Category Archives: Research

Dress Diary: Researching German Working Class in the last quarter of the sixteenth century

Well, things have slowed down a bit and after cleaning up all the clutter from all the other projects, I finally have had a chance to continue researching the 16th century German Working Class dress. I really love the look of the gals from the last quarter of the century, so that is where my focus will be.

I usually work very hard to keep my items as close to what would have been done in period, however there are a couple concessions that I am making for this dress.

  • Fabric: As I said before, I was gifted some linen, and although there is no evidence that linen was used in outer garments (except for some jackets very late in the century) I plan to use it for a sleeveless dress in the hopes that it will be a cooler alternative to wear in the California heat.
  • Construction: Although, a working woman’s dress would have likely been made at home instead of by a tailor, my interests lie mainly in tailoring techniques used in the sixteenth century, so I plan on approaching the dress construction in the manner that a tailor would.

Pictorial Overview

First Step was to compile as many pictures as possible and sort them out by region and time.  I went through and grouped the pictures together in collages from earliest to latest by region.  Here is my pinterest page that has all the source images German Working Class 1550-1600.

Swabia and Bavaria
Penig 1617
Penig 1617. Past the time frame, but the silhouette and some details are very similar.
Working class 1575-85 southern middle class
Alsatian and Tubingen. These ladies may be from a merchant class, but the similarities in the dresses is why they are included here.

Upon reviewing the artwork, I did notice some similarities that seemed to be consistent in the majority of the dresses.

  • upright silhouette with straight back, and soft curve at bust
  • ankle length skirts
  • skirts look to be a gore type construction with wide pleats at the waist
  • bodice laces closed leaving an open space in center front
  • long plain white apron that covers the front of the skirt
  • High neck hemd with frill at neck and long sleeves
  • over partlet in white or black
  • jacket options
  • variety of head coverings
  • skirts have contrasting guards
  • both ladder and spiral lacing used

There are also some questions that these depictions do not answer.

  1. the bottom of the bodice is covered by the apron, so it is impossible to tell whether it dips or if it is straight.
  2. the neckline is covered in all of these by a partlet or a jacket, so it is impossible to tell how the neckline is shaped.
  3. Many of these ladies have a different color bodice than skirt.  Is it an additional skirt worn over a kirtle?  A pair of bodies with a separate skirt over it? A doublet/jerkin?  Artistic license?
  4. The bodice reads as stiffened.  How was this achieved?
  5. What method was used for the front lacing?  Eyelets, lacing rings?
  6. What is under the CF opening?

To address these questions, I had to look at dresses from other places and classes for answers.

Shaping the Bodice Neckline and Waistline: 

The first thing that came to mind was a dress that I was able to see at the Janet Arnold Costume Colloquium in 2008.  According to my notes, the dress is from around 1550 and is believed to be an dress that would be for everyday wear around the house.  Sadly, at the time I didn’t note much more than that because I didn’t really know enough about what to look for and most of my interest was focused on the Red Pisa dress.  But, with some help from google, I found a site that has a great deal more information Cocktatrice located a little more than halfway down the page. Although this dress is Italian, it is relevant because Italy borders the HRE in the south and the influences on dress are very evident in the southern regions.

Pisa dress from around 1550
Pisa dress from around 1550
  • Square neckline is fairly high on the chest
  • waist dips slightly in the front
  • rectangular skirt construction pleated to bodice
  • pleats do not continue at CF
  • CF closure
  • armseye shape is oddly angular in places
  • Hem is finished with a facing
  • no padding in the hem
  • shoulder seam is toward the back of the body
  • the dress is of a linen/wool blend!
  • the seams are completed with a backstitch
  • the seams are either flatfelled or left open
  • seam allowances were not tacked down
  • 7mm seam allowances (approx .25 inch)

An extant bodice dated to 1560 was found in a well in Prague Castle .  During this time in the century, Bohemia was included in the HRE through earlier marriages and it shares borders with the Germanic regions of Bavaria, Saxony, as well as Austria.

1560 Prague Bodice
1560 Prague Bodice
  • square wide open neckline
  • straps angled inward (like alcega)
  • front opening
  • low scooped out waistline

Turning back to artistic depictions, Weigel includes an illustration of a working woman from france in his Trachtenbuch of 1577.  France borders the Western borders of the Rhenish areas of the Germanic Regions.  located here

French woman from Hans Weigel's Trachtenbuch 1577
French woman 1577
  • square neckline
  • although waistline is not visible all the way to CF, it reads as straight based on the side view
  • shirt/under layer has straight narrow sleeves
  • awesome big straw hat perfect for sun protection
  • lacing method not visible, so either hidden lacing rings or lacing strips attached to inside of bodice out of sight
  • difficult to tell whether it is spiral or ladder lacing
  • no visible pleating under the CF opening
  • hem facing or guard at hem

Based on the above, I am going to draft a square neckline, but with the wide open feel of the Prague bodice.  My reasoning is that I have been pondering the angles Alcega uses in his bodice straps and I really like the lines that they create and the Prague bodice offers me the chance to try it out.  The waistline is going to follow my natural waist which means it will curve slightly down similar to the Pisa gown.

Center Front Details

Taking a look at the inspiration images from the Germanic Regions some generalizations about the details can be made.

CF Details
CF Details
  • most are spiral laced
  • ladder lacing is possible
  • means of lacing not visible
  • two pictures have circles on the outside.  Could be lacing holes or rings, but it doesn’t look like the lacing cord actually goes through, so it could just be a decorative detail
  • Some show a different color under the lacing, some the same color
  • No pleated fabric evident under the lacing
  • Lacing cord in black or white
  • Most have some sort of guarding present

So, for my dress, I will use hidden lacing rings in a spiral lacing formation.  I also plan to do a guarding detail down the center of each front panels.

What goes under the CF Lacing

This is the hard part.  So far we have determined that in the artwork, there is usually a flat fabric of varying color beneath the lacing.  This can be either a stomacher over a pair of bodies, a stomacher over a kirtle, a side or back closing kirtle, or a placket built into the dress itself.  I want to keep things fairly simple at this point because I want to get the dress done fairly quickly.  I already have a pair of bodies that gives me the proper silhouette, so I could make a stomacher or a placket to use with it.  However, since this is about having a cooler outfit, I don’t know that I want that extra layer.  The other option could be to make a self supporting dress with a stiffened placket or stomacher to fill the opening.  This would mean just one layer and would be the cooler option, but the most unlikely.  The jury is still out on this one.

So, based on the above evidence, the dress will have

  • Open CF with hidden lacing rings
  • Guarding down the CF
  • Square open neckline
  • Be sleeveless with optional sleeves that tie on
  • Follow my natural waistline
  • Gored skirt with a pleated waist
  • Faced hem
  • Skirt guards
  • still deciding on whether to use my pair of bodies or not

Now to get started patterning and cutting!

Building a better skirt: Padded hems

So, for the longest time, when I would build a new dress, the majority of my time was spent on the bodice and the pleating.  By the time I got to the skirt, everything was quick and dirty.  Just cut out a couple widths of fabric the length I needed, sew on the guards, hem and attach.  But, I was never truly happy with how the skirt would hang in the end.  I felt like I had to much fabric at the waist and the hang just didn’t jive with period portraiture.  So, I started investigating.  The first thing I realized was that most skirts in period seem to be cut circular or gored.  With the exception of one (that I have come across), all the other extant gowns are cut that way, and period tailor manuals seems to support it as well.  The second thing I noticed, was that the skirts used tailoring methods to create the hem.  That is what I am going to talk about today.

I first noticed the tailored hem in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion.  She goes into great detail about how the hem of the Eleanor of Toledo gown was constructed (p 41).  The hem is finished with a 8cm bias cut piece of satin facing, of which 3mm was left to show at the bottom. Sandwiched Inside this facing is a piece of wool felt Interfacing 38mm wide.  The diagram is excellent and shows where the stitching is and how wide everything is.  Interfacing in the hem shows up again on page 44 in the woman’s kirtle, this time it is a pink linen.  The dress on page 44 has a bound hem, although there is no mention of interfacing.  Then on page 55, Arnold details  a hemline with interfacing of linen canvas and facing of wool.  Finally the dress on page 56 is stiffened with linen or buckram behind a pink silk taffeta lining.

Then something else came to my mind…the Mary of Hungary gown detailed by here by Cynthia Virtue.  I had always loved the little detail of the darker green strip at the hem, buy I had always assumed it was there to protect the hem, but when I went back and looked again, I was convinced that what we are seeing is a padded hem.  I have tried to find more evidence and information about the hem, but to no avail.  But, the strip at the bottom and the way the folds of the hem fall make me 99% sure that it is a padded hem.


So, I started experimenting and the difference is huge.  The folds of the hem push out more and the skirt moves beautifully when you walk.  Sure, it takes a little bit longer, but in my book, the extra time is well worth it.  Take a look at this comparison of a skirt without a padded hem and one with.



So…how do you do it?  It’s pretty easy really.

Step one: Decide on the dimension of your hem facing strip.  I have found that a final height of 1.5 to 2 inches works very well.  Next, decide how much of the facing you want to show at the bottom.  I think anywhere between 1/4-1 inch is a good amount.  Add it all together to get the height of the strips you will cut…and don’t forget seam allowance.  For this particular skirt, I chose to have a 2 inch finished width plus a 1/2 inch (double this amount) showing and 1/2 inch seam allowance.  Since the facing is a wool felt, I decided to eliminate some bulk by not folding over the top edge of the facing.  For fabrics requiring a fold over, make sure to add the hem allowance in.  So, I need to cut out strips of facing the length of my hem and a height of 3 1/2 inches. Now, to figure out the interfacing height, just subtract the amount of the facing that is showing at the bottom from the final facing height.  So, the interfacing will be cut 3 inches in height.  If I had added a seam allowance for the foldover at the top of the hem facing, then I would subtract that as well.

Step 2: Cut out the facing and the interfacing strips.   I prefer to cut these on the bias as it takes a lot less effort going around the curves of the skirt hem.  For this, I used a blue wool flannel and a natural canvas linen ( IL095).  I have tried scraps of wool felt, flannel and the linen canvas and so far the linen canvas is my favorite.  I cut both out on the bias.  For the facing, the strips will need to be sewn together to make a continuous facing strip and then the seams pressed open.

Step 3: Stitch the facing strip to the bottom of the skirt.  I typically use a half inch seam allowance.  This is done with a running stitch, or with a straight machine stitch.

Press the seam allowances upward.  At this point, it is advisable on most fabrics to stitch the seam allowances down with a running stitch or a prick stitch.  Since this fabric seemed to behave and stay in place, I decided to skip this step this time…hopefully I won’t regret it later.

Step 4: Mark the placement of the fold.  For this one, it is the half inch that I decided in the first step would be showing, so I measure this downward from the seam line and mark it with chalk.  Then, fold the facing up and pin in place.

You will most likely end up with some wrinkling near the top edge of the facing.  This is because the conical shape of the skirt, and is easily addressed by pressing and shrinking it out with steam while you press the folded edge.


Step 5: with the facing unfolded, lay in the pieces of interfacing.  I don’t bother to stitch the facing edges together, since they will be enclosed in the facing.  Instead, I just give them a slight overlap.

They are first pinned in place, then I go through and use tailor basting to hold them in place.


Step 6: Fold the facing back up into place and stitch down.  For this I used a whip stitch, but you can use any stitch appropriate for a hem.


Give the hem one more light pressing and you are good to go.

Project: A fabulous smocked shirt for Adelheit

So, before I had to put everything else away in order to focus on my Pentathlon projects (the big A&S competition in Caid), I had started working on a new smocked shirt.  I hadn’t gotten to far, so I am going to document my progress here.

First, a little background is necessary.  To put it simply, Smocking is a manipulation technique where the fabric is gathered and held in place with stitches.  The term itself doesn’t show up until the 19th century. Some argue that the form of smocking that we see in the sixteenth century should be termed pleatwork embroidery since the term smocking covers some techniques that cannot be documented to period.  While it does do a better job of describing the technique, I believe that the term smocking speaks to a larger audience…and it’s a lot shorter.  So, for the sake of understanding and brevity, I choose to used the term smocking.

A review of artwork from the period shows that smocking was very popular in all regions of Germany for a good portion of the sixteenth century.  It can be seen on shirt collars and cuffs as well as the chest area of women’s hemd’s.  The embroidery was usually done with wool or silk thread in white, black, gold, or silver.

The hemd I am making is meant to go with a dress that is based on an illustration of a woman from the Saxon region found in Das Sächsische Stammbuch’ [subtitled as:] ‘Sammlung von Bildnissen sächsischer Fürsten, mit gereimtem Text; aus der Zeit von 1500 – 1546 which is a manuscript with portrait style illustrations, coats of arms and calligraphic rhyming text of the important people of Saxony.  Illustrated by Lucas Cranach and dated to 1546, Stammbuch literally (at least according to google) translates to Stud book and was a listing of important leaders in a region and their family tree.

The illustration that captured my interest is [195]-95 which is of Hertzog Heinrich and Katerina.  The text is [194]-94.  I would like to translate the text at some point to confirm, but upon preliminary investigations, I believe that this is portraying Catherine Mecklenburg, wife of Duke Henry the Pious (Henry IV) of Saxony.


Typically, when I am researching a garment that I plan to construct, I do all that I can to stay within the specific region and in a 10 year time frame of the inspiration artwork. I was able to find two additional images relatively quickly, but because many of the portraits from Saxony depict women of the court, the collar is the shirt is obscured by the gold collar necklace. However, these images do serve to show that the collars are pleated and do have surface decoration of some type. The one that interests me the most is the one in the top right corner. More about the decorative details later.

There are a number of ways to construct a hemd/chemise/shift, but for smocking, I have a preference to a specific type of construction. Luckily, another blogger Katafalk has an incredible tutorial detailing the same method I use. So, insread of re-inventing the wheel, here is a link Hemd Construction. In order to determine the amount of fabric I would need, I did a sample gathered piece and then adjusted the pieces to match the determined amount needed.

This is the hemd all laid out with the the seams sewn and ready for some embellishment.

I really wanted a special finish to the neck frill, so, drawings inspiration from the extant Sture shirt detailed in Janet Arnold’s patterns of fashion 4, I decided to decorate it with a drawn thread hemstitch. The first step was to complete a narrow rolled hem, then the drawn thread hemstitch was done.

Then, I decided I wanted a black edging. I tried several techniques, but they just didn’t have the look I wanted, until I came across this braiding technique. Basically, you couch down the inner two threads, then bring the outer two threads to the inside, couch them down, and repeat ad nauseum. The problem is that it is very slow going and awkward.

Then, at an event I was talking with Whilja of Whilja’s Corner and found out that she had discovered a better way while working on a replica of the shirt. I am going to try her way next. She posted her research and process on her site and it is a great read, and the shirt is breathtaking, I recommend you check it out here

And that is where I am at currently. Watch for more to come.

Sleeveless Dress

Thus far, my main interest in historic costume has been middle and upper class 16th century German. For the most part, I have always chosen to use set in sleeves because that is what is depicted for those classes. I also prefer to use wool or silk for my outer garments because it creates a gown that looks right. But…I do live in Southern California and there are times when it is just too miserably hot to be comfortable in even light weight wool. Also, my mentor recently gifted me with some very nice mid weight linen. So, I have decided to make a sleeveless linen gown as my next project. Luckily, the sleeveless style is not without historical precedence. I started a board of paintings and woodcuts and so far, from what I can tell, it looks to be an option for the working class and peasant women throughout the sixteenth cenntury. http:// – Many of the pictures show midwives and women working outside in these sleeveless gowns with their hemd sleeves rolled up out of the way. This first set of pictures represents 1510 to mid 1540’s image For the majority of pictures I have found, the bodice is the same color as the skirt and the wide neckline can be square or rounded. The dress straps are narrow, and in the artwork where the closure is visible, it does close in the front. The skirts tend to be ankle length or else they are girded up to keep them out of the way. Bodice and skirt guarding is a possibility, but not necessary,  as both are depicted. As I looked further into the century, more depictions of working class women show up in the seventies. These are representative of 1570’s to 1590’s image The silhouette is relatively similar, but the accessories and a few details have changed. The posture of the upper body seems to have changed to a more upright look. This could be due to a change in the way the bodice is cut and stiffened or it could just be artistic license. The artwork shows them wearing a partlet and the look is very reminiscent of the Flemish working class gown popularized by Drea Leed. All of these women wear an apron of some sort. The bodice is laced closed up the front, but unlike the Flemish dress, the skirt is not open in the front. Note: The woman on the far left is Westphalian, so her clothing is influenced by Dutch fashion, which is quite evident on her headwear.  But, it is a Germanic region, and aside from the accessories, the dress is so similar that I have chosen to include it. That wraps it up for my first post. I feel like I will most likely be making an ensemble from the last quarter of the century, since I really like the look. I have more research to do first, so keep posted for updates!