Purple Velvet in the 1630s – A bit of research

For the first post in the new year, I am getting back to my promise of a research post from December. I am currently working on my first 1630s bodice. It is all so new and exciting to me that I can’t quite round up my other sewing plans for the year. I don’t even have a project list for the Historical Sew Monthly, yet. Oh dear… What I do have, though, is some research on the bodice! This post will mostly deal with the fabric I picked. But since I have not told you much about the basics so far, we will start with those.

The bodice I am recreating is from the V&A’s collection. The pattern for it has been featured in both Waugh and Arnold but also in this wonderful book I got myself as a Christmas present. Here the pattern and construction is given in great detail, so I can remake it as accurately as possible. There are even x-rays of the bodice. Also on the cover…

The original version of the bodice is made out of slashed silk satin with scalloped edges.Mine will be a bit plainer, made from a purple velvet I fell in love with during winter sale.

Bodice of silk satin, c. 1630, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Now, technically, you should research first and then fall in love with a fabric. But sometimes, life just puts the cart before the horse for you. ;) After some last-minute research at the fabric store, I have now put together a better documentation. First of all, I looked into the prevalence of purple in the 1630s. The first thing I did was to have a look around the sumptuary laws. The French edict of 1634 makes no mention of the colour. In England matters are different. Both the Tudor and Elisabethan statutes restrict the uses of purple silks and velvets to the royal family. This has several reasons. First, purple was a very expensive dye to use, especially for the rich, darker shades. Which was already known in Ancient Rome, where its use was restricted to senators and emperors. Another point is that purple is a liturgical colour. In many Christian churches, it is worn during fast seasons, namely Lent and Advent. And in the Church of England, the monarch is the head of church. That plus purple being known as a “royal” colour explains the restrictions well. This also means that purple was definitely known and used for upper-class clothing. Here is an Italian painting from the latter half of the 17th century featuring a rich purple silk.

Samian Sibyl by Guercino, c. 1640, Hermitage Museum Saint Petersburg.

As for the use velvet in gowns, I have found a few good examples of it. Also some stunning, extant ones. First and foremost, there is Dorothea von Neuburg’s burial dress from c. 1598. When I saw it in Munich, I almost bumped my nose against the showcase when I tried to take in every breathtaking detail. Then there is this equally gorgeous men’s short cloak at the Museum of London. The velvet that came closest to the colour of my gown was this English metalwork book cover of blue velvet. Isn’t it pretty?

Velvet book cover, London, c. 1620.

What surprises me is how close the textures of these historical fabrics are to my modern stuff. Mine is not even silk, but a woven 100% cotton velveteen. But it is neither dull, nor very long in the pile. It is a little shiny, with a pile that is dense and short, like that of period velvets. Here it is. The nice texture came out when I washed and steamed it this weekend.

After some digging, I found portraits of 17th-century women in purple velvet, too. For once, there is Susan Feilding (née Villiers) from the 1610s.

Susan Feilding by Willian Larkin, England, c. 1616.

And, if one lady knew what was stylish back then, it was Queen Henrietta Maria. She even wore a dark velvet bodice in a style very similar to the one I am making. I cannot help but love her for that.

Miniature of Queen Henrietta Maria by David des Granges, c. 1636, The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Now that I have put you up to speed on the bodice, sorry about the huge delay, I will dive straight back into work. The boned foundation is as good as done and I am between cutting and setting gores at the moment. I will post some work in progress shots once I get around to it.

Wishing you a happy 2018 and a pleasant remainder of the weekend. :)

Nessa

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4 thoughts on “Purple Velvet in the 1630s – A bit of research

  1. Carolyn says:

    Thanks, very informative. I have, and stilldo, want to know exactly how the fabrics were madde during those time periods. I know about dyes, but not about how fabrics were woven.

    • Nessa says:

      That is a very interesting question. From what I know the basic technique of weaving has never really changed. What has changed are the technologies, and so the looms used. There are handweaving looms like the warp-weighted loom which can be documented since as early as the Bronze Age. The fabrics produced by hand-weavers were narrower, about the width of an arm. Up until the late-ish 18th century weaving was done in this way. Then new mechanized looms, like the flying shuttle came up. Fabrics got wider, up until the widths we have today. Another invention was the Jacquard loom in 1804. It made the weaving of complex (silk) fabrics easier, such as damask and brocade. Before this, these fabrics required lots of handwork by very skilled weavers. This made them expensive luxury products. Velvet by the way is traditionally woven from heavy silk that is then sliced through to create the pile. The velveteen I use here is woven in a different way, on a mechanical loom that uses a simpler method to create the pile on a single layer of fabric. I hope this is helpul. :)

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