The Sixth Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 14 to August 14,  2016


This will be my third attempt at something vaguely Italian. I made a Titian-era gown, and what was supposed to be a Spanish-influenced Elizabethan gown (for a production of Mary Stewart), but it's very like an Eleanor of Toledo gown, so I'd count that as a second. I mostly sew medieval clothes - pre 1350 - so this will be a stretch for me. I've been sewing for eight years now - even though I'm old!

I'm going to make something from the turn-of-the 15th -16th century in the style of Carpaccio works. A fine linen camicia, an under-gown, and an over-grown. I'm not yet sure what my accessory piece will be. Probably head-wear of some sort, perhaps a belt, or slippers. Or a mantle.

Cat Thuillier
California, USA

May Update

This month I adjusted my focus: I was going to do an older woman, with veil and wimple, but decided to focus on a more middling-age woman. My inspiration is the Ghirlandaio “Birth of John the Baptist” (Detail). Not the pink confection at the front, but the chocolatey mama in back.

I started by analyzing the layers and investigating the clothing items. I saw four colors (in sketch): 1) There’s a gold gamurra, front-laced with attached sleeves; 2) a green stomacher (?); 3) a chocolate under-skirt with gold (probably brocade?) at the hem; and 4) a figured brown over-gown. There are other pieces, of course, a veil, a necklace, soft brown shoes, and under all a camicia.

The fabric of the brown over-gown puzzled me. The only fabric I know that looks close to it is Moire. I know that moire existed well before this time, but I can’t find any references specific to its use in Italy. Nonetheless, I picked up some moire fabric swatches and I think they read nicely. I’m considering either a dark salmon, a chestnut, or abandoning the Detail palate and using my own colors (more blues) and basing the garment on the style rather than a complete copy.

Embroidery being a must, I combed some gilt thread (synthetic, alas) with some gold merino wool and have spun it up into singles currently resting on the bobbin, soon to be 2-plied. I think this will add a nice touch to the bodice top and sleeves.

Next I launched into pattern drafting for the gammura while debating on the fabric colors. I’ve finished the bodice front and back and am about to launch onto the sleeves.

Things to puzzle out over the next couple of weeks are the fabric for the over-gown, and how they made their veils!

June Update

This month has been all about accessories. I haven't embroidered anything since the early '90s and I felt a strong pull to do some needlework. So I've decided to make a drawn thread handkerchief and a goldwork book cover (to hide my tablet). I've only ever done crewel embroidery before, but that doesn't seem to come into play until after the time my outfit is (1490's), so I'll have to save that for another project. Both drawn thread embroidery and gold work were done in quatrocento Florence, according to Carole Collier Frick in Dressing Renaissance Florence, so I've started there.

Drawn Thread Embroidery

Beginning with a square of linen [1], I began the drawn thread work in the center with a simple square design [2]. I then framed that with some pulled thread stitching [3] before beginning the major drawn thread work around the outer edge. It's a 20-thread border and was, frankly, really scary to do! [4] I hem stitched the edges, then did an interlaced stitch through the middle, and did a weaving around the corner threads. [5] Finally, I'll be adding a gold cross-stitch outline, which I've begun [6].









For the faux-book cover, I did a prick-and-pounce pattern design on rose (really more of a mauve) silk [1]. I have done three types of padding: felt, soft waxed string, and hard string [2]. I've begun couching Japanese thread on the first leaf [3]. Couching has turned out to be much more difficult than I imagined, so it's a little rough wobbly. I'm hoping the second leaf (and subsequent sections) will go more smoothly. I'm going to fill the unchouched center of the leaf with bright check. Should be fun!




July Update

This month I finished the drawn thread handkerchief! So exciting to finish a piece. And never having done pulled or drawn work before, it was really exhilarating! I started off the month by 1. finishing all the gold edging, then 2. doing one last hem stitch around before bravely cutting away the unused linen (very scary, by the way).



I did another leaf of couched gold work on the gold-work piece.

I've ordered the rest of the gold threads - pearl purl, bright check, spangles - and everything's here, so I'll start on some chip work soon. It's just fun to say all those words.

I began work on the camicia. That has taken much more in terms of research than I ever dreamed would be needed. But looking at the Ghirlandaio paintings, as well as Durer and Holbein, I just wasn't happy with my earlier camicia which was a simple gather. I decided to try pleatwork. I must thank the blog spot of Germain Renaissance for all her scholarly research into pleatwork. Being somewhat constrained by time, I decided not to do the full punch technique that would have been more appropriate, but I used press-on dots to mark 1/4" files of dots to keep my stitching even.

Measuring my linen (3.5 oz linen from Dharma Trading here in California) to just below calf length for the body and just at finger-tip length for the sleeves, I pressed dots to the top of all pieces. I cut out and pleated a front, back, two sides (left and right, being bilaterally symmetrical and all), and two sleeves. I think I'll hem and whip the pieces together, and towards that began hemming with the gussets to get my stitching rhythm going.

I've pleated and organized all my pieces, but realized that I should wait to finalize the pleating when I have the circumference of the pieces under which it will lie (gamurra). I've done this wrong before, and this time I want to make sure the camicia sits where it should!

The other piece that I actually started this month is a coif and forehead cloth. Looking at this picture of Lucrezia Tornabuoni (who is the same person as in my inspiration piece), she is much more casual in gamurra, coif with a small veil, and a partlet. I think this look may be much more doable for my sewing and research skills, so I've set my sights a little lower. So I started with the forehead cloth in a fine linen and a hand-rolled hem.

Lots to do next month!

August Update

Hi! It's August the 15th, the kids and pets are all fed and it's time to send in a submission - this has been a utterly fascinating (and humbling) process. So, here we go:

Turning to the camicia, I had many parts cut out. I decided to follow the German Renaissance Pleatwork Guide instructions for sewing the pieces together (this will be in my reference section for our final submission). This means that the upper part of the sleeve is stitched to the upper part of the side panel for a few inches, then the gusset is set in, and the lower part of the gusset is set into a slit in the side panel. For construction, I first hemmed all the pieces (I think I'd begun that process with the gussets - but ended up using much smaller gussets, so that was redone this month).

The next step was to whip the hemmed edges together. This results in a very flat seam when opened. The real trick was making sure everything lined up in terms of length. I don't know why it was tricky, but it was.

Next I had to set the pleats into the neck band. I started by measuring out a neckband, folding it in half lengthwise and pressing, and then pressing each side up to the center fold to make a ... well, a neck band. I slip-stitched the ends to form a loop measured to fall just below my collar bones (sumptuary laws and all, you know). Then I pinned everything to my oh-so-patient foam dummy. First I basted the right side into the neck band, then basted the inside. Then I lowered dummy, sat in my sewing chair with Audible reading away and stitched each pleat to the neck band right side, flipped it inside out, and each pleat inside.

Finally I used some DMC 6 to hold the pleats in place with a stem stitch. This falls into a category that I'll refer to as "done, but needs tweaking." I can see that the kind of smocking I really dreamed of doing, for a newbie like me, would take more time than was available. But: I've learned the technique and can now spend my liesure time finessing the pleats until I'm happy.

The whole process was repeated for each sleeve. Note: I think women and their "help" pleated their camicia sleeves in place as they put their over-sleeves on. I will not have the kind of help one needs to achieve that pleat-in-place effect, so I did four rows of gathering stitches, formed the cuff as I formed the neckband, and was happy with the result.

The gamurra took a while to start. I wanted originally to use a wool, but in my stash was 3 yards of vintage silk velvet. It had waited, I decided, long enough for its day - I'm not getting any younger and neither is the fabric. I took a deep breath and started cutting into it. I ended up with very few scraps - using almost the entire 3 yards for the bodice and skirt. It was perfect! I decided to line the bodice with coutil (I know, not period but in my stash), silk, and a ribbed blanket fabric I'd found at the Goodwill. I thought the ribbing might make an interesting alternative to boning with reed or twine. I ended up taking it out, but I'm getting ahead of myself. For the skirt, I just lined with the cream silk.

Using silk thread, I used a catch-stitch to affix the velvet to the coutil. I decided to gather the skirt to the bodice before adding the lining: I once again pinned everything to my ever-patient dummy to arrange the gathers to my liking, and then stitched each gather to the bodice. Then I turned the silk + cotton lining edges in and basted it toto the bodice. Then I unstitched it and took out the cotton - it was just too bulky and the weave was too open to be of much help. Finally, I used a little catch-stitch to attach the lining, and used a herring bone stitch to strategically tack down the silk.

At this point the bones of the gamurra were done and I celebrated by setting it up on poor dummy, this time with no pins!

My next project was to add some gold trim around the edge. The trim is 75% metallic, 25% Nylon, but I couldn't find a good woven tinsel such as might have been used. This was attached with gold silk thread using a simple running stitch.

Remember that wool I spun back in May? I was going to do some embroidery, but in this era there just wasn't any wool embroidery to speak of. But here is where I used it. In the picure of Lucrezia Tornabuoni (from last month) there are three links on each of her lacing rings. Having the three points to hold the ring down makes sense - it will keep the lacing ring from flopping around. One sees these three-loop lacing rings all over the place in the paintings once one starts looking. I suppose one went to one's favourite goldsmith and ordered a few dozen lacing rings and that just what they made.

I, however, was short on goldsmithery and long on wool. I found these fantastic toggle clasps, and using the gold yarn added three embroidery stitches at the base of each of the two support stitches I used to hold the rings down. Well, I tried. It turns out wool yarn is really hard to pull through silk, coutil, and velvet. It broke needles, nearly brought me to tears, but I'm generally pleased with the final effect. Especially if I take my glasses off and squint from 5 feet away.


The last thing was the hem - sorry no pictures. But it's just a simple hem, not too exciting. What was exciting is that it was done! Back onto dummy!

Then back to the cutting table! Using my trusty sleeve block, I sliced and diced a piece of muslin to create an upper and lower sleeve section. I used some lilac wool/silk blend fabric and some dark brown dupioni silk for the lining and put stitched up the sleeves on the machine. I suppose they're reversible and can either be worn on the lilac or the brown side depending on one's mood. I made the ties some time ago - three years? - so they aren't technically part of the challenge. They are made of silk cord from Firemountain Gems, finger-braided and then cabled on my spinning wheel - I like the texture.

I did celebrate by donning the camicia and gamurra and taking a couple of selfies!

My outer layer, based on my original inspiration piece bakc in May, is what I think is a called a cioppa in watered silk. I do not have watered silk, although I looked at some swatches of rayon moire and came very close to ordering a mess. However, a large part of this challenge, for me, was using fabric from my stash. I found some drapery panels of gold cotton velveteen that I'd found at the Goodwill some years ago. So that is what it's made of.

I began with my faithful pattern-block, and made a muslin block to test the placement of the front angle. Then I cut it out in velvet, with a cotton interlining, and dark brown dupioni silk lining. I was flying pretty fast at this point in the challenge, so pictures are fairly scarce!

Then, back to my trusty sleeve block, I made a largish sleeve, similar in the ones in the painting of Lucrezia from last month. I couldn't figure out her sleeve in the "Birth of John the Baptist" (see May), so went with another sleeve, cut in velvet and lined with brown silk.

Then I began the pleating. In "Baptist", her Cioppa has deep pleats, so that's what I aimed for. Not being good at calculating pleats, I pinned them onto my cutting table and worked out the measurements there. Then I did the other half of the fabric for all the pleats. The next step was to seam the center front and back seams, which I did with a slip-stich. This was about the only hand sewing on this garment. As a note, as these were drapes, I used the existing hem as the hem on the gown: why sew what's already done, eh?

Then, yes, the ever-patient dummy was pinned to once again so I could check how the pleats fell. I had some fabulous twill tape in wool and linen from Burnley and Towbridge left over from a project several years ago. I set the pleats onto the wool twill tape and was glad I did - the weight of the velvet is substantial. Because they used a similar technique to hold folds in houpelands, I didn't feel at all bad using this technique for the pleats. As a side note, cats love long skirts on dummies and here's Ginny Weasley with a bag of contraband catnip to prove it!

Then I stitched everything together: lining into bodice, lining into sleeves, sleeves into bodice, and skirt onto bodice. Whew! Finally, as midnight approached, I decided I had to to add some trim to the sleeves - so I used a little running stitch and added a bit from a brown silk & gold sari remnant to the sleeve, wrapping the pattern from the outside.

Then, at last, the gloating selfies! I have an oak leaf clasp that I've attached at the waist, and I think that's it.

You may remember that I made a forehead piece? Learning to do a rolled hem? This month I made a round caul to put on the back of it. I tried on the Forehead Cloth, which was fun, but not really the shape I wanted - so back to the sketchbook! Using a nice closeup of Lucrezia's portrait (the National Gallery has a fantastic zoom feature in high res), I shaped the forehead cloth to a better shape. I also used the painting "The Allegory of March: Triumph of Minerva", as a reference for this look. I've used a silk chiffon, the same chiffon I'm using in the partlet, for the over-veil. Because I'm not a widow, I'm not doing the widow's bar, which I wasn't sure how to do anyway - it looks painted onto the fabric.

Remember the switch of horsehair I got in May? I'm using that to help with the shape under the caul - my hair is way too short to give the right look! As a note to others who may be interested in using horsehair, it's very stiff. Although it makes a nice, gentle coil, its much too stiff to use for intricate coiled braids.

The Finished Outfit

Layer 1: The Camicia

Linen, Silk thread, Linen thread, DMC 6 white embroidery floss. All seams were hand sewn with a hem and whipstitch technique using waxed 120 linen thread for the long seams and strong silk thread for the gussets and sleeves. Pleats were hand set into neck and sleeve cuffs with silk thread, and pleats were stem-stitched with vintage French DMC 6 coton a broder.

As far as the pleatwork goes, I’ve just barely scratched the surface of this technique; and I love it! I will probably redo the stem stitch, now that I know what I’m doing, and add additional embroidery to better duplicate the delicate work at the top of the camicia in portraits.This will probably take some months to do well, so I have a pleasant handwork project for the coming fall.

Layer 2: The Dress/Gamurra

Gamurra: Vintage silk velvet, cotton coutil, tabby-woven silk, silk thread.
I used my sewing machine to stitch the cream silk interlining to the velvet skirt panels. The rest of the piece is hand sewn using: back stitch, running stitch, running back stitch, stab stitch, slip stitch, catch stitch, rolled hemming, herringbone pad-stitch, hem stitch, and chain-stitch embroidery for the lacing rings. Whew!

I like the way it turned out, but the velvet frays like mad. I’ll probably go back in and do some internal hemming to keep it from fraying more. Although the, um, open-over-the-bosom effect of lacing a straight bodice line over a curving bust line does appear in period portraits, I think next time I’ll use a curve-front bodice line for a straight up-and-down opening.

Sleeves: silk/wool blend in lilac, dupioni silk in dark brown, brown cotton thread
Machine sewn right-sides, hand sewn (slip-stitch) closing, hand-made ties hand stitched on. I made the upper sleeve way too short. It seemed OK as I was fitting the calico sleeve pattern pieces, but not so much in real life. I think going over the camicia took up a lot of the sleeve fabric. These sleeves will be back to the drawing board!

Layer 3: The Over-Gown/Cioppa

Cotton Velveteen, cotton lining, dark brown silk dupioni for bodice and sleeve linings, gold cotton and silk thread, silk sari remnant with metallic gold brocade pattern.

This is almost entirely machine sewn. I bag-lined the bodice top and sleeves, machine stitched the pleats in place and machined the wool twill tape over the pleats to hold them. The only hand sewing was 1) the front and back center seams from hem to waist (the panel sides were hemmed in the curtain panels) which I slip-stitched together, and 2) the brocade trim on the sleeve cuffs. This is held with three rows of running back stitch.

I really like this piece! It is a tad heavy, and I look like a house, but it’s comfy and warm and fairly versatile. I can see this moving from Burgundy, through France, and into Italy. I may try to find more sari trim for the hem - I think that would be a nice touch. I’m also very glad I used the wool twill tape at the waist: it really helps stabilise and hold the pleats. One thing I think it needs is a nice belt.

Layer 4: Accessories

1. Caul and Veil

2. Drawn-Work Handkerchief

3. Partlet (Incomplete)

4. Goldwork (Incomplete)