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Shoes, dyes, fabrics and lace – Refashioning the Renaissance workshop in Toronto and NYC

Following our series of four panels at the Renaissance Society of America in Toronto, the Refashioning the Renaissance team took the opportunity to explore the city, and then travelled across the border and to New York for a four-day research trip in order to discuss, experiment, and see early modern textiles with some American colleagues and collaborators.

Before we left Toronto, we were able to spend a few heavenly hours with curator Elizabeth Semmelhack in the Bata Shoe Museum’s stores, where we saw richly decorated Spanish and Italian platform chopines, medieval leather pointed shoes, porcupine-quill decorated moccasins, seventeenth-century English slap-soled heels, and even some more humble slashed leather shoes that might have been worn by the artisans we study at the Refashioning project. We were joined by Making and Knowing’s Principal Investigator Pamela Smith, with whom we had some stimulating discussions about the recent scholarly turn to object-based investigations, and also recorded a podcast (keep your eyes and ears peeled on the website for that).

Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, holds a velvet-covered chopine. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Once in New York, we headed straight to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Textile Conservation department, where we were hosted by Cristina Carr, whose expertise with a microscope reveals the intricate skills and painterly effects that could be achieved by embroiderers, weavers and seamstresses in the early modern period (for more, see this interview with her by our colleagues at the Materialized Identities project). It was a joy to see the cutting-edge technology and patient skill of the conservators who work behind the scenes to care for some of the museum’s most delicate objects. We also visited the Ratti Center, where curator Elizabeth Cleland and her colleagues viewed a range of textiles and accessories that early modern artisans may have worn during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with us. Among these were stunning pieces of needle and bobbin lace from Italy and the Netherlands, woollen velvets, and linen aprons. Although the Met provides many high-resolution images on its website, nothing compares to being able to view these pieces in person, to see the lustre and colour of their dyestuffs and fibres, and to spend time with our curatorial and conservation colleagues discussing the techniques, materials, and context of these objects.

Viewing, discussing, and documenting the Met’s textile collections. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Sophie Pitman looks closely at some stamped velvet at the Ratti Center. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Piia Lempiäinen with a woollen velvet fragment. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

I also had the chance to visit the Moroni exhibition at The Frick Collection, remarkable for how the curators have placed surviving brocades, fans, and jewellery next to portraits which depict men and women wearing very similar garments and accessories. Giving these objects a presence in the gallery space focuses the viewer not only on the individual but also their carefully chosen attire and accoutrements. Moroni’s enigmatic portrait of an anonymous tailor, well-loved by the Refashioning team, was on display alongside a beautiful pair of decorated iron scissors from France, placing the artisan’s tools and social status (the cutter was, and remains, the most important tailor in the workroom) centre stage.

Members of the Making and Knowing and Refashioning the Renaissance Teams in the lab, Columbia University. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

We spent a rich and exhausting day back at my former stomping ground, the Making and Knowing Lab at Columbia University, where project Manager Naomi Rozenkranz and I designed a day all about early modern red dyes. Bringing together the Making and Knowing and Refashioning the Renaissance teams to dye kermes, cochineal, and madder on wool, silk, and linen was a wonderful way to not just discuss reconstruction in theory but to actually make and experiment together. Our experiment focus was prompted by the need for some naturally dyed textiles for the upcoming ‘Dirty Laundry’ workshop, so stay tuned to the website to see how we stained these beautiful swatches with oil, wine and iron gall ink (using the ink made for us by Naomi!). We also had time to discuss the challenges and practicalities of materials sourcing, notetaking, safety issues and planning, and toasted past and future collaborations over an Aperol Spritz in Morningside Heights.

Paula Hohti grinds kermes lice to make red dye (left) and textile being removed from dye bath (right). Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Madder, Cochineal, Kermes and Weld dyed textiles drying in the Making and Knowing Lab. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Our final workshop day was spent at the Textile Arts Center learning to make bobbin lace with Elena Kanagy-Loux, who has travelled around Europe learning regional styles and techniques directly from lacemakers. At first, the simple gestures and satisfying click-clack of the bobbins convinced us that we might all be making yards of lace in no time, but as the patterns became more complicated, we recognised the high levels of skill, patience, and innovation employed by early modern lacemakers. Elena discussed the 1559 Venetian pattern book Le Pompe with us, explaining how lacemakers might interpret the patterns differently depending on their regional and personal techniques, and taught us how we might learn to read and make some of the patterns ourselves, with a little more time and determination. After all, in the words of Frank Sinatra, if we can make it here, we can make it anywhere.

Michele Robinson and Anne-Kristine Sinvald Larsen making bobbin lace. Below Sophie Pitman demonstrates some bobbin lace techniques. Photo and video copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

Sampling tailor’s techniques—launching the experimental phase

What skills did artisans use to achieve Renaissance fashions? How can historians learn and study with their hands? These questions are on our minds as we launch the experimental phase of the Refashioning the Renaissance Project. For our first foray into hands-on making as a team we decided to get to grips with tailoring, and so we invited Melanie Braun, Head of Wardrobe at the Nationale Reisopera, Enschende, Netherlands and teacher at the School of Historical Dress, London to Aalto University to lead an intensive two-day workshop introducing us to early modern tailoring techniques.  

Jan Georg van Vliet, Kleermaker, 1635, etching on paper, 21 cm x 16.2 cm, Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-103.713

Melanie is a trained tailor whose skills were honed during an apprenticeship at the Staatstheater Braunschweig, and many years working in theatre companies, including at Shakespeare’s Globe. Along with the rest of the team at the School of Historical Dress, she has closely examined dozens of surviving early modern objects in museum collections and has created patterns and reconstructions of many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century garments. Our workshop focused on both the range of stitches and materials used by the tailor, and the geometrical pattern drafting that enabled the creation of the distinctive shapes of renaissance clothing.

Melanie Braun holds up a sampler showing early modern tailoring techniques.

We set out to create a small sampler which enabled us to try out the types of stitches, linings and techniques that tailors used. First we began with running stitch, a stabbing in and out action that many of us were familiar with from school needlework lessons. But once we started exploring a range of possible stitches – back stitch, half-back stitch, felling stitch – we realised how these techniques required different amounts of thread, took varied amounts of time and concentration, and provided a range of strengths and visual effects.

Sophie Pitman concentrates on making an even stitch.

Even seemingly simple tasks, like repeatedly threading a small needle or being able to create a balanced and neat stitch could be challenging to us as amateurs. Seeing how quickly Melanie could create a knot with one hand or judge just the right amount of thread to use, demonstrated the value of years of experience, something that twenty-first-century and sixteenth-century tailors alike acquire over years of apprenticeship.

Melanie showing Michele Robinson how to work with a thimble.

Using wool and short staple unspun cotton, we experimented with quilting, which tailors often sewed into the linings of a garment to provide shape, warmth and even protection. Structure could also be added with pad stitches, diagonal stitches done in v-shaped rows that give collars, bellypieces, tabs and shoulders added volume and curves. Tailors also sat on the table in order to use their bodies to shape the fabric.

Piia Lempiänen works sitting on the table, just as tailors did in the seventeenth century.

We also tried drafting pattern shapes with a compass. While we do not know exactly how tailors measured their clients and then drafted patterns for them which ensured a flattering and fashionable fit, a close examination of surviving garments suggests that early modern tailors were true geometers, using proportion and curves to create elegant and balanced shapes. Watching Melanie expertly draft a pattern, combining her trained eye for shape and her knowledge of well-proportioned measurements, demonstrated how the tailor had to know mathematically and practically how to transform two-dimensional materials into three-dimensions.

Geometrical pattern drafting of a doublet front.

Hands-on experimentation revealed how actually trying the various steps in the making process can raise many questions about early modern material culture – how, for example, did tailors measure their clients, where did they source their lining materials, how strong were the smallest needles in the sixteenth century, and did tailors feel anxious when cutting valuable materials? Working with skilled makers helps us to ask better questions and fill in gaps where no archival, visual, or material records survive, and it also helps us better understand extant sources. By working with our hands, we are also training our eyes. When looking closely at garments in museums that contain some of the techniques we struggled with, we can better appreciate the tailor’s highly skilled work.

Not only did these two days enable us to experience some of the techniques used by skilled artisans, but the workshop was also an opportunity for us to learn how best to document our experiments with field notes, photographs, and films. Over the coming months, we will continue to share our experiences with hands-on experimentation.


Further Reading:

Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 3: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c. 1560-1620, Macmillan, 1985.

Melanie Braun, Luca Costigliolo, Susan North, Claire Thornton & Jenny Tiramani, 17th Century Men’s Dress Patterns 1600–1630, Thames & Hudson & V&A, 2016.