Friday, December 30, 2016

A Pair of Sort of Elizabethan Bodies (The lady in white project)

The why of this particular project is somewhat dubious. I'm making a front laced venetian gown inspired by the titian portrait "A Lady in White" While this is mostly a fairly straightforward operation, it does have it's own pitfalls. Since there aren't any surviving gowns (That I've been able to find) to solve the issue, there's a lively debate on the internet about what layers they were actually wearing, Is it a boned bodice? it is there a stiffened undergarment? What exactly is going on here? The plausible explanations seem to be these: a) a stiffened or boned pair of bodies under the camica, probably with a slip underneath them. b) No bodies, but the gown itself is boned/stiffened c) bodies over camica, and then a pleated stomacher, d) some sort of stiffened pleated undergown. Of these options, I find A and B the most plausible based on the bulk of the pictures that I've seen. They just don't seem to have the stiff front line that a stomacher or undergown would give you, although in most cases SOMETHING is clearly giving the gown a shape.

There has been a lot of discussion about this painting, by Bernardino Licinio "A Woman Combing Her Hair" This woman is clearly wearing some sort of stiffened overgown over her camica which appears to possibly be pleated. This does solve all the construction difficulties quite neatly, like "how do you wear petticoats" and also "What about a bum roll" But I just don't feel like the majority of the portraits and engravings show the distinctive bustline given by this sort of undergown. So while it obviously did exist, I don't think it was necessarily the norm. In the end, without any existing garments or real period descriptions, all we have is paintings and speculation. My final decision to make a pair of bodies was based on two things: First,I thought  it would most closely recreate the shape in the Titian portrait, and second, the fact that I could wear a pair of bodies under other late period gowns. A tertiary consideration was that a friend pointed out to me that boned gowns tend to show the boning after you wear them a few times, no matter how many layers you use, which obviously doesn't match up with the portraits. Which isn't to say that some of those gowns weren't stiffened with something else. More on that later.

There's really only two sources for Elizabethan bodies patterns: The queen elizabeth effigy bodies, which are very late period, and the 1598 pair of bodies (still very late period) belonging to Pfalzgrafin Dorothea Sabina Von Neuburg found in Janet Arnold's patterns of fashion. For my purposes the Neuburg bodies are a better shape, so I drafted them to my measurements and mocked them up. This is where I hit the first snag. I have a very large difference between my rib measurement and bust measurement. Especially since I'm breastfeeding right now. 10 inches to be exact. and the straight cut of these bodies just couldn't handle the curve. There was a large diagonal empty space from my armpit under my bust to my center front. Worser and worser, it was the dreaded "fish eye" space: pointed at both ends, impossible to walk out of the pattern.  Now, when drafting any conical shaped boned garment, stays or bodies, there is going to be some gapping, because the human body is not cone shaped. Some of this works itself out when you lace up: flesh squishes around to fill the voids. Some of it can be solved by small pillows under the bust (particularly this is in either very small chested or larger chested women, where the bust tends to sink into the the body of the garment as wear goes on) But this gap was really not one that could be dealt with by padding, and it didn't go away with lacing. So I was faced with a conundrum: Stick to the absolute period pattern, and be uncomfortable, plus possibly have my boobs migrate down into my bodice over the course of the evening, or alter the pattern out of strictly proveable period boundaries. My decision was to opt for comfort. I borrowed patterning from a later pair of stays, and made them five pieces rather than three, with a diagonal seam along the side front. Since I was already altering the pattern, I just went ahead and made attached tabs that the boning runs down into to keep the boning from stabbing me in the hips.

The next question is one of materials. We know that period women wore colorful undergarments in linen and silk, boned with reed, or whalebone. There's also growing evidence of stiffened undergarments made of layers of glued together linen. It's looking more and more likely that many tudor gowns owed their shape to kirtles stiffened by this method, and that boning was a later invention all together (The folks over at the Tudor Tailor have done some interesting work on this theory). Again, we run into the problem of surviving garments and primary sources. We can't be 100% sure at what point in history the boned bodies showed up, or how universally they were adopted. The venetian gowns could have been stiffened with paste and linen in the gown itself, avoiding the boning showing through the gown. Or they could have been worn over a paste stiffened linen undergown or pair of bodies. It's impossible to know. Certainly some of the portraits show wrinkling of the gown along the sides that wouldn't be typical of a garment worn over a whaleboned or reeded pair of bodies.

With this information in mind, I set about choosing my own materials. Since I was already straying from historical accuracy with the pattern, I did think for about ten minutes about just giving up and using coutil, but decided instead to try and stick as closely as possible to period fabrics. I used an inner layer of heavy linen, and an outer layer of silk underlined with horsehair fabric. What you ask is horsehair fabric? It's a stiff fabric typically made of horsehair and linen used in modern tailoring to give shape to collars and lapels. It is a period fabric, and it's ideal for corsetry because it really doesn't stretch. For the silk, in spite of period women's love for color, I chose white for the front, to keep it from showing through the camica, and pulled some lovely peach from my stash for the rest of it. I used 4 metal bones in the front to simulate a busk, as well as two in the back to firm up the lacing edges. The rest of the bodies is boned with heavy duty cable ties, which seem to be an excellent modern aproximation of whalebone. Unlike the evil flimsy plastic boning, they do not buckle and stab you, and they're easy to use and cheap.

After cutting the pieces and putting them together, clipping the seams where necessary and pressing them open, I stay stitched all around the edges of the silk and horsehair linen to keep them from sliding. Then I sewed the center front and center back and graded the seam to reduce bulk. You can see the single sew on tab in the brown linen here, all the rest of the tabs where cut into the piece. On the sewn in tab it is really important to be SURE that you press the seam allowances down towards the tabs. Resist the temptation to press one layer up and one down to reduce bulk, because if you do that when you try to slide the boning in it will get stuck and there will be a lot of muttering. Judicious grading of the seam reduces bulk greatly without catching your boning.

 With everything flipped right side out, I sewed the edge boning channel (which keeps things flat and still) and then marked all the rest of the boning channels. The original garment has no boning over the bust area, which is something I had never seen before, but decided to try. The original garment also had vertical boning from busk around to the side seams, but that was going to be tricky with the new curved side front seam I had added. I perused my corsetry books, and decided to use the boning pattern from the same (post period) pair of stays I had taken the side front seam from, which has vertical boning in the front, then a piece running along the seam, and the rest sort of fanning from the armpit the side back seam. I then pinned through the seams to make sure everything was really thoroughly lined up before I started sewing the boning channels.

I chose a dark plum 30 weight cotton thread to sew the boning channels on the peach silk: I thought it provided a nice contrast. I sewed the channels in the back side first, moving from the center back towards the front. Then I carefully hand stitched "in the ditch" of the stitching line, through the side front seam, stitching the two seams together so that everything was absolutely lined up, and providing a stop for the boning in the front that ended on the seam. I used a small backstitch for strength and because it's easier to work small through thick fabrics. Then I sewed the front boning chanels.

with all the boning channels sewn, I bound the bottom tabs (which is far easier on an unboned garment: It's easier to wrangle, and there's not the risk of breaking sewing machine needles on bones) This was where I had my big oopsie. I had decided to quilt the unboned bust areas while I was sewing the front boning channels. It occured to me this would be much easier with an unboned garment. I had quilted one bust area when I realized that I had already bound the bottom of the garment, and it would be impossible to put the bones in. At this point I just went to bed.

When I got up and was ready to face the boning, I started with the metal bones, 4 center front, and one on each side of the center back opening. These are spring steel, which I buy by the roll from corsetry supply. After cutting it with my own personal bolt cutters (For corsetry only. Husband get your own!) I wrapped the end in plumbers tape. This brilliant little hack keeps the edges of the metal from rubbing through the fabric. With the metal bones done, I set about boning the rest of it with the cable ties. Although it is possible to cut these with scissors the bolt cutters are easier. I then use a lighter to slightly melt the end and roll them against a heat resistant surface to gently round any sharp edges that might abrade the fabric.

I boned everything possible before I had to face up to the place where I had cleverly closed off both ends of the boning channels. I had to slit the top of each boning channel with a sharp seam ripper, slide the bone in, then sew the top of the channel closed, using very long stitches to keep them from tearing out. I will go back later and put a small patch of linen over the area on the inside to further reinforce it. I muttered a lot.

With the boning done, I only had to quilt the second bust area, bind the top and armpits, and set the grommets. I had originally planned to work hand eyelets over metal rings, but I needed to finish so I could start working on the bodice of my gown, so I just used metal grommets, set with the usual bodkin and grommet setting tool method. The silk did tend to rip rather than spread when i used the bodkin, and has since started to pull away from the grommets. I think it's mostly because this silk is old, and it may be a bit fragile for this usage, but if I set grommets in silk again, I will use fray check after I make the hole with the bodkin.

The only further problem I had was that the first time I laced it up one of the side seams popped. I don't know if I just didn't backtack it enough, or quite what, but the end of that seam is under a lot of pressure when you lace up. I repaired it with a lot of hand satin stitching over the seam, and secured the other side with a little bit of flossing, and it hasn't moved. Next time instead of ironing those seams open I will iron one left, one right, then when I sew the boning channels it will secure through the seam allowances and the pressure won't just be on a single seam end point. 

Over my camica, which I typically wear it under.
A big advantage of the boned tabs is that on me they make
a bumroll unecessary. 

you can see where the silk ripped out of the shoulder seams and around the grommets.
I have a pretty big gap in the back. I am slowly losing baby weight,
and wanted this to still fit in a year or so. You can also see the incredible bend the zip ties make without buckling on my side back tabs.  

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