In 2021 I was desperately in need of some new clothes as events started to switch to in person. I settled on a lower middle-ish class gown in light flannel wool, I will just call it a southern German townswoman’s blue gown for lack of a better name. I looked at paintings and woodcuts from around the 1520s, kicked around ideas with Rowan Perigrynne (SCA), and settled on elements from the time. The book Town and Country 1517-1550 (McNealy & Geisberg, 2021) has an excellent collection of woodcuts showing the clothing of town people, not just soldiers and upper-class nobility. This is not a how too, more of a what I did dress diary with some research notes.
Bra or Supportive Under Dress
There is some debate about what undergarments a lady wore under their outer Rock or Ärmelrock (gown) in German Lands at this time; they likely wore a supportive garment of some kind, whether the dress itself or undergarments. Ideas on what was worn range from just linen smock to shirted bra to kirtle-like underdress. Likely there was a lot of regional and class variation, there doesn’t appear to have been a magical universal guide or I’d be referencing it for sure. There are gowns and under gowns documented in pattern books from the 16th century (see Barich & McNealy, Drei Schnittbucher: Three Austrian Master Tailor Books of the 16th Century, 2015 or Martin Šimša: Tailor’s pattern books from the Czech region in the 16th-18th centuries, 2021). Archeological finds and imagery provide evidence of a supportive bra-like underdress in the late 15th c. (visit the researches website https://www.woodcutwardrobe.com and see works by Beatrix Nutz, like Nutz, From Soft to Hard: Deliberately Concealed Body Shaping Garments from Tyrol, 2019). Some researchers have suggested the underdress acted as a supportive kirtle similar to those documented in English 16th c. costume. There are images that support the idea of layers of clothing under the dress, you often see underskirts, some striped or with decorative fabric, as well as shifts and tight-fitting dresses with laces when a lady is in some state of undress. In Town and Country 1517-1550 (McNealy & Geisberg, 2021) and Peasants, Warriors, and Wives: Popular Imagery in the Reformation (Moxey, 1989) there are some woodcuts with examples suggesting this might be a thing. I’m sure class plays into underdress and outer dress thing as well, the classes will do something different based on what work and level of activity they might be up to. There is a great research paper about lower-class German ladies’ clothing by Amy Sparrow on her blog.
For this dress, I decided to achieve the body shape I would go with a supportive underdress that was shaped with a rounded bust and laced up the front. Nothing too tight, I want to maintain full mobility, just add some chest support, round the shoulders, and leave my gut area free. I have always just made costumes to fit my modern idea of the shape and not worried about the silhouette. This is something I decided I really wanted to focus on for this project. I wanted to dial in my work, and think less about my modern idea of how I like to see myself and more about the shape I see in images from the time. I really wish I would have counted the number of times I put on the under and over dress to test and adjust the fit.
So no modern bra for me and now I was making two dresses…
I made the underdress from a lovely lightweight worsted brown wool I got from Burnley and Trowbridge and some natural heavyweight linen from Fabric-Store.com.
I started by drafting a pattern using my measurements and created a mock-up. I did use an earlier period kirtle pattern by Daisy Viktoria. I radically modified it, drawing out a lower bust and thin shoulders, however, it helped out with the initial measurements and shape. I like written directions and visual examples when I am doing something new. I use doubled-up old sheets to make mock-ups. I tried the mock-up on repeatedly. I stitched the front edge shut, then made adjustments and marked it until I got it where I wanted it fit-wise. I then cut up the mock-up and transferred the pattern to the fabric. I used chalk and waxed paper to transfer the pattern using a tracing tool. I did not angle the fabric to account for the angle of the straps on the bias of the fabric. I knew I would be using a trim band that would add support to keep it from stretching. Also, I have some very broad shoulders, not rounded, and knew from experience the dress wouldn’t have a really rounded arm scythe. I can put straps way out on the edge and they will not fall off my shoulders.
I cut out the wool and used it to cut the lining out of the linen. I did not add any extra lining or stiffening fabric; I wanted there to be a bit of stretch and give when laced up. I sandwiched the outer wool and inner lining. I probably should have reinforced the front opening where I would put in the lacing eyelets, time will tell. I used my sewing machine on the inner seams and hand-finished the seams and edges using waxed linen thread.
To close the front I went with eyelets. I spaced them about .75″ center to center and did a simple whipped stitch to finish them. I offset them on each side so they spiral laced tightly.
For the skirt, I went with a slightly angled skirt and knife pleats, not too deep. I added a couple of inch wide black strip of black wool about 4″ from the bottom hem. This is where I strayed a bit for the sake of getting it done, I didn’t whip stitch this into the bodice, I just sewed it into the bodice with an overlap. It was relatively thin and didn’t cause any bulkiness, however, for the outer dress I whip stitched the skirt into the bodice. Before I pleated the skirt and sewed it to the bodice. I attached seam tape to the skirt edge to give some extra support to the edge attaching to the bodice. I cut a slit in the front of the skirt at the bodice opening and finished it with some fell stitches and whip stitches around the bottom of the slit. Possibly in the future, I may add eyelets, then I would be able to lace it all the way down the slit. I hand-finished the hem using a blind hemstitch.
To finish it off and account for any underdress that might peak out when the outer dress is on, I hand-stitched a 1″ wide black wool trim around the bodice neck. Once it was complete I was able to move on to the outer dress.
Blue Wool Outer Dress
The blue outer dress is made with blue flannel wool that I dyed and some black medium-weight linen. I traced the mock-up of the underdress to some pink sheets. I traced the underdress pattern wider with more allowance around the neckline and arm scythe to attach the sleeves. I wanted the outer dress to be slightly looser and cover the underdress fully. I tested the outer bodice again over the underdress and made adjustments until I was happy with the fit. I then cut the mock-up down then I traced out the pattern using chalk and wax paper transfer. I cut and sandwiched the lining and outer wool, then finished the seams using a sewing machine.
I attached the hook and eye tape to the front bodice openings using a whip stitch with linen thread. For my next gown that uses hooks, I’m going to commit to making my own hooks and eyes. Once I finalized the closures I tested the fit again.
I created a mock-up in some scrap black wool I had laying around. I used the measurements from my shoulder and upper arm. I took a guess and shaped it out, then cut some slits. I lucked out and it worked out surprisingly well I just proceeded with tracing and cutting out the sleeve in the blue wool and black linen. I then basted the wool and linen and finished each slit using a blind whip stitch, at the end of each slit I used a decorative satin-ish whip stitch. Once the balizllion of the arm slits were finished I attached a seam tape along the bottom edge and sewed in some loops of seam tape to serve as anchor points to lace the lower and upper sleeves together.
I basted the sleeves into the bodice arm scythe and check the fit, again… I adjusted the arm scythe seam until I was totally happy. Once settled I finalized the seam and covered it with seam tape.
For some reason, I did not photo document the lower sleeve process very well. I again created a mock-up in black wool and tested it, once I found the desired fit I transferred it and repeated the above process for the lower sleeves. I added a slightly flared black wool cuff at the wrist. The top of the lower sleeve and bottom of the upper sleeves have 5 loops each finished into the top sandwiched between the lining with tape and the outer wool to allow for lacing. The loops are not really visible from the right side when the dress is on.
For the skirt of the outer dress, I used an angled flared design and settled on 1.25″ (ish) box pleats. Rowan Perigrynne (SCA) shared her method for box pleating and figuring out the fabric needed to fit the bodice (hopefully I will have a link to her site that is under development soon). The gist was to make the width 3 times the finished measurement of the bottom edge of the bodice plus seams and 1 inch for the front slit opening.
I have developed a method to mark angled seams and curved openings on wide skirt panels that works for me, I use a make-shift compass. I will try to explain, “try” being the operative word (I chuckle when people say when will I ever use trigonometry or geometry). This works well for me, everyone will be different. I do not have a big differential between my front and back when it comes to skirt hems. My suggestion is adjust for your self based on your experience, if you know you always need more in the back, leave the back panel longer.
To achieve the final desired width at the top of the skirt I needed to join 3 bias edge-to-edge pieces of fabric. I folded 3 pieces of fabric slightly longer than the desired length bias to bias and laid them on top of each other. I marked the desired finished width divided by 3 at the top to meet the bodice, plus my seams and front opening. I left the bottom or hem end wider. The top will dictate the width at the bottom when using the make-shift compass. I used a long piece of ribbon pinned at one side of the room to the floor then place the fabric on the floor at the other end of the room and made a makeshift compass (string or cording with no give also works). The ribbon is pinned to the carpet in such a way that I can swing the other end around in a very large piece of a pie. Using the ribbon pulled taunt at a slight angle I drew out a slightly angled seam in chalk. Alternatively, I could have just used piecing techniques and not worried about joining them at an angle, this appears to be how it was in the tailoring manuals some of the time, you often see the edge of one end is sewn on to finish out the desired width.
Once the 3 angled sections were sewn together, I laid them out on the floor with the two seams in the front and one seam down the center back. I used the make-shift compass to draw the slightly rounded opening at the top of the skirt at the desired width and again at the bottom. I marked the ribbon to ensure the chalk stays in the correct position while marking the curved waist and curved hem.
I measured out some black wool and placed it at the bottom. Marked it roughly using my compass set up and sewed it together with the machine. Once the black section was attached, I ironed it and laid it out again, and used the compass to create the rounded hem. I left about 1.25″ to fold up in the hem. I know the sounds horribly complicated, however, it comes out perfect, with no drooping hem and the back wool section at the bottom is straight and the hem is even and easy to sew at the bottom.
I attached seam tape to the folded top edge of the skirt using a sewing machine. I used a blind hem stitch to attach the folded edge over with blue silk thread, making sure the stitches attaching the tape could not be seen from the front. The tape adds support to the folds and edge that attaches to the bodice. I also finished the front opening of the skirt at this step. I found the center of the front panel and ironed a crease, then cut along the crease about 8″. I folded the opening back about 1/2″ tapering down to V in the slit. I used a hidden whip stitch with blue silk thread and secured it down. I finished the bottom of the slit with some whip stitches around the base of the V for added support.
I then used some sewing clips and folded and adjusted the box pleats again and again until I was satisfied. Then I stitched the pleats down using a whip stitch to stabilize everything on the inside. I whip-stitched the edge of the skirt to the finished bottom edge of the bodice. I do not have a good picture of this. I lined up the right sides of the bodice and the skirt, and whip the edges together with a very tight stitch. I used upholstery thread and a very tight whip stitch. I took care not to have too much stitch bitting into the right side of the dress. I tied off every couple of pleats, that way if it buts a seam later I don’t lose the whole skirt.
Once the skirt was attached, I focused on the black wool guards. I used paper and figured out the correct shape to cut out of the black wool fabric. I cut and pressed the edges of the black wool for the guards then used a hidden fell stitch. Finally, used my dress form at my height to get the hem started. Once pinned it in place on the dress form, I ironed and basted the hem in place. I tried it all on took a video of the hem to get a visual of where I needed to correct then pulled some of the basting stitches and made adjustments. Then I tried it all on again and again until it was all sorted out. Then I finalized the hem with a hand-sewn hidden hemstitch.
A couple of months after making the dress I noticed it was getting a little loose. I was having a hard time getting it to stay up. I ended up cutting the back and creating seam where I took it in a bit. I detached the whip stitch for the shirt and adjusted all the pleats running along the back, making them tighter to account for the new width. It could be I shrunk or the wool and light linen lining relaxed too much.
And Now for a Mini Version
Of course, I had to make a mini version. However, she didn’t want to sport something exactly the same and wanted black with blue trim. The process was very similar to the adult version.
Overall I was very happy with this project and the mini version. I am really happy with the shape. I think I achieved my goal to really capture the silhouette. I also was very happy with the underdress.
Barich, K., & McNealy, M. (2015). Drei Schnittbücher: Three Austrian Master Tailor Books of the 16th Century. Nadel und Faden Press. Print.
Geisberg, M. & McNealy, M. (2021). Town and Country 1517 – 1550: Scenes of Everyday Life in Detail from Geisberg’s German Single Sheet Woodcuts. Nadel und Faden Press LLC. Print
Moxey, K. (1989). Peasants, Warriors, and Wives: Popular Imagery in the Reformation. University of Chicago Press. Print.
Nutz, B. (2019). From Soft to Hard: Deliberately Concealed Body Shaping Garments from Tyrol. In Structuring Fashion: Foundation Garments through History. Ayerisches National Museum: Hirmer. Print.
Šimša, Martin (2021). Knihy krejčovských střihů v českých zemích v 16. až 18. století (Tailor’s pattern books in the Czech lands in the 16th-18th centuries). Strážnice : Národní ústav lidové kultury. Print.
Web References and Cool Links
Patreon – https://www.patreon.com/marionmcnealy
Website – https://www.marionmcnealy.com/ or http://www.curiousfrau.com/
Youtube – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCottAiHUgOCGsbJ79N2sgsA
Patterns – Woodcut Wardrobe
Links coming soon…
Thimble and Plume
Youtube – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCR2kA4KdLKQAvzSt3rZLX5g
16th Century German Costuming research by Amy Sparrow