Monday, 26 May 2014

The Project: Introduction

Extant pattern books are possibly one of the most precious resources a costumer can have access to, and sometimes also a slightly frustrating one. We have become so used to modern patterns, to step by step how-tos, tutorial videos and patterns with seam allowances, notches and instructions, that the period tailor’s manuals can be bewilderingly bereft of detail. It can be like picking up a technical manual, one written for other technicians, where someone has gone in and ripped out all but the most basic of guidelines.

As a historical costumer who works pretty much solely in the last couple of decades of the 16th century, when I heard about a tailor’s pattern book from 1589 I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. Fortunately it was re-printed in a paperback facsimile edition in 1999 and I was able to get my hands on a copy. Sadly this has now become the Eldorado of costuming books for nerds like me as it is now long out of print (and is fetching unseemly hundreds of dollars on sites like ebay ...on the rare occasion that copies surface). So yes, I understand writing about a book that is near impossible to get your hands on is perhaps a little frustrating for you gentle reader, but if you search online for individual plates from the book, or check if your local library can weave some magic to get you in a copy on temporary loan, then hopefully you can see for yourself what a fantastic resource this is.

So, a little bit about the book. One thing it is not is a handy collection of sew-at-home Simplicity patterns. In fact, its primary function was not really even as a book of patterns. Its main function was as a how to guide on how to lay out the patterns for garments in the most economical way, on the most common fabrics of the day. Just like those diagrams on modern pattern packets. These days we are used to fabrics being woven in a fairly small range of widths, but it seems like the fabrics of the late 16th c were much less standardised. So frequently we see essentially the same garment in the book repeated over and over, with instructions on how to lay it out and piece it on different fabrics.

That is the other shock, we are used to a higher degree of wastage of fabrics these days, so we wouldn’t dream of splicing two pieces together to make a main garment piece. Imagine a seam running across one corner of the back of a skirt, where you had to cut a little piece and sew it on to make up the length of the skirt. That happens in almost every pattern layout in the book (see pieces A and B, below).

Because it is primarily a fabric layout guide there are some short comings for the modern costumer. Firstly, Alcega only shows the main pattern pieces, and smaller details like slashes, some sleeve openings, decorative tabs, shoulder rolls etc are generally omitted. Alcega was writing for other tailors, and those guys knew all of this stuff and probably worked with the customer to finalise these design choices. Another limitation is that most of the patterns are generally shown in just one size, a sort of generic men’s or generic ladies’ size.

However, and this turns out be a complete godsend, he does give dimensions for most of the pattern piece edges, and it is that that helps us to figure out how some of the more complex garments might go together. With a bit of pattern drafting know how it is possible to use the pattern layouts to draft more authentic garment patterns, and is my primary aim here. Over the past number of years I have made a few full size reproductions of garments in the book for my own use. Some of the pattern pieces took a bit of nutting out, and quite interestingly other costumers have interpreted them differently than I did. (You can see more of my Alcega reproductions here.)

My velvet Turkish Morning Gown
My olive wool Travelling Cloak

Aim & Method
And this brings me to the aim of this project, which is my own little bit of experimental archaeology, if you will. An attempt to learn by doing. I’m setting out to make scaled down mock ups of the garments in the book, and through that process learn more about how the garments went together, what the finished garments might have looked like, and if possible to find examples in portraiture or extant garments that show something similar. The decision to make them scaled down was really based on convenience, resources and manageability. I will essentially be making toiles instead of finished garments, as exploring the shapes and techniques is my primary focus. In many schools, design houses and costume workshops it is quite common to have designs draped on a smaller sized form, especially by students.

Half sized dress forms are available, although not as commonly as full sized ones. As with many things sewing related, there is a much broader range related to women’s garments than men’s as male home sewers are still a fairly rare breed. By doing some internet research I found a number of suppliers of half sized women’s dress forms, some fairly inexpensive, but only one that makes a male form (and it was unreasonably expensive, especially when you factor in shipping to Australia). So, while searching other options I found a few dress form style display mannequins designed essentially for jewellery display, and on checking the dimensions found a lovely fully pinnable miniature dress form that turned out to be a 1/3 scale of the most common women’s patterns in the book. Bingo. I’m still yet to find an affordable scaled down male form, so I’ll be starting this project by tackling the women’s garments in the book, and the items such as cloaks which are a little more unisex in their shaping. If need be I might need to make full sized toiles of the men’s garments, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

I haven't set myself a schedule, but I'll aim to post here as regularly as possible. There are many patterns in the book, but as I mentioned I'll only be tackling the female and unisex patterns initially. Also, as many of the plates in the book are essentially the same garment repeated to show the layout on different fabrics, I'll only tackle one version of these and not every repeat. (I'm a bit nuts, but not that nuts.)


  1. Hello!
    I think your project is a wonderful and risky idea. You're very brave playing the old Castilian. Already have a fan. I'm looking forward to seeing your progress.
    Those interested in Alcega's book can consult it free, at the website of the Spanish National Library.
    Here is the link:;jsessionid=8530C1B199A1AD78A065404D615D431E?field=todos&text=juan+de+alcega&showYearItems=&exact=on&textH=&advanced=false&completeText=&pageSize=1&pageSizeAbrv=10&pageNumber=2
    To see the book you have to click in "VER OBRA" on the left side.
    Good luck ....

    ¡Hola! Tu proyecto me parece una idea maravillosa y arriesgada. Eres muy valiente interpretando el castellano antiguo. Ya tienes una admiradora. Estoy deseando ver tus progresos.
    Las personas interesadas en el libro de Alcega pueden consultarlo gratuitamente en la web de la Biblioteca Nacional Española.
    Buena suerte....

  2. Is the travelling cloak the "capa de raxa sola" in the book?