The Ninth Annual Italian Renaissance Costuming Challenge

April 1 to July 31, 2019


Helena Frei
Ontario, Canada

I am an artist, independent curator, writer and textile enthusiast. When not up to my ears in matters of art and textile, I'm a mother, grandmother, community activist, gardener, historical recreationist and science fiction fan.

As I have attempted less than three late Italian Renaissance outfits prior to this challenge I am a novice in Italian Renaissance costume. The outfit I propose to make is what a lady might wear in a domestic, rather than social or court setting.

I plan to make: : a camicia; an underskirt; a gown based on the extant diamond twill half-gown held in Pisa; a pocket; a headdress or cap.

Depending on how things go, I may add one or two of the following: an apron, belt, a pearl necklace with matching earrings, a vest or short cape.

(Updates listed in reverse order)


Third Update: June Progress


From the start, June was another month of interruptions by Life - unfortunately less entertaining than an unexpected holiday in Italy.

Items completed this month:

1. Set of Necklaces

All three rosary-strung pearl necklaces are done. Since stringing and knotting pearls has a very short “pick up and put down,” time I managed to finish the last of them this month.


Items started but not yet completed:

1. Veil

I washed and starched the lace square I made in May, and definitely decided that making a lace cap would be unfeasible. After researching the scant available visual evidence for what old women wore on their heads in 16th century Italy and finding little or nothing appropriate, I decided on a long veil similar to that shown in Cesare Vecellio’s 1598 Habiti Antichi et Moderni di Tutto Il Mondo.

I have silk of suitable weight, but as I want to be able to wear it for a long time, and silk yellows to a shade that’s truly unflattering to my complexion, I’m going to use cotton organdy or voile, as linen of suitable weight and sheerness is no longer available. To decorate it and add a bit of weight, I’ll edge it with pearls.


2. Petticoat

Mid June I cut out the materials for the petticote and started assembling it, but Life intervened again and I got no more work done on my IRCC entry during the month.


Petticoat fabric, pinning

Petticoat lining cut out


June working notes

1 June – 8 June
• Found that my tube of Hypo had aged out of usefulness; bought new tube
• Washed, starched & ironed reticella sample. Looks better, but not good enough. I need a lot more lace practice
• Looking for 100% cotton organdy or voile; no luck locally
• Ordered voile sample from Dharma Trading; after it arrived I ordered 2 yards of voile
• Ordered 400 2mm Swarovski pearls for edging of veil from Beadfx

10 June
• Put dots of Hypo on the two pearl necklaces I strung in May & trimmed off excess silk

12 June
• Started stringing the third pearl necklace. Only a few pearls - didn’t count how many.

13 June
• Pressed & cut red wool fabric for petticote & sewed one of the two seams
• Pressed & cut the main part of the yellow linen fabric for petticote lining and sewed one seam.
• Continued stringing and knotting the third pearl necklace. Half of necklace -100 pearls - done by end of day

14 June
• Finished the third pearl necklace (strung, knotted, glued, excess silk snipped)
• Pieced the linen for the petticote lining as the linen is narrower than the wool of the shell
• Cut (actually, tore) the black wool for the petticote guards

15 – 27 June
• 2mm Swarovski pearls for edging of veil arrived
• Voile arrived




Second Update: May Progress


Most of May I was in Italy –I’m writing this at the Brussels airport, waiting to board the plane back to Toronto – so my progress was on things small enough to take along.

Though there were lots of marvelous distractions, I did make progress. I threaded and knotted two pearl necklaces, which are pretty much finished – all they need is two dabs of glue each and snipping off the leftover ends of the stringing silk. I also made a reticella lace test square and started embroidering the smocking on the camicia.

Items started but not yet completed:

1. Pearl necklace set

The design for the pearl necklaces was inspired by the ropes of “black” pearls (actually a deep purple) that were a gift from Pope Clement VII to his niece, Catherine di Medici, who gave them to her son, who passed them on to his wife Mary Queen of Scots, and which, after various machinations after Mary’s abdication, were bought by Elizabeth I.

The pearls were rosary strung – alternating large and small, as can be seen in the portrait of the young Mary, below, and more clearly in the Ermine portrait of Elizabeth I by William Segar. These were not the only rosary-strung pearls, nor were all rosary-strung pearls black - like the ones in the portrait of Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset.

Catherine’s/Mary’s/Elizabeth’s pearls were described as six very long strings. From the size in the images I’m guessing the larger ones were somewhere between 15mm and 20mm in diameter. I’m restraining myself to three long ropes of 200 smaller pearls – 100 each of 8mm and 4 mm - two of which I’ve strung this month. Since cultured pearls of suitable quality would have been prohibitively expensive, and as I prefer white(ish) pearls to black, I’m using Swarovski’s “cream” faux pearls.


10 May
• started threading and knotting the pearl necklaces.
• progress at end of day: 103 pearls threaded and knotted.

11 May
• finished the first strand of 200 pearls except for putting dabs of Hypo jeweller’s glue on the knots where the silk thread ends. I didn’t bring the glue with me as it’s highly flammable.


2. Lace test square for cap

My original submission includes a headdress or cap. I wanted to make a reticella lace cap based on a 16th century one shown in Elisa Ricci’s Old Italian Lace (W. Heinemann, 1913).

12 May
• took a break from pearl knotting and started a test lace square for a cap.

13 May
• some more work on the lace square. Messy and discouraging.

14 May
• tossed out the first lace attempt
• rewatched Grace’s Lace’s gifs on how not to paint/stitch yourself into a corner
• started a new square
• much better results. Still learning how to keep the tension even
• finished four of the eight radial spokes and one corner’s loops

15 May
• started fifth radial spoke and corner loops

16 May
• finished fifth and sixth radial spokes and corner loops
• started seventh radial spoke and corner loops

18 May
• finished the remaining radial spokes and corner loops
• finished the centre motif

19 May
• finished first outer side of lace square. A bit lumpy.

20 May
• finished second outer side of lace square. Better.

21 May
• finished third outer side of lace square. OK

22 May
• finished the lace square. It’s a bit wonky, but not bad for a first attempt. Washing, starching and ironing should straighten out a lot of its wonk. Considering how long it took me to make this one square, I decided that making a reticella lace cap is over-ambitious.


After making this test square I’ve decided it’s too ambitious for the time available. I will decide on a different headdress and report on it next month.


23 May
• a peaceful, restful and sunny morning spent stringing pearls under the sun umbrella. Started and finished the second strand of 200 pearls except for putting dabs of Hypo on the knots


3. Camicia (Ongoing)

I’ve started the smocking on the camicia. As the fabric is cotton, I’m using DMC cotton embroidery floss in “blanc” – which is a different shade of white from the fabric – it’s faintly cream. However, once it’s stitched, the difference in tint disappears.

24 May
• started embroidering the smocking on the camicia. Completed the edge stabilizing rows on the left cuff.

25 May
• got most of the way through the outline embroidery on the left cuff.

26 May
• finished the outline embroidery on the left cuff of the camicia. Started filling in the detail. Didn’t like the way one of the stitches I used looked after working halfway across the wrist end, so unpicked it.

27 May
• resumed filling in the detail on the left cuff of the camicia.

28 May
• bought & hemmed a metre of white cotton sheeting to protect the camicia-in-progress. Once again, the vagaries of travelling to and from a not-very-tourist destination on points - I’ll have an 8 hour layover in Turin and a 15 hour one in Brussels, so I’m going to pack the camicia in my carry-on luggage for something to do besides reading during those very, very long hours.

29 May
• finished the row of diamond stitch down the middle of the smocked part of the left cuff.

30 – 31 May
• travelling. Luckily, there’s free and fast Wifi in the Turin and Brussels airports!




First Update: April Progress

A change of plans

When I entered IRCC 9 I had no idea that I would be spending most of the month of May in Italy! Specifically, on my sister’s farm in Piedmonte, near Cisterna d’Asti. I’m delighted and looking forward eagerly to the trip – and scrambling to finish non-IRCC work scheduled for May before I leave.

This has also reshuffled my sewing plans. Initially, I had planned to make the gown, based on the Pisa half-gown, first, then the camicia based on the one worn by Laura Battiferri in the Bronzino portrait (see right), followed by the underskirt, while working on the lace and jewellery when not sewing.

So, as I’m going to be in Italy, I’m focusing instead on what I can take along in a carry-on suitcase. This includes the materials/components for
• the camicia
• the lace (or lace-edged) cap
• the pearl necklace
• the belt

All of these involve a lot of handwork and minimal volumes of materials - even the camicia which, though it’s lots of yardage, is fine cotton and folds up small. So far, I
• made progress with the preliminary steps for cutting and fitting the bodice of the gown before the trip to Italy came up,
• completed the assembly of the camicia components, hemming and pleating its collar and cuffs preparatory to smocking
• assembled the materials and tools for the other items I’m planning to take along

Items started but not yet completed:

1. Muslin for gown bodice:

1 April

• drafted a basic doublet pattern using the Modern Maker bara technique (Mathew Gnagy, The Modern Maker Vol. 2: Pattern Manual 1580-1640, 2018).

2 April

• made a muslin from the Modern Maker pattern draft & found some issues with the fit:
• too tight – needs at least 2cm added to the girth – actual amount tbd, depending on the thickness of the fabrics
• the armhole is too high
• the upper chest has a peculiar outward curve as if designed for a pigeon chest. Not sure where that came from - it’s over the sternum, too high to be intended to accommodate the fashionable 16th century flatten-the-girls-upward look. I’ll need to take out 2 or 3cm.

3 April

• tried the muslin on again and made the adjustments
• drafted a new version of the pattern with the adjustments, a square neckline and side back lacing opening. (Side lacing makes dressing without help possible!)
• cut new muslin


5 April

• sewed and fitted new muslin

10 – 18 April

• tweaked bodice fit
• lowered the armhole
• raised the front neck 2cm; the extant garment is described as having a “scollo molto alto” (a very high neckline). This may account for why there is a centre front seam. Without the shaping this seam makes possible the front would stand out from the upper chest unless I took a deep dart or two at the top & one in each armscye, which solution does not appear to be supported by evidence from surviving garments or pattern books.
• made the straps a separate piece as on the extant garment
• drafted new pattern from adjusted muslin
• cut the canvas for bodice interlining ready for final fitting


2. Smocked camicia:

19-24 April

• made a second smocking test swatch
• calculated width of fabric needed to gather to a neck circumference of 33cm (~ 13 inches). It needs to be 304 cm (~ 120 inches) wide
• cut out camicia pieces (front, back, 2 sleeves, 2 square gussets) by pulled-thread method to ensure all pieces are on the straight of grain. Cut a 30cm (12 inches) neckline opening at the centre front.
• narrow-hemmed 30cm of the top edges of the front, back and sleeves sewed them together. I’ve left the bulk of the sewing until the collar embroidery/smocking is complete because it’s hard to tell beforehand how deep/shallow the armholes will need to be.
• did a fine rolled hem around the top edge, then narrow-hemmed the neckline opening and the edges of where the cuffs will be.

25 - 28 April

• discovered that, in spite of being thin and fine, the full circumference of the camicia is too big to fit in my smocking pleater. Unpicked the seams far enough down to handle each panel separately.
• pleated the collar and cuffs of the camicia
• re-stitched the seams and bits of the rolled hem where I’d had to open them for pleating.

30 April

• Photographed and packed handwork items.