Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: Florentine gown

The Camicia.


In some costumes of the 1550s, the smock or shift simply protects the outer garments from the oil and sweat of the body. In Italian costumes, the camicia is a visible part of the outfit. It might or might not show at the neckline, peeping above the top of the dress, but it definitely shows at the sleeves:

At left you can see that where the sleeve is tied or buttoned onto the body of the gown, the camicia sleeve is pulled through the gap in puffs. Furthermore, when the gown sleeve is pinked, slashed, or (as in this case) paned, the camicia shows again. It makes a final appearance at the cuff, where it can be a turnback lace cuff, a softly pleated ruff cuff, or simply the full, ungathered end of the sleeve. I like the looseness of the last cuff, but I think it would slip around - I'd rather have it be more controlled. I do have some nice, period-looking bobbin lace that would make for an attractive turnback cuff, though nothing nearly so elaborate as the deep punto in aria lace shown on the sleeve above! I may have to hold off on that decision until I can try it on with my gown sleeves.

I'll have to hold on a bit yet anyway, because the camicia should be made of fine linen and thus I've ordered and am awaiting 3.5-ounce white linen from My plan is to sort of bodge together the instructions from The Realm of Venus and A Festive Attyre. The Realm page offers a lot of information about fabric yardage and adapting period techniques, while Festive Attyre's is, frankly, simpler. I need to give them both more thought! One thing I know is that I'll be using the "simple band" finish at the neck; the 1550s Florentine neckline options seem to be 1) don't let the camicia show; 2) only let a flat band of lace attached to it show; or 3) embroider a flat band and let it show.

January 26, 2004: Cutting and Sewing
My linen arrived a few days ago and I've been sewing up a storm - now I have to catch up here. First I washed the linen to shrink and soften it ... actually, I wound up washing it twice because I let it go in the dryer too long the first time and had to rewet it, so it seemed simpler just to wash it again and get a little more shrinking done. Unlike most people I washed it in cold water, but that's because I do all my laundry in cold water, so it's not as if it's going to be washed in hot later. Besides, this garment is enormous - it's hard to imagine that a little more shrinkage could possibly render it unwearable.

I did pretty much use the Festive Attyre instructions, but I made my body a little narrower: two 36" pieces instead of two at 46". This was mostly because by 1555, none of the camicia body was showing outside the gown, so it seemed wise to have less fabric to cram into the tight-fitting gown bodies. Also, this way I was able to cut my camicia from just three yards of 59" fabric - I turned the body pieces sideways from the way they're placed in the Festive Attyre cutting diagram, and thus had two 36" body pieces stacked, then the side-by-side 36" sleeves. The very observant may also notice that my sleeves are marked as being only 28" wide; this is because my 59"-wide linen was only 56" wide by the time it was twice-washed and pressed.

I went ahead and followed the Realm of Venus advice to tear the pieces rather than cut, but I wouldn't do it again. The tearing ruffled the edges of the pieces so that I had to press them flat (with a wet presscloth, since dry linen just laughs at you!). This saved no time, in the end. Next time I think I'll just follow a thread across with my scissors. The other problem was that the weaving apparently wasn't quite square, and I wound up with one side of one body panel a couple of inches longer than the rest. I just chopped it off even with everything else.

I got a flat-felling foot for my sewing machine for Christmas, and after a fair amount of swearing finally figured out how it works. For those who don't know, flat-felling is that double-topstitched seam you see on jeans. (I thought I got a picture of the seams but apparently not. I'll try to remedy this later.) Most people recommend French seams for undergarments, but the little flap they leave on the inside bugs the heck out of me, and I can never figure out how to get the flaps to play nicely together when one seam crosses another. The felled seams are a little more confusing to figure out, but they are lovely, smooth, flat, strong things. Of course, they're not incredibly period-looking because you have lots of exposed machine stitching, but this will all be inside my gown so I don't care because I can't afford to! Maybe next time I'll make a lovely all-handstitched smock, but I really don't have time now.

Those orangutan arms are pretty entertaining, aren't they? They're ultra-long so they can be pulled up in puffs through the gown sleeve and still have enough volume to make it down to the wrist. The orangutan reference was my husband's idea, of course - I think they look rather angelic. So there.

I did hand-gather the neckline with two rows of quilting thread, but rather than mark the spacing I just eyeballed it. It worked fine, although it would have been more gorgeous if I had done more rows of gathering and stitched the neckband on by hand rather than machine. It's basically impossible to keep gathers perfectly stroked while shoving them through a presserfoot. However, I again decided it was all taking waaayyy too long on something that wouldn't be seen.

Since the band itself may show, I whipstitched it by hand on the inside, and carefully handsewed the mitered corners into place. The mitering is rather bulky, and I think if I were doing a band that I were going to embroider I would not cut a straight band and fold it at the corners, but rather cut a picture-frame-shaped piece of linen, if you can imagine what I mean by that. It would be wasteful of fabric but have zero seams. The neckline sags in the middle, but presumably with a tight kirtle over it it will be held up, and in fact it sags much less on my body than on the mannequin.

By the way, you can click on the image at left if you want to critique my work close-up!

Since I had all those topstitched French seams, it would have been silly to fuss over handsewing the hem. I just folded it under twice, pressed, and topstitched. The last thing will be the cuffs, but since I don't think I'll be able to decide how I want them until I can see them with the gown sleeves, I'm just leaving them raw for now. So, for the time being, I'm done! Yay!

March 14, 2004: Sleeves in action

To get the camicia ready for a performance, I quickly threw a simple hem around the sleeves. I've now decided that I will definitely be adding a separate cuff with frill. It's very difficult to get the linen arranged in an attractive, even frill when it's just the loose end of the sleeve. Also, although my sleeves seem ridiculously long at 36", in fact I had barely enough to pull through the panes of my gown sleeves and still allow a frill at the wrist. When the gown sleeves are finished properly, I will need even more fabric, to pull through the gap between the sleevehead and the armscye. So adding a wristband and separate frill will give me a few more much-needed inches.

I also discovered that I need to widen the neckline in the back. The camicia and gown just don't sit the same way on me as they do on my mannequin, and I'm getting way too much camicia showing at the corners of the back neckline.

On the plus side, as I mentioned on the gown page, linen has proved to be the ideal material to pull through oversleeve panes in puffs. I've had frustrating experiences with trying to "puff" other materials, such as silk or cotton, and I've usually wound up faking the puffs because they just wouldn't stay put. Linen, on the other hand, is stiff enough to encourage the oversleeve panes to spread apart - and then it sets beautifully into puffy creases that do not budge.

I'm still kicking around the idea of adding some lace to the neckline. I bought a very nice bobbin lace on eBay, vaguely reminiscent of 16th-century laces, that just needs a good bath. My natural inclination with dressmaking is to use a very restrained hand with the decoration, but people do love fancy details, and this is an outfit for performances. Besides, if I can get it white enough, I will just be adding texture, not color. Ideally I would add blackwork to the neckband and cuffs, because I see more of that in Florentine examples, but what I do not need to do is add time-consuming details to this project!

April 3, 2005: Blackwork.

When I knew my husband was going to be in the hospital for awhile, I felt I needed a handwork project to keep me occupied at the bedside. I thought that a small piece of blackwork would be a good choice - compact, not a lot of colored threads or beads or whatever to keep track of, etc.

I decided that I'd go ahead and plan a design for the neckline of the camicia. The camicia linen is not evenweave and I didn't have any on hand, so it would need to be a non-counted form of blackwork. Fortunately there are plenty of examples, both extant and in artwork. For example, I particularly like the camicia border in the portrait at right, a Bronzino of 1551 (click on it for a very large version).

This particular example appears to have some sort of goldwork in the center part of the design, but was otherwise suited to the freeflowing, linear embroidery I had in mind. I like the stripey background, too. I was also particularly interested in several extant examples of voided work employing different background fills. The first two shown below are from the Victoria & Albert Museum and are described in Mary Gostelow's fascinating book Blackwork simply as "costume panels, embroidered in...back stitch and double running stitch." The third is from Embroidery 1600-1700 at the Burrell Collection, by Liz Arthur, and is a detail of a coif. Click away!

If you look closely, you can see that the background on the first is random speckling; the second is like speckling but in orderly, counted-work columns; and the third looks like straight diagonal lines but is actually tiny counted (?) zigzags.

When it came to setting up the work, I decided that it would be impossible to do the whole neck binding in one piece - it would be very wide and awkward, and besides I didn't have a big enough piece of fabric - but that if I seamed it at the center front and center back I would be able to use quite a modestly sized embroidery frame but still have the corners be contiguous with the design. I adapted my design freehand from the Bronzino shown above, and redrew it over transfer paper (a sort of carbon paper designed for fabric) to get it onto my first piece of fabric.

I stitched the outline of the design in double-running stitch (free, of course, not counted) because I like the clean effect and it's much more efficient of thread than backstitch. Then I had to make a decision about the background. At left you can see that I have tried out three different methods.

I like the broken vertical lines, but they are very, very time-consuming to produce. The unbroken lines are quicker but still rather slow, because my threads are very uneven so I can't count them, I have to estimate the distance to keep them apart. They also seem a bit heavy-looking to me. The random speckling is easier and lighter but still surprisingly difficult to get properly random-looking! I think I'll try one more with larger speckling stitches spaced further apart.

What do you think? All input appreciated.

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Copyright 2004-05 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.