19th October 2004
As I may have mentioned before, Kentwell weather exists in one of two states: bakingly hot and bone-chillingly cold. Actually, after this summer, we'd best add another category to that - thunder, lightening, and gales.
Tudor clothes cope remarkably well with hot weather. You'd have thought that all that wool would cook you, fast, and on very hot days that can be true. I've certainly woke up, to the sun beating down at the tent, and glared with hate at the kirtle, knowing its still damp with sweat from the day before. But there are tricks to get around that: kirtling up and removing your sleeves does wonders to cool you down and, in extremis, coifs and shifts can be soaked in water to keep you damply cool all day. The cold and the wet are more difficult to cope with.
Tudor clothing is undoubtedly better than jeans etc at coping with the miseries of wet weather. Wool is wonderful stuff - if it's well felted it's nearly waterproof, and it stays warm even when wet. But, in the twenty-first century, I don't often spend all day standing around in the wind and the rain; at Kentwell I'm often forced to do just that. And there's nothing more miserable than eating luke-warm and rain-thinned pottage whilst the cold seeps deeper and deeper inside you.
The brown jacket (and the red jacket that will hopefully follow it) were an attempt to deal with that problem. That jacket had its faults, but it worked well inspite of them. But I've decided I need something rather more substantial for the start of next season. The first event of the year is Easter, and Easter this year falls remarkably early, so snow isn't beyond the bounds of possibility. Cold and wet is guaranteed.
Kentwell relies very heavily on the work of Bruegel as evidence for its look, and it's to the work of Bruegel I've turned for inspiration. The Bruegel overgown is well-known amongst costume re-creators, in part because of the strange and puzzling construction that the few images we have suggest. Plenty of attempts have been made to figure out how and why it's constructed as it is; in my opinion none of them have fully succeeded and, I somehow suspect, I won't get it quite right either.
But even if I don't crack the mystery of the Bruegel overgown, hopefully I should be able to make something warm and comfortable to keep me snug at Easter.
Two images of this gown are well known, and I include them above. Both have one major disadvantage, however: they only show the gown from the back. So it's time to go trawling through the books to see what other images I can find.
I've talked about by book of Bruegel paintings before. It's fab, and is now my first resource for projects like this. It has large - A4 size - reproductions of both whole paintings and close-ups of details. So, first off, I spent a happy hour or two trawling through it to see if I could find anything of any use.
The good news is that I found several images of this sort of dress - suggesting that this type of garment was rather more common than a mere two images might suggest. Unfortunately, though the number of images were interesting, most of them were too small to be of much use to a seamstress. I've included the more useful images below.
Both of the images above are from The Massacre of the Innocents. This is a painting I find deeply chilling and so have never looked at in detail before; with hindsight this may have been a mistake. The painting is set in winter - snow lies in a thick blanket over the scene, dimpled only by the hooves of horses - so it's easy to see why women are portrayed wearing these thick overgarments.The left hand picture is, at first glance, disappointing. It's another back view, and rather less detailed than the ones above. However the undergarment is interesting. The olive-green skirt hands in thick folds, suggesting it is made of wool, not linen. Given I'm making this overgown to be worn over my yellow wool kirtle, this is a goodfind.
The second image is a front view. It's frustratingly small (my book lacks a closeup of this painting) but gives interesting clues about the construction of this garment. It's clearly front opening - there's a thin white line running down the centre-front of the bodice - but that opening does not appear to extend into the skirt. A line - be it a seam or a belt - marks the waistline, suggesting that the skirt and bodice are made of seperate pieces of fabric. And the skirt front itself is unpleated, although pleats can be clearly seen over this lady's left hip.
This image gives clues to the neckline of this garment. Although it's covered by a partlet it's quite clear that it doesn't have a high neck-line: an inverse triangle of flesh is visible over the neck, and I think I can see a hint of white beneath the partlet. Whether there's a low, square neckline or a V is, of course, impossible to say for sure. I suspect a square neckline is more likely, though, because a dress with a V-neckline wouldn't need a partlet over it for warmth.
The use of this image has, I think, to be considered somewhat tentative. It's from Bruegel's Peasant Wedding, and portrays the bride, and I do wonder how reasonable it is to extrapolate from this special occassion to every-day wear.
None the less it is interesting because it shows a frontal image of a sleeved overgown. As I've hypothesised above, it does have the low, square neckline that is so characteristic of sixteenth century dress.
Everything looked to be tying together very nicely, and then I stumbled across this.
Both of these are from Peasant Dance and it's the image on the left that presents the problem. The one on the right, incomplete as it is, again suggests a low square neckline under a matching partlet - the V of bare neck is clearly visible. But the image of the child shows an entirely different neckline. It's high, and appears to have a fold-up collar.
So it looks like I have a choice of what to make.
20th October 2004
In starting on this, I relied very heavily on the work of other costumers, and it's only fair that I add links to their work.
The first site I looked at was Ginafae's, which features an ingeniously simple extrapolation of the pattern. Her finished dress is delightful, so this seemed a logical first place to start.
Using measurements taken over my yellow kirtle, I ran up a toile in calico. It was a complete disaster! The bodice fit reasonably well, but the seam between sleeves and shoulders sat somewhere half way down my arms, creating huge wrinkles where sleeve met bodice. Not good at all!
I suspect the problem is that I have a somewhat different body shape from Ginafae. My waist-measurement looks to be larger than hers. Since the waist measurement defines the width of the bodice at the shoulders as well as the waist, this may explain why my bodice ended up so far from what I wanted.
I dismantled the toile and recut it, narrowing the bodice towards the shoulders. Things were much improved, but, as the image to the right shows, it still didn't really fit.
So it was back to the drawing board.
She posits a pattern without a shoulder strap. Instead, the sleeve-head joins the front of the bodice to the back, and it's edge forms part of the neckline.
This is a construction I've never tried before, but it seemed worth a shot. Using the measurements I'd taken for my first toile as a starting point, I cut yet another trial run out of calico.
I'm delighted to say it was a great success. The calico bodice fit well, looked correct, and was extremely comfortable. So things looked good to go.
22nd October 2004
I've started sewing the bodice.
It's made out of a coat-weight tabby weave wool cloth that is colour matched to a sample dyed in weld and woad. From my own dying experience, I would guess rather more weld than woad. Both would have been cheap dyes in period (particularly in the paler shades) so it's a colour I'm happy my persona could have afforded.
The bodice is lined with some of the dark brown wool mystery mix that I'm using for the Sofonisba kirtle. It's a very dark colour and, although it would have been achievable at the time, I'm not convinced that I could have afforded it. But it's only to line the bodice - it'll only be seen if I take the thing off - so warmth and comfort is more important to me than colour.
The bodice isn't interlined, and there's no boning/stiffening other than that provided by the seams.
The construction is very similar to that used for my brown jacket. As ever, everything is hand sewn with linen thread. The two layers of fabric are layed on top of each other and treated as one. The panels are back-stitched together. The lining wool is trimmed back towards the seam, then the seam allowance is flattened out and sewn down to the lining. It's a construction technique I like. It produces strong seams which aren't as bulky as some other methods. It's also relatively quick to sew up.
The bodice closes with hand-made brass hooks and eyes brought from Annie Pedlar. She does these in a number of sizes; these are the largest she does and are best part of an inch across. These were sewn into place with linen thread, but their size presented an unanticipated problem: the eye part is so big that it protruded well beyond the opening. To hide it, I would have had to set the hook much further back from the opening. I was worried that would make the opening gape. So I had to come up with another solution.
This was my solution. I took a length of lace woven out of brown and red linen thread as described here. This wasn't an attempt to be more authentic than authentic; I simply had the stuff lying around, and it seemed as if it would be strong and non-elastic. I put the bodice on and marked the where I wanted the braid to lie with pins. I took the thing off and sewed the lace - as one long strip - to the front face of the bodice. The only place I didn't sew it down was where I wanted the hooks to attatch. I then used ladder stitch to pull the wool over the lace, almost burying it.
It works very well. Although the fold the lace is buried in is clearly visible when the overgown is off, because it's the same colour as the rest of the bodice, it just hides itself in the shadow of the opening when the thing is worn. The loops are small enough that they don't distort, and everything is held very happily in place. This wasn't planned, but I'm very pleased with how it's worked out.
23rd October 2004
Well, the bodice is almost finished, and I'm broadly happy with it.
The photo above shows the almost completed bodice worn over the yellow kirtle. All that remains to do is to hem the sleeves.
I experienced a couple of problems in sewing this up, which may or may not be apparent in this photo. Firstly, the top edge of the triangular back panels is cut virtually on the true bias. This means it's very stretchy. It's this stretch that has lead to the bodice falling off the sleeve on the left-hand side. I normally put my right arm in first, which means that the left side is stretched the most to get the thing on, so the bias stretch is most apparent on that side.
I have a vague feeling I should have known this, and I"m certainly frustrated I didn't twig this was likely to be a problem. I'm going to correct it by cutting a thin strip of linen on the straight of the grain and sewing it to the inside of the bodice along that stretchy edge. The wool will still want to stretch, but the linen won't, and that should help prevent any further distortion. It won't undo the stretch that's already happened, but I'm going to wait and see how much of a problem that'll be before I dismantle and adjust the bodice.
The second problem is a little bit more difficult to explain, and would benefit from a diagram.
In the somewhat exaggerated schematic to the right, it's clear that the line that joins the back panel to sleeve (red) is longer than the line that joins the front panel to sleeve (blue). This means that when I came to join the sleeve seam, the tube that forms the sleeve was twisted. Far from attractive! I dealt with this by taking a triangular wedge out of the front of the sleeve to realign the edges.
It worked extremely well. The sleeve now hangs smoothly. However, that's created a seam on the front of the arm, which is all the more ugly because it lies where your eye isn't expecting to see a seam. With hindsight, I should have redrafted the bodice so the red and blue lines were equal. The wonders of hindsight...
All that remains is to get started on the skirt, and I'm dithering. I can't make up my mind whether or not to line the thing. Against is that a lining will add bulk and weight, without neccessarily adding much in the way of warmth. It'll also increase the cost of the project, as the lining will take a couple of metres of cloth that could otherwise be used for something else. However, most of my source images show a contrasting colour on the inside of the skirt, suggesting they were lined. I'm also concerned that, unlined, the skirt may hang incorrectly. But I'm still undecided. If you have any thoughts either way then please do let me know.
26th October 2004
After a lot of dithering I decided that the reason I was hesitating about lining is because I didn't want to use the linen I had in mind - a lovely greeny-yellow twill-weave linen - on something that wouldn't often be seen. Equally, I decided I did want to line the gown, for the simple reason that that's what most of the illustrations show.
A rummage through the fabric pile turned up some brown linen. I have a thing for brown, so have lots of brown linen, and this was some of the less nice stuff. So I didn't mind sacrificing it for this project. I had a good four metres in total, but the bolt had obviously been damaged at some point, because there were two or three holes in it.
Once I'd found my fabric, I had to decide on a pattern. I decided I didn't want a centre front seam - my one and only front image of this gown didn't show one - but I did was a slightly gored skirt. I decided to use a single fabric width as a rectangular back panel, then another to create the front panel. In order to make a gored front panel I cut a triangular shaped piece out of one corner of the fabric, and rotated it down. This only works with fabric that doesn't have a directional pattern or a nap to it, but it is extremely efficient. The diagram below shows this rather more clearly than my fumbling explanation.
This fabric lay out did create one problem. As the right hand diagram shows, the diagonal cut edge is longer than the straight edge of the back panel it joins on to. Once the skirt is hemmed level, I lost most of my triangular gore. So all my clever piecing really achieved was to reduce the amount of fabric at the waist. Next time, I'd cut the triangle at a less dramatic angle in order to relieve this problem.
I decided that I didn't want to use the same seam tecnique as I had for the bodice, for the simple reason I didn't want contrasting stripes of my outer fabric visible on the inside when I kirtled up. So I decided to use a run and fell seam instead. This worked surprisingly well: it was much quicker and easier to sew up than I expected, and is very smooth and neat. I was a bit concerned that the thickness of the wool cloth would be a problem, but it went very smoothly.
Once the panels were joined, I finished the top edge edge of the skirt. I did this in a slightly odd way, as the diagram above right shows. I folded the linen under, between the layers of fabric, so the raw edges were hidden. I then folded the wool down over this and whip-stitched the raw edge down. This mean that a centimetre or so of wool covered the lining side of the skirt. This made life easier when I came to sew the pleats, as I didn't have to worry about the lining slipping up between the folds and becoming visible.
27th October 2004
I think I have a dress
At this stage, I had a large fabric tube, in effect. The top - waist - edge was neatly hemmed, the seams joining the pieces had been finished, but the bottom edge was still raw. I eyeballed the pleats and sewed them into place, before whip-stitching the pleated skirt onto the bottom edge of the bodice. I chose to use knife pleats, because that's what I believe most of the images above show.
It was at this point I realised that I had to decide how to get in and out of the skirt. I didn't want to put a slit in the front - as I had done with the yellow kirtle - for the simple reason that my one and only front illustration didn't show one. I had thought to do large, unsewn pleats on each side, as I've described here, but I didn't really have enough fabric at the waistband to allow it. So I went for a hybrid method. On the right hand side, the skirt is sewn to the bodice right up to the midline. On the left hand side, it's joined onto the bodice with three hooks and eyes, behind which I've sewn a scrap of green wool so the layers underneath aren't visible if the opening gapes. The length of skirt at that point is longer than the bodice edge it joins to, which gives me just enough slack to get the thing on and off over my head. That excess folds into a pleat which, for now at least, I pin into place. I'll probably add another hook and eye or a tie to hold it. Fastening clothes with pins is authentic, but I find them a hassle when camping. They tend to get lost, and I'm always worried they'll puncture the tent in the night.
I've put together a page of pictures of the overgown at this stage. It still needs to be hemmed, but I'm going to wait a while before I do that. Wool stretches under its own weight. If I hem it too soon I'll only have to hem it again once it's finished stretching, so I'm going to leave the thing hung over the bannister for a week or two and return to it then.
10th November 2004
After a week or so hung over the banister, and a similar length of time being used as a cat bed, I decided the skirt had probably stretched all it was going to. I put the thing on and pinned it to length. Each time I do this I remember how much trying to pin the hem of a skirt whilst you're wearing it sucks, and how much I really need a tailor's dummy. But I got it finished in the end, and have hemmed the thing to length.
I also decided I wasn't happy with how far off the shoulders the sleeves were sitting. It was comfortable and, although they don't look it, perfectly stable. But that drop shoulder look wasn't anything like my sources. So I unpicked those seams and, removing a triangular wedge from the back pieces, tacked them in a new position. I tacked them over the fabric rather than cutting anything away so I wasn't committed to the change.
Just as well I didn't make the change irreversible, because I really don't like the end result. It's solved the problem of the sleeves falling off the shoulders, but has destroyed the look of those flared back panels, which I very much liked. I think the fundamental problem is that the back neckline is simply too low - it should be much closer to my collar - and that's allowing the sleeves to flex down. Again, this is the sort of thing that's very easy to get right with a dummy to work on, and very hard without. In my dreams...
I'm going to unpick those seams again and see if I can't get something which preserves the look of the bodice back, yet hoiks the sleeves up a bit.