Thursday, 31 July 2014

Project #5. F.59a - "Kirtle and low cut bodice of silk"

Project 5! 

I had a slight change of heart after the last project, and instead of using layout f.60 "Kirtle and low cut bodice of cloth rash for a woman" for this project, I decided to use f.59a the "Kirtle and low cut bodice of silk" instead. The skirt length and a few other dimensions on f.60 were different from the under layers I have already made, and so I decided to use f59a for the sake of consistency. This is the same garment, but with sizing consistent with the patterns I have made and a pattern layout very similar to the kirtle I just made in project 4 (but with the addition of a bodice, natch). 

Alcega states that this pattern requires a length of silk fabric 6 3/4 ells long x 2/3 ells wide, or 567cm (approx 18' 7 1/4") long x 56cm (approx 22") wide.

Some mathematics and dimensions
The beginning steps to this pattern are identical to my previous project, #4 the "Kirtle of silk for a woman". The skirt dimensions are the same, and similarly the fabric is folded across ways instead of lengthways when cutting the skirt. The big change however is that the bodice is cut from the remaining fabric which has been folded lengthways, and Alcega points towards this change in the diagram by reducing the remaining width to half in the layout.

So, based on the fact that the previous kirtle with an identical size and layout took 6 1/8 ells x 2/3 ells, or 514.5cm (approx 16' 10 1/2") x 56cm (approx 22"), we know then that we have around 52.5cm (a bit under 20 3/4") of the 56cm wide fabric left for the bodice. In the translation it states the recommendation that first you cut off a piece of fabric long enough for the bodice, and then proceed to fold the remaining fabric crossways and cut out the skirt. The bodice is cut with the front on the fold, eliminating a centre seam, and with the centre back of the bodice cut along the selvedge edge.

The skirt is the same length as previously, "bm" or 126cm long (approx 4' 1 1/2") long and with an identical generous waist size which can be pleated to fit (see Project #4).

The bodice is (as described in the title) cut quite low across the front and with a centre front that dips down to a point in a similar fashion to that of Project #2 - the "Silk doublet for a woman" and is cut a little higher in the back across the shoulders. The dimensions of the bodice pattern pieces are given as "t" across the bust edge, which is 1/3 ell or 28cm (approx 11") and "Q" across the waist, which is 1/4 ell or 21cm (approx 8 1/4"). The bodice centre front is "m" from the bust edge down to the point, which is 1/2 an ell or 42cm (approx 16 1/2"), and the under arm side seam is "Q", which is 1/4 ell or 21cm (approx 8 1/4").

The bodice back is "t" in length from the top edge to the waistline, which is 1/3 of an ell or 28cm (approx 11") and both the back waist and top edge are given as "s", which is 1/6 of an ell or 14cm (approx 5 1/2").

These dimensions would give a bodice with a finished waist measurement of 70cm (approx 27 1/2") which is quite small compared to the doublet in Project #1 for instance, which had a waist of 90cm (approx 35 1/2"). It's probable that the doublet and this bodice are designed for two different sized women, as 8 inches of waist compression would not be likely even in a stiffened and tightly laced bodice (or with some form of corset).

Developing the pattern
Much of this entry will relate to patterning the bodice, as the skirt pattern will be a repeat of that in Project #4 but with some changes in construction.

In previous entries I described the creation of a basic sloper, and then the process of removing any darts required in the sloper to try and achieve the best fit possible. Fortunately the low neckline of this bodice eliminates the need to worry about bust darts.

First attempt at draping the bodice back. Click to enlarge.

I decided to take a first stab at the pattern by tracing off the back and front of the basic sloper without bust darts onto paper, raising the armhole slightly and drawing in how I thought the basic design lines would sit on my mannequin and pinning it to the form.

First attempt at drafting the basics of the bodice front. Click to enlarge.

Straight away I could tell that a few things would need more work. I was concerned that if I drew the bodice front as low as it appeared in the pattern that it would barely cover the nipple line of the bust, so I initially cut it out with a slightly higher front. I knew that I probably didn't have the curve of the bodice front correct either, but I was initially trying to establish the height first. Also the angle of the strap is not right, creating a fold in the pattern, and on reflection I think the strap actually begins further back under the armhole and comes forward at more of an acute angle.

At this point I decided to go back to the pattern and I had a little play in photo editing software and duplicated and flipped the bodice pattern pieces from the book to see how the finished bodice pattern might look.

What becomes immediately noticeable is the way the front curves gently upward across the bust, and is in line with the bottom of the armhole. With a slightly raised armhole (compared to a doublet, for example) this would be low without being indecorous. Perhaps something closer to the neckline of this gown in the portrait of Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre (1570).

Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre (1570)

The other noticeable feature of the pattern is the acute angle of the strap on the bodice front, and how impossibly short the straps are in the pattern. I can't read the original Spanish text, and there is no mention of any extensions to, or fill in pieces for, the shoulder straps in the translation. Perhaps it is one of those things that was so obvious it didn't need to be spelled out to the tailors the book was intended for? Given the length of available fabric, and the placement of the pattern pieces butting right up against the fabric edge or other pattern pieces, I think it's fair to assume there was a separate connecting piece to be cut and added between the front and back, rather than the straps just being cut larger than shown. The excess fabric should furnish enough to make connecting strap pieces.

Bodice front, 2nd revision. Click to enlarge.
Front view, revised bodice. Click to enlarge.

I think this is an improvement, although I could still possibly curve the front higher. (You will also have to imagine this with a slightly flattened bust, as a stiffened and laced bodice like this would compress the bust somewhat and my mannequin has quite a prominent and unmoving bust line.) I'm still curious about that strap angle. I moved the strap slightly backwards towards the arm hole so that I could try and keep that angle without having the strap come too far forward (as if it was going to be a halter neck!). In my next version I think I'll curve the angle of the strap more as it comes up to try and hug the line of the armhole better. (Also, the straps are a little thicker than in the pattern, but that is the limitation of trying to work at such a small scale.)

It's interesting, in most other recreations of this bodice the designers seem to have made a more square neckline by changing the strap front to be almost at a right angle to the bodice front, compared to the very acute angle drawn in all of the variations of this bodice in the book. Such as this one by The Curious Frau, this brown wool kirtle by Centuries Sewing, and these beautiful examples by Mathew Gnagy. It makes a lot of sense if you are adding sleeves to a bodice like this, as unless the strap was perhaps super tight you would need some opposing directional force to the tendency of the sleeve to drag the strap off the shoulder. I'm keen to explore this pattern as faithfully as I can however, so I'm going to see if I can make this strap work as drawn, within the limitations of the shape of my mannequin.

Some portraits do seem to indicate that this style of acute angle is achievable.

Margaret of France, Duchess of Berry.
Margaret of France, detail with bodice and strap highlighted.

I know Margaret isn't Spanish, but I'm using her portrait here as the gown seems to replicate many of the features of this bodice and kirtle.

So, angles, bodices and straps, oh my. Time to move on to the rest of the bodice...

The bodice back, 2nd revision. Click to enlarge.
Back view, revised bodice. Click to enlarge

I also redid the back slightly; if you look at the pattern piece from the book the back also has a slight curve across the top edge and I wanted to make sure I had that, the angle of the back of the armscye, and the relative height of the back compared to the bottom of the arm hole correct.

Final pattern layout, with bodice and kirtle. Click to enlarge.

Putting it together
The skirt will be attached to the bodice, so up to the point right before pleating and attaching the skirt to a waistband the patterning and construction of the skirt for this project is identical to Project #4 - "Kirtle of silk for a woman". Also, with the exception that I will be leaving the front seam of the skirt open. Adding the godets, sewing up the side seams, and closing the back seam up to the point of the back opening are all the same.

According to the text Alcega states that the bodice front "will be in one piece" as it is cut on the fold, while the bodice back will have a seam. So I am electing to make this with a centre back opening to the bodice and attached skirt. Some reconstructions have an opening in front of the bodice, and there is certainly evidence for that in similar garments (as there is for either 1 or 2 side lacings replacing side seams). I'm sticking with what I think was the intention of the original pattern however.

Also, there is some evidence for this style of bodice being heavily stiffened itself, rather than having been worn over a corset (although the inverse may also have happened). I'm going to sew in a layer of stiff interlining to try and create a stiffened effect to this bodice. If you wanted to create a full sized version of this gown I would encourage you to research appropriate techniques for boning a bodice. It's also worth noting that the pattern layout places the side seams off grain, not quite on the true bias but enough that they would be subject to some stretch. Interlining, boning etc would all help to control this stretch and allow the bodice to be laced tightly without distortion.

Checking the bodice fit (without the skirt attached yet). Click to enlarge.

I cut identical pieces of interlining and the fabric outer layer, and trimmed the seam allowance off the interlining everywhere except the side construction seams, so that I could just turn the edges over and sew them down. If I was making this as a full sized garment I would first construct the stiffened inner structure, probably from several layers of stiff canvas with some reeds or boning added for extra stiffness, and then cut an identical inner lining and outer fabric shell. Because of scale I couldn't do much with the straps, it was just too fiddly to interline them and turn the edges under, so for the purposes of this reconstruction I am leaving them as just the raw top layer.

I'm pretty happy with the fit. If the mannequin was smaller or softer chested then the top of the bodice would not sit out quite so proud of the bust, but without any capability for compression in the mannequin then it will always sit out a little. I think the height of the front is good and not likely to cause any wardrobe malfunctions. Worn with a sheer partlet the effect would attractive and not at all scandalous.

Adding the kirtle. Click to enlarge.

I then sewed together the skirt, leaving the front seam unsewn, and I turned under the front edges to neaten. As Mathew Gnagy mentions in his reconstruction of a similar gown there is at least one extant example of the excess fabric behind the lower bodice front just being left there, or it could be trimmed away after the skirt is added to the bodice. By overlapping the top edges of the skirt front slightly and pinning them it place, it was actually pretty easy to establish an attractive opening in the kirtle front and then pin it to the bodice. It helps to have all the under layers of underskirt, farthingale and overskirt on your dummy so that you can arrange the hang of the skirt nicely.

Cartridge pleating and adding the skirt. Click to enlarge.

Once the skirt front is attached it's then an easy matter to cartridge pleat the remainder of the skirt on each side and sew it to the bodice side and back. (There is a nice cartridge pleating tutorial here.) If I was creating this as a full sized garment I would probably also insert a placket behind the bodice centre back opening and the skirt opening so that a neat finish is achieved when the centre back is laced closed.

Finished low cut bodice and kirtle. Click to enlarge.

I'm very pleased with the end result. In part because this is the first project that feels more like a complete outfit I think.

Bodice front detail. Click to enlarge.

I would like the straps to be thinner and neater, but at the scale I am working at that just wasn't doable (they are less than 1cm wide at this scale, or about 1/3 of an inch). I think they prove the theory behind the acute front curve on the straps though.

Armhole and strap detail. Click to enlarge.

The strap curves quite nicely around the armhole. I think it would probably not be as load bearing as a strap that met the front bodice at a right angle, but the interlining, boning and firm lacing of the bodice would make it largely self-supporting I would think. There are no sleeves detailed or mentioned for this garment in Alcega, but the resulting armhole is pretty much a standard armhole shape (although raised a little) so I don't think drafting a sleeve for this would be too onerous if one wanted to add them.

Bodice and kirtle side view. Click to enlarge.

I think the back height of the bodice is pretty good. The back seam is a straight edge that is cut along the selvedge, so does not allow for any curvature to follow the spine. You can see in the side view that it sits a tiny bit proud from the upper back of the mannequin. Any higher and it would sit out even further, as the upper back curves forward. On a real human being with real human shoulder blades it would probably not sit out much at all, but I would certainly not take it any higher and I think it would pay to watch this fit if you were drafting it as a full sized garment.

Kirtle and bodice back view. Click to enlarge.

In my head I planned to whip stitch the back seam together on the mannequin with a contrasting thread, so it would look a bit like lacing. However, problems with my hand at present meant I kind of ended up with what can only be described as Fraken-lacing. Sigh. Oh well, let's just pretend.

The back sits nicely across the shoulders, and the back strap placement gives quite a nice design line I think. Once again I cartridge pleated the skirt, and with the kirtle from the previous project underneath (also cartridge pleated) I think it creates a nice line across the hips and back. A small bumroll could be used to change the look further, but there are varying opinions on if/with what/when these were used. I think this would work nicely without, providing the correct underpinnings were used.

Idea for trimming the bodice and kirtle. Click to enlarge.

I think this gown has all sorts of potential for decoration. I mocked up just one idea for braid trim, but a solid coloured underskirt would also be lovely, perhaps in a rich damask. The bodice and kirtle could be a rich silk or velvet (although anything with a nap would require a different fabric layout). The bodice could be richly embroidered and beaded with pearls for a very high status look as in the portrait of Margaret of France, above. If this was to be worn as an intermediate layer under any of the over gowns coming up in future projects, I would avoid shoulder rolls or any bulky sleeve and shoulder treatments, if not then they would be lovely additions. A very versatile pattern I think!

Next I'll be attempting f.63 - the "Skirt and bodice of cloth with puffed sleeves", which judging by the pattern looks pretty dramatic. What's not to love about a long train and puffed sleeves, I ask you?

Also, if you have any feedback and agree/disagree/love to bits anything I've done so far then please drop me a comment. I'm doing this as a learning experience, so if you have any feedback I'm more than happy to hear your ideas.


  1. Good to see yet another interpretation! Thank you! For what it's worth I just checked all cuerpo baxo + vasquiña patterns in Alcega and nowhere is there any mentions of cutting straps. At most one of them, the paño one, speaks about getting the ribete (edging) from leftovers. So yes, it must have been just obvious to them so it was left out!

  2. Thanks for your feedback and comment Marianne! Yep, I think the book assumes a level of knowledge that you would expect other tailors to have. Trimmings and all sorts of things you would expect to be explained to someone new to the patterns are omitted. It makes it a bit challenging, but it also adds to the fun, trying to work these things out! :-)

  3. This is a great post! It is making me rethink a few things.

    A bit more info on my brown wool kirtle. The skirt is based right from the book from the cloth of rash layout (minus the typos) and shortened for my height. The bodice is based on a block that fit me, rather than Alcega bodice. (It would be huge on me if I used it straight from the book.)

    I have a slight curve on the shoulder strap going in the opposite direction! The front neckline comes up in a very subtle arch.

    I don't use that block anymore, the shape has evolved and changed, (both of these are rather dated now)

  4. Thanks for your comment! I loved your brown kirtle, and my take on these patterns is that as they were primarily drawn as fabric layouts, there were probably variations and details that Alcega didn't bother to address in the book. Having said that, I was determined to try and reproduce them all as accurately to how they are drawn, as possible so I was determined to figure out that curious strap shape. :-) Thanks for your feedback, much appreciated.

  5. You note that you can't read the Spanish. If you'd like to type out the translation in your book, I can tell you whether anything's been skipped over, or whether I might have an alternative meaning for any of it?

  6. Scratch that: I read the Spanish on the image you've got loaded there, and there's nothing about making up the straps with extra fabric or anything like that: I think you're right that Alcega just assumed other tailors would know to do that.

  7. I have been using a curved neckline and that curved strap for some time now - and I worked it out before I discovered Alcega. In my case I extend the strap further and maintain the curve over the arm. The seam is on the shoulder. Where the back strap and front strap meet its like there is a little triangle "cut" out - with the point of the triangle being where the back and front straps meet on the ARM side of the strap and the wide part of the triangle being on the "neck" side of the strap (hope that makes sense?). Once the straps are pulled together and sewn, you get a very tight strap which can perch on the edge of the shoulder. It allows for that very wide neckline which appears from the 1530s and into the 1540s and 1550s in English Tudor Dress - as you can see in this photo of me in my bronze Tudor (1540s) gown (I'm in the middle!):

    This style continues in the french dress into the 1560s and to a lesser extent in English low cut dress.

    1. Hi Bess! Thanks for your comment, and yes your description makes total sense to me. I think the issue is one of compression if you are going to have a strap almost on the point of the shoulder and have it bear the weight of a sleeve. You need a super tight strap to counteract the force of gravity on the sleeve. I can see how your method achieves that.

      And your bronze gown is stunning!