Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: Florentine gentleman

The Shirt.

Getting Started

I ordered some $10-a-yard Italian linen from Denver Fabrics, which arrived this week. It's really very slightly ivory-colored rather than white, but it reads as white against red and black, so I can live with it. The hand is lovely, much softer than the linen from and less slubby. Mind you, I think the latter is a great value, but since I needed only two yards, it seemed worth spending an extra $10 for a shirt that would feel nicer and have a handsomer collar and cuffs.

I thought I was going to use Kass McGann's shirt instructions, but in reading them over more carefully I realized that while she references a 16th-century Italian man's shirt diagrammed in Dorothy Burnham's Cut My Cote, tantalizingly referring to the trapezoidal sleeves, she does not in fact give the dimensions other than the width of the body. After a long and fruitless search for more information on this shirt, I finally broke down and ordered a copy of Cut My Cote. I don't mind the $10 (with shipping), it's the wait before I can get started on the shirt that's frustrating. But with such nice linen, it seems a shame to cut it wrong. And I know I don't want bulky shirtsleeves jammed inside that doublet.

I'm not going to follow that pattern slavishly, however. It features a stand collar, but I want the clean-lined turndown collar and turnback cuffs from the Count of Albuquerque's portrait, shown at right.

April 26, 2004: Cut My Shirt

When I got back from my trip, Cut My Cote was waiting for me. It's a neat little booklet, although in some ways frustrating because it doesn't go into nearly the detail that, say, Patterns of Fashion does. There is no effort to tell you how something was made, simply how it was probably laid out on loom widths.

However, it's a starting point. At left is a redrawing of the original 16th-century, "probably Italian" shirt, housed in the People's Museum of Zadar in Croatia. (I was interested to learn, through a little web-searching, that Zadar is one of those political footballs that has been ruled by various foreign interests over the centuries, including Hungarians, Austrians, and the French. Venice had it from 1409 to 1797; this certainly helps explain the likely provenance of the shirt.)

The original was apparently cut from 27-inch cloth; at right you can see my quick redrawing of the layout in the book. The fabric width is the only dimension given, so I hoped that the pattern was drawn properly to scale, and worked out the rest of the lengths. The piece at the top is the stand collar, with the fold line marked; below that are the sleeves and their gores; the hatched area is waste.

Since my fabric's width is about 56", halving it lengthwise gives me similar 28" pieces. I wind up with a very inefficient layout by Renaissance standards, but at least my leftover is a nice chunk that could be useful for another project, not just scraps. Of course, there would be less waste with an overall length of 60" rather than 72", but since I ordered online the fabric was only available in even yards.

Since I wanted a foldover collar, it is double width. I also added cuffs.

My body is shorter than the original, because David isn't tall; I didn't want any extra bulk; and when you do nothing but sit, extra fabric is not needed to stay tucked in, but just tends to bunch up in your lap unattractively.

Just as when I made my camicia, I used the felling foot on my sewing machine to create hardwearing flat-felled seams. I stitched the gores to the sleeves, the sleeves to the body, and then the side-and-sleeve seams.

I left slits at the sides like the original, and hemmed it on the machine - silly to be fussy about that with my machine stitching showing in the flat-felling, and it will be invisible when worn. However, I did sew the front slit by hand - rolling it under and securing it with a running stitch, which really sinks down into the linen and almost disappears - with the roll tapering to nothing at the center point. I also overcast the point quite a bit, to strengthen it. If it starts ravelling I'll add a little triangle of fabric to strengthen it, as Kass McGann suggests, but the original doesn't seem to have had one and right now it looks like it'll be fine. Below, the outside and inside of the shirt slit. Click for closeups to see how the hem tapers at the center.

Next I stitched the ends of the collar, turned and pressed it, then gathered up the neck opening and stitched the collar on. I don't know why I ever try to sew gathers on by machine - it never works to my satisfaction, and I always wind up pulling out half of it to correct it. I ran the gathering threads by hand, and they gathered up fine, but despite a lot of pins, when I go to sew it down the presserfoot mushes the fabric around too much and doesn't keep the gathers where they should be. I wound up basting whole pulled-out sections by hand and resewing them. However, I think it's fine now.

After I pressed the seam allowances up into the collar, I turned the remaining collar edge to the inside and whipstitched it with fairly tiny stitches, which are almost invisible (below left). I'm pretty happy with the way the collar looks, although I think I may run a tiny line of handstitching along the fold line so that the inside doesn't bag out from the outside.

However, I really should have made a muslin of the shirt first, because although I'd been trying it on along the way, the neck changes everything; when I put it on David again, with the collar on, the armholes suddenly felt too tight because the shoulders were being drawn up toward the center. Either the neck slit was too wide, or the sleeves are too narrow. Or both! I think I can fix the problem solely by adjusting the sleeves, but I need to decide whether to redo them entirely, or just add a gusset or panel to the existing ones.


May 17, 2004: Shirt Revisions

I didn't have enough linen left to cut whole new sleeves, but when I started taking out the seams on the existing sleeves (and good lord, it takes a looooong time to take out felled seams!) I realized that if I just replaced the gussets with larger ones, I would solve the problem without making the design of the shirt weirdly non-period. I mean, the sleeve gussets are no longer offcuts of the sleeve pieces, but they're still standard rectangular construction. I don't know if the Cut My Cote diagram is just way off-scale, or if I interpreted it wrong, or if the original owner had very small shoulders, or if it was the neckline that screwed me up, but regardless: replacing the gussets with ones about twice as wide did the trick.

After detaching the old gussets, I just pressed one and laid it on the corner of my remaining linen, and cut a new gusset that was twice as wide and just a bit longer, since I found that I'd lost a lot of the pointy end into the felled seams the first time. (You can see the old gusset atop the new gusset at right.) I then flipped over my new gusset to cut the reciprocal second one, and finally cut the third and fourth gussets from the first two.

Above you can see the shirt with its new gussets, which worked a treat. Perfectly comfortable. My husband is game to try anything but unused to period costumes; he was unsure about the strange fit (by modern standards) when I had him do a final try-on, but by the end of the day that he wore it to Faire, he wouldn't take it off and said that I needed to make him a similar pullover linen shirt, just less full in the body and with a simpler collar so that it wouldn't look costumey, that he could wear all summer! Now that's a rousing endorsement.

After hand-hemming the sleeve openings, I attached the cuffs in exactly the same way as the collar.

I fell in love with the black-and-white ties shown in the image above right, and wanted to reproduce them. (It is a ca.-1550 Francesco Salviati portrait of an unknown young man in the Kress Collection.) I didn't have linen cord, but I did have wool needlepoint yarn in both black and white, so I gave it a whirl with that. I tried clamping the two ends together and twisting both ends, but it tended to unwind itself. Finally I just held the white taut and wound the black around it, letting it relax to where it wanted to be every few revolutions, and then knotted it at the end. It worked, and looked pretty good, except that the wool is rather fluffy and grabs at itself - it felts, in other words. It wasn't too bad while I was twisting it up, but now that the shirt has been worn and laundered, the wool is looking rather worse for wear. I think I will have to figure out a way to do it with linen or maybe embroidery silk. Of course I could use cotton pearl floss, which would work perfectly, but is rather un-period. At left, you can see the post-washing felted ties.

I love the general effect, though. I think it's one of those things, like pinking, that just gives an unmistakeable 16th-century stamp to the garment. Not a modern aesthetic, but a likeable one.

And doesn't David look gentlemanly, even in poor light and in his shirtsleeves?

June 6, 2004: Better Ties

I received an e-mail from Emily of the Tudor Costume Page suggesting that those ties in the portrait aren't really twisted at all, but rather fingerloop-braided, which is much sturdier, tidier, and won't unwind. After seeing pictures of one type of braid that she made from instructions in a 15th-century pattern book, and hearing that she's seen an identical braid on a 16th-century coif, I'm completely sold. I'm sure that's how the originals were done. Emily offered me instructions and finally wound up putting together an excellent instruction page on twisted-cord-effect fingerloop braiding, bless her heart.

So I've bought white and black silk floss, and as soon as I'm done redoing the vinyl on the kitchen floor (!), I hope to give it a whirl.

October 10, 2004: Power Ties

Okay, bad pun, couldn't resist. I've had the flu and have been stuck on the couch, which I always consider a great time to do handwork, once I'm not fogged by fever. I finally tackled the fingerloop braiding, to great result!

It's one of those things that's actually fairly easy to do, but difficult to learn from written instructions. Also, although Emily's instructions are excellent, she seems to have reversed right and left in the eight-loop section, so you can either follow the written instructions or the diagrams, but they don't actually agree with each other. The only difference in using one hand or the other as the main one is that if the left is dominant, the spiral will angle down right to left; if the right is dominant, the spiral will angle down left to right.

I started with the four-loop braid just to get the hang of it, using more leftover needlepointing yarn, and then went to eight loops of silk floss. The silk is actually much easier to work with, as it doesn't have any stretch. I have a stranded floss that comes apart into three strands, which then subdivide into four threads; I tried it first using one strand per loop, but that made too thick a cord, so I split the strands in half - two threads apiece - and that gave me the right size. Below you can see my original twisted-wool cord (felted into submission by washing), then my too-thick cord, then the narrower one. (Click on the picture to see it very close up.) I'm very pleased with it!

I love the crispness of the silk. A useful bit of information is that the final cord wound up being about 1/3 the length of the floss I started with - one loses half the length instantly because one starts by folding it in half, and then the braiding process eats up more length. The biggest trick with it is, like knitting, to keep the tension even throughout the work. It's a little tricky, because it's hard to get it tight enough at the top.

Once it's done, though, it's incredibly stable: I thought I would pick out my too-thick cord and reuse the floss for two thinner ones, but it's almost as much work to take apart as it is to put together. Each strand has to be unworked individually. So even if the knot comes out of the bottom, it's not going to unravel quickly at all.

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Copyright 2004 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.