Preparing for Ren Faire Season # 3!

The Mid-South Renaissance Faire has relocated to a more scenic corner of the Shire of Shelby! (actually the Shire of Tipton now, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it) Still the last two weekends of August, and it will still be fantastic! Huzzah!

This year Mad Queen Beth (Beth Kitchens, our fearless leader) and Good Queen Bess convinced me to leave behind my peasant roots and be promoted to a lady-in-waiting to Her Majesty. Which of course involves a lot more quality time with my sewing machine.

Designing a noblewoman’s persona and costume for fair is a whole different kettle of fish from a more everyday persona, and comes with some unique concerns.

  1. $$$$$$ An accurate Elizabethan noble costume, purchased from a seamstress, will run between $550 and $1,200 dollars in labor fees alone, and the fabric runs between $12 and $30 per yard for the 12-18 yards needed for the various layers of the outfit.  The nature of these costumes with their fitted bodices means that every dress has to be custom, and the price that goes with that. To see what I mean check out the stunning works of sewing artistry at Venifica’s Corsetry and Designs from Time. The materials for my relatively modest dress and accessories will set back hopefully less that $300, which is still double what my peasant costume cost.
  2. I can’t outdress the Queen! Our fair is still in its early days and our Queen’s costumes aren’t as over-the-top as some others fairs’. I can’t dress like the decadent ladies of the court at the Bristol or SoCal Faires, but I still want to look convincing and pretty. I can’t go overboard with the gold trim or brocade trims, though.
  3. Don’t get heatstroke / natural fibers rule! Noblewomen wear a LOT more fabric than commoners, and our fair has daytime temperatures in the high 90s. Polyester brocades are gorgeous, shiny, and feel like a portable sauna in the heat. In order to avoid heatstroke, I have to stick to cottons, rayons, and linens. I’m also making my sleeve detachable, and putting boning in my dress instead of making a separate layer.  An Elizabethan lady would never have dreamed of going outside without dress sleeves over her chemise, but this 21st century Memphian has different priorities.
  4. Why am I here? Gone are the days of being a comfortable anonymous peasant, just at the fair to get a glimpse of the queen and introduce children to the joys of the craft booth. As a member of the more visible cast of the fair I need to have a character with some set personality quirks and goals for other cast members to bounce improv acting off of. In my case, I’m a lady-in-waiting to Queen Bess, charged with entertaining the queen and keeping her company. If I have to pick a historical character, I might be Anne Russell, Countess of Warwick? I’ll be running errands for the Queen and running after my errant Spanish friend Lady Jacqueline, whose backstory is a hoot that I’ll cover in a future blog post.

Have I mentioned that Pinterest is addicting and wonderful? In order to wrap my head around the options for a noble dress, I surfed through existing portraits and costumes to see what caught my eye.

My inspiration board can be found on this pinterest board here.

dress doodle
Here’s my initial dress design – a sleeveless, back-lacing dress in a navy blue cotton jacquard, with blue velvet ribbon trim on the front flanked by gold-colored satin piping. I’ll wear a high-necked chemise, a underskirt with decorative forepart, and a hoop slip under it.

I’m thinking that the forepart and possible tie-on sleeves would be robins-egg blue or champagne-colored, but don’t quote me on that? They may end up being bright red depending on what Joann’s has on sale.

color palette

I’m going to try to use view A of the Simplicity pattern 3782 as a base, with some tweaks.

I'll use this pattern for the skirts and general bodice layout, but will probably fudge some different sleeve poufs and make the sleeve tie-on.:

(OK first off the hairstyle on the model is ridiculous, what were you thinking, Simplicity?! Andrea Schewe worked too hard on a remotely accurate pattern to top it off with 1980’s prom hair)

  • I’ll use my custom bodice block that I made for my peasant dress to make sure the  bodice pattern really fits.
  • I’ll cartridge-pleat the overskirt onto a front-opening waistband and keep the back-lacing bodice separate.  While researching the pattern I found that the most common complaint was that it was exceedingly frustrating to sew ALL of the layers or bodice, interlining, lining, skirt, skirt facing, and tabs together at the waistband. I might as well skip that drama entirely.
  • I’ll make the sleeves detachable.
  • I’ll leave off the waist tabs.  I can’t find a single historical example of tabs on a french-style gown like this, only on a doublet worn with a non-matching skirt.
  • I’ll use a different trim pattern and hand-sew it on.
  • I’ll fuss around with the sleeve puffs to make them a softer shape that won’t look ridiculous on my scrawny shoulders.

In addition to the main dress I’ll need a french hood, attifet, escoffion, or some other kind of arcane Elizabethan head wear to top off the outfit, but I’ll cross that bridge when  come to it.

I’m thinking of making a second underskirt and set of sleeves to change up the dress between days at the fair, which the rational part of my brain is trying to dismiss until the first set of everything is done.

So far, I have the chemise cut out and ready to sew. That’s it. But it’s a start! I’m looking forward to my newfound my upward mobility and to learning to sew an entirely new kind of garb!


Linen = Renaissance rain gear

An old picture resurfaced from an acquaintance’s phone last week. During the 2016 Mid-South Ren Festival, it POURED both Saturdays. The site turned into a mud pit, Queen Bess hurried for cover, and multiple vendors’ trucks got stuck.  It turns out that my peasant costume has an advantage. The linen chemise and the green linen/rayon blend overdress dried so quickly!

soggy peasant

This photo was taken thirty minutes after I had struggled in the rain to get multiple tents up and supplies distributed. The only part of my costume that was truly bedraggled was my cotton underskirt. I wish I had made it out of the same blend as the dress.  With the help of some extra safety pins to hold my skirts up my big straw hat (almost an umbrella, right?) and a pair of cheap, short black rain boots from Target I managed to avoid getting bogged down in the mud.  I’m thinking of being a noble next summer, but this dress is so comfortable!!

Italian Chemise

My look last year was authentic for Elizabethan England last year, but something within me pined for the poofy sleeves and round neckline that make up the renfaire wench look. An hour on Pinterest and Google showed that this look was vaguely Italian and in period, as shown by the paintings of working-class women by Vincenzo Campi. Sofie Stitches has a great gallery of these over at her website.

I made mine based on the pattern over at Festive Attyre, with a few changes. First, I made the sleeves narrower – 1/2 of my fabric width, or 25 inches instead of the 36 that her pattern calls for. The really wide sleeves would be great if you were playing a higher-class character who had puffed sleeves, but the narrower ones work just fine for me. I scored some handkerchief-weight linen/cotton blend on sale at Joann Fabric.

I finished all the seams with french seams, except for the armpit gusset insertion which I edged with a zigzag stitch. I gathered the neckline by using a zigzag stitch over twine. I cut four lengths of twine – one for each sleeve and the front and back – so that when I had encased them in a zigzag stitch I could adjust the length of each section individually. This worked out really well! Once I had gotten each section to the length I wanted (which ended up being 8 inches for each) I just tied the lengths of twine together and trimmed the ends. I then hand-sewed a bias tape binding, using backstitch initially to sew the back of the bias tape to the wrong side of the chemise, and then an invisible whip-stitch to sew down the front. I realized after I finished that the neckline that look good was approximately my bust measurement, so maybe you can use yours as a guideline?

I finished the sleeves with drawstring casings that I never ending up putting drawstrings in, and put a deep hem on the bottom so it hits right below my knees.

Something to note, if you’re making one for yourself, is that the neckline will stretch with wear if you bind it with bias tape. Mine was initially 32 inches around and is now more like 34.

If I were to make another one, I would make the front and back panels 6 inches narrower or so and add side gores if needed. There’s so much fabric in the front and back gathers that I feel rather like I’m swimming in fabric, not to mention that it’s bulky. If you’re closer to Jen’s measurements you shouldn’t need to do that though, I’m just shrimpy.

tnfair pic
Chillin’ with a suit of armor at the Tennessee Renaissance Festival

Gearing up for Faire season #2…

Last summer got me hooked, and since then I’ve been tossing around ideas in my head about what to do this summer.

So, with no further ado, a shameless plug. GO TO THE MID SOUTH RENAISSANCE FAIRE. It will be fantastic.

Before that, though, I’m meeting up with some college friends over Memorial Day Weekend to check out the Tennessee Renaissance Festival. It will the Celtic themed weekend, and I’m so excited to see what the fledgling Mid-South Ren Fair could be when it grows up!

The costume that I’ve blogged about here was the very first historical garb I made, and I’ve been thinking about what I could have done better. First of all, I would have cut the bodice about an inch smaller around. After some experimenting, I decided it would actually be more comfortable if it fit more snugly around my waist so it wasn’t all hanging from my shoulders.  I drafted the bodice too much like a modern dress bodice pattern without allowing for support and lift. Of course, if I continue at my current rate of pop-tart consumption that might no longer be a problem. I’m also thinking of adding an olive-colored stripe of bias tape (called a “guard” in garb-speak) around the hem of the skirt to add some flair.

I’ve made a poofy Italian-style chemise to wear with it! Pics and a full post to come.

I’m plotting how to sew a belt pouch to replace the travel money-belt that I stashed under my dress last summer. I still have the brown fake microsuede remnants from a 3rd-grade “Native American” Thanksgiving pageant costume in my stash, which will do well as a drawstring bag. I might buy a leather pouch if one catches my eye at the Tennessee RenFest, but am not enough in love with any of the leather pouches that I’ve seen online in my price range to splash out and buy one.

If I’m going to completely jump on the historical accuracy bandwagon I’ll need to cover my hair with a coif of some sort under my straw hat. I found a great link to how to make these at the Marquess of Winchester’s Regiment, and I have plenty of white fabric lurking in my stash, so I have no excuse not to make one. That particular set of instructions trends about 50 years too late for the rest of my costume but the basic patterns are good. I’ll just keep the brim a bit smaller. And of course, since I’m a lowly peasant, the elaborate lace is out of the picture.

My hair is growing out nicely, but I’m coveting fake hair to do beautiful Italian braided hairstyles like Morgan Donner demonstrates so well.

A new apron also needs to be in the works – my current one wasn’t nearly big enough to handle the mess of my tomato -selling job at last year’s fair.

So many ideas, but also so many classes and so little time… let’s see what I get around to!


No outfit is complete without accessories! Mine were a mixed of new, old, and borrowed.

Apron – I used a half-yard of fabric which ended up making a rather narrow apron, but it works on me because I’m built about like a telephone pole. If you’re normal-sized, try using ¾ of a yard instead. I might make a wider one in the future. After machine-sewing the hems and edges, I gathered it onto a length of matching double-fold bias tape that I hand-sewed shut.

  • thin brown leather belt from Target
  • straw hat from Fantasyland Costumes – a bit big, but if I cinch down the tie below my bun and pin it, it stays on. I decorated it with a feather and a small fake flower that I found in my craft bin.
  • A straw fan from Fantasyland Costumes helped me deal with August heat in far too many layers. This is a lifesaver, definitely worth the $2.50!
  • cotton kung-fu/china slippers from Fantasyland Costumes. I definitely got what I paid for with these, but they will basically function as foot coverings. They’re standing up remarkably well to the Faire, including mud.
  • “period” drinking vessel- my Dad’s old aluminum Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity tankard
  • medium-sized basket that’s been around since before I was born.
  • necklace – I bought some coral-colored beads at Joann’s and a simple clasp, and made a 1-strand necklace to add some more color to my outfit and matching earrings.
  • I didn’t bother to buy a leather pouch for my money, instead wearing a modern-day travel belt over my petticoat and under the kirtle – it’s accessible from the front slit in the kirtle, and the volume of the gathers keeps the lump from showing.
  • A true Elizabethan would have been scandalized by my lack of stockings. I really don’t care.

The Kirtle










A.k.a. the big, challenging, holy-sh*t-I-swear-the-sewing-machine-is-cursed part of this project. Because I’m oddly shaped and didn’t figure that a commercial pattern would be worth the money I drafted this from scratch, using resources from Drea Leed and Missa the Semptress.

On the plus side, it made me dredge up my high school trig and geometry!

  • I used Missa’s (aka. Sempstress) conic block worksheet and Ren Wench bodice pattern and instructions. She is a genius and a wonderful teacher. It took me a long while, two yards of scrap paper, three sheets of posterboard, and a significant amount of masking tape, but I finally got it to basically work. It would be SO much easier with an assistant.
  • Also, it would be really, really worth it to make an interlined muslin if you’re working with expensive fabric or want it to fit well and have time to spare, even once you’ve done Missa’s drafting method. It would probably take $15 of fabric and 2 hours of sewing, and save you from having to do post-facto modifications like I did. You wouldn’t have to worry about lacing holes necessarily, for the muslin you could just punch holes with an awl and immediately follow that up with a ~12 foot length of twine on a yarn needle. Leave a ton of slack in the string, slip it over your head, and then tighten.
  • I used quilting cotton as a lining, two layers of a medium-heavy weight cotton bottomweight fabric as interlining, one layer of my linen-look poly blend fashion fabric, and cable ties for the structure of the bodice. I used six total pieces of boning: one on either side of each row of lacing holes, one slid into each flat-felled side seam, and two on either side of the flat-felled back center seam. In hindsight…don’t use boning in the side seams. It chafes my armpit horribly. I’m considering performing open-seam surgery on this thing to remove the side bones.
  • I sewed all the layers together, turned it inside out….and the back was too small. It needed 1.5 inches more give. I cut the bodice completely into three parts, using two vertical lines parallel to the back seam and about 2 inches from that back seam. Into those open areas I sew a strip consisting of a layer of the green fabric and a layer of the interfacing fabric, and then topstitched those seams.  And it fits! 🙂
  • Bodice ModsIMG_2085IMG_2083
  • If I were to make another bodice, I would lengthen it by about an inch, and give more space within the arm scythe. The front straps dug into my shoulders when I was cutting tomatoes. Missa said that this could also be remedied by using a slight zig-zag stitch when sewing the straps – who knew! 🙂


  • I knew I wanted ~3 yards around the hem and ~2 yards or less around the waist. I ended up doing way too much trig and geometry in order to figure out how to make a “flared tube”. I cut it in two pieces – it would be more period to do gores, but let’s face it the fabric was cheap and I wanted the fewest number of seams to sew. I then sewed the two pieces together using french seams, since my fabric frays like nobody’s business. If I ever unearth the pile of scrap paper that I drafted the skirt on I’ll post the math. Yay conic sections!
  • I created a 13-inch deep slit with a facing at the center front of the skirt so that I could get the dress on once the skirt was attached to the bodice. The facing is a 14-inch long, 3 inch wide strip of the kirtle fabric with rounded corners; I finished the edges with a zig-zag overstitch, sewed it to the right side of the skirt, cut it, turned it to the wrong side, and topstitched it to stay in place.
  • Because this lovely poly/rayon linen-look fabric doesn’t wrinkle at all, it also doesn’t iron. In order to neatly hem it and have the hem take up a 3-inch hem allowance, I had to first turn over a ~½ inch section and sew it down, and then fold up the last 2.5 inches of the hem allowance and sew that.

joining the skirt to the bodice

The hemmed skirt and McGyvered bodice ready to join forces. The front slit of the skirt is pinned shut in this photo.
  • I did the tie-a-string-around-your-waist and have-a-helper-adjust-the-hem-from-the-waist thing. I saw that on a Victorian dress (a blog post to research – something like “Construction of a Victorian Dress – inside and out). I’m not sure if it’s period for Elizabethan, but it seemed like the easiest way to deal with the way that the bodice dips down in the front.
  • Then, I slipped on the bodice and chalked a guideline on the adjusted skirt fabric. I took all that off, spread the skirt on the floor, and filled out that line of chalk. I then put a gathering stitch following just above that guideline – I use the method of trapping a length of twine under a zigzag stitch. I then fussed with the gathering until it was all even and matched the length of the bodice edged it needed to be sewn into, then trimmed it to ⅝ inch from the line I would sew along, and sewed it to the green and two interlining layers of the bodice. I roughly hand-tacked  the waist edge of the skirt to the interlining layers because the %&*^ fabric doesn’t respond to ironing and the layers of gathered and doubled fabric were too thick to pin, and hand-sewed the lining over it.
  • The finished lining
    The finished lining
  • For time management reasons, I wore the kirtle through the first weekend of the faire without sewing in the extra lining panel to cover my expanded bodice hack. I hand-stitched in a square of lining fabric that week.
  • I really like the look of the gathering – it looks almost like the cartridge-pleating that a historical person would have used, but with my lazy level of effort. I don’t think pleats would have turned out as well with this fabric.


  • Eyelets take me 30 minutes each to do by hand. Mine could definitely be neater, and despite my best intentions they aren’t all perfectly parallel. I learned that my right-handed angle-of-attack with the awl resulted in the hole of the right-hand side of the bodice being closer to the edge than the ones on the left side.
  • I order a “bodice lace” from an online site and it ended up being a cheap shoelace with aglets too thick to fit through my lacing holes. I’m tentatively using a pair of round hiking-shoe laces that fit better, but if I have spare time to fill with crafting at the faire I might loop-braid better laces. (lol nope that didn’t happen)
  • I set up the lacing pattern based on “the zen of spiral lacing” by Jen Thompson at Festive Attyre
the skirt swirl test – if you want to up the swish factor to Disney princess levels, have your skirt flare to 4.5 or 5 yards around the hem instead of 3.

The Underskirt

Elizabethan women would have at least one petticoat, or worn multiple petticoats for warmth if necessary. Since keeping warm was the last thing on my mind and I just wanted one for swish and color I only bothered making a single one. It’s made of plain rust-red quilting cotton from Joan’s – 3 yards for the skirt plus a bit for the interfaced waistband.


  • I used a definitely non-period Simplicity skirt pattern 2226 for a wide waistband, so as to drop the gathered part of the petticoat safely below the level where the kirtle will be gathered. I wanted to avoid having all that fabric right at my waist, if possible. I hand-stitched down the inner panel of the yoke on a four-hour drive to a job site while the intern took the wheel. (Thanks, Lydia!)
top row = nice neat machine stitches. bottom row = lazy long hand- sewn stitches.
top row = nice neat machine stitches. bottom row = lazy long hand- sewn stitches.
  • hem cheat – used the closed side of the selvage at the bottom, so I didn’t have to double-fold the hem.
  • I initially just did one eyelet on each side to lace the skirt closed, but I might add one more on each side if I have time. Or just do skirt hooks, because the lacing is a pain.
  • I hand-sewed a tuck in the hem to take 1.5 inches off of the length, which did wonders for mobility and not dragging it through the dirt. Authentic petticoats can be as short as mid-calf, which would probably help even more with walking.
  • Cotton stretches with wear and sweat even when interfaced, as I’m finding out – you might add in some extra hooks to make adjusting your skirt mid-day easier.
Detail view of the hand-stitched tuck I added to shorten the shirt
Detail view of the hand-stitched tuck I added to shorten the shirt after I had already hemmed it.
Detail view of eyelet that close the skirt
Detail view of hand-sewn eyelets that close the skirt
Petticoat under kirtle