The camicia displayed before you is a men’s undershirt shirt constructed in the style of the mid to late 16th century. Often crafted by women of the household for loved ones in the public eye, undergarments and other finely embroidered accessories of this type were cherished wardrobe pieces and suitable even as gifts for royalty. This shirt is specifically tailored for my partner and is based on extant patterns and period portraiture the spirit of this practice. I made it using period sewing techniques, such as cartridge pleating, and materials, such as linen thread and fabric. The embroidery is made from modern acrylic thread for cost-prohibitive reasons, but is extensively detailed with personal imagery (in this case referencing my partner’s heraldry) as would be typical a fine shirt of the era.
This undershirt was designed with my partner in mind and intended as a colorful addition to their SCA wardrobe. It is patterned on numerous 16th century extant pieces, primarily those discussed in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 4 and three pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute collections in New York City. These historical pieces are unique in that fashion at this time began to favor a more gratuitous silhouette. It was customary to display one’s wealth by wearing more material and finery. Consequentially, sewing methods adapted to accommodate the practice of wearing textiles in bulk and it is during this period the technique of cartridge pleating became more prevalent, particularly with undergarments. These pieces also showcase a large amount of labor-intensive embroidery, which I feel has at least as much to tell us about the daily lives and values of the women who made them as the men who wore them. It is with great appreciation for the cultural weight of these garments that I undertake this project.
What is this thing and why it is interesting?
Undershirts, shifts and chemises (or camicia in Italian) were worn as barrier between the body and the outer garments. These pieces of clothing were full and absorbent by design to serve as protection between the exterior layers from the wearer’s sweat and body soil. They were always made of vegetable fiber (Landini & Bruna, 125), likely because vegetable fiber is absorbent, easier to launder and breathes more comfortably than silk or wool. Underwear of this type were worn all over Europe and were donned by the working class and nobility alike. The finest pieces, such as the ones which have survived in the museum collections of our modern day, were made of the whitest, finest and most transparent linens. (Landini & Bruna, 125) Such items were embellished and maintained; decorated with colorful embroidery of silk or gilded thread. Some were adorned with cut-work and lace. All were gathered and fitted with as much excess and finery as could be afforded.
In the 1500’s a fine shirt was a gift both suitable for royalty or to one’s own family. (Arnold, 9) These pieces were traditionally made by women, either professionally contracted or as a service within the household. This task was common among both upper and working classes. Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to the Tudor court during the reign of King Henry VIII shares one such anecdote in his writings wherein Queen Anne Boleyn threw a jealous fit over the right to make Henry’s undershirts (as opposed to the then out of favor Katherine of Aragon). One can conclude from this story that there is something more significant to this practice than standard women’s chores and was worth fighting over. Add to this, the fact that much of the labor-intensive embroidery was used to cover seams and were utilized in places which might never be viewed except in the most intimate of settings. I submit that these garments were Renaissance status symbols in their own right and true labors of love, often made specifically for the wearer by a woman close to them (a wife, a sister, or a mother). Further the act of making these pieces was a coveted duty, and a mark of virtue to be sought after in prospective wives.
In the medieval and renaissance Europe, linen was much different than the linen found in the modern day. Flax was harvested by hand which resulted in longer fibers and thus finer, more sheer fabric was possible. We know, based on portraiture that the upper class preferred linens that were as white and as sheer as possible. Landini (as I’ve cited earlier) agrees with this statement, but I would call attention to the fact that this source looks most closely at the wardrobes of Eleonora di Toledo. On the other hand, the Nils Sture shirt, scrutinized by Arnold, was described as being made of “firmly woven linen, which is quite coarse”. (Arnold, 68) This example, worn by Nils on the day of his death, was more likely every day wear rather than exceptional attire. I propose that at the very least, day to day upper-class menswear was somewhat more practical with regard to the quality of linen used. While the linen I have obtained may be of modern make and not the ideal optic white sought after by the nobility, it is of a weight and texture appropriate for regular wear and, more importantly, it’s what my partner wanted.
Pattern and Construction
Looking closely across the surviving men’s shirts documented in Patterns of Fashion 4, of which she has done a wonderful job of extensively dissecting and documenting, I have noted that the widths of the body panel range from about 30-40”. I have estimated this figure given that Arnold does not note seam allowances. Thus, I set out to design my pattern with an assumption that my bolt of fabric came from a 40” wide loom (see Figure 1). Further, bearing in mind that linen (for me) is expensive, I opted for a design the utilizes as much fabric as possible with little waste. My pattern is mostly rectangular, relying on pleats to fit to the wearer rather than curved seams (see Figure 1.2 for pattern – image included). Given that undergarments were unlined, I joined all sections with felled seams in the fashion demonstrated by Arnold (Figure 2.1) though upon response to my inquiry from the MET, it seems that there was some variance in technique throughout the period. I opted to go the aforementioned technique as it only it recommended two passes of whip stitching along each seam (figure 2.1) as opposed to one pass and then another two lines of back-stitches to secure further (figure 2.2 – image included). One could argue the smock which employed this variation has held together admirably as a result, but I just don’t have the free time to duplicate it with deadlines looming.
As I mentioned earlier, all fitting has been achieved in this design with pleating. For a garment of this make, cartridge pleating was the preferred method of gathering fabric because it is the most efficient approach to condensing large quantities of material. Cartridge pleating is achieved by lining up multiple running stitches perfectly so that when the support threads are pulled, the fabric folds up on itself like a fan. The compression rate for this method is variable based on the thickness and length of the fabric and spacing of pleats. Tighter spacing, and more material will result in tighter gathers, thus for the beginner’s class I teach on this technique, we begin by double rolling our linen first to make it easier to work with and scale up the spacing required for of our stitches. This approach of condensing fabric differs from other pleating techniques in that cartridge gathers are not fixed in place until they are finished, and that these gathers may be compressed or spaced out as needed to fit. The result thickens and stiffens the fabric and is suitable for the addition of collars, cuffs, neck and waistbands. Unlike smocking, which condenses fabric in the same way but then adds embroidery over top, the support threads (created by the running stitches) are left in place and the pleats are then further secured with an additional piece of linen. Historical pleats of this make were gathered by hand and were exceptionally tiny and evenly spaced.
As part of my research into the creation of this garment, I contacted the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York City order to get a better understanding for how these pleats were achieved. I was interested in three 16th century undergarments in their collection, all of which showcase cartridge pleating. I found that these gathers ranged from one to three pleats per 1/16th of an inch. (see figures 3.1-5.2: image 3.2 and 5.1 included). I have spent extensive time and research trying to duplicate pleating like this in previous projects and this piece is the first time I had actual scale references for these extant garments and garments like it. I now believe the tiniest of these gathers were achieved with a long piece of fine of linen with stitches no less than 1/16th of an inch wide. In the case of my project’s neckline, which would have to support a double thick collar, I have double rolled the linen first before pleating to give the seam some added integrity. However, all other pleats were achieved with a single piece of linen with the goal of duplicating this method faithfully.
Once gathered, it is necessary to finish the pleats by securing them in place. With the MET blouse, these pleats were carefully whip stitched to a double thick band of linen (Figure 3.2). For the MET shirt it appears the gathers are placed between a double thick wristband in which a double running stitch secured everything in place. (figure 5.1 and 5.2) For my partner’s shirt, I have chosen to backstitch the outside and whipstitch on the interior. I deemed this method most sturdy and aesthetically appealing.
The embroidery on this shirt is heavily influenced by the extant in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (Figure 6.1 – image included). As is featured in this example, I have chosen to use button hole stitch to finish all the hems along the collar and cuffs. In period, this would have been done with silk thread, but I have used acrylic for to keep within budget and avoid bleeding with regular wear. This design also features a collar which is made from two pieces of separately embroidered linen panels as is best demonstrated in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum extant in Munich (Figure 6.2 – image included). For my project, I have made references to my partner’s heraldry along the exterior of this collar and intend to also decorate the interior at a later date.
It is interesting to note that most surviving pieces showcase some form of embroidery. Even in more practical examples, such as the Nils Sture shirt referenced earlier, (Figure 7.1 – image included, as well as image of entry) there is at the very least some white-work, or pulled thread detailing. Many more museum specimens display extensive decoration, often in places that would be invisible when worn. Setting aside the bias in our body of evidence that ensures such cherished heirlooms are more likely to survive, the fact remains that this type adornment is time consuming and labor intensive to create. Regardless of the fact that noble women may have had the time to devote to such effort, it is not easy work and many of these touches were hidden by exterior clothing. Further, these works of art would have been unknown to all but the wearer and those intimate to them. Where embroidery might cover a seam, or finish a neck slit, these ornaments would have been close to the heart. I found that during the course of adding these details on my own project I could not help but think of my intended and this process was meditative and fulfilling in its own way.
Many of these undergarments were secured with cord tie off, but there are a handful of examples which use buttons as well. Arnold documents at least two such examples including the MET blouse discussed earlier (Figure 8.1). The Museo del Tessuto in Prato also has a camicia in their collection which uses button wrist closures. (Figure 8.2). These buttons were made by wrapping silk around a wooden core and all feature a zigzag pattern across their axis. I have attempted many variations on this method but have yet to perfectly replicate this design. In light of this road block, I have instead replicated buttons from another garment from the same time period. However, I will continue efforts to replicate this design for future projects and may yet yield success in the 11th hour for this one.
As a result of this project have acquired a greater appreciation and understanding for the women of the 16th century. In total, I estimate this project has taken me about 25+ hours of work and I could yet commit more. In this undertaking, I have become aware of my modern privilege and entitlement with regard to clothing production. Sewing, gathering and embroidering underwear is tremendously time consuming and labor intensive and I admit I did and still do wrestle with the idea of creating works of art which are not intended for public view. However, having put in these hours I recognize their value would argue that perhaps this makes these items all the more precious. When I tackle a project like this again, I’ll saving up to do it with finer textiles, such as long fiber linen and silk embroidery thread. At the very least, my materials should match my effort.
THL Fede de Fiore at the Kingdom Arts & Sciences Championship, discussing her entry with the jurors.
For a pdf of THL Fede’s documentation, as well as a complete collection of project and extant garments, please visit here.
- Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion 4. (2008, London)
- Landini, Roberta, and Niccoli, Bruna. Moda a Firenza: 1540-1580. (2005: Firenze)