16th Century Embellishments, Twenty-first Century Strategies for Achieving the Sixteenth Century "Look"

What follows is a copy of an article in three parts that appeared in the Greater Bay Area Costumers Guild's Newsletter the "Scribe". Note: part three has not apeared yet. Click on the thumbnails for a full size photo and the figure caption The captions will let you know just how the examples were constructed.

In the world of historical costuming there exist a continuum from those who want to create costumes that look historical and are made using historical fabrics and methods, all the way to those who create costumes that are only reminiscent of a particular historical period. I fall somewhere in between, the more I learn about the 16th century the more I want to use period patterns and period fabrics. But, when it comes to period methods, here is where I might dance around the line a little. There are very few people that sew 100 percent of an historical reproduction garment by hand, at least not more than once or twice. To me the "look" is what's most important. If I can use a tool that did not exist in the 16th century and have it not detract from the final product then I will. However, there are times when I will spend hours doing something that might have been done in much less time with a machine.
In this series of articles I will discuss and illustrate (in photos) the things that I have found work well and mention a few of those that have not. There are few centuries that rival the 16th century in the quantity and quality of the embellishment used on the clothing of the upper classes in Europe. You may say the 17th and 18th come close, I agree. If you would like to see some beautiful color examples of garments from these centuries check out Hart and North (1998). In fact, many of the earliest garments in that book were created using the historical techniques I will discuss, even though the styles of the garments may not be the same. As a rule, fashion changes faster than sewing techniques. A good source for black &white photos and patterns of garments of the 16th century is Arnold (1985).
I find that another excellent source for 16th century fashions are in the portraits of the time. The painters of that period painted with such detail that many times you could see the stitching. Look for large format books on period painters or books on the museums that have collections of 16th century paintings. A very good example of this kind of book is "Sofonisba Anguissiola The First Great Woman Artist of the Renaissance " by Perlingieri(1992). Sofonisba was a noble born female painter that became a "lady in waiting" in the Spanish Court of King Philip the II. Her paintings rivaled that of many other more famous male Renaissance painters. The paintings in this book show everyday upper-class clothing as well as Spanish Court dress.
I will be using photos of things I have made over the last few years in discussing the following techniques: slashing and pinking, quilting and trapunto, adding beads, pearls and metallic decorations, stitching, embroidery, couched cording, and buttons. The examples I will be using are most often part of a final costume but not always. Sometimes before using a design or technique I will try it out on a sample about one foot square. Then I can really get a good idea if it is workable. If you have a color scanner you can scan the test and use a computer program like PhotoShop, Canvas or Xres to replicate the test so that you can see what your design might look like on a large scale, arranged in different ways. The sample squares can be invaluable as Dry Cleaner test. Why go to months of work and create a garment that you can neither wash by hand nor dry clean. It can also be a good way to choose a Dry Cleaner, if they are not willing to dry clean your test square then do not trust them with the full costume.

Slashing and pinking
Slashing and pinking refer to the cutting of the outside layer of the fabric of a garment. It was done with metal punches usually in rows to create patterns, the cuts where sometimes cross cut to pink the edges of the cuts. Remarkably it was done after the garment was constructed. For the modern costumer it might be the most difficult thing to do, not actually to do but to bring yourself to do. You have to take a perfectly beautiful garment and cut it to shreds. The biggest problem might be, that modern machine woven fabrics are not as tightly woven and therefore fray more than fabrics woven on hand-operated looms. There are a few ways around this problem. (A.) Only slash fabrics that do not fray like leather and felted wool (photo 1). (B.) Stitch or trim the edges of your slashes so that they can not fray (photo 4b). (C.) Line your cuts so that the raw edges are incased (photo 2,3,4). (D.) Use folded bias strips so that the raw edge is not exposed (photo 5).

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16th Century Embellishments Part 2, Twenty-first Century Strategies for Achieving the Sixteenth Century "Look"

Quilting and Trapunto

Most people know that quilting is the stitching of layers of fabric together but, not that many people know that many garments from this time were quilted or had quilted linings for warmth or protection. During the 16th Century they used either wool or cotton wool for padding . Europe was going through a mini Ice Age, keeping warm was very important. An example of quilting for protection would be an arming doublet. In recreating quilted garments today we can stitch them by hand or with the machine.(photo 6 & 7)
Trapunto or corded quilting is a type of quilting that uses cord to raise the area between two parallel rows of stitching. The cord is sewn through the backing fabric but not the fashion fabric. This technique is often used with padded quilting to add texture and shadow to heavily decorated pieces. These types of quilting can be done with much success by machine. Of course, the addition of the cord and padding of the shapes must be done by hand from the back side.(photo 8)

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Adding Beads, Pearls and Metallic Decorations

Many Court costumes of the 16th Century were encrusted with gems and jewelry. I find that glass and metallic beads are passable replacements for these gems and jewelry. Glass is more expensive than plastic but, even though plastic beads and stones can look good they don't survive the dry cleaners. I have also found that metallic coated glass beads can often loose their coating at the dry cleaners. It is important to use strong thread and to knot often. When beading a fore skirt, (about 7 square feet and many hundred beads) the only short cut that I have used successfully was not to knot between beads. When the fore skirt was fully beaded I bonded it to another piece of fabric using "heat and bond." To do this I laid out several large towels on a table then placed the fore skirt face down on these. I ironed the "heat and bond" to the back. When it had cooled I removed the paper and ironed an other piece of fabric over this. This glued all the threads between the beads and helped to stiffen the fabric. Which is perfect for a fore skirt, this technique might not work on something that should appear light weight. (photo 9)

Looking through portraits from the 16th Century it rapidly becomes apparent that pearls were very popular. They are indeed my favorite things to use to embellish any Noble costume. I have used plastic, glass and real (a luxury). Real pearls have much smaller holes so you sometimes have to use a bead needle that can be a pain to thread. Glass pearls are heavy, even heavier than real pearls, which is something to consider when using them. With plastic pearls look for good quality paint because if the paint comes off the plastic might melt at the dry cleaners. (photo 10 &11)

Metallic Decorations
Ornate metallic decorations where often used in the 16 Century to decorate Middle and Upper Class garments. Sometimes they matched the other jewelry such as necklaces or girdle jewlery. You might see them used to span slashes and sometimes just as design elements. (photo 12 & 13)

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Because everything was sewn by hand in the 16th century then it would be apparent that if you wanted to reproduce the "look" you would stitch everything by hand. This is out of the question unless you have an abundance of time. I do like to do hand stitching where ever possible and most often only when it shows. One thing that you should know is that your stitches do not have to be perfectly spaced and straight. Take some time to look closely at some of the photos in Janet Arnold (1985) and you will see that period garments have variable stitches, this is not embroidery.(photo 14 & 15)

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Arnold, Janet (1985)"Patterns of Fashion the Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c1560-1620" pub Macmillan London Ltd. ISBN 0-333-38284-6
Hart, Avril and North, Susan (1998) "Fashion in Detail from the 17th and 18th Centuries" pub V&A Publications London ISBN 0-8478-2151-X
Perlingieri, Ilya (1992) "Sofonisba Anguissiola The First Great Woman Artist of the Renaissance " pub Rizzoli New York ISBN 0-8478-1544-7

Last Revision: 16 May 1999

Copyright Lynn McMasters, © 2007
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