The Eighth Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 1 to July 31, 2018


Jennifer Lee
North Carolina, USA

I have a lifelong love of historical costume and sewed my first renaissance festival outfit in 6th grade! I volunteer as part of a re-enactment group focused on period dog breeds (The Hounds of East Fairhaven) at the Carolina and Georgia Renaissance Festivals, which sparked my recent forays into making historical garments. So far, I've mostly focused on the mid Tudor periods in England, and I am in the middle of making my first Italian 15th Century/fantasy-inspired piece, so my entry for IRCC 8 will be my second ever Italian outfit!

I plan to faithfully recreate the young woman in pink from Ghirlandaio's Birth of St. John the Baptist. I will be making a linen camicia, a gamurra and sleeves made from pre-embroidered fabric, a pink giornea with dagged edges, and for accessories I will be making an embroidered fringed handkerchief, a set of necklaces, and several rings all to match the fresco.

First Update

I feel like I got off to a pretty good start this month! As I always like to do, I started with my camicia. I followed the cutting instructions for the Venetian camicia from the Realm of Venus, using a double loom width for my body pieces to get more fullness. I used a very sheer lightweight linen for this, although I’d like to wash it a few more times to get it even softer. I sewed all the seams by machine and then flat felled them by hand. I’m proud to say this was the best gusset I have ever sewn!

After it was constructed I hemmed it by hand, then started to gather the neckline and cuffs into cartridge pleats.

After I pleated them down to the correct sizes, I hand sewed on bands of fabric to encase the raw edges.

I have not been a big user of wonder clips prior to this process, but wow they helped hold the pleats in place so well, and they didn’t stab me as I was hand sewing! Total convert!

And just like that I was done! Fastest and best undershirt I have made yet (excuse me trying it on over my gym clothes).

Next I got started on some of my accessories. Since I’m recreating a portrait, I am trying to match my accessories as close as possible to the original. I spent hours scouring the Fire Mountain Gems site trying to find similar settings and cabochons to the necklace seen in the original. I could never find something that would allow me to attach the pearls to the bottom, so I knew I had to do some hefty work, and I borrowed a soldering iron to attach several eye pins to the bottom of the setting.

The large setting I had chosen had beautiful antiquing, but not all the findings I purchased did. So I had to add a patina to some of them using a coating called Swellegant. It reacted to some of the findings more readily than others, so I had to do some experimenting to get it just right.

After the prep work of soldering and adding patina, it was simply time to put all the pieces together. I hung the (Swarovski crystal) pearls from fancy head pins and attached them to the eye pins I had soldered on. Then I attached the two stone settings together, and strung them on a dark cord, to which I attached a closure. Last I glued in my cabochons, two stones of red jasper.

And I’m really happy with how it turned out! Looks very similar to the original.

The next accessory I got started on was my rings. While I adventured into soldering with the necklace, I decided to stay more where I was comfortable with wire-wrapped rings. I was really into these like 5 years ago, and I got pretty good at making interesting shapes which weren’t the traditional ‘birds nest” wire-wrapped rings so I was looking forward to the challenge! I pulled out my old materials and started working on the ring you see on her pinky finger in the portrait, which appears to be made of two bands of gold. I wrapped the wire approximately around at my finger size, and then closed it off on the back. The wire I was using was VERY stiff, probably because it was so old! I tried to get my wraps tight, but I wasn’t happy with what I was able to achieve. Adding the wraps also makes the ring smaller, which is what leads you to the part of wire-wrapping I find most fun, smashing it with a hammer.

You see, in order to make wire wrapped rings durable you need to temper the wire by hitting it with a hammer. You can use a rubber or wooden hammer to simply temper the ring as-is, or you can use a metal hammer to smash and deform the wire, adding that ‘hammered metal’ affect. This will also make the ring bigger, so it returned the ring to the correct size. It also highlighted the sloppiness of my wraps, they really needed to be tighter. At least that part of the ring is on the inside of my hand!

Next I worked on the first of my stone rings I had planned, using tiny link settings and cabochons I found at Fire Mountain Gems. I didn’t take many pictures here because the wire being so stiff made it a nightmare to work with on such a small scale! I eventually got one finished, but I’m going to get some new wire before I move to the rest.

The last accessory I started work on was my embroidered handkerchief. The camicia cutting layout leaves a nice large area for a handkerchief, so I just squared off that piece and marked where I wanted my fringe to be by pulling about 4 yarns out of each side. In the ‘drawn thread’ areas, I began my hemstitch, which will finish the edges and create the gathered fringe areas. Once I’m done with the hemstitch, I will remove the remaining yarns and expose the fringe! The only thing is this is taking soooo long. I cut a very large handkerchief because I like oversized things (and it looks great waving at the crowds at festival) but I felt like it took forever to get to the first corner. By the end of the month, I finished two and a half sides.

Accessories complete for the month, but I still had more to get done! So I started prepping the fabric for my gamurra and giornea. When my gamurra fabric came in and I started to iron it, I realized it had some dirty marks around the selvedges and the middle line, where it had been folded. Thankfully it had been folded inside out, so the dirt was on the back of the fabric, but I still sent it off to be dry cleaned just in case. When it came back, I gave it a good press (into a towel to protect the embroidery) and brought it out to the yard to give it a healthy dose of scotch guard to protect it in the future. It looked so beautiful hanging up on my clothesline I just had to share even though I didn’t do any more work on the gamurra this month.

I agonized for months about what to do with the fabric for the giornea. I couldn’t find a brocade or other fabric which captured the spaced out feeling of the original fabric, and I was confused by some inconsistencies I saw in the original picture, such as not seeing the motif on the back of the (apparently unlined-which all references I’ve seen said that gironea would be lined) fabric, and the motif curiously switching direction on the shoulder.

I guess the most viable option would be that the same fabric was used for the face and lining, and the face only was embroidered in metallic threads (because look at that shine!), but it doesn’t explain the sideways motif on the shoulder (lazy artist?). I cannot do that amount of embroidery though, so I decided to work with a printed fabric instead because I really wanted it to look right. I went on one last ditch fabric shopping effort in the NYC Garment District to look for a fabric that evoked the feel, but instead I found a pink silk in the perfect color on sale at a store which was closing so it felt like the universe decided for me. So after digitizing the motif, I printed it on a toner-based printer and ironed it onto a stamp carving block, then carved around it and mounted it onto a clear acrylic stamp holder.

I spent a lot of time practicing with the stamp and my textile paint I had chosen on paper, to make sure I could get a good impression. My first tries were not so great, but I eventually got the hang of it.

I figured out the type of spacing I wanted largely by comparing the size of my hand and the hand of the woman in the portrait, and getting a feel for how far apart the motifs should be. My stamp holder was 4”x6”, and I decided I wanted the motifs spread apart that height, with a little more in width, meaning a 6”x6” spacing. I cut several squares from cardstock and used them as I was stamping to space my stamps, placing a sheet up against the edge of my holder as I stamped and using that to space my next spot.

And that method, which I felt was a bit slap-dash, actually worked magnificently!

I did not print the other part of the motif, the small cross made of circles, because I felt that by ‘cheating’ with the printing I needed to do more to make the fabric feel ‘real’ and more ornate, especially because giornea were often richly decorated.

So I ordered some real metal spangles, which are actually vintage from the 1920s. They’re made the same way they would have been made in 1490, with circles of wire hammered flat so there’s a small opening in each piece.

Before I could sew them on, I wanted to cut out my giornea, so that I wouldn’t waste time sewing them onto an area I would cut off. This is the pattern I used to cut my giornea (not to scale):

This is the most effective use of fabric to cut a giornea with a train, although you can see by the marked motif direction that while the motif will be right side up on the front, it will be upside down on the back. I’m OK with this for several reasons, including the little sideways motif on the shoulder of the picture. There would be no reason to waste so much fabric, and some descriptions of giornea describe them as a segment of a circle, meaning at some point the motif would not be directional.

After cutting my pieces, I started to sew on the spangles one by one, using my apparently new trusty form of spacing: paper squares.

I’m sewing these on with ivory silk thread, and I’m still on the first piece because this takes a long time! I’m glad I started it now.

I feel like I got a really strong start to the month, and most of this work was in the beginning of the month because in the second half I wanted to take some time to focus on some contemporary projects. Hopefully the momentum will carry through the next months!