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About>Projects Gallery 4

Can one make an Elizabethan dress from 3.5 yards of 60" wide material?

I had this really killer piece of brocade that I'd been hoarding for at least ten years. It was a beautiful deep blue-green ribbed/satin ground figured with dark russet in a very interesting pattern. I'd seen a similar patterns represented in dresses pictured in the Valois Tapestries (tapestries date from about 1580), specifically the 'Tournament' and 'Polish Ambassadors' tapestries. The tapestries themselves were made in Flanders and portraits of the French nobility were used as models. Because I've tried to recreate a French persona from 1580 - 1585, the Valois Tapestries were invaluable as a non-anglicized look at French dress during the time period I study.

The book itself is out-of-print and very hard to get but here's the ISBN if you are particularly interested: 0-7100-824444.

The reason I'd been hoarding that killer piece of brocade was because I only had 3.4 yards of it. I had haunted the fabric store where I first found it for years, hoping to get my hands on another remnant of it but, alas, this was not to be. Up until this project, nothing less than 4 yards of fabric would do. However, about a month ago, I was feeling restless... I had a bunch of researched methods I wanted to try out but didn't want to mess around with another killer piece of fabric, perhaps screwing it up in the process. So I crawled through my fabric and the above piece caught my attention. Another piece of material also caught my attention; a 1.5 yard piece of blue-green velveteen that was left over from a completely different project. They were perfect together... I was doomed. So I made a quick sketch of how I thought the dress should look...

I then sat down and charted out just exactly how I was going to get a dress out of these two pieces of fabric. It became quite clear from the very beginning that an entire bodice was not to be forth coming so I decided to use the velveteen to piece up the missing areas of the bodice. I've seen some painting from period that suggest that this might have been done (and there's always Shakespeare in Love...) but I've no proof. Unfortunately, this was the only way to get things done. I made specific pattern pieces for both the upper and lower halves of the bodice and cut the interlining all in one piece; it would serve as the base for the outer shell. The lining was also cut in one piece as per usual.

Once I'd charted out how the dress would be cut out, it was time to actually cut it out. Scary... one mistake and it was toast. It took me almost a week to very carefully cut the pieces, double and triple checking everything just to make sure (admittedly, I worked on this after I got home from work in the evening... I'm not normally this paralyzed with fear when it comes to cutting something out). What this meant was that the upper half of the bodice and the sleeves would come out of the velveteen - which went smoothly except for one small section under one of the arms that had to be pieced up.

Once I'd cut out the upper portion of the bodice - and before the shoulder seams were sewn - it was time to lay down the cord. Every inch of cord was hand made using my cording tool... all 36 yards. The really cool thing about this type of cord, however, is that it is extremely period and extremely easy to make. I used to make cord using a cordless drill but the cording tool is much easier. Lacis online has what they call the 'Leonardo machine' in the passemaine section. It makes cord in essentially the same manner and is quiet inexpensive.

Once the cord was down on the upper section, the lower section was put in place. Then, because the real reason I had wanted to make a dress was to test some of my theories on period construction, I sewed the entire bodice together by hand using said period construction techniques. It actually went together very nicely (I loathe hand sewing so this is quite the testimony from me).

One starts by putting the shell, interlining and lining all together and treating it as one piece of fabric. Then the front outer shell and interlining are placed together and treated as one piece. These are then stitched together at the side and shoulder. The remaining piece of the front - the lining - is then whip stitched into place at the side and shoulder seams. Confused? Costume Close-up has a great description of the same technique.

After the bodice was put together, it was time for me to actually design and make the sleeve heads. Patterns of Fashion had a great starting pattern for getting the shape and after fiddling around with this until it fit, I was good to go. The panes are lined with canvas, to give them that stiff shape. They are then sewn onto a undersleeve that holds them in place. An extra bit of the linen lining fabric - of which I had 5 yards - was used to make the 'puffs'. Once this and the tabs were all sewn together, I added the cord around the edges and as decoration and then sewed both sleeve caps into the armseye.

At this point, I then made the collar, carefully matching the cording on the collar with the cording on the bodice... and promptly screwed up. I had to re-cut the collar which meant that it is a bit shorter than I would have liked. I may try to fix this by adding tabs that are similar to the sleeve head tabs but I am not sure I have enough velveteen to do so...

Once all these pieces were sewn onto the bodice, it came time to add the skirt and skirt tabs. Patterns of Fashion and any of my other sources is not real clear on how this is done in period. There are hints but the photos are not close enough for me to have gotten a good, solid idea. So I went with what I had. I added the tabs and bound the bodice edge with straight-of-grain linen binding. I then attached the skirt using cartridge pleating, leaving the very front of the skirts to be sewn flush with the front of the bodice. I didn't think this entire part would work but it did... surprisingly well.

Also in this photo you can see the forepart, which was made using Alcega's one piece skirt pattern and placing a piece of russet velveteen that matched the brocade on the front to form the 'foreparte'. This piece of velveteen did not come in this color. I found a pretty brownish purple or plum colored velveteen and dyed it to match. The formula is one box of Tangerine and one box of Golden Yellow Rit dye for every yard and a half of velveteen. Be sure to rinse your washing machine out afterwards with a bleach solution.

After the dress is finished, I will move on to finish the forepart. I haven't quite decided just what I'll do with it but it will probably involve couched cord and some embroidery. I also intend to use the scraps to make the gauntlets for a pair of gloves...

I've found the correct shade of DMC perle and floss and have made up another yard and a half of the color. As seen in the photo to the left, where the first piece is a scrap of the first dyed section and the bottom piece is the newly dyed yard and a half, there is some color variation. The second dyed piece will eventually become a hat, possibly a short cape and another set of sleeves. And speaking of sleeves...

After the bodice was done, it was time to tackle the sleeves and I was not looking forward to couching down all of that cord. It went pretty fast however and they look really well with the dress so all that time was probably worth it.

They were lined with the same linen and interlined with canvas as well. I didn't like how limp the velveteen and linen were alone. Additionally, it made it much easier to couch the cording down. The sleeve heads were bound with strips of linen - this time cut on the bias and the wrists were sewn shut by turning under the lining and shell and tacking them together. I used the period tailoring technique for this and have to say that I really like the way it looks. It's got a very nice, finished look to it. At first I had thought to add cording to the edge but I probably will not do that now.

I had also thought to make them open at the wrists just so I could make some buttons to go with them but there was enough velveteen to make them roomy enough not to do this. I may make some decorative buttons for the sleeve heads, as with the doublet in Patterns of Fashion but that will be one of the last things that gets done. Theoretically, this dress will be completed for May Crown, May 18th of this year.





More pictures in the ongoing project:

Full length dress - and a look at the rest of my work area...
Side view - the green in the brocade and the velveteen actually match better than shown.
Close-up of bodice back. I really dig diagonals...
Close-up of bodice front. Eventually hooks and eyes will be added as closures.
Scraps - this is all that is left... to the right you can
see the pattern pieces for the tabs and sleeve head.
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