fray away to nothing. I did a few test cuts on some off cuts. It was evident that even though the silk I chose for the sleeves was quite stiff, to achieve the effect the fabric needed a little extra stiffening, so I added a layer of iron-on stiffening and this helped the strips sit nicely when woven.

After the silk had its stiffening ironed on, and the sleeves shapes cut out I pinned both sleeves and the pattern to a piece of plywood using push pins, this was to stop it sliding around whilst I was cutting the hundreds of slashes. I cut the slashes using a normal wood chisel and a rubber mallet. This was quite a workout for my arms!

Once I was brave enough to remove the sleeves from their backing wood and checked that all slashes had cut properly, I sewed on the trim that went between the two rows of slashes. then the fun really began! Each pair of slashed strips was hand woven and the braid passed through, it was extremely fiddly and hard on my hands, but once I worked on it for awhile the actions on the weaving became easier. The sleeves did take many hours to weave though. Once the were all woven I attached the white lining, looked at them, and unpicked it, and then attached a black lining which looked much better and hilighted the work done on the sleeves. The sleeves were hand finished and then the intermediary trim was beaded by hand on each line. The beading took about eighteen hours to complete over four days.

The silk is a very pale grey green, this was the best choice I had in my stash at the time as I did not want to go buy more fabric. The trims I also had in my stash, it is lucky I buy so many as these sleeves took a lot of trim. Ties are attached to the tops of the sleeves and lacing rings inside the over dress for ease of attachment and removal.

Final Update

(Scroll below for details)

Layer 1: Chemise

My chemise was loosely based on an extant example found in Museo del Prato, which is described as “suitable for wearing with a squared necked petticoat.” The design is one I have used previously based on this historical evidence and I have found it sits quite well around the neckline and doesn’t add too much bulk in the body, it is very comfortable. Instead of inserting gores I have flared the cut of the body of the chemise to make best use of the very wide fabric. Once the soprana (over gown) was completed, I did find the sleeves of the chemise were too long and much too bulky, so I went back and unpicked the chemise and removed the extra fabric and reattached the cuffs, the fit is now much better. It will be a chemise that is used quite a lot in the cooler months although I believe it will be too warm for me in the warmer months. I am extremely pleased with the edging I used around the neckline and have plans to make another and also add some embroidery.

Layer 2: Sottana

My sottana was made from a lovely cotton brocade in a nice neutral off white/cream colour. The design is based on the red gown held at the Museo di Palazzo Reale, commonly known as the “Pisa” gown. The bodice pattern has been one I drafted based on this gown and have been working with and tweaking for a number of projects and I am almost happy with the fit, however due to my weight fluctuations I think I will never get it completely right. The bodice has been stiffened, as it is evident that most Italian gowns were stiffened and the use of corsets was minimal, probably due to the heat. The internal layers of canvas give support to the boning, in this case I have used cable ties as they were handy and inexpensive. Also I already had them in my stash and my other challenge for this IRCC was to use mostly my stash and not purchase too much new. The skirt is gathered and sewn onto the bodice, and the bodice is fully lined, only the long seams are done on the machine the rest is all hand finished. The skirt has a wool felt skirt guard to both stiffen and protect the brocade, I have found this method to work very well and gives the skirt enough weight to move out of the way when walking minimising the trip hazard as I am known to fall over anything! The skirt also has some bands of velvet ribbon both for decorative purposed and to help in the stiffening. The bodice is laced through sewn eyelets on the side, slightly towards the back, with a cotton cord in a spiral manner which is evident in many paintings of the era. It is a lacing that enables me to get into and out of the gown unassisted and gives good support and is easily loosened or tightened when required. I think this gown will become a standard underdress for my wardrobe as it is very comfortable and gives a great base for my growing number of soprani (over gowns).

Layer 3: Soprana

I was inspired to make this particular style of soprana after completing the coverciere (partlet) from the Maria de Medici portrait. I chose a teal green silk that had been lurking in my stash for way too long as it toned in nicely with the purple and green embroidery I had already completed. The design for the bodice is one I had drafted for a previous gown from a pattern in Alcega, of course mine never come out looking much like those in the book due to my body proportions being radically different to those shown in the book. The internal layers of the bodice section are a cotton canvas that give a nice amount of support to the standing collar once they have all been sewn together to add stiffening. I have lined the bodice section with a matching cotton fabric to give some breathability to it and I find silk can be very warm to wear. The edges of the soprana all feature hand made and slashed bindings which I find give a nice finish to the gown, this binding continues all down the open front and around the hem of the soprana. The binding was all cut using a chisel and mallet which is as close to period tools as I am able to afford at this time, they prove to be most effective and easy to master. Both the upper and lower sleeves are inspired by different portraits as I have previously mentioned. The lower sleeves I am extremely proud to have completed and believe I shall make them again in another colour for another gown I have in the planning stages. Also I have been asked to teach a class on how to make them, so will be working on a tutorial on them. All the trim on the gown bodice has been hand beaded with small gold filled seed beads and real pearls, the pearls on the cutwork sleeves however are not real ones as these were a better size for the trim than any of the real ones I have in my stash. All the trim was hand sewn on. The bodice closes with hooks and eyes and over these I have added some buttons that look like pearl clusters, again because I had them in my stash to be used and they looked nice. I am very finicky over the internal finishes of all my pieces and will not settle any raw or unfinished edges to be left, so the skirt has French seams, and the lining of the bodice is hand sewn down over all seams to give a nice neat finish.

Layer 4: Accessories

1. Coverciere or Partlet

This piece was my starting point for the whole outfit. I have loved this collar ever since I first saw the portrait, but not having any confidence in my embroidery skills I was reticent to give it a try. This year I decided it was time. I drew out the design as best as I could make it out from the picture, simplifying it a little due to my lack of skills in the embroidery area. I am extremely proud of myself for pushing outside my comfort zone on this piece. the entire piece except a couple of seams has been done by hand, and I have even hand couched down the strings of pearls and gold cording and added pearl clusters to the gold lace, which proved to be extremely fiddly! My hands went on strike and were very painful for days after completing this piece but I am so happy I managed to finish it.

2. Handkerchief

At an event I was lucky enough to attend a class on drawn thread work, and even though I has zero confidence in my embroidery skills I thought I would give it a go. I was very surprised at how easy the technique was even though it did take me quite some time to complete it as I was so slow. The handkerchief it made from an even weave linen and the sewing has been completed using a cotton thread. Drawn thread work has been done over many centuries and was known in Italy and Spain as Punto Tagliato. I am happy with how it turned out and have been considering trying this method on a coverciere in the future.

3: Fan

I started this piece as a flag fan, but was not pleased with what I had managed to make and turned instead to making a fan from the feathers and handle I already had in my stash. The silver handle required quite a lot of gentle pounding with a rubber mallet to make it flat, it was round. Once I had it flattened I used pliers to gently straighten the sides where I had bashed it a little too much and it had gone wonky, luckily I managed it without splitting the metal! The feathers I bought a number of years ago, they are emu, peacock and some plain white. I laid them all out and then trimmed them down to size. The next step was to get them to stay in the handle, I tried a number of glues which didn’t work until I got out my hot glue gun, which I used by quickly laying in some glue and pressing in the feathers in a line, then another layer of glues then the next layer of feathers until I had all the rows in place. The glue styed malleable enough for some last minute adjusting but dried quickly enough that they stayed in place whilst the next row was added. I left it on my desk to dry over night only to come the next morning to find a helpful kitty had “killed” it for me and it was in a heap on the floor! Luckily only one feather was bent beyond help and had to be trimmed out, the rest I was able to gently rearrange into looking like a fan again. The fan now has a box to keep it safe from any future attacks.

4. Necklace and Earrings.

The jewellery I made for this outfit are a necklace and earrings. They feature natural pearls, obsidian beads and teal Swarovski crystal beads. I had hoped to find a natural teal coloured bead to complete this piece but couldn’t find anything in the shade I wanted, the crystals were already in my stash so I went with them. They have been strung on strong jewellery thread and have a magnetic closure to make it easy for me to put them on and off by myself. also by using a magnetic clip, should the necklace become caught on anything the magnet will release rather than break the necklace. The earrings are simple pearl and gold bead drops, as pearl drop earrings are featured in many Italian portraits of this era. I also have a very long strand of natural pearls that I will wear with the outfit.

Other items: I also made a ribbon woven and beaded coif which I intended to wear with this outfit, however due to the beading on the partlet and the open nature of the ribbons on the coif, when worn together they catch together making it uncomfortable and the coif is pulled off in the process. I will be making a new caul to wear with the outfit, probably from from fine silk I have on hand or possible an offcut of the teal silk.

I also made a beaded belt to wear with the outfit using fake pearls, black, green and gold beads. Unfortunately I left this item on my dressmakers dummy and one of my cats decided to kill it for me and it broke scattering beads everywhere, I have not had an opportunity to restring the piece as yet. So in the photos I am wearing a silk belt that featured gold filigree work and pearl beads closed with a decorative hook closure.

I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the IRCC for a fifth straight year. I am overjoyed to have also been able to help and encourage three other participants to successfully complete the challenge as well. I have again learnt more skills and have ended up with and outfit I am quite pleased with.

I wish to thank Bella for running this challenge again, for all her many hours of hard work and patience, we all really appreciate the opportunity you provide for us.