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. :)



An Extant Book Recommendation (CoBloWriMo Day 6)

Having thought long and hard on this one, I have decided not to recommend a “classic” historical sewing or costume book for this prompt. Generally I love working with “Patterns of Fashion”. Having drafted the 1630s stays and two other garments from it, I am in love with Janet Arnold’s works and detailed writing. But we all know the series is great already, right? ;)

So today I have picked a little gem that seems to go overlooked a lot. It is an extant book I stumbled across in an online library. Archives like these, especially Gallica and the Library of Congress, are my guilty pleasure. Sometimes I spend whole evenings there, just going on treasure hunts. This is how I found the “Manuel des dames” by Mademoiselle Clenart.
As the title suggests, it is written in French and no, there are no drawings in it. For a not-so-advanced French speaker like myself this can make reading the book a bit tricky and even some native speakers get puzzled with some of the expressions used by the author.


But still, this book is great. The second edition found online dates to 1833, but it is a re-print of an edition published at least 10 to 15 years earlier. So it is sort of a “style guide” for the savvy late-Empire lady. It has everything from potion, powder and soap recipes to washing directions for period fabrics as well as advice on etiquette and fashionable dress. I especially love the corsetry chapter, which offers advice on different corsets, stays and belts for every occasion. This includes a section on maternity stays and directions to add fan-lacing to a pair of stays. I used the advice when making my morning belt last year.


Advice on maternity stays. The “ruban à cheval” expression led to an interesting discussion in a costume group. What is a ribbon riding a horse?! ;)

Despite the “language barrier”, I recommend this book to everyone interested in early 19th-century costume or just curious about reading extant sources. You can download a PDF of this book here on Gallica. Enjoy!


Jacobean Waistcoats of the 1600s (CoBloWriMo Day 3)

Today’s focus is on extant garments we adore. Since I just blogged about the extant item I own before reading the prompts, let us take a look at the other extant garments that have been on my mind of late: embroidered ladies’ waistcoats from the early 17th century.

The first example that usually comes to mind is Margaret Layton’s jacket at the V&A. Yes, the one she also wears in the painting. ;)

Painting of Margaret Layton by Marcus Gheeraerts and embroidered waistcoat (c. 1620, V&A)

But that is not the only surviving jacket there is. Especially in early 17th-century England waistcoats, embroidered such as this one or of knitted silk, seemed to have been a staple for the fashionable lady. Especially the ones with Jacobean crewel embroidery in silk and gilt threads required quite a bit of small change to buy though. Elisa of Isis Wardrobe has collected a few different examples of various origin on her blog. It is fascinating to look at and the linen waistcoat with woven silver stripes has totally stolen my heart.

Similar to the Layton jacket, there is another embroidered waistcoat I love in the Burrell Collection at Glasgow museum. It is also included in “Patterns of Fashion 3”.

Embroidered waistcoat (c. 1615-18; Burrell Collection, Museum of Glasgow).

Some time ago, a team of curators and embroiderers have set about recreating the Burrell jacket. They have compiled this great little film that gives lots of detail on this type of waistcoat, the Jacobean embroidery technique and also how the garments were fitted and worn. I really like the video and have recommended it many times before. Here it is for you, too.  Enjoy!

Whenever I look at all these pretties, I curse myself a bit for making my 17th-century persona French. These waistcoats were not common in this part of Europe. French sumptuary laws have played some role in this as they limited the amount of embroidery and, especially metallic threads. The same laws also barred most classes from using them at all. I can feel a post coming about this topic in the near future! And, maybe, I will find an excuse to make my own waistcoat after all. We shall see! For now I will just finish those stays.

Yours, Nessa

Thoughts On Two Splendid Chance Encounters, In A Less Splendid Place

The following post is a bit different from the usual ones. It is not about historical sewing exactly, but about a fashion-related topic that has made my inner seamstress slightly thoughtful of late. Perhaps some of you have made similar observations and can relate to it a little:

Generally, I am no big fan of discount outlet stores. This is not because of the prices. As a student, I am as glad as anyone to find affordable clothes at a decent quality level. And it is not the clinically commercial atmosphere, which you would not find at a charity-run, thrift store. What really makes me wince, is the way many costumers treat and handle the discounted clothes and other fashion items. When I see them being tossed lovelessly into carts to be wheeled off in piles to the fitting room, only to be tossed back out again when they do not fit.

After all, these clothes were once cut and sewn by someone, somewhere. And, since some of them are actual designer items, they were put together with care, in more than just a few minutes of assembly work. And, even it is just a t-shirt or pair of jeans that is tossed around by a customer, it feels to me like someone’s work is not being valued enough. Unknown as this person may be, he or she would not want their product to be handled this carelessly. If it were one of my hand-sewn items being wrangled into a shopping cart like this, I would most likely cuff the culprit around the ears…

The modern empire dress I saved at a discount outlet, after mending.

The other week, I posted a modern empire-line silk dress on the blog’s Facebook page. I bought it at just such a store, because I pitied it. It is of very fine Thai silk, and almost entirely hand-finished. When I walked past, I saw how someone had wedged it onto the hanger quite sloppily, so that the lining was being stretched out. With a slight pang of compasson, I picked up the dress and saw that the fine fabric was snagged and worn through around the seams, from obvious mishandling. So I decided to adopt it, to save the fabric from even more damage. When I walked out of the store with my purchase, I felt as relieved as though I had just rescued a sad-eyed kitten from a kill shelter, extreme as this may sound.

The other day, I went shopping with my family, and we visited another discount store. Luckily, we only had a look around the household floor. Here we passed a smallish bargain book section. And, among the small pile of sewing books, I found this:

A book I had not expected to encounter in the bargain book section…

The find made me wonder whether the store wanted to appease last time’s ill feelings, since this is one of the contemporary sewing books I have always wanted to own. It contains a concise primer on all dressmaking techniques and a series of classic, adjustable skirt, dress, top and trouser patterns. But, so far, I had not found the English edition at a reasonable, affordable price. Now, here it is and I am fairly chuffed.

Yet I am still not very happy about the impact of discount stores. Of course, they serve a purpose and are a reliable source of income for the companies running them. But then again, they do not encourage respect and conscience for fashion, and its creators, in the customers. Personally, I now prefer second-hand or charity thrift stores to find affordable clothing items, which have already been loved and cared for by their previous owners. :)

I hope you did not mind this, somewhat ranty, post. It is something I usually do not do; but I think this had to be said. Next time, we will go back to the business of historical sewing and its joyful prettiness. =)

All the best, Nessa