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!


Second Update

Bit of a slower go this month as real life took over, but I am really happy to have worked on some of the more difficult tasks and chugging ahead on some of the slower hand sewing!

For a lot of this month, I’ve been sewing on metal spangles to my giornea. I went out of state for a week for work and every evening, sewed on spangles. I’m 200 spangles in so far and the end is not in sight! It takes me about 12-15 minutes per set of 4 spangles, which means so far I’ve spent 11 hours sewing them on. And I just realized I need to be sewing sets of five spangles, not of four, so I need to go back and add another spangle to the center of each motif on what I already had thought I finished. Have I said the word spangles enough? Spangles.

I did finish another accessory this month, my handkerchief! I brought it along as my plane-appropriate handsewing on my aforementioned work trip and almost immediately finished the hem stitching for the fringe on my first flight. Whoops. So of course I decided to do another row of drawn threadwork on the handkerchief, and starting to draw and re-weave in yarns on a dark, bumpy plane ride is not the best idea.

This time I used two ends of my ivory colored silk thread to make it a bit more delicate, and hemstitch both sides of the void in an offset pattern to create zig-zags of thread.

My return flight and then one long car trip later, the embroidery was done! I washed it one more time before fringing to get it to soften up more, which was a success. Pulling the cross-wise yarns for fringe took a lot longer than I thought it would, but it was a lot of yarn I removed!

After my trip I finally had the time I needed to buckle down for a marathon fitting session and get the bodice pattern of my gamurra figured out. I did have a bodice drafted from my first Italian gamurra, but that one is side lacing and I need one which is front lacing with a gap. I’ve also lost weight since I drafted the first one, and that gown is a bit big on me so I knew I needed to make adjustments there. My first bodice has bust shaping on the side, which turned out to not work so well in a front lacing garment. It was also quite baggy and not supportive at all.

I took it in at the sides and removed material from the middle to achieve a ‘V’ shaped lacing, and basically chopped off my shaping from the side and moved it to the middle. The fit was better, but I had a lot of excess fabric in the arm pit and still was not achieving the “V” shaped lacing. I also decided the neckline was much lower than the inspiration and needed to come up.

To fix the armpit area, I cut a wedge from the strap and rotated it to reduce the amount of fabric in that area. I also shaved more off the center front in search of the perfect “V”.

The result was almost perfect, with still come curviness in my V shape. I trimmed my muslin down and the result for a perfect V is almost no shaping, so oh well. I cut out an underlining/support structure of two layers of linen canvas cut alternating grains (one on grain and one cross grain) for all my pieces, and cut two layers of cotton flannel for the front pieces only to match descriptions of bodices padded with “cotton wool”. Then I pad stitched all the layers together for every piece, and machine sewed the side seams and shoulder seams. The result is nicely stiff and supportive!

Next it was time to cut my really nice embroidered crewel fabric for the face pieces of the gamurra. I spent a lot of time retracing my pattern all over the motif to find the best place to cut. Matching the pattern will be impossible due to the size of the repeat, so I went with what I thought looked nice. I then traced my seam allowances and cut everything out with pinking shears to prevent unraveling. Once I laid everything out, I decided I didn’t like my attempt at balancing the pattern on the front pieces (it wound up looking unbalanced to match the location of two similar flowers) so I re-cut the left front piece and am much happier with the pattern balance now.

I decided I wanted to make the gamurra really nice and sew the exterior bodice seams by hand, so I machine basted all the seam lines to help me iron them over and attached my bodice pieces together with whip stitches in my silk thread.

Then I started to mount the face fabric onto the support structure, wrapping the seam allowances of the face pieces around the support structure and attaching them with whip stitches in some places and running stitches in others. The lining will cover the raw edges which are only held in place with running stitches, and it will meet up with the inside edge where the eyelets will go. I had to do some unpicking of the embroidery to allow for eyelets, and also to reduce the bulk in some of the seam allowances.

And that’s where I’m at for the month. I have a lot of hand sewing in front of me with attaching the gamurra bodice together and continuing to add spangles to the giornea, plus I will need to do eyelets on the gamurra and add trim to the giornea. Really the hard part is past since I have everything fitting well and I overcame my fear of cutting into my embroidered fabric! I’m pleased to have finished the handkerchief and pad stitching as I have a lot more handsewing to do now.