The Seventh Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

March 1 to June 30,  2017



Illinois, USA


I learned to sew when I was a child, and have worked off and on as a professional stitcher and theater costumer. But this is only perhaps the second Italian Renaissance outfit I will have made. I've done a lot of research throughout medieval and Renaissance Europe, but usually make early modern English, middle class costume.

I am planning to make a woman's outfit of 1550s-70s Venice, including:

- Shift and drawers (as I'm not sure my current shift will work for this dress)

- Sottana/supportive underdress

- Overgown

- Accessories: I'm planning a minimum of a beaded necklace, but will ideally be making a partlet, lace cuffs, and fan as well.

Additionally, I am setting myself the personal goals of only using fabric and materials from my personal stash, and to hand stitch as much as possible.

Third Update

May was another month with a full schedule and stressors that challenged being able to work on my Venetian gown. (Mostly just a bit more sewing on the camicia, and nothing finished.) So I was feeling guilty for having taken the time at the beginning of the month to work on a side project - a slightly earlier, more English, cut of kirtle to wear to my one day of work at the Janesville Renaissance Faire.

This worked out in my favor, as used the same pattern as a base… Which allowed me to test it out. Overall I was rather pleased with it. I was only able to finish it enough to be able to wear it, so no lining or hem, and the eyelets are not yet sewn [Figure1]. But the stitching proved sound, and I’ve become quite fond of this construction technique ...pad stitching the interlining layers together, then basting it to the outer before sewing the seams together and hemming the edges over. The lining is stitched in last [Figure 2]. I was particularly pleased with how smooth and tailored the back of the kirtle looks [Figures 3 and 4].

Fig. 1

Fig. 2


Fig. 4

Having made essentially a sample gown, and being able to wear it for an entire day, did highlight one glaring problem… The front of my waistline squishes much more than my back waistline. I had built in quite a bit of “negative ease” into the pattern of the bodice, to keep the fit very smooth and to act as a supportive layer across the chest/bosom.

It was no trouble to lace the dress closed. The minimal layers of canvas held up well, and with the fitted shift, I felt very well supported in the chest. But by the end of the day, my back muscles felt almost bruised along the back waist seam, under where my shoulder blades are. There was no actual bruising, but it was fairly uncomfortable until I could get the kirtle off. Because of this, I’ve decided to add another 1”-2” back into the waistline, but only in the back of the bodice. I unfortunately didn’t think to get any photos of myself in the black linen kirtle, so I can only go by feel and not look. There doesn't seem to be any major creases in the bodice fabric where I was worried there might be whilst I was wearing it, so that’s good.

All in all, it took about 15 hours of (mostly) handstitching to complete the black linen kirtle to a point it could be worn. And I would estimate it will take roughly another 10 hours to finish. Some time in the near future… not in June. So to finish the sottana and soprana should take about 25 hours each. Plus a couple hours to complete at least one of the accessories. I think I’m going to have to give up finding my jewelry glue, and just buy another.

So… doable. It will be a bit tightly scheduled, and I won’t be able to do all the detail work (lace, veil, et all) I was hoping to do, at least for the competition. But still doable.

See you all next month!

Second Update

So, my focus this month WAS going to be the sottana, the fitted and supportive under-dress. I’d patterned the bodice the month before and was feeling really good. I drafted it myself, made a mock up, and then tweaked it a bit, shifting the side seam to side back, lowering the neckline. And then I made another mock up. And I tried it on a couple different times.

And I came to the conclusion, that either wearing a sports bra and (lightweight) t-shirt really does make that much difference (vs nothing under the bodice mock-up)... or I really just fluctuate that much at different times of the month. Because it went from fitting 'okay but could maybe be a little more fitted' to 'I need to take in 2" - 4" for it to fit' on two or three different occasions. Well, color this seamstress a bit frazzled.

So I decided to try and hold off a bit longer on the sottana, to see if it was just a fitting error or I really am losing weight. Unfortunately, that pushes back working on the over-gown, as well, since that will be fitted to my person whilst wearing the underdress. Instead, I’d make some decisions about layers, and focus on putting together accessories.

I was really struggling for a while with what kind of layering I wanted to do. From some of the written sources, especially as provided in Moda a Firenze, the supportive bodice was made in layers of stiffened canvas and linen lining. Alternatively, there could be a layer of wool felt, or 'cardboard'- which was probably a heavy linen rag paper.

Looking at the portraits with gowns of the style I’m aiming for, like Paolo Veronese’s frescos at Villa Barbaro, or Titian’s Girl with a Fan, the bodice seems very stiff and smooth over the front. Especially on the fresco of the woman in the blue dress, the front V-shaped opening forms a slight concave curve that suggests it is made by the stiffened edge of the bodice. But would three or four layers of canvas create that stiffness?

To find out, I put together two samples: one of three layers heavy linen interlining and one of lightweight commercial buckram with two layers of heavy linen. As you can see, the buckram and linen layers provided more stiffness in the way that seemed that it would create the curve I was looking for.

But I wasn’t certain it would hold up whilst being worn. Wool felt or a bag of rabbit hide glue (for stiffening canvas) would cost the same in the short run, but ultimately, I decided to use an almost tent canvas weight cotton twill with linen canvas layers as the interlining. I will probably also 'cheat' and use a couple plastic cable ties in the center front. Again, one of my goals is to use up what I have already, instead of buying new.

Most of my stitching this month went to working on my camicia (in lieu of cutting out and starting the sottana). And while work kept me busy most of the month, I did get to take a bit of a holiday over Easter weekend to visit my mother. Four hours each way by train, and three nights there, meant I actually had several hours to stitch! Quite a bit of it I also spent listening to the ‘Great Lectures: Italians Before Italy’ audiobook. It was nice to put a bit more context to the 'where' in which the woman who would have worn something like this would have lived. Sitting in my mother’s window seat just made it all the more perfect.

In the end, I didn’t get nearly as much stitched as I would have liked, but I feel pretty solid in the design decisions that needed to be finalized. So hopefully it will be smoother (and faster!) sailing from here on out.

First Update

I gave myself three goals when taking on this project challenge - to use as much of the materials for the garments from my own “stash” as possible, and to use this as test of where I am at now skillwise.

But the first, and highest priority goal was to make myself something rather pretty to wear. My focus for my private projects has mostly been researching and recreating the clothing of early modern England, say 1560-1615. And I usually focus on a more “middle class” look, matching my own budgetary concerns.

However, as this is to be the first completely new outfit for myself in a while, I wanted to do something purely fun and pretty. I wanted something I could dance in. Of the initial paintings and images I perused, the gowns of 1550s-1570s Venice drew my attention the most. Especially the women in the frescos of Giovanni Antonio Fasolo.

Giovanni Antonio Fasolo - Invitation to Dance

Fortunately (or unfortunately?) I find researching to be complete fun, so after creating a Pinterest board to keep track of my visual inspirations, I spent most of February and some of March poking in books. One of the big ones I wanted to look at was Moda a Firenze, as it examines the clothing and wardrobe inventories of Eleonora de Toledo, Grand Duchess of Tuscany. Granted, Eleonora was Spanish, raised in Naples, and living after her marriage in Florence (quite a bit south and west of Venice). But as far as I can tell it’s one of the most in depth looks at women’s clothing in what is now Italy, and overlapped most of the time period I was aiming for.

Luckily for me, there is a copy at the Ryerson Library in the Art Institute of Chicago. (Man, I love living in a big city sometimes.) Also, they had a copy of Mores Italiae, editded by Maurizio Rippa Bonati and Valeria Finucci (2007), which is an album of images of people and life around Venice in the 1570s. And those two lead me to at least a dozen other books and scholarly articles I really want to read, but will totally have to wait for another time…

Choosing the main fabrics for my gowns and underthings was easier than I thought it would be. Usually, there’s plenty of fabric (almost 10 ‘tubs’ full!) but none that quite fill enough of the requirements. I decided to pull out all the stops… errr, well, all the fabric anyway… and found several yards of a completely forgotten golden brown polyester. I hesitate to call it a damask, as it seems much heavier and more thickly textured than most of the damask I usually encounter. I’m not entirely certain that it wasn’t woven with heavy floor to ceiling drapes in mind. As fun, and using what I already had, was the priority, I wasn’t worried about it being polyester, as opposed to a more historically accurate silk or such. It think it will be perfect for my soprana/veste, or outergown.

The sottana, or structured undergown, has proven to be a bit more tricky. I have quite a bit of linens, given my focus on middle class clothing, and some wools. But, most of those were lighter weight and didn’t have as much of a stiff 'hand' as I wanted for a more structured garment. It will need to be supportive of my torso, as well as the weight of the skirt fabric over it. I finally settled on a bit tan silk/rayon for the bodice of the undergown, and a tan linen for the skirt portion. I intend to heavily line the hem, as well as strategic portions of the torso, to help give it a bit more stiffness and body.

My bottom-most layer was my focus for most of the month of March. I pulled a lightweight white linen for the camicia (shift), and a slightly heavier weight for my calze (drawers). I based the cut of both pieces off of existing garments in the Museo del Tessuto in Prato, as found in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion series as well as in images on the Realm of Venus website.

I am happy to say that I finished hand-stitching the calze a week ago, and they fit like a dream. As I have a very large waist-to-hip ratio, it can be rather a challenge to get something that fits well.

So check one ticky box: layer one down, three to go. I am not quite as worried about finishing the stitching on the camicia, as I have two half finished that have been languishing for a while in my unfinished business box if I need something to wear with it. But I would prefer the one that will be designed to wear with the very low neckline I plan for the gowns.

Additionally, one of the things that is mentioned several times, as least in the Mores Italiae, is the pearl necklaces worn by the proper citizen’s wives and gentlewomen of Venice, as opposed to the infamous courtesans. It’s one of the accessories I decided to put together, and I was rather excited to realize that a broken necklace I fished out of a free box a few months ago was a strand of, if not real, than really good fake pearls. I haven’t decided what kind of clasp would be most appropriate, but I’m excited about restringing them more appropriately for this project.

Now… onward to the gowns!