My First Garb


1590s Venetian Camicia,Corset, Partlet and Gown


The Inspiration....

Long before I actually started 'playing' in the SCA, I decided on my persona. I loved Venice and her history, so choosing a courtesan persona of the late sixteenth century was easy. Once I had decided that I started surfing the net to find information. It was hard going - there was no city-state specific information as it was all lumped into the general term of "Italian Ren". Not only does the term "Italian Ren" cover a long span of time, but doesn't take into account the regional variations that occured throughout "Italy" in the sixteenth century. It is also used incorrectly quite often. There is early Italian Ren, late Italian Ren, and the sixteenth century should really be split into two - late Italian Rennaissance and Mannerism. But I stumbled upon Holly's site and the link to her e-group, SCA-Garb, and a garb and e-list addiction was born. One of the first things I found out was there was a book of late period Venetian costumes by Cesare Vecellio, reprinted by dover as "Cesare Vecellio's Renaissance Costume Book". Cesare Vecellio lived and worked in Venice, so it was, and is, a perfect resource for the Venice of the 1590s. It was my first purchase in the quest for authentic garb. This woodcut, "Venetian Lady in Winter", was the inpiration for my first outfit. I decided to go all out and make all of the bits required to complete the outfit: camicia, corset, partlet and gown.


The Obstacles....

Boy, were there some obstacles! I had only ever made things from patterns, and was almost in tears the day I realised I would have to draft my own. I had relatively no knowledge of drafting, and was worried that I would pick up modern tailoring habits quite different from period methods if I studied modern books on how to drafting. But where would I start? I had Vecellio and nothing else, and I had no idea how the very wide 1590s neckline was achieved, and that none of the patterns available would do. All I had to go on was "Cut My Cote" and the knowledge that all garment construction began with geometric shapes sewn together, so I determined to start with that as a basis.

I discovered enough about Venetian from that book and portraits to know that Venetian gowns had one interesting feature different from other Italian dress - a point in the back. By studying portraits I find it likely that the point in the back developed at the same time as the bodice front dropped from a straight line to a point. The difference between front and back is that the point in back is pointy, whereas the one in front is rounded. Thing is, I didn't know at the time whether the point was all-in-one with the back, or if it was a triangular shaped piece of its own, incorporated into the back - that is, was the back one piece or three? Add to that the lacing seen at the front which I have come to call ladder lacing, and it made for one very difficult bodice to find a pattern for.




The Materials....

Camicia: I bought 5 metres of 112cm wide 100% cotton voile in white. For the embroidery on the fabric strip to hide the neckline stitching I bought 2 skeins of white DMC cotton embroidery floss.

Corset: The corset is constructed all in one piece: two inner layers of 100% cotton calico*, and two outer layers of 100% cotton drill in white. Used washers to re-inforce the lacing holes and white embroidery cotton floss to overcast the washers. White poly/cotton bias binding to bind the edges all 'round, and white cotton piping cord to lace it. it is boned with spring steel stays.

I also had a lack of money at the time. By the time I'd made my camicia, and my corset, the amount I had left over for the partlet and gown was pitiful - but where there is a will there is a way.

Partlet: A lucky decision to visit my local chain fabric/craft store scored me enough fabric for a partlet and veil for $3! Sure it's 100% polyester batiste, but it was curtaining fabric and had little shine - just a nice sheen - and a bit of texture. Because I had saved myself a bit of money on the fabric, I splurged on a small amount (about 3m) of satin bias-binding to bind the edges.

Dress: I stumbled on an upholstery fabric remnant, on sale down from $18/m to only $6. But it was only 3.4 metres of 147cm wide 80% cotton/20%polyester fabric. How the heck was I going to get a whole gown out of that? I bought it anyway - beggars can't be choosers as they say, and the colour, pattern and weight was very good. I decided that this was going to be a great experiment in doing what "they" did - using as little fabric as possible. The lining for the bodice was 100% cotton drill. I was quickly running out of money so I made one inch wide, heavily interfaced, fabric loops for the lacing out of some of this drill. The bodice was interfaced with iron-on interfacing, and trimmed with deep gold gimp braid up the lacing edges, across the chest, under the arms and across the back. This was not totally correct method, although gimp braid is a pretty good modern equivalent of what in period was known as "passementarie", but I was yet to learn the finer points of late Venetian embellishment.

(*Calico: in Australia calico is unbleached, tightly woven 100% cotton fabric with little slubs in it, often used for curtain linings etc.)




The Method....

The first step was to make the camicia. I had already found Kass's great site "Reconstructing History", and her analysis of an extant Italian camicia in Dorothy Burnham's "Cut My Cote" really inspired me. I followed her instructions as best I could (gussets are a real pain the first time you try them!) and came out with something almost completely 'period' - I used cuffs which I now believe to be a modern costuming shortcut. I also used cotton because it was cheaper than linen at the time. I don't have pictures of the camicia worn alone (I'm a bit shy!) but you can see it with my dress pics. (I will soon have instructions on how to sew this camicia on my pages at Venus' Seamstress.)

Then I started on my corset. I followed the instructions on Drea Leed's "Elizebethan Corset Page" and made a very basic strapless corset, and, with the help of my laurel at an A&S meeting, layed out the channels for the spring steel boning. In some cases I had to cut them to the right size and file the rough edges, dipping the ends in two-part epoxy resin glue to seal them. Once that was done I could start on my dress.

Whilst wearing the camicia and corset I measured myself. Using the geometric construction ideas floating around in my head, I based by back and front sections on rectangles the width required, and the back was cut to the depth I wanted the point. I took the back section and drew a V - the point being centre lower back and the upper points ending where I wanted the shoulder straps to be, which for late 16th century Venetian is very wide appart indeed! I cut this rectangular back section along the V in back, which gave me three bodice back sections. I added a seam allowance to these pieces on more fabric, and stitched them together again to form the V-shaped seam I believed to be part of the Venetian V-back design.

The front rectangular section I cut smaller than my chest measurement by the width I wanted the front lacing opening to be plus enough to fold over - this was in fact a good way to use very little fabric. I then stitched the back rectangle to the front rectangle (no shaping at this point, just straight seams down the sides). I pinned the bodice on around my corset inside out (there were no shoulder straps at this point) and pinned the front opening edges in place. Taking the excess side fabric in a pinch, I had an assistant pin along the side so that I had an idea of how much shaping was needed. I then took it off and re-cut and re-stitched the side seam, this time angling it in from under the arm to the waist. Once that was done I again tried it on, this time right side out, and drew the waistline with a marker on one side of the bodice, from the dip in back, up and over the hip/waist, and down into a deep rounded dip in centre front. When I was happy with the arc of this waistline, I took off the "bodice" and cut along the seam line, folded the whole bodice in half and used the cut line of one side to draw an identical curve on the other half of the bodice, which I then cut along. Tried it on once more and it fit!

I was then ready to use the fabric pattern pieces to make permanent one from thick brown wrapping paper. I used the fabric pattern to cut the lining and dress fabric. I cut separate shoulder straps from long strips of lining and dress fabric - this not only helped to save fabric, but it made it easier to place them exactly where I wanted them and to adjust their length. I used a short legth of twill tape to join the two halves of the front into one, and to give the skirt something to be attached to in front. I cut two 16th century sleeves from a pattern provided by a lovely lady on the SCA-Garb list. What I had left I made into two skirt panels the width of the fabric, with V-shaped sections cut out in centre front and centre back. I drew these shaped sections by folding each panel in half lengthwise (the fold being centre front or centre back point). I starting the line at the depth of the 'natural-waist-to-bodice-point' measurement and drew it out as far as twice the measurement around the bodice point from hip to hip. the back was marked and cut in a similar manner. Shaping these section avoids the problen of the skirt fabric not hanging straight when it is attached to the bodice.

I interfaced the bodice and attached the shoulder straps on the back. I attached the lining at the top of the bodice leaving small gaps for the front shoulder straps, turned it right sides out and inserted the self-lined shoulder straps, and basted them in place for ease of adjustment. I slip-stitched the lining down at the lacing edges and, starting at the top, machine stitched the pre-made fabric loops in place through all thicknesses. This was hard going. Once the loops were in place on both side of the front opening I could temporarily try on the bodice and lace it up so as to make final adjustments to the shoulder straps. Once the final position of the straps was determined, I took off the bodice and stitched them in place. I used the 'eyes' from sets of large hooks and eyes as sleeve attachement points on the underside of the shoulder straps.

The front and back skirt panels were sewn together. Without folding over the cut edge, with strong thread I ran two lines of running stitch evenly around the top skirt edges, about .5cm and 1.5cm in from the edge - the bottom "in-and-out" row of the running stitch must be identical to the top row, leaving tails of at least 15cm. Each stitch was about 1.5cm long. When pulled together, these threads pull the fabric into pleats.

This, unbeknownst to me at the time, is called cartridge pleating. But unlike most methods of cartridge pleating, I do not either fold the top cut edge of the skirt over before making the lines of running stitch - this is because it uses unnessary fabric and add to the bulk making the wasitline seam difficult to sew. Nor do I attach by sewing the folded edge to the bodice with tiny stitches in each pleat - it really doesn't look like this method is used on Venetian gowns. The folds seen in Venetian gowns aren't stiff, they are soft. They don't stand out stiffly, they puff out nicely.

The way I do it is to turn the bodice right side out, the skirt inside out, put the bodice inside the skirt and layer the two cut edges together, side seam to side seam; pin; adjust pleats so they are concentrated in back and over hips, pin pleats in place, and backstitch through all layers with very strong thread, going through and over every pleat - stitching must be small and tight. If you have a strong enough sewing machine you may be able to accomplish this step by machine. Once the skirt was attached I slip-stitched the lining down over the waistline seam to hide it.

I then sewed the sleeve seams together and made small hems in the wrist and sleeve top. I stitched lengths of ribbon to the sleeve tops in place to correspond to the eyes on the underside of the shoulder straps. I hemmed it and it was then finished, and i was very happy with it as my first real piece of garb.

I made the partlet following the historically accurate method on The Renaissance Tailor site. It was fairly easy - I cut a rectangle of fabric wide enough to go across my back and long enough to go from under the bodice edge at back to under the bodice edge at the front. I cut out a long strip up the centre front wide enough for the opening, ending it in a curve corresponding to the back of my neck, and bound all edges with the satin bias-binding. Added ties at the waist and that's it.



The Pictures....


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2001 - 2010 Anabella Wake (Known in the SCA as Bella Lucia da Verona) I hold copyright on all information on these pages, and on all images of clothing/costume that I have made. You are allowed to make one facsimile copy for your own use provided that this notice is included on each page. Please ask permission to copy, disseminate and/or distribute my work - I would like to know when and how you are finding this information of use.