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.
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! 🙂
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 –
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.
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