Halloween Thrifting Challenge: Early Stuart Era (1603-1625)

Reforming Modern to fit the Reformation!

I am a mad thrifter. In fact, I rather prefer cobbling my costumes together from recycled raiment rather than sewing them from scratch. It’s an exercise in patience– a cycle of search, discovery, rejection, appropriation, and reinvention.

Some eras just lend themselves to being thrifted– Edwardian costumes, Regency costumes, 1920s costumes, even Medieval costumes– but 16th, 17th, and 18th century costumes are more difficult.

“Portrait of a Woman Holding Gloves” by Paolo Caliari, circa 1560

“Portrait of Odilia Van Wassenaar” by Abraham van den Tempel, circa 1660

“Mary, Countess Howe” by Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1764

These eras (much like the Civil War era as well) often involve massive amounts of fabric, especially for upper-class costumes. Modern clothing just doesn’t have that kind of volume outside of wedding and other formal dresses. Another challenge is the fit. During these three centuries, the “pair of bodies” and “stays” became premier undergarments. Stays are much different from a bra and 19th century corsets. Stays have a conical shape and flatten the chest, a style that is almost the antithesis of the 21st century silhouette!

Sewing a gown like these from scratch is a daunting task even for a dedicated seamstress, but by using a few tricks and a keen eye, one need not master patterning and stitchery before making a decent historical costume. For the casual costumer, there is the magical world of thrift shopping…

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As evidenced by many of my previous posts, I am enamored with the 17th century, particularly the first half of the century. Informal portraits and blackwork are my absolute favorites. I wanted to make something similar to these portraits:

“Elizabeth Craven, Lady Powis” by an Artist of the British School, circa 1622

“Lettice Knollys, Daughter of Henry Knollys” by Unknown Painter, circa 1620
I am not sure if this painting is properly attributed. This women looks nothing like the famous Lettice Knollys. Perhaps they share a name? If you know who this lovely lady is, please let me know!

“Margaret Layton” by Marcus Gheeraerts, circa 1620
This portrait is famous for having the matching jacket along with it!

During the 17th and 18th century, there was a huge market for cast-off clothes. Once the higher nobles got tired of their older finery, they would sell it to lesser nobles, who in turn would pass it on to merchants, and so on until it passed to lowly peasants such as myself. So in the spirit of 17th century thrift, I set myself the challenge of finding just such an outfit!

A few guidelines to thrifting a successful historical costume:

First, thoroughly research what time period/decade/character you wish to emulate. Familiarize yourself with popular fabric patterns, trims, and most importantly, silhouettes of the era. You cannot construct a historical costume if you don’t know what the finished product should look like!

Second, browse through everything, including what you already own. For the “easy” eras mentioned above (Edwardian, 1920s, Regency, etc.), little to no alteration may be needed to make a garment look period, but if you find something too big, it’s easy to take it in. Keep in mind what you learned during your research. You may find the perfectly shaped skirt, but if it’s lime green splashed with orange roses, you may have to pass on it. Other situations can be remedied with a little work: Can you re-cut that jacket? Would that too-small dress work if you were wearing a corset or girdle? Should you dye that maxi skirt a darker color? Can you use that ugly skirt for a petticoat? Could that old pillow be used as a bustle? Goodwill always has loads of silk and linen shirts for cheaper than buying yardage!

Third, accept that unless you are lucky enough to find a period piece that fits you, your costume will not be “historically accurate.” You are taking modern (or vintage) clothing and manipulating it to look historical, so construction and materials will probably not stand up to museum scrutiny. In this case, it’s all about looks. So do not worry if you find the prefect 1970s-does-Edwardian dress, but it’s made from nylon lace. If it looks the way you want it, buy it! Polyester is not a pariah in the presence of a pragmatic penny pincher!

By following these rules, I hoped to gather up a respectable 17th century facade. I already had my “Universal Undergarments” in order:

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My Universal Undergarments consist of my cheap eBay corset, two tank tops (one for a corset liner, the other as a corset cover), a 1980s cotton skirt as a petticoat, and my thigh-high O Basics stockings. Since I would be costuming for the 17th century, I also needed a bumroll which I cut out of the fabric left over from making my 18th century embroidered stomacher:

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I just cut a crescent shape out of the fabric, sewed it like a pillow, and stuffed it full of fabric strips and scraps (hence the lumpy appearance compared to a roll stuffed with polyfill or cotton). The ties are double-fold bias tape left over from making my coif.

I particularly like my cheap eBay corset because it is pretty tubular. Normally this tubular shape would be a detriment to a corset’s function, but in this case, the conical shape works very well. It’s the closest thing to mas-manufactured stays I have found! I also donned my slightly-too-small blackwork coif.

My next step was planning the outfit. I would need a suitable jacket and skirt to make up the bulk of the outfit. The skirt/petticoat was the easiest part. Long, full skirts with drawstring waists are popular wedding attire in India and I found a beautiful vintage one on Etsy:

This is the seller’s photo. She makes belly dance costumes and is very nice!

To go with my skirt, I really wanted an embroidered jacket like one of these:

The Maidstone Pea-Pod Redwork Jacket, circa 1620
Laura Mellin made a beautiful jacket based off this one by hand! It’s truly incredible!

Polychrome Embroidered Jacket, circa 1616
This one gave me shape inspiration.

After a day or so, I found THE PERFECT JACKET, but after winning the auction and making squee noises, the seller sent me a refund and a note stating that she must have already sold the jacket (I assume in a brick and mortar store) because she could not find it. I won’t lie, I was crushed, but no one said thrifting online was easy! The polychrome-on-white style of embroidery popular in the 17th century isn’t really in vogue right now, and most of the examples I fawned over were expensive designer pieces, but black and white are pretty timeless. I soon found a suitable replacement:

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The embroidery pattern isn’t particularly accurate for the period, unless you count this jacket at the V&A or this one from Manchester, both of which are 10 years after the period I was trying to work within. We’ll just say that my 17th century self was ahead of the fashion curve! The materials aren’t “history kosher” either. It’s made from nylon and spandex with a little viscose for flavor cooked up by the designers at Laura Ashley. However, it was a Petite Large, which turned out to be exactly what I needed! It started off baggy, but by turning it inside out, putting it on over my “stays,” and pinning it to fit tightly from my waist up, I achieved a pleasing jacket shape with a flared bottom. I used big ol’ ugly backstitches to sew it together, trimmed the excess from the seams and was done with it! I didn’t take any pictures of that, so instead, bask in the glory of this crudely-drawn rendering of what I did:

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The grey areas indicate what I removed from the jacket. Modern clothes fit really loosely, especially under the arms. I had to go back and take even more out of the armpit to make sure it fit smoothly!

Other than that, I did very little alteration. I even left the invisible zipper up the front of the jacket. Affixing my blackwork bow to the front helps hide it even further.

Trim Challenge Bow

The 17th century was all about bows!

A few more accessories and one hastily-constructed backdrop later, here’s the result:

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I enjoy wearing all my jewelry all at once (especially my second-knuckle rings)! I still need to make a pair of cuffs for the sleeves.

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I was worried about finding some proper shoes, but as it turns out, these simple t-straps (“Jean” by Angel Steps) are just perfect! They have a low heel and come in wides, plus the elastic isn’t obvious and provides great comfort when walking. Many of the reviewers had ordered them to dance in. I had some difficulty ordering them since they went out of stock and no one at the company notified me. They also call you with a pushy sales pitch for insurance which I promptly declined. If you can find someone other than AmeriMark/BeautyBoutique to buy from, let me know! I love these shoes, but I don’t love the company.

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The Breakdown
This is a list of everything that went into making this costume and how much it cost.

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I’m only including items unique to this outfit since almost every outfit I wear has the same basic undergarments! All the jewelry is from my collection.

Re-styled Embroidered Jacket – $7.25 on eBay
Bullion Embroidered Skirt – $20.95 on Etsy
Angel Steps Jean Shoes – $24.99 on AmeriMark
Lace Ruff – $12.56 for 8 yards at Walmart
Coif – less than $3 made from a second-hand shirt

Total cost of unique costume elements: $68.75

It took me about three months to assemble everything for this costume. It was a labor of both laziness and love. I hope to keep adding to it, perhaps making cuffs, fashioning a classier ruff, adding a hat, making an apron, and adding either a shoulder drape or one of those sleeveless overdresses you commonly see worn in portraits of ladies in embroidered jackets!

Sepia

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The Ultimate One Pattern Piece Project: Elizabethan Coif

6 Steps to Fabulous!

Once again, I am breaking my vow to keep HSF posts off of my blog. However, this project has actually been on my plate for quite some time and by some miracle, it’s completion happened to coincide with HSF Challenge #11.

Since my costume fascination began, my favorite era has been the 17th Century. In particular, I fell in love with blackwork. However, I am incredibly inept at embroidery, almost to the point of being that cliché historical fiction character that scandalizes her family by acting like a impetuous tomboy…

Extras inside indeed: an extra dose of terrible embroidery skills and stubbornness, that is.

…okay, so that really would be me…

Though I have no embroidery skills, I do have enough hand-sewing skills to make me a decent small-scale seamstress. Combined with my love of the 17th Century, blackwork, hats and thrift, I have the perfect set of skills to be a decent coif maker, or at least an excellent blackwork coif faker.

Inspiration

I started this project without a pattern, just pictures and measurements from various online museums. I basically followed my wobbly seamstress instincts. The subsequent tutorial follows the method I developed to create my coif.

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Detail of “Portrait of a Bride” by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck
Besides her pretty coif, notice how tightly the wire of her headdress is pressing into her cheeks.

English Woman’s Blackwork Coif, circa 1600

Top Stitching and Gathering Detail on an English Woman’s Coif, circa 1590-1610
(see Step 5)

Women’s Coifs showing repetitive patterns and a variety of shapes, circa 1600
Another pair of similar coifs are also in the V&A, notable for one’s bottom edge: “Along the bottom edge, instead of a turned casing there are a series of loops braided in linen bread and stitched to the coif.” Another option for Step 4!

How to Make an Elizabethan/17th Century Coif

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Illustrated in Microsoft Office Word  for your convenience and pleasure!

Large_Coif 1I used newsprint to create my pattern. Coifs from this period come in a variety of shapes, but most are based on a simple rectangle of fabric cut into a gentle urn shape. The top of the urn forms a widow’s peak at the top of the head and the curved bulge covers the ears. You can make your shape as simple or extreme as you like. Here’s my pattern:

Paper Pattern

You can test the paper pattern by pinning the top edges together. Bear in mind that the fabric coif will be smaller because of your seams.

Paper Pattern Test

Opportunity for excellent party hats? I think so!

Large_Coif 2Since I cannot embroider well enough, I prefer to use pre-embroidered fabric. Finding a pre-embroidered fabric with a proper motif  and decent colors on a suitable fabric can be a real challenge, but I was lucky enough to find an embroidered cotton shirt for $3 at the local thrift shop. While it’s not perfect, it’s close enough!

Embroidered Shirt

After two weeks of searching for the perfect blackwork fabric, this is probably the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen in my life. If finding an embroidered fabric is too difficult, you can use plain linen or silk.

I plucked the seams out, leaving me with enough fabric to make about 4 coifs.

Unpicking Stitches

Chinese machine embroidery is fairly easy to unpick, but it did leave prick marks down the edges and where there were darts. A little steam ironing helped make them less noticeable.

Capture

I can make two coifs from the back panel and one from each of the front panels.

For my lining, I used some cheap cotton sheeting from my stash. Elizabethan coifs could be lined or unlined. Many had removable linings so when the inside got dirty, the lining could be removed and washed, saving the delicately embroidered outside from wear and tear. Since my fashion fabric is completely washable, I sewed the lining into my coif as a permanent feature.

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I really wish I’d taken more construction pictures, but I was too excited to pause for photos. I sewed my coif using backstitches set about 3/8 inch away from the fabric edge for clean seams. If your lining has a right side, make sure it faces teh right side of your fashion fabric so when you turn it inside out, it faces the proper way.

Large_Coif 4The drawstring casing can be done multiple ways, but just turning up the bottom edge worked best for my coif. I used backstitching again to close the casing because it’s strong and you can manipulate the stitches so that they hardly show up on the outside of the fabric. Since the seam can be seen from the outside of the coif, I made sure the outside stitches were as small as possible.

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This is the front edge of my coif, showing the smooth seam you get when you use the “pillow” sewing method to connect your lining. To make the front edges crisp, iron them from the lining side before and after sewing the drawstring casing. You can see the stitches on the inside of the drawstring casing on the right.

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This is the most complicated-looking step, but it’s actually rather simple. You’ve already finished 2/3 of the top edges by sewing them in step 3, so all you need to do is whipstitch the very top edge shut with small stitches. When you reach the end of you finished edge, sew around the unfinished edges. You can adjust how your coif fits by gathering more or less fabric. Gathering less fabric will make the coif pointy at the back while gathering more will give it a rounder look.

Coif Top Seam

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I used bias tape fror my drawstrings because it was what I had immediately on hand, but you can make ties out of yarn, linen tape, twill tape, shoelace, or braided cord. Threading your ties can be tricky. Some people like to use safety pins while others use wire to help guide it through the casing. I used a cheap, thin pair of tweezers to hold one end of my drawstring while I used the other end of the tweezers like a giant needle, pushing it through the casing.

Done!

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I would like to trim my next coif with a little bit of lace along the front by sewing it inside the seams in step 3. I would also like some twill tape for ties instead of my last-minute bias-tape drawstring, and to take pictures with the strings wrapped around the top like they are supposed to be worn. But for a blind first attempt, I’m rather proud of it!

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HSF Breakdown

17th Century “Blackwork” Coif

The Challenge: #11 Squares, Rectangles and Triangles
Fabric: A thrifted cotton shirt with cotton machine embroidery lined with even more cotton!
Pattern: I basically just measured a rectangle using coifs documented at the V&A and cut a light “urn” curve into the sides
Year: 1600-1630
Notions: Cotton thread and bias tape
How historically accurate is it? 50% It’s not linen or silk, but it is all natural fibers. The embroidery pattern is entirely modern, but from a distance, if you squint, it looks fairly legitimate. The construction method is pretty accurate as is the size and how it sits; however, I have much more hair than this coif can contain. It will sit on my head by itself, but I feel more comfortable tying it on so I don’t feel like it’s constantly going to fall off. Next time I will make the coif a bit deeper or try using hair pins to hold it on.
Hours to complete: 3 hours
First worn: By me…at 3am…in my apartment
Total cost: $3 for the embroidered shirt, stash sheeting, and stash thread

A matching forehead cloth would also be nice, and I have plenty of fabric left over for at least one!

Coif and Forehead Cloth, circa 1610

More Coif Tutorials and Information

Full-length Coif Tutorial” – All of the steps from this page in one looooong image

The Coif Question” by Kate at Dressing Terpsichore – Explains why most extant coifs are one-piece, but most paintings appear to have two-piece coifs

Elizabethan Coifs!” by Morgan Donner – Examples of how a coif should be worn with  a forehead cloth to get the proper look

Coif Patterns” at No Strings Attached – Multiple patterns for different styles of coifs

UPDATE!

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Truly Hats now offers coif-sized blackworked (by machine) fabric for only $10! The pattern is a replica of an extant 16th century piece.

Fashion’s Least-Sexy Accessories: The Coif

Fashion Misconceptions, Part I

I’m too Sexy for my Coif
(Oh no you’re not)

This is a coif. The word has rapidly changed meaning during the 20th Century, and it now is used vigorously by celebrity websites to describe hair-dos (usually bad ones) or in reference to any headdress or hat. In the past, however, coif referred to a small, bonnet-like cap usually made from linen or silk  that fit close to the head.  It’s name is pronounced “qwaf,” a sound which, if it was an onomatopoeia, summons visions of rotten fruit hitting the ground or the delicate suppression of a full-bellied burp.  How can anyone look good with a starchy napkin draped over their head like a sack? This disregarded head garment, however, is a lot more interesting (and sexy) than it’s name may lead you to think!

Plain linen coifs were worn as a foundation head garment beginning in the Middle ages. Men wore them while working the fields and children wore them while playing outside. Ladies most often wore veils and turbans over their coifs. Unlike men or children, a proper lady wouldn’t dare go outside the house without covering her coif with a hat or veil first! Coifs for women became especially popular during the 1500s. The trend originated by combining the practicality of a man’s cap with a veil’s delicate beauty. Early lady’s coifs were worn to promote modesty, tame the hair, and– as an added bonus– keep lice infestations at bay. It was worn almost all the time, except to comb and clean the hair. It was worn to bed to keep the hair in place, in the kitchen to keep the smoke out, and especially out in public under all the fashionable hats, hoods, and veils!

The coif was considered an undergarment of sorts. Uncovered hair was naked, and the coif acted like a chemise for the head. It would never be worn uncovered outside the safety of the house. Though fashion rules are rather lax today, you wouldn’t want to go to work in just your knickers if you want any sort of respect, but you can safely lounge around in them at home all you like. So it was with the coif. Only the lower classes, who could not afford fancy headgear, wore the coif alone.

The most popular color for coifs is white. White linen, white silk, white satin, white anything! The basic coif was simple: a square of fabric gathered shut on one end and pulled over the head. Most Renaissance coifs were made all in one piece, like this one:

Notice how it looks like a widened urn, creating longer side panels and a puffed back to the coif, framing the face and allowing more room to tuck long hair into. They became exceedingly popular during the early 17th Century from about 1600-1650, which is why many puritan costumes incorporate a bonnet-like coif as standard fare. Coifs, however, didn’t have to shade the face, just cover the hair, and they often ended around the ears.

This painting by Caspar Netscher shows a delicately-coiffed woman sitting at home making bobbin lace, perhaps to decorate more of her coifs. Notice how her coif is not plain white, but covered in twining black vine patterns. There’s even a little bird embroidered on the side. This line of needlework is called blackwork and it was all the rage during the Elizabethan and Stuart periods. It was sewn on cuffs, collars, gloves, and especially coifs. Here’s a close-up view of a coif covered in blackwork:

Every bit of that is carefully hand sewn. Some blackwork even has special stitching techniques that allow for woodblock printing details like cross hatching and half-tone shadows. Embroidery didn’t always have to be black. Redwork was also popular using a brick-red colored thread that contrasted beautifully with the white linen or silk. Vine patterns, holly, flowers, birds, bugs, and fruit were all popular themes. This redwork example even has life-like squirrels frolicking through the pattern!

The examples above have extra special touches: gilded silver thread accents on the blackwork and small silver sequins on the redwork. These beautiful embroidery accents are made from actual precious metals! The next example shows at 17th Century coif blooming with brilliant polychrome embroidery.The MMA website allows you to zoom in on the design, revealing not only the crispness of the colors, but that it is also spangled with silver sequins!

Since coifs would usually be covered outdoors and be seen only in the house,why decorate them with such amazing, time-consuming embroidery? Firstly, coifs were not always covered completely when outdoors; a hat or French hood may let the sides peek out around a woman’s ears, allowing her needlework skills to be displayed for all to see. Much like samplers, the more delicately decorated the coif, the more skilled and desirable the woman is presumed to be. At home, the fineness of the embroidery set a lady apart from her servants and added a little bit of Renaissance bling to her house dress, kind of like putting a fancy satin robe over your negligee when you lounge around at home on a rainy day.The painting below (The Morning Toilet by Jan Steen) is quite scandalous– no stockings, a flash of high thigh and buttock, a satin housecoat, and she’s not even out of her night coif yet!

There was a whole series of these sort of paintings done  by a range of artists during the 1600s. They are akin to the pin-ups of the 1950s, flashing a little here and there, chaste, but far more titillating and intimate than all those famous nudes. Her coif isn’t just her pajamas, it’s like a key piece of her negligee, that special touch that she only shows when she’s alone at home. Fashions change quickly, however, and by the 18th century, sexuality in the upper classes was much more blatant. Heaving busts and gigantic wigs defied the purpose of the coif, rendering the need for decoration null and void. The coif became a necessity under wigs and hair pieces, but by 1800, the coif as it had been known had all but vanished. The coif still existed on the fringes, morphing into long, lapel-brushing lace bonnets and hairnets called snoods during the 19th century, but its reign as a fashionable headpiece was over. It remained a piece of folk costuming throughout Europe and as an American prairie legend, slowly developing its current bonnet-like identity associated with elderly Puritans and infants.

Though they may not be considered fashionable, flattering garments today (much less sexy negligee!), coifs are an essential part to any Renaissance wardrobe. They can be just as beautiful as any hat or headband, and they’re practical too! Perfect for wintery reenactments or for keeping your hair out of your face while you catch some beauty sleep without leaving that unmanageable pony-tail wave or stiff neck you get from wearing a scrunchie. It may not look sexy by modern standards, but attractiveness surges with optimistic confidence and you will feel darn confident after a restful night sleep in your coif and knowing that no matter how windy or humid, your awesome coif will keep your hair in check and under control! :)

Study more amazing Elizabethan coifs at The Coif Gallery!