Friday, July 03, 2015

The Count of Holland, c. 1290

In between writing, I've been doing some outfit designing for my man, who is in need of a late thirteenth-century outfit suited for doing hunting displays on horseback. The charachter he'll be portraying is Floris V, count of Holland, so I was allowed to go wild on fancy details.
The main inspirations were the Mannesse manuscript and the Maciejowski bible. The purple cotte will be in silk (or silk imitation) and the red surcot in wool with a brocaded tabletwoven band around the neckline. Because the outfit is for doing displays on horse-back, I'm not going to be über-strict on the fabric materials and machine sewing (visible seems will be by hand though). The budget for this is rather tight too.
I will not be sewing this myself (guess what else is taking up my time)! All I'll have to do is gather the materials and make patterns, put it in a parcel and ship to a seamstress.
I'll show you the results!

Monday, June 15, 2015

"Paper patterns of Saints"

In my last post I sort of promised you to tell a bit more about my PhD, so I decided to share a little fragment of text here which I thought might interest you. The main source I'm using are probate inventories from Bruges, dating to the 15th and 16th centuries. From these sources I'll take every bit of information relating to dress (the clothes, the textiles they're made of, and tools related to making, washing and repairing clothes). The fragment I'm sharing with you today is about sewing and embroidery tools in the house of Adriaene van Hercke:

"Shortly after the death of Seigneur Gregoris Lommelyns on the 24th of August 1569, an anonymous clerck of the town of Bruges made an assessment of his possessions at the request of the deceased’s widow lady Adriaene Hercke.[1] In their large house in the Hoogstraat near the Molenbrug, several rooms contained objects related to the making of needlework and sewing. In the hallway or vloer (literally: floor) of Gregoris’ and Adriaene’s house, the clerk noticed two naeymandekens (sewing baskets).

Detail of a sewing basket, Gerard David, The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard (c. 1510-1515), Metropolitan Museum

In the next room, inside a garderobe or wardrobe, he found all sorts of embroidered household textiles, such as embroidered table cloths, embroidered curtains of green silk and three embroidered rabatten.[2] Among these there was also one unfinished piece of embroidery: a crown of thorns on a ground of satin fabric.

An embroidery frame, Meister der Aachener Marientafeln, Marienleben (c. 1485), Schatzkammer des Aachener Domes

In the same wardrobe there were embroidered as well as unembroidered silk huves or coifs and a number of reels of silk for knitting, or more likely, knotting huves or coifs (the Middle Dutch word used is breyen, which today means to knit). In the eetcamere or dining room there were four papieren pateroonen van senten (paper patterns of saints). Although little is known about the use of premade patterns in embroidery, this practice is confirmed by a dispute between the painters and the illuminators over the right to make drawn and painted designs on paper for the tapestry weavers and the embroiderers (and clearly also for wealthy women such as Adriaene, who embroidered as a pass-time or perhaps even as a source of supplementary income).[3]"

[1] Probate inventory of Gregoris Lommelyns (1569), Stadsarchief Brugge (Bruges Municipal Archives), Staten van Goed, 2nd series, 15059.
[2] Rabat = A narrow strip of fabric above a pleated curtain or a pleated strip along the top of a mantlepiece.
[3] Original quote: ‘Al tghuent dies met pincheelen of borstelen ghemaect ende ghewrocht wort up papier, tzy patronen dienende den ambochte vanden lechwerckers, borduerwerckers (…)’ Gilliodts-van Severen: 1905, 517.

And for those who are curious what my PhD will look like (hopefully) when finished:

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Clothing Rubens’ Antwerp

The reason for my – not at all planned – absence on the blog is that I've been writing an article on late sixteenth and early seventeenth century dress in Antwerp entitled 'Clothing Rubens' Antwerp – Everyday urban dress in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century'. This period is more or less a new field to me, so it acquired lots of reading and research into the costume of the time (I can tell you, women's dress in this period is so – SO – complicated!). The article is based mainly on the dress mentioned in probate inventories. Probate inventories – lists with the possessions belonging to a person or household – were drawn up by a notary shortly after the decease, as part of the inheritance settlement. They contain extensive information regarding such details of dress as the type of fabric or furs used, the colour, the decoration and finish, whether the listed garments were old or new, male or female or even if they belonged to children. It should be published early 2016, in a volume on dress in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens and his contemporaries (the proceedings of this conference).

I can't quite promise I'll be back to regular posting for quite some time, since writing my PhD (about which I would like to – and should – tell you some more) and blogging turn out to be a difficult combination. I can hardly find the time to do any embroidery or sewing, let alone write about it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Through the viewfinder: Scenes from the life of Saint Andrew

In this series, named after TtV photography,  I want to share with you a work of art, be it a painting, sculpture, manuscript or drawing from my vast collection of museum visit images.

I can't say that I usually pay much attention to Spanish art in museums. After all, my focus in both research and living history is North and Western Europe. I have to admit though, that many interesting things can be found in southern European art, even for the scholar and amateur alike that study different regions alltogether. It is often in the differences in what we see that we can learn something about our own subject. Take dress for instance, only by comparing the dress of different areas, it becomes clear what features are typical for a certain place at a certain time.

This altar (dated 1420-30) is thought to be the major work of an anonymous artist, known as the Master of Roussillon, who was influenced by Lluís Borrassa (active between 1380-1424/5). He worked in the region of Roussillon, in Catalonia. The altar is believed to have originally come from a church in the city of Perpignan. For a full view of the altar, follow this link.
The central panel shows Saint Andrew, both apostle and a disciple of Saint John the Baptist, who is holding his attribute: a cross. In the panel above are the Virgin and child surrounded by saints and angels. The flanking panels depict important events in Saint Andrews's life, while the scenes in the predella below are devoted to a number of more obscure episodes.

I have to confess that initially it was the funny looking frilled veil on one of the side panels that made me stop.

Saint Andrew saving a bishop from the Devil, who is disguised as a woman

Do you notice her funny (and coloured!) top frill and a white veil or coif with a narrow black frilled edge? I'm not sure if this actually represents a type of headwear that existed in real life, after all, this lady does represent the devil, but it sure looks fantastic. I also love her fabulous black gown. Disney should have used this figure as an example for Snow White's evil queen!

Women taking Saint Andrew to her sister

Somewhat less spectacular perhaps, but I loved this scene from the predella because of the wonderful fabric on the bed and the interesting white caps and neck coverlets  the three women are wearing.

The crucifixion of Saint Andrew

Well, I cut Saint Andrew out of this detail, so what you see is actually the men crucifying him, rather than him being crucified. These bad guys do wear some marvelous clothes though. Did you spot the scalloped wings at the shoulders of the lavender grey robe? I wish I could have a garment like that. Seriously. I might consider reenacting a biblical bad guy from the Pirenées just to have a justification for having such a thing.

(Not really though!)

Monday, February 09, 2015

The mi-parti dress # 2

Progress on this project is slow, much slower than I'd like it to be. I first wrote about this - as of yet, unexistent dress - last November. And there is progress, only, I'm not responsible for it. Maria, on the other hand, worked hard to finish the final weave that will make up half of the dress.
I received it mid-December, but with lots of other things on my mind (moving to another country, writing my PhD and some articles that need to be finished urgently), it is only now that I found some time to show you how gorgeous it really looks. Well, all I can say is that the photos don't do justice to it.

The blue velvet that I already showed you before, will be the other half of the dress. Before I can actually go ahead and order it, I first have to save up some money. Oh, this dress is going to cost me a small fortune.

The little red square will be the first step of the whole project: the cote that will go underneath. The good thing is that the fabric is already in my fabric cupboard. The bad news is that it has been there for a few years already.
I could do this the easy way and simply copy the pattern of my grey dress, but I want to try a new (for me, anyway) style of neckline and sleeve construction. That means I have to make a new pattern for the upper part of the dress at least.
I'd like to go for a shape like the lady in the pink dress with tippets: a really wide neck-opening with a slight square shape.

Wedding ceremonies, Valerius Maximus, Fais et dis mémorables des romains (c. 1376), Paris, Bnf, MS fr. 9749, fol. 76v. (Photo taken from A. van Buren (2011) Illuminating Fashion, Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands, 1325-1515)

But, the room that will be my sewing room at this time double functions as storage room for unpacked moving boxes and as a carpentry workshop. Not an ideal combination I tell you.

On my wish list for this outfit is a beautiful cherry coloured cloth. A hood, me thinks. What do you say?

Monday, February 02, 2015

Embroidery basics: ground fabric

At the end of last year, I did a post about the best type of embroidery thread to use for thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth century counted embroidery. However, to achieve the best results when making your own reconstructions and interpretations, it's not only important to use the right thread, but also the right type of fabric.


Among most reenactors it seems to be an unwritten law that the ground fabric par exellence for counted embroidery has to be linen. Never have I seen anyone (and that includes myself, I confess) use that other common type of medieval fabric: wool. However, from extant pieces, we know that during the late middle ages both linen and wool fabrics were used for counted work.
In part this may be because white wool fabric that is woven in tabby weave, is not fulled (so that the individual threads are still clearly visible), and not woven too tightly is rather hard to find nowadays. I have been trying to locate a supplier for quite some time now, but to no avail.

Four purses from Tongeren, Belgium, were embroidered on a woolen ground. They are all dated to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. One of them is embellished with the coats of arms Jan II of Brabant and Limburg and his wife Margaret of England. A second purse in the same collection also carries the coats of arms of Brabant/Limburg and Bourbon. Two other purses are embroidered on wool as well. One of them supposedly made in Spain (although there is no argument given for this attribution). The last one has an openwork pattern of eyelet stitches. 
All the purses and other brick stitch embroideries in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum are, according to the museum website, embroidered on a linen base fabric. The provenance of these purses is mostly Germany.
Because at least two of the Tongeren purses carry the coat of arms of local noble families, it is quite likely they were produced more or less locally, so probably within the Duchy of Brabant, or perhaps in Flanders. Possibly then, woolen ground weaves were a feature typical of embroidery made in these regions (this is just a hypothesis, I need more data to back it up - or down, for that matter).

Thread Count

Depending on what type of embroidery you want to make, you'll need a fabric with either a very low or a higher thread count. I tried to gather some data on the thread counts of ground fabrics of preserved embroidered pouches and other objects. Sadly, this information seems rather sparsely published.
Modern embroidery fabrics are usually even weaves, meaning that there are as much threads per cm in the warp as in the weft. As you will see in the data below, with medieval ground fabrics this was certainly not always the case.

In the graph above you can see a summary of the data detailed below. As you can see the most used thread counts were between 8 and 22 threads per cm; with a concentration around thread counts of c. 10 for coarser work and c. 20 for fine embroidery.

These data of thread counts of the medieval embroideries in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum are taken from Richard Wymarc's 'A Stitch out of Time'. When you click on the inventory numbers you'll be taken to the V&A Collections website for more details on each item.
Wymarc does not specify whether his thread counts are counts of the warp or the weft, or if they were the same in both directions. I assume here that they are even weaves.

Thread count/inch Thread count/cm V&A Inv. n°
20 8 7048-1860
28 11 8699-1863, 1567-1902, 1324A-1864
32 13 7016-1860
37 15 8313-1863
51-52 20 8646-1863*, 859-1899, 7093-1860
72 28 7071-1860

The following table presents the thread counts of six purses found in the Onze Lieve Vrouw Geboorte Church in Tongeren, Belgium. When you click the catalogue numbers you can view images and more info on each purse. The thread counts are taken from the catalogue (Tongeren Basiliek O-L-Vrouw Geboorte. Textiel, Leuven, 1988). According to Frieda Sorber's findings in the book, the ground fabrics were all even weaves.

Thread count/cm Tongeren Cat. n°
16/16 33
17/17 39
18/18 31, 34, 35
19/19 36

And a few other examples:
  1. A c. 1300 brick-stitch purse from Maastricht has a linen base fabric with a thread count of 20/22 (warp/weft). 
  2. A fourteenth to fifteenth century embroidered cushion from Westphalia, Germany. It is currently in the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Kulturforum in Berlin. The thread count of the linen ground fabric is approximately 25/30 threads per inch or 10/11 per cm (as measured by Joyce Miller). A more detailed description, photos and a pattern adaption can be found here.
  3. A fourteenth to fifteenth century corporal box with an embroidered cover, also at the Kunstgewerbemuseum. For the embroidered cover different ground fabrics have been used. Joyce Miller counted 27/25 threads per inch or approx. 10/10 threads per cm on the bottom and sides of the box, and 44/26 threads per inch or 17/10 per cm on the lid. The warp threads on the lid are extremely fine, and the weft is fairly thick. Where the stitching was worn in some areas, Joyce Miller could confirm that the that the brick stitches did indeed cover only two threads each, instead of the more usual four. 
Of course, counted stitch embroidery was not only done in silk during the late medieval period. Another popular type of counted work, at least in some regions - especially Germany - was whitework; mono-color (mostly) embroidery of white linen thread on a white linen ground fabric. I do not have detailed information on thread counts of whitework tablecloths. All I have is Jenny Schneider's brief description of a number of embroidered Swiss linen tablecloths. In these tablecloths mostly counted stitches are combined with stem stitches and/or split stitches. So linen that is too fine/tightly woven doesn't work for counted stitches, but linen that is too coarse/loosely woven doesn't work well with stem and split stitch.

Schneider (Schneider, J. Schweizerische Leinenstickereien, Bern, 1972) observes the following thread counts (these are not included in the graph, because they are not -strictly- counted embroidery):
1200-1250 : 13/14 (warp/weft)
1300-1400 : 15/11 
1450-1500 : 14/14

Weave density

A third point to keep in mind is the weave density of your ground fabric. Using a fabric where you can easily distinguish all the separate threads makes your life as an embroidered so infinitely more pleasant.
On the images below you can see a fabric with a thread count of 14 and on the right of 10. Even through there are more threads per cm in the 14-count, the openings between the threads are about the same size as the 10-count, because the threads themselves are thinner. So, what you're looking for is a fabric that is fairly loosely woven, so that you can easily count the threads, but not too loosely, because then the threads might shift and move a bit, which is also a pain.


  1. You can use either linen or wool
  2. Use fabric with a thread count of around 10 or 20, and you're always good
  3. It's ok to use fabric that has a different count in the warp and weft. 
  4. Pick a fabric that is not too tightly woven
And hopefully this will make one more happy embroiderer/embroideress!

* There seems to be some disagreement as to whether this fragment in woven or embroidered. Wymarc describes it as a piece of embroidery, while the V&A website claims it is woven. Frieda Sorber, in describing a stylistically similar piece from Tongeren (no. 35) has the same opinion as Wymarc. I have emailed the V&A about the matter, but am still awaiting their reply.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Talking to: Christine Carnie of The Sempster

'Talking to' is a new series of posts on this blog. Every two months (more or less) we will interview another maker or researcher of medieval and early modern textiles and clothing. Our first chit-chat is with Christine Carnie, who tells us about her journey into recreating historic clothes, becoming a professional tailor, and her motivations and dreams.

Christine Carnie, the amazingly talented woman behind The Sempster, lives in a picturesque English town famous for its racehorses, in a small 1940s semi-detached house with a big garden. German by passport, she moved to the UK for love about ten years ago.
When she’s not sewing, she loves watching period dramas and detective series, reading, dancing, gardening, and knitting (yes, as a proper textile-geek she does knit to relax after a day’s sewing). During the weekend, Christine can be found shooting her bow in the company of members of the English Warbow Society, or the Companions of the Longbow, followed by a trip to the pub (for the food, as she is most often the designated driver).

Christine and her husband in their stall at the TORM market in November 2014.

"Once I had started I could not stop"

Christine learned the basics of many different textile crafts, like sewing, embroidery, weaving, spinning, and knitting, at primary and secondary school. “Through these classes, I developed an interest in how garments and materials were made. In art class we discussed how clothing could be used to date artwork, and the pitfalls of this practice. It was only much later that I put the two together.” Before getting into historical costume, Christine made modern clothes for herself, and the odd costume for theatre. “At university I was part of a Shakespeare Theatre Group, and some of us got interested in the German medieval market scene: we did our first outing sometime in the 1990s. It wasn’t as easy then to find any information on period garments as it is today, but we persevered, and from then on I started to spend more time on gathering information on historical textiles and clothing. Once I had started I wanted to know more, and could not stop.”

Working on hand sewing a pair of 16th century breeches in striped twill at 

"Interest in my work grew to the point where I thought it viable to make it a business"

“Initially I only made garments for myself and my husband, and researched clothing and textiles in my free time.” Both Christine and her husband do medieval longbow archery as a hobby, so one of the main challenges for her was not only to make clothes that had the proper historical look, but at the same time also accommodated the freedom of movement needed for the sport. After some time “we, and especially my husband, were often asked at events where he had gotten his garments from, and so interest in my work grew to the point where I thought it viable to make it a business. In fact, I’ve only just recently given up my other day job to focus completely on the business.”

Christine and I sewing at the Ronneburg, Germany, where we first met in person in 2013.

Detail shot of the seams of a 14th century cote in a grey medley wool.

"The tailor’s dummies have been known to sneak into my husband’s office at times"

Christine, just like me, mainly works in her living room. “I do wish I had a separate sewing room, but we have plans for a studio in the garden! The room in our house that was supposed to be my workroom has been turned into my storage facility, with materials and books reaching up to the ceiling. I would never have been able to fit a big cutting table in there anyway.” The other living creatures in her house, namely her husband and cat, have learned to live with her work and all the clutter that comes with it. “The tailor’s dummies have been known to sneak into my husband’s office at times,” Christine confesses. “The cat, however, has become a very good indicator for beautiful material over the years, he will settle only on the best…”

Detail of a 15th century German style doublet, commissioned by Andreas Wenzel of Destrier.

Andreas Wenzel wearing the finished doublet with a fingerloop braided
lace of white and burgundy, and a green damask jacket.

"And, ... I love buttons!"

Christine has made clothes ranging from the thirteenth century tunics to twentieth century suits, but says “I love all the garments I make. When you spend so much time and effort on something, you end up being happy with what you made. All projects have their own challenges, fit, material, difficult seams, time intensive buttons and buttonholes… One particularly challenging project with a very steep learning curve in the shortest imaginable amount of time, was making the garments for BBC’s ‘Tudor Monastery Farm’.* I find that every garment type that I haven’t done before is a challenge, and that adapting a period look to a modern person is always difficult. However, her favourite periods in costume history are, counting backwards: “the 1930s/1940s because of the challenges tailoring had to face due to new materials on one side, and rationing on the other, which both demanded new ideas.” She deeply admires Victorian costume “just because it is amazing how much effort can go in tiny details!” Both are guilty pleasures that she indulges in just for herself on occasion.
Her main focus lies in earlier periods. “What I find so exiting about researching and making sixteenth century clothing is that we have a couple more extant garments to learn from (compared to earlier times), as well as a large number of paintings and written records. If you put me on the spot, however, I will have to put the fourteenth century first, just because I find the women’s dresses, both early and late fourteenth century, very flattering, and I love buttons!”

At the filming of the Tudor Monastery Farm, with Ruth Goodman and Peter Ginn 
wearing the garments Christine made for them. 

Detail of making the insertion seam on a 16th century shirt.

Detail of a shoulder insert on a 16th century linen shirt.

"I'd gladly go back in time to watch a fourteenth century tailor at work"

Christine would truly enjoy working in a group of skilled seamstresses and textile workers, or, as she calls it “a co-operation of spinners, weavers and tailors” on larger projects. For instance “to re-create full unique pieces from scratch, based on the few textile fragments we have.” On her wish list are the sixteenth century shirt from Bath, or a seventeenth century alb from Turku, Finland, both of which she hopes to have a chance of studying in person. If there weren’t any limits in the possibilities she’d gladly go back in time to “watch a fourteenth century tailor at work.” She would also like to have the time to do more weaving and embroidery, and to get back to where she started out on, which is making small textile figurines celebrating the seasons of the passing year.

Winter clothing for Elizabethans.

"Although mechanized looms and sewing machines make our modern life so much easier, I believe it is important to know where it all came from"

Christine firmly believes that we can still learn from the past. “If we are open to learn from what our ancestors did, and how they did it, the more detailed our picture of the trivial and everyday things in history will become. Knowing where we come from can help us move forward.”
“And even if we don’t want to learn from the past,” she thinks “we should at least preserve, or even re-discover, the knowledge of that past.” To her “it is important to safeguard the knowledge of our manual crafts. Although mechanized looms and sewing machines make our modern life so much easier, I believe it is important to know where it all came from. Having watched experienced spinners make thread, and weavers turn this into cloth has made me appreciate the value of material, and in turn taught me not to waste any of it when cutting cloth. I have learned to appreciate what goes into a hand-made piece, and I treasure each and every one that I have. I hope that others find joy in what I make. It might be trivial in the bigger scheme of things, but a little happiness can go a long way.”

Winter clothing for (happy) Elizabethans.

* Christine also made the costumes for BBC's 'Secrets of the Castle' (with the help of our mutual friend Mervi Pasanen).


In March we'll be having virtual tea with Tasha Dandelion Kelly, the wonder woman behind La Cotte Simple.

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