The coverciere of this period still shows its descent from a sort of fitted scarf, unlike the English partlet, which looks more like the top of a high-necked shirt. Some examples have little collars, while others still lie perfectly flat to the chest. Their unifying quality, however, is transparency.
Some, like Eleanora of Toledo's, are so ephemeral they consist merely of large, open netting. Others, like those shown below, are very fine silk, usually with some sort of pattern woven or embroidered on it. I like the shape of the one at the left, but the golden embroidery on the one at the right.
Jen Thompson of Festive Attyre fame made a lovely coverciere for her 1515 Florentine gown. You can see how much more scarf-like these were, 40 years before the period of my costume. Anyway, she was not happy with the 3-momme silk chiffon she ordered for it: she felt that it just wasn't transparent enough (although I think it looks great, I understand what she means).
I ordered 3-momme silk gauze rather than chiffon, as I didn't want chiffon's crinkly texture and thought the gauze might be slightly more transparent. (As usual, click on the small image for a larger one.) I think it's a little more see-through, but I can't really tell at this point, since I'm comparing stuff in my hand to a digital image - but fortunately it's less important that mine be ultra-transparent, because it will only be lying over my skin, not the fabric of the gown. I did drape it around my neck just to get a feel for it and the effect is very pretty. And it was only $3 from Thai Silks, so I have no complaint!
I worked up an embroidery pattern for the vertical stripes on the coverciere. I really can't make out what they're meant to be like from the painting - it was a fresco and was rendered fairly loosely, anyway - but it does seem to have double lines bordering each stripe, plus overlapping curving elements and an overall linearity. I took inspiration from some of the elements of the embroidered guards on Eleanora of Toledo's extant gown, and came up with the following sketch:
Of course, this may need to be modified once I start trying to render it in thread. With the exception of blackwork on linen, all of the extant embroidery on clothing I've seen from the mid-16th century was couched. However, as far as I know nothing as delicate as this has survived, and I just don't know if couching is going to work on gauze. It seems as if the fabric may be too malleable to keep a cord held in place. If couching doesn't work, I'll probably just do it in stem or split stitch. I know these stitches existed in period, I just don't know if they were used on garments like this.
February 15, 2004: Making the pattern, starting the embroidery
I was stuck in waiting rooms and traveling a lot of the past week, so it was the perfect time to run up a sampler of my embroidery design. I tried two different types of gold metallic thread, and two different colors of silk couching thread, in various numbers of strands, throughout the following design.
It looks a bit wobbly, but I think that's mostly from not being careful enough about the grain of the fabric when I hooped it. Also, when worn, the camicia will be held down by the front and back edges of the bodice - and if it isn't, I think I'll probably pin it into place. It's shown here on a white background, but it looks a bit different over my skin, and there is much more contrast between the different colors in person.
I decided that the best effect was a single strand of a slightly bronzy metallic gold called Kremer Cable (sounds fancy, but really just a well-twisted three-ply metallic), couched down with a single strand of a sort of old-gold colored silk. The photo is unfortunately not all that clear, but the first element on the left is two strands of each of these, and then you see a few curving lines of the combination I've chosen. I also discovered that although I could fix lots of picks and drags in the gauze by stroking them with a needle, an embroidery hoop caused irreversible damage. So I went shopping for a scroll frame wide enough to accommodate the entire piece.
I created my coverciere pattern by draping muslin on a mannequin, then trying it on myself and adjusting it slightly (I have more sloping shoulders than do mannequins). Once I had something I was happy with, I traced it onto paper, including a curving line showing approximately what the gown bodies cover. I then translated my embroidered design onto the pattern - thank goodness for my lightbox! Rather than working out all the funky angles on the left and then again on the right, I flipped the pattern over after I did the left half and, again using my lightbox, traced the pattern through onto the other side of the paper. This effectively gave me a right and left pattern; you just can't view both at the same time!
After cutting a piece of gauze roughly to size and rolling it up onto the scroll frame, I laid the stretched gauze over the pattern and traced it right onto the gauze with a pencil. Rather than risk smearing the pencil marks around by rolling up the bottom part so I could get to the upper part of the design, I decided I'd embroider the bottom half entirely first, then roll it up and trace the other half.
I've been working on it a few hours each day over the long weekend, and I'm about 1/3 done by now. I'll try to get a picture up soon!
February 22, 2004: The Good, the Bad, and the Pretty
Well, the good news is that I've made lots of progress, and I'm fairly happy with the result. There have been some difficulties in working with these materials, so I thought I'd share some tips.
Gauze is, indeed, very annoying to embroider. It shows every little thing, and it doesn't provide much stability for the thread - especially difficult thread such as metallics. Making the metallic thread turn sharp corners is really, really difficult. Curves, no problem, but the only way I could work out to get a corner is to bring my left hand up underneath the work, keep my right on top, and literally pinch the thread in place until it creases. My advice: Try to come up with a design without sharp angles.
Similarly, even though it's a right nuisance to start a new thread, since it can only be hidden under thread you've already put down or are about to put down (by doubling back on yourself), it's still better to start a new thread than to try to run a design element that goes up, back on itself, and back up again. By the third switchback, the line just won't hold its shape any more.
It is also difficult to get a good, even tension on the fabric. The gauze keeps pulling out of the fabric strip I sewed it to in order to put it in the scroll frame - I have a bunch of straight pins holding it on at this point. If I were doing it again, I'd cut a much larger margin around the work, fold the gauze back on itself several times before stitching it to the strip, and leave enough gauze to have a once-around-the-scroll-dowel windup before the pattern started.
In order to make up for the lack of tension from the scroll frame, I find it's very helpful to press gently upward with my left hand while stitching with my right (see picture). That also helps when I'm pulling the needle with the metallic thread through the gauze at the end of each run of couching - otherwise I get a really big hole.
Despite all this whinging, I am still enjoying doing it, and am progressing pretty well - I'd say I'm more than half done by now. There is a certain amount of wobble to it that I just don't seem to be able to eliminate, produced by the combination of lightweight ground and heavyweight thread. Click on the pic at right to see for yourself (although I apologize, the light wasn't very good).
Yay! I finally have something 100% finished!
At top left is the completed embroidery, removed from the frame and pressed. I clipped it to the middle just so I could slip it over the shoulders of my mannequin. It didn't tell me much, though, because the fabric bunched up so much.
Turning this piece of fabric into a coverciere turned out to be surprisingly difficult. This is because so many of the edges are bias. I had no trouble making a rolled hem on the straight parts (second pic), but on the bias parts it just wobbled all over the place (third pic). Fortunately the outside edges get tucked in and don't show, so it was okay if they weren't perfect, but I was tearing my hair out over the hem that goes around the neck.
After trying several unsuccessful methods, I finally realized that the couched metal threads of the border actually provided enough stability that I could roll the hem up to the very edge, and in fact underneath, so that the roll was on the back side between the two lines of couching (see pic at right, which shows the back side of the work and the rolled hem at the lower edge - it's more visible over flesh than this white background). Then I just tacked it with a running stitch instead of the usual whipstitch that one uses with a rolled hem.
I was pleased to discover that I was right about a lot of the wobblyness in the couching going away once I got it out of the frame and steamed.
I forgot to photograph it before I wore it for the dress rehearsal, and the person helping me dress didn't understand what I was saying about how to tuck it in, so I'm afraid the embroidery got a bit mutilated on the right front corner (as you wear it; it's the left front as you look at it). I'll have to fix that! But it's hidden when it's worn, so it may be a little while before that happens.
On the whole, I'm pleased with it. It definitely gives that Florentine look to the decolletage when worn, and the gold ties in nicely with my gown's damask. It was difficult and somewhat frustrating work as an embroidery project, though, and I must admit I'm not eager to repeat it.
Copyright 2004 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.