The Eighth Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 1 to July 31, 2018


Angela Smith
Kansas, USA

I’m a bit of a thrifted fabric junkie, and definitely not a novice to sewing. I tend to stick to historically inspired fantasy and “generic Ren Faire” costumes, though ages ago I made a Venetian-inspired ensemble (I blame the intoxication of Dangerous Beauty!) and have thrown some Italian influences into my Elizabethan-ish garb. This will be my second historical Italian, which I suppose makes me an Italian Ren. novice.

I found my primary inspiration for this outfit early last fall and started planning an entire mix-and-match wardrobe based on similar portraits, but it didn’t take long to realize my timing couldn’t be worse – I was working on losing weight, and my measurements needed to stabilize before I could make anything other than accessories. Meeting my weight goal coincided with the announcement of IRCC8, so I’m unpacking everything and reworking my plans to meet the requirements of the competition. As my finances are extremely tight right now, this will be primarily a stash-based project, which may occasionally mean sacrificing accuracy in favor of availability.
Layer 1: An embroidered pair of bodies; Layer 2: A black-and-gold sottana with sleeves; Layer 3: A black velveteen doublet gown; Layer 4: A zibellino and matching necklace & earrings set.


Optional accessories: a muff, soft black leather shoes/slippers, a fan, and/or a partlet (I haven’t decided yet which I’ll make to meet the max of 4!) I intend to have fun and take some fantastic/creative license with the extras, but make the under gown, sleeves, and doublet gown to be as historically accurate as I can make them, so that all I need to do to go from fantasy-inspired to historical is change out the accessories and underwear.

I’ve started on a set of 22 large and 44 small two-tone thread-wrapped buttons, but I’ve only managed to finish a few so far.

First Update

My inspiration for this ensemble started with this anonymous Portrait of a Woman.

From the moment I saw it, I fell in love with all the fine details. I’ve since found other works from which I’m also drawing ideas, but I plan to keep the feeling of the first one in mind throughout. The overall look of my planned outfit will probably read as post-1550s Florence.

When I registered at the very end of March, I was already feeling behind before the contest even started. So, in the days just before and after the challenge kicked off, I did everything I could to prepare for a running start. I started drafting a pattern for the planned pair of bodies/corset, designed the embroidery for a camicia, a partlet, and the aforementioned corset, and worked a little more on that set of thread wrapped buttons I’d started pre-registration. I worked steadily through the first week of the challenge, assembling my jewelry and girdle, transferring the embroidery patterns to fabric, setting up my various embroidery frames, and getting started stitching.

Unfortunately, I had an unexpected medical issue pop up during the second week of the month, derailing many of my non-contest activities for a few weeks. The only upside was more down time to work on sewing and embroidery. I cut out pieces for a few extra projects (some bias-cut stockings based on one in the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as a corded petticoat), packed everything into a canvas tote bag (even some of the corset panels, which were just narrow enough to fit on one of my smaller slate frames), and started taking the tote with me pretty much everywhere. It even joined me during a few hours’ wait in the emergency room. This means that despite being sick, I’ve made significantly more progress this month than expected, and I have several items completed.

The Corset (Layer 1): Complete

Long before I ever discovered this contest, I started plans for a complete set of matching “pretty” Italian underwear, in both winter and summer versions. The eventual summer set would be made from lightweight linen yet to be purchased, but the winter set would be made from a bolt of silk charmeuse and some other remnants I’d had lurking in my stash for over a decade. Last fall, I started an embroidery test-piece, which I eventually turned into a caul, and then I made a matching saccoccia. In March, I finished the matching pair of drawers. It made sense to me, then, that my Layer 1 item for IRCC8 should be the next piece in the set – a lightly boned pair of bodies or corset – and any extra items for Layer 1 could go toward completing the set.

The pattern for this corset pulls details I wanted from both well-known extant “corsets” (boned tabs and bias-cut straps from the Effigy Corset, back lacing and petticoat eyelets from the Pfaltzgrafin bodies), but it wasn’t intended to be historically accurate since it shouldn’t generally be seen in public. I drafted the pattern from a previous bodice pattern, making adjustments for style and my recent weight loss. The pattern for the embroidery was a design of my own making, modeled after the motifs I used on the caul, saccoccia, and drawers. Fabric and materials choices were influenced by what I had in my stash, otherwise I probably would have chosen to make the corset out of silk and linen rather than silk and cotton.

Outer layer: slubby white silk dupioni remnant, flatlined with unbleached muslin, embroidered with red DMC floss, black DMC floss, and vintage taupe embroidery floss in a combination of double running stitch, chain stitch, and satin stitch.

Interlining: black cotton flannel (to soften the boning lines), quilted to the inner lining between the boning channels with red DMC floss in a chain stitch

Inner lining: two layers of black cotton, boning channels stitched in silk thread; boning of ½” and ¼” plastic zip ties, cut to length and candle-singed to smooth the ends

Bias binding: red cotton

The embroidery was done on uncut fabric panels placed on one of my scroll embroidery frames, with the corset pattern outlines and a few interior lines basted to keep the silk and muslin layers aligned. Once finished, I cut the pieces just outside of the basting lines and the remaining fabric layers were cut to match.

I sandwiched all of the layers and stitched them together at the sides and backs with silk thread, with the seam allowances folded and stitched down for a clean finish. I then bound the raw corset edges with homemade bias tape. The eyelets were made with 3 strands of black DMC floss in a buttonhole stitch.

As you can see, my cat was “helping” me with the eyelets.

Finished interior

I did every bit of embroidery, construction, and finishing for this corset by hand… the only machine stitching anywhere was in the bias tape (during its construction, not its application). This includes the 35 hand-bound eyelets – 25 to lace the back, 4 to tie in the straps, and 6 at the front and back waist to tie in the planned corded petticoat.

(Side note: after stabbing my fingers a dozen times or more while binding the tabs, I may never make another boned-tab corset again. At the very least, I won’t be making one of white silk!)

Finished exterior

The Jewelry Set (Accessory 1) and Girdle (Accessory 2): Complete

Because I want to be able to switch from “historically inspired fantasy” to (reasonably) historically accurate with parts of this ensemble, I started with making a mix-and-match set of jewelry. The materials came exclusively from my craft stash, which did not include enough gold findings and spacer beads to make the set; thus, I was forced to make everything in silver rather than the more historically accurate gold. A few pieces, such as the simple pearl necklaces and the drop earrings, were designed after numerous portraits of noble Florentine ladies wearing shorter and longer strings of pearls, while the rest were made without regard for accuracy.

All totalled, the set includes:

4 necklaces:
1 short with large glass pearls
1 longer with smaller glass pearls
1 short with round brecciated jasper beads and silver spacers
1 longer with round brecciated jasper beads, glass pearls, and silver beads.

All are strung on fine beading filament and have sterling silver clasps.

2 bracelets – both made with brecciated jasper beads, glass pearls, silver beads, and silver spacers, strung on beading filament with sterling silver toggle clasps.

1 pair of drop earrings – sterling silver loops, brecciated jasper beads, glass pearls, and silver spacers

I made the girdle to match the jewelry, adding silver bead cones to more of the beads and pearls from the jewelry, stringing them onto silver eye pins to form links. I alternated these links with silver filigree pieces, and glued dark red rhinestones to the center of the filigree to up the “bling” factor. The girdle closes with a large silver clasp and a decorative ring, and it has another silver clasp on the end to attach to either the included pendant (scavenged from a box of costume jewelry and turned into a miniature) or my zibellino as desired.

The pendant miniature can also slide onto three of the four necklaces. In keeping with my “fun accessories, historical everything else” theme, the miniature is whimsical in nature – I modeled it after my cat, who is now my unofficial mascot and cheerleader for the contest.

The Zibellino (Accessory 3): Complete

This has to be my favorite item so far! Long before I settled my plans for the rest of the contest, I knew I HAD to have a zibellino, a silver one if possible. And if I was going to go to the trouble of making one, I may as well go all out instead of just adding jewelry accents to a plain mink pelt. With extant examples of carved crystal and enameled gold zibellino heads in mind, plus a few portraits for more inspiration, I picked up some tools and learned how to work with oven-bake clay. My first attempts were ridiculously messy and rather ugly. Eventually, though, I managed to sculpt a head that I liked, and Ramirez was born. Rather than paint him gold, I chose to finish him in a dark silver that almost simulates hematite.

Zibellino mark 2

Zibellino ready to bake

Zibellino head and leash

Pelt: silver mink, found on ebay as a 4-pelt vintage/1950s-era stole
Head and paws: oven-bake Sculpey clay, painted with acrylic paints, decorated with garnet-colored beads, silver filigree pieces, and dark red rhinestones; mouth ring was a random find from my jewelry making stash, earring is a large silver jump ring with a tiny silver drop accent
Leash: made to complement the jewelry set and girdle with silver filigree pieces, brecciated jasper beads, glass pearls, silver beads, eye pins, and dark red rhinestones; it has silver clasps on either end so I can wear Ramirez on my shoulder without him getting dropped/lost.

Progress on Incomplete Items:

Corded petticoat – cut out & seams started
Camicia/smock – embroidery for neck band & cuffs started, panels for body and sleeves not yet cut
Bias-cut stockings – both cut out, right stocking sewn but not embroidered, left stocking not yet started
Partlet – embroidery for collar pieces started, pieces for body not yet cut
Thread-wrapped Buttons – 22/22 large buttons nearly complete, 14/44 small buttons in various stages of completion (I’m still trying to decide whether to finish the tops with a tuft or a small bead!)

Second Update

I started the month off with a bang, finally turning some serious attention to the corded petticoat and camicia that I would need to have finished before I could start fitting the sottana and doublet gown. I also worked on the partlet, the stockings I started in April, a lightweight silk petticoat, and those dratted thread-covered buttons. I cut out the pieces for a muff, but have only started work on the inner lining so far. Work on the sottana is currently a distant possibility… I discovered a mix-up in my pattern order from last fall, and the replacement is still on its way as of this update.

Corded Petticoat (Bonus Layer 1 item): Complete

The corded petticoat is another item for my planned “pretty” underwear set, although it turned out plainer than the rest due to time and stash constraints. The fabric started life as a serendipitous thrift store purchase – a red queen-sized flat sheet that perfectly matched the floss color for my pomegranate embroidery (this fabric also made an appearance as my corset’s binding.) I originally considered making a simple rectangular paneled petticoat with a stiffened hemline, but instead decided to break out my Margo’s patterns and use the Italian corded petticoat pattern and instructions. I’m glad I did, as the result turned out even better than I’d hoped, even with the tedium of sewing all those long seams and channels! I did make a few alterations, including adding extra cording channels near the hemline due to using a smaller diameter cord. I would have liked to have made this out of red silk, but as usual, stash availability won out.

Materials: 100% cotton (from bed sheets), 1/4” cotton cording, silk thread, black cotton thread, black crochet cotton (for lucet cord ties)
Completely hand-sewn (including corded channels) with running stitch and/or backstitch, all construction seams felled, hem and waistband finished with slipstitch. Tied closed with hand-made lucet cords through hand-bound eyelets; can be tied into corset with more hand-made lucet cords.

Camicia and Partlet (Bonus Layer 1 items): Complete

These are the last planned pieces of my “pretty” underwear set, but since parts of the camicia and the partlet are going to be visible underneath the outer layers, I had to take them slightly more seriously with patterning, construction, and finishing details than I did my corset.

The silk camicia is loosely based on a pair of extant garments in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 4, p. 111-112, with several alterations. IRCC time limitations meant I wouldn’t be able to do extensive sleeve embroidery or the vertical embroidery on the body panels (so I didn’t even try), and I chose to make a square embroidered band to finish the neckline rather than replicate the extant garments’ neckline finishes. Due to the size of my embroidery motifs, the cuffs are wider than the bands seen in PoF. I also made the camicia knee-length rather than ankle length and narrowed the sleeves to better fit under my sottana’s eventual undersleeves.

For ease of construction, I used one selvedge-to-selvedge width of silk for each front and back, and a half-width for each sleeve, with 7” square gussets. I hemmed each piece separately by hand in silk thread, then edged each piece in a red decorative stitch vaguely resembling those in PoF.

I wanted to finish the seams as in PoF, pg. 62, figure 83A, but I couldn’t work out how to replicate the technique and instead settled for a double run of black silk faggoting stitches between the decorative edging.

The front and back panels were split to allow for center front and center back insertion stitches. I finished the neckband and cuff ruffles with a narrow black crochet lace that roughly resembles bobbin lace, with metallic floss woven through as a nod to the gilt bobbin lace seen on many extant camicie. The cuffs close with ties through detached buttonhole loops, similar to but larger than the inspiration garment’s loops.

The partlet was the hardest item to complete this month, and while I’m not entirely satisfied with it, it looks great with the rest of the underwear set. It was loosely inspired by the Alessandro Allori portrait often identified as Isabella or Maria de Medici, but also possibly Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo. I say loosely inspired because I used the same embroidery design that I’ve used on the rest of the set, and I was unable due to time constraints to add the embroidery to the ruffle and the tiny pearls to the lace points. I’m planning on making a closer reproduction out of linen eventually, complete with pearls/beads. I used Margo’s Italian underpinnings partlet pattern as my starting point.

The embroidery was accented with real freshwater pearls and couched metallic floss to suggest the design of the inspiration portrait.

I finished the collar ruffle and front edges with narrow black lace with a metallic floss woven through to match the camicia cuffs and neckband. The partlet ties on with a hand-made black lucet cord. While I started the partlet at home, I did most of the embellishment in the car and late at night/early morning in a hotel during an out-of-town trip, so I don’t have many pictures of the process. I’m not sure I’d want to do it again… stitching in the car apparently makes me mildly car-sick.

Materials: 12mm silk satin charmeuse, white cotton muslin (to stabilize embroidery), silk thread, DMC cotton embroidery floss, vintage embroidery floss, metallic pearl embroidery floss, black cotton lace in two widths, freshwater pearls, black crochet cotton. Like the rest of the set, these were entirely hand-embroidered and hand-sewn.

Petticoat/Underskirt (Layer 2 Item): Complete

Because I intend the final outfit to be very mix-and-match depending on weather conditions, and because my sottana pattern is currently somewhere in the shipping void, I decided at the last minute that I needed to whip up a simple underskirt to go over my corded petticoat. The embroidered silk I chose probably reads as too “modern”, but it does look nice with the rest of the project materials and used up some of the ridiculous amount of yardage I have in my stash.

I used simple rectangular construction, with three panels sewn together and the seams flat-felled, then everything pleated into a flat band. While I originally intended to simply turn and stitch the hem, I instead decided to try the faced/stiffened hem from my Margo's patterns manual and add a small decorative strip to the hem in the process. The facing strip is cut on the straight grain from a king-sized cotton bed sheet (yet another thrift store find!) and the decorative strip was made from the folded and stitched side seams removed from the sheet when I ripped it to find the grain of the fabric. I used 2” strips of craft felt as stiffening rather than wool due to stash limitations.

The underskirt closes at the back through two eyelets with yet another lucet cord. I like the way it drapes over the corded petticoat when I put it on; unfortunately, it doesn’t drape nearly as nice on my still-too-large dress form’s blocky shape, so I’ll have to get better pictures when I have an extra pair of hands around.

Materials: Black embroidered 100% silk dupioni, 100% cotton sheet, craft felt, black silk thread, cotton crochet thread
Entirely hand-sewn with hand-bound eyelets and a hand-made lucet cord for closure.

Progress on Incomplete Items:

1. Stockings based on a pair in the V&A Museum: complete except for eyelets, embroidery – I probably won't finish these before contest end!

2. Muff (final accessory): fur & lining/inner lining pieces cut, assembly started

3. Thread-wrapped buttons: Ugh. Still working on them! I decided on tufts rather than a bead finish.

4. Braid for button loops: in progress

5. Sottana, Sleeves, Overgown: not yet started