16th Century Working Women’s Clothes

Created in 2016 for participation in Kentwell Hall‘s Great Recreation of Tudor Life, this set of clothes consists of a linen coif, two linen smocks, a brown wool petticoat, a russet kirtle, a pair of brown wool sleeves, a linen apron, and a dark grey wool jacket.

Photo by Alastair Simpson

The entire outfit was self drafted from my own measurements, and I’ve found little need to alter it over the years, though I’m considering taking the black binding off the hem of the kirtle and simply hemming it instead. Were I to make it again, I’d use spiral lacing rather than cross lacing, since I now know that cross lacing was not really used in the period. I’d probably also lower the waistline slightly, since my waist is lower than I thought it was when I made it!

Photo by Mike Hill

With the exception of the jacket (or waistcoat, as it would have been known at the time), which I sewed entirely by hand, I used a sewing machine for all of the seams that wouldn’t be visible once the clothes were worn. As such, hems and eyelets and such like were still sewn by hand, while the side seams of the skirt were made by machine.

Photo by Alastair Simpson

The coif was based on the one worn in the sketch of Anne Boleyn in a nightgown by Holbein, though I made the earflaps smaller. The rest was based on instructions in the Tudor Tailor.

Photo by Mike Hill

To complete the outfit, I bought shoes, stockings, a belt, and a knife suitable for a woman of this status in this time period.

Photo by Harriet Still

As a set of clothes, they’re entirely comfortable and practical (aside from the jacket, which has always been a little small, but still makes a huge difference when it comes to warmth), and still fit 6 years later. They don’t restrict movement in any way, and the options of different layers mean that an outfit can be adapted for different weathers.

Photo by Neil Crick

The lacing also means that it’s relatively flexible in terms of fit, and so works well enough on other people provided they’re of similar enough size to me (apologies for the incredibly baggy men’s shirt worn beneath the kirtle in the above image: I didn’t have any spare clean smocks at the time!).

Embroidery: Comparing mine to the jacket in Bath Fashion Museum

Something I should probably have done before beginning my embroidery (but never mind: it wasn’t exactly possible in the middle of a pandemic!) was visit the jacket in Bath Fashion Museum that is similar (but not identical) to the one in the Burrell Collection. I did so last weekend, though, when I went to Bath with Harriet and Serena as an excuse to dress up in 18th Century finery.

It was really useful to be able to compare the two, and I think I’ve managed to learn a lot that will come in useful next time (if there is a next time!).

The Good News!

I’ve managed to get the proportions of the pattern just right! It’s all to the same scale as the Bath jacket. My colours are right, the stitches are right, and in that respect all is well. My linen isn’t nearly so fine as the Bath jacket’s linen, but I was expecting that anyway: I knew the linen I had chosen was somewhat coarse, but fine, closely woven, opaque linen is really hard to come by nowadays… It’s also been really useful to see the Bath jacket because it retains more of its spangles, so once my spangles arrive, I’ll be able to space them out in a similar manner.

The blending of threads that I conjectured had been used to achieve blends of colour was correct, and many of the guesses I had made about rows of stitches (two yellow, two blue in the stripy leaf, for example) were also correct.

The Bad News…

Basically, while I’ve got the pattern the same size, mine is in bold… I’ve been doubling the threads over, because I was concerned that they were too thin, but in reality I’ve gone and made everything slightly thicker than it ought to be. The gold plaited braid stitch in particular is very fine. Likewise, the red thorns are much smaller on the real jacket. It looks like the red zig-zags on the bluebells go on top of the already embroidered white (or blue, in the case of the Bath jacket) so I can stop worrying about which way I should do those now!

While my efforts are by no means perfect, I’m not going to begin this whole process again because I’m using doubled over threads rather than the one strand I should have been using. I’ll continue, and then use what I’ve learned when/if I get around to creating something similar to the Devereux bodice held in the Kyoto Costume Institute!

Anyway, here are some of the pictures I took of the Bath jacket, for those who want a closer look:

The Beginnings of Making the Sacque

This probably wasn’t the best of ideas, but if you’ve read either of my other two posts you may have gathered that I’m impatient and rarely do things in the best order. I have yet to finish my petticoat, and I’ve already begun my gown…

To be fair, I have at least begun my petticoat, and it is sort of wearable. Following the instructions in the American Duchess Guide, I’ve decided to try and sew the entire gown by hand – it’s less scary, and sewing with silk is terrifying at the best of times! Anyway, the petticoat is simply two rectangles of fabric with shaping along the waist line to make the hem nice and level when it’s worn over pocket hoops.

The hem’s level! I’ve never leveled the hem at the waist before! (Please ignore the mess)

The fact that it was two rectangles of fabric meant that Mantua-Maker’s Seam was ideal to use, and it was nice and quick. That and the pleating along the top edge only took me 8 hours, and that was with accidentally hemming one of the top edges because I didn’t realise it was going to be covered by the waist tapes…

Once the hem of the petticoat was level, it was time to add the frill. Since I’d quite like to be able to wear this with more informal jackets as well, it’s going to be between the longer length of a formal petticoat and the shorter length of a more informal petticoat, and hopefully I’ll be able to get away with it? I also decided to try and have decoration going all the way round the petticoat, since the back will be visible when I’m wearing a jacket. This all points to having a frill around the bottom…

…which seems to be going on FOREVER! On a happier note, the scalloped pinking shears I bought from Vena Cava were amazing, but then I may just be biased, since my old zigzag shears are going blunt. Anyway, since the frill was going on forever, I decided to try and get on with the gown. This is probably not a good idea, and means that the odds of me ever finishing the petticoat properly are incredibly low, but still…

I actually made a mock-up! Which then turned out to be completely unnecessary…

I began by deciding to try and drape the pattern with some spare fabric, just to see what it might end up looking like. I looked at the Jean Hunnisett pattern to give me an idea of proportion, which was a bad idea. I only have a finite amount of fabric, and theatre seems to make things in bigger, more exaggerated proportions, meaning even more fabric. The American Duchess book was far less terrifying, so I ended up giving up on the mock-up (I was trying to be good!) and just trying to follow their instructions instead, which was far less scary.

The first step was fitting the lining, so that the dress could be built over the top. This was simple enough, along with the advice that for very broad backs, at least 80″ will be needed in the back of the sacque.

Then it was a case of working out how best to iron the silk. I covered the carpet with a couple of old sheets (one on top of the other) and then was able to iron it spread out on the floor!

Since it was 54″ wide, I worked out that the best way to cut everything would be to have the back panels as two 40″ wide pieces, the front panels as two 20″ wide pieces, and the bodice pieces and so on cut from the 14″ piece down the side. It was then a case of working up the courage to cut into the silk, and then pleating it and ironing, which was FAR TOO MUCH MATHS! With the pleats worked out on slightly narrower panels of fabric, I was then able to back stitch the centre back seam together.

My next step was to cut the bodice pieces. These are cut on the bias, so they’ve got a bit more stretch and fit round the body better. Then it was a case of attaching everything to the lining.

I found these clips to be really useful when it came to attaching the silk to the lining. They didn’t leave any pin holes, and the dent they make can be ironed out.

Anyway, that’s that for now. There’ll probably be a part two (and maybe even three?) at some point, depending on where I get to. I might even finish the petticoat!

(Update!) I’ve entirely forgotten about a part two or three, I’m afraid, so you’re just going to have to guess at how I finished the rest of the dress. I did do it all by hand, and between frustrations with sleeves and general lack of motivation, it took me months (and months, and months…) to get this outfit finished. I got there in the end, though, and you can see the finished results here!

Pocket Hoops

Since I’m planning an 18th century sacque gown, the next undergarment needed is a pair of pocket hoops. I used a variety of different patterns and resources for them, which was nice. They’re so much less complicated than stays!

First, it was a case of drawing out the pattern. Since it was a fairly simple shape, I drew it straight onto the cotton drill I had in my stash using some tailors chalk. As well as the American Duchess Guide to help me, I also had Jean Hunnisett’s book Period Costume for Stage and Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress 1500-1800, and the The Dreamstress’ Instructions. To be honest, they’re all much of a muchness – there’s not much difference between the patterns. I think I ended up using the American Duchess pattern with the Dreamstress’ instructions, but they’re all really useful resources.

Having cut the pieces out, it was then a case of adding the twill tape along the right lines, and sewing it down. I found it easiest to put the pins along the middle of the tape, so I didn’t have to keep stopping to take them out to avoid sewing over them – I could just take them out at the end. The chalked on numbers are to remind me how long to cut the steel boning for each channel.

Having sewn the channels on, it was then a case of sewing the short edge at the top to the slightly longer edge at the bottom of the below picture. Unfortunately I’ve been most remiss, and failed to take a picture of any of the rest of the processes, which is going to make trying to explain it fun…

Having sewn it into a loop, it was then a case of adding the bottom semicircular pattern piece, which both helps the pocket hoop hold its shape and means that you can use it as a pocket! Then, with the boning added and the ends of the tape finished off so that it couldn’t escape, I pinned in some pleats at the top while it was on Molly (the dressform) so that I could see what it might end up looking like. I think I must have cut and hemmed the slit at the top at some point, but I’ve no idea when.

Once the pleats were pinned, it was then a case of adding a tape all round the top to hold them up. I had run out of tape when I did this, so I ended up using a strip of the cotton I’d used instead. I think I might end up replacing it with tape when I have some more, and then I’ll be able to add some tapes further down to stop them moving around too much.

On to the gown!

C18th Stays

Yes, I know I’m not doing this in the right order… I should really begin by making a smock, but I’m also impatient, and would rather make the exciting things! I had heard that Redthreaded are brilliant when it comes to corset patterns, so rather than drafting my own, I decided to use their pattern instead. I do have the resources to draft it myself, but ready made patterns feel safer. And it came with instructions! This wasn’t necessarily to my advantage…

Stays pattern laid on the floor with mustard yellow cotton drill, a roll of plastic boning, sand coloured bias binding, and corset lacing.

I had the cotton drill in my stash, but the rest of the notions came from Vena Cava Design, who (along with Sew Curvy) seem to be the main corsetry suppliers in the UK. Even though we were in lockdown at the time(the joys of 2020!), the supplies came really quickly! The pattern in the picture is a photocopy of the first one I printed off – temperamental technology is the bane of my life – I should have realised I wanted a second copy to scribble all over when the printer was working! Anyway…

I am incredibly bad at making mock-ups before diving head first into a project, but am trying to get better at it. I made this mock-up of the stays pattern in the final fabric, figuring that it was more likely to need to go smaller than bigger. I wasn’t entirely optimistic, since I have very little bust, and not a lot to squidge at the waist, which means that standard sized stays don’t fit brilliantly, and I can’t have as much waist reduction as some pattern drafting books seem to think I should have. I’ve made a set of C18th stays before, but they… didn’t go brilliantly. I might do a post on things I’ve learned from past projects, now I think about it. Would that be of interest?

Back to the topic at hand! The mock up was (funnily enough) bigger than I would have liked in certain areas, but I was able to shrink it down at the side seams without too much apparent hassle.

C18th Stays mockup in mustard yellow cotton drill.

As you can see from the multiple lines of stitching here, it had to be taken in quite a bit to get it to fit, especially around the bust. I don’t blame the pattern for that though – I’m not exactly standard proportions! Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of me trying the mock up on, but I’m sure I’ll get better at taking more relevant pictures with practice.

After this I skipped to making the boned stomacher that goes in the front of the stays for them to lace over – it felt like it would be easier than sorting out the lining.

I by no means have the neatest machine stitching in the world, but I wanted to finish it quickly. One of these days I’ll try making some stays by hand, but not yet. I used synthetic baleen, which was just like using cable ties except it’s so much easier to cut to the right length! For extra stiffness, I used a layer of buckram between the cotton drill outer and the linen lining, though I don’t know how much of an effed this had.

The main advantage of the buckram is that it’s slightly see through, so it was really easy to mark the boning channels on with a pencil and then sew along them. I know they don’t look the neatest, but they function, and no one’s going to see them (except anyone reading this, obviously…).

I didn’t have a wider piece of boning to use at the centre, so used several pieces of narrower boning, figuring that it would have the same effect. It… doesn’t exactly… They all tend to bunch up when I’m wearing it, but it doesn’t really matter too much in terms of comfort or shape – it just looks a bit odd.

To bone and line the stays, I made things a little more complicated for myself than I really needed to… Rather than unpick the mock up so that the interlining and lining could be cut to the right shapes, I decided to leave it all sewn together, and trace the shapes onto the buckram to use as pattern pieces. Not unpicking the lining also meant that I couldn’t follow the instructions included in the pattern, where the stays are flatlined, but I’m very rarely any good at following instructions either…

I then traced the boning channels through the buckram, and sewed them all (again, not terribly neatly), and added the boning. I added the lining last. I’ve no idea if it’s a proper way of lining something, but I sewed each bit of lining so that it overlaps the last, so there are no raw edges showing, while at the same time attaching it to the rest of the stays at the top and bottom and along all the seams. Now, with all the boning in, I figured it’d be a good idea to check they fitted properly again, before going through all the work of binding and eyelets.

It worked! I’m cone shaped! You can probably see the weird bunching in the middle of the stomacher – don’t be like me. Make sure you have all the right materials to hand. Anyway, in full knowledge that it fitted and was comfortable, I began the long process of binding and eyelets. Rather than do all of one and then all of the other, I alternated between the two so that I could get bored of one and still be productive by doing the other.

Binding is incredibly fiddly when going round tabs, which is part of the reason I decided to do it by hand rather than try and follow the instructions for machine sewing it. I prefer hand sewing to using a machine, and find it far easier to make things neat that way, even if it is slower. It’s also closer to the way in which it was originally made.

By swapping between the binding and the eyelets (which are so much easier when I have access to a proper awl!), I managed to finish them fairly quickly. I was also helped by the fact that I used the shoulder straps made of twill tape – something I learned from this American Duchess video (about 10 minutes in, if anyone’s interested). I should really have timed myself, but because I’m constantly picking up and putting down my sewing in between doing other things, it makes it quite difficult to estimate how long things really take. At any rate, I’m quite pleased with the result! On to the pocket hoops