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Demonstrations>Trims and Embellishment>Complicated Trims: The Build-Up Method

How many times have you gone to a fabric store or shopped on line for that 'perfect' trim, only to be completely disappointed? There really is nothing available at these days that resemble some of the larger trims used in period on garments. If one does find something, it's usually (but not always) prohibitively expensive. With trim requirements in excess of fifteen yards for most garments (this includes both dresses and doublets and breeches), our pocket book will not take that kind of beating. What to do? With a little ingenuity, we can re-create these trims by taking simpler, more available, and cheaper trims and combining them to 'build up' to the more complicated result. The following is some ideas on how to recreate complicated trims using nothing more than some very available and mostly cheap modern trims. Woo-hoo! Let's get complicated!

What We Want -

What we want is to recreate trim results that are similar if not exactly like those found in late sixteenth century clothing. At least, that's what I want and, possibly, some of you do as well. If you are running a different era, the principles discussed below and some of the examples will still be helpful.

First we need to take a real good look at some portraits of the time period. Web sites such as are a good place to start. If you own Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion, that's a really great book to start with. Basically, try to view any source that shows primary sources such as portraits done during the time period of study, photographs of the actual garments from the period, or - if you're lucky - the actual garments themselves.

When we look at these various sources, one sort of surprising thing stands out. They built up their trims in period as well. For instance, take a look at these examples:

This is very obviously NOT any sort of woven trim. Pearls, gold braid, and metal elements are all combined for an overall effect. This detail is from a portrait of Elizabeth I, circa 1585. Another detail of a portrait of Elizabeth I. Again, there is built up trim. This time, the row of pearls is the center and rows of simple gold cording are laid down on either side of it. Portrait circa 1580s.  

As we can see in the above examples, the building up of trims was used in period to create some stunning effects. Building up our own trim effects offers us the same advantage. It is often if not always more cost effective and we get exactly what we want rather than having to rely upon what is available in the expensive trim section of our fabric or craft store.

What's Available -

Once we figure out what we want, then we need to take a look at what is available. There are quite a few inexpensive trims that are very often overlooked because, initially, they are quite simple. Soutache is one of my absolute favorites and a mainstay of many of my build-up designs. Right up there with Soutache cord are any other small, flat woven cords that one can find in either the bridal or regular trim area. One great web site for braid trims of this nature is This is not to say that EVERYTHING on that site is appropriate. Most of it is not appropriate to late period clothing. But they have Soutache and other flat, small braids in various colors and at a decent price. You can also order large amounts.

It's also a really good idea to purchase braid that is made from rayon and/or cotton. Both take dye really well. Bridal trims especially are almost always made of rayon for this very purpose. Read the labels and do burn tests if you're not sure.

Don't forget your pearls! Rows of pearls figure heavily during this time period. Go for the off-white color rather than the bright white variety. They look a little better, especially if they are plastic. Better yet, if you have the means, get good quality faux pearls. The

weight will be similar to that of real pearls and they are a dream to work with.

If all else fails, try making your own braids and cords. There are a number of different means to do this that are both cheap and easy. This is especially fun if you are looking for that perfect color match. Once you get enough handmade braid or cord, you can then use it to build up with other things, such as wide braids and pearls.

Detail of dress with hand-made cording. DMC floss was used to get the specific color needed and then the braid was applied in rows and on edges.

Build-Up Strategies -

I like variety and it seems that late period people did as well. There have been instances where I've used as many as three or four different types of braids and simple trims on a garment to achieve the look I am after. Sometimes they are all one color and sometimes I mix colors. I've seen examples of the same sort of thing in the various sources I regularly use. Patterns of Fashion has page after page of garments trimmed out with two or more different types of trim, often laid side by side.

Other ways to build up trims are to use small appliques in a repeat. This is also an extremely period way of trimming a garment. Long strips of fabric (either bias cut or straight of grain - depending on where you land in the Great Bias Debate) can be appliqued with repeating motifs, embroidery and/or simple trims added and Voila! You've got a built-up and unique trim that is very appropriate for late period clothes.

A Little Extra Work -

Building up trim, as seen from the examples above, takes a bit of work. Often the trim addition takes me as long, if not longer, to accomplish than it did for me to construction the garment. But that is ok, because the finished effect is worth it.

Happy costuming!

Examples of actual garments below with details:

Four strands of a bright green are laid down in a 'celtic' motif in the center. This is then flanked by two strands of an apple green to 'widen' the effect. Three different types of trim are used on this doublet. The two complicated ones are actually cognates of one another. The flat braid has picots on its sides and gives a nubbly effect. Both a simple bobbin lace and a wide gold braid are used in conjunction with one another to build up a wider trim look.


Detail of a forepart and skirt showing the building up of trims for both from narrow gold braid and various sizes of pearls. detail of the bodice of the dress referenced previous. A very small gold braid is used to tie the pearl motifs together. Detail of trim on glove. Use of applique, embroidery and hand made cord.


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