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Put a stamp on it: early modern embossed textiles

20 December 2019

During the early modern period, people embraced decorative embellishments on clothing like never before. Glance at any portrait from the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and you will see clothing with a wide range of surface decorations ranging from elaborate geometric and floral patterns, large slashes and small pinks cut into fabrics, to applied ribbons, braid, pearls, gemstones and spangles.

One method of fashionable surface decoration was stamping or ‘printing’ into textiles, embossing motifs into a fabric using heat and pressure. It seems to have been a technique embraced by the artisanal classes, for we find dozens of mentions of fabrics described as ‘stampato’ (stamped) in inventories from Florence, Siena, and Venice, particularly after the turn of the seventeenth century. For example, in 1627 the Florentine Linen merchant Filippo di Sforzo Guerrieri owned a pair of stamped sleeves and a white silk doublet that was both stamped and slashed, and furnished with gold ribbon (‘Un giubbone di raso bianco stampato et trinciato fornito con un nastrino d’oro’) (Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, 2718/2, 13v, 1627). An inventory taken on 27 February 1634 recorded that the tailor Piero di Giovanni had 30 braccia of yellow stamped mockado in a nasty condition in his shop (‘30 braccia di mucaiardo stampato giallo cattivo’) (Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, Folder 2719, 117r). Giovanni also owned a doublet stamped with waves (‘stampato a onde’).

One page of the inventory of Piero di Giovanni, 27 February 1634, Archivio di Stato, Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, Folder 2719, 117r

My current research on imitation textiles explores these stamped fabrics, which survive in relatively large numbers in museum collections. By the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries, stamping became firmly associated with furnishing fabrics, so often these textiles are assumed to be fragments of wall hangings or furniture, but I am interested in finding out the uses of stamped textiles in clothing during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Extant textiles show a wide range of stamped designs ranging from the relatively small and simple floral motifs to large fleurs-de-lis and heraldic crests. Which designs were used for clothing, and what was the cultural importance of this method of design?

Fragment, 17th century, silk, Cooper Hewitt Museum, Gift of John Pierpont Morgan; 1902-1-462-a,b

One fabric that was often stamped to great effect was velvet, a fabric with a raised pile usually made of silk, but for those lower down the economic and social spectrum often made of mixed fibres such as wool, linen, or hair. Stamped patterns could imitate more costly methods of patterning, such as woven brocades or cut pile velvets, as in this example.

Doublet and Breeches, 1630-1640, satin, linen, and buckram, Victoria and Albert Museum, 348&A-1905 and a detail of the stamped satin.

But stamped fabrics were also enjoyed in their own right, as the method provided a means of changing the way light glances off the surface of the textile, as was likely the effect of Giovanni’s wavy doublet. The effect is strikingly different on soft wool, smooth silk, and plush velvets. A white stamped satin doublet and hose from the Victoria and Albert Museum gives us an idea as to what Filippo di Sforzo Guerrieri’s stamped silk doublet might have looked like, and shows that sometimes stamping was a technique not used to imitate woven or cut pile fabrics but instead was embraced for its ability to give texture to a shiny satin.

‘Découper et Gaufreur,’ in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, L’Encyclopédie. [38], Arts de l’habillement : [recueil de planches sur les sciences, les arts libéraux et les arts méchaniques, avec leur explication, (Paris, 1751-1780), Plate II.

In the eighteenth century, a rolling press to print or emboss pieces of stuffs, like velvet vests (‘pour gaufrer des morceaux d’étoffes, comme vestes de velours’) was included in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-1780). Detailed illustrations show how fabric is pressed between one plain roller and an engraved roller to imprint a repeating design across the upper surface of the textile. In earlier periods stamping was probably done by hand, using heated metal stamps. During a workshop at the School of Historical Dress in London, we experimented with stamping some velvet using the tines of a fork, heated over a hot plate. At first it was hard to calculate the correct amount of heat to create a clear imprint in the pile without burning the fibres, but once we had practiced a few times on offcuts of velvet we felt confident enough to stamp a hatched pattern quite successfully into our doublets.

Using a fork heated over a hot plate, we experimented with stamping a simple pattern onto velvet at the School of Historical Dress in August 2019. Photo by Sophie Pitman.

Explorations into these kinds of innovative, imitative, and inexpensive methods of decoration in clothing enable us to reconstruct the ways non-elite members of society were engaging with fashionable clothing in the early modern period. Our experiments with stamping will be published and put on display in due course, so check back on the Refashioning website for more information over the coming year.

Dress under the Microscope conference in Lisbon, 12–13 September

15 November 2019

This year our project has delved deep into experimental work, and we have spent a lot of time thinking about different traditional techniques, scientific experiments, and methodology. Sophie Pitman and I were very excited to take part of the Dressing the Early Modern Network’s conference Dress under the Microscope: Contributions of Science and Technology to the Study of Early Modern Dress in Lisbon on 12–13 September 2019. The conference was organised in the National Museum of Theatre and Dance. The aim of the conference was to generate a discussion on how science and technology complement other approaches in the interdisciplinary field of early modern dress.

The conference programme offered a varied and nuanced look into this subject. Some of the presentations concentrated on specific scientific methods and their use, such as Jenni A. Suomela’s paper on plant fibre identification and Ana Filipa Serrano’s on various non-invasive techniques for textile studies, while others discussed the methodology in a broader sense, such as Jane Malcolm-Davies’ paper on dating knitted objects and Annelena de Groot’s paper on reconstructions. We also heard several interesting case studies on how these methods have benefitted research. Another very interesting topic was the use of databases and digital data analysis.

Piia Lempiäinen presenting at the Dress Under the Microscope Conference. Photo: Refashioning the Renaissance.

Sophie and I both presented a paper at the conference. My presentation Stitching History Together: Using Scientific Methods and Citizen Science to Understand Early Modern Stockings, was built around our citizen science project, which I have been steering since the start of this year. Scientific analysis is a central part of the reconstruction of the 17th century stocking in the Turku Cathedral, and my paper discussed what kind of tools and methods this type of research can provide for cultural analysis of historical dress. Sophie’s paper From Microscope to Archive and Back Again: How Microscopes, Social Media, and Collaboration Can Lead to New Findings in Dress History presented a case study of a re-dating of an object based on multidisciplinary methods and close reading, and it will be published in the future.

Sophie Pitman presenting at the Dress Under the Microscope Conference. Photo: Refashioning the Renaissance.

In addition of interesting papers, conference programme also included a visit to the beautiful Museum of Costume. We thoroughly enjoyed this fantastic conference and look forward to the next one!

Museum of Costume. Photo: Refashioning the Renaissance.

17th century clothing at the Museum of Costume. Photo: Refashioning the Renaissance.

An inn-keeper’s inventory and inspiration

Inventories are key to providing us with insight into the clothing that people had in their homes or in shops like those of tailors and second-hand-clothing vendors. Thanks to Stefania’s hard work gathering, transcribing and categorising these documents for the project’s database, we have a huge amount of data that can be used to try and trace trends in consumption, like the kinds of colours or fabrics that were popular at various times and in different cities. But the inventories can also support more focused research and help us develop case-studies, as they sometimes provide a great deal of information about families and individuals. This in turn helps us to develop a fuller picture of how clothing may have been linked to different aspects of identity, for instance profession, marital status, wealth, age or the neighbourhood in which people lived or worked.

The first page of the inventory of Oratio Franceschini’s home and inn. Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli, busta 2717, 7 August 1617, 162r–165v.

For instance, Oratio Franceschini was an inn-keeper in Florence until his death in 1617, when an inventory was drawn up of his inn and home. The document tells us that the inn where he worked and lived with his wife, Silvia, and their underaged children was located on the corner of via il Prato and via Palazzuolo. The approximate location of the inn is shown circled in red in the image below. After Oratio’s death, the ownership of the building was split between his brother, Zanobi and Madonna Olivia, who was his paternal aunt and the wife of Giovanni Parlanti, also an inn-keeper and present at the time the inventory was compiled. There are several points in the inventory where Giovanni interjects to give details on entries, such as the names of owners of things that had been pawned to Oratio or which pieces of clothing belonged to Silvia.

A map of Florence in the late-sixteenth century. Stefano Buonsignori, Nova pulcherrimae civitatis Florentiae topographia accuratissime delineate, 1594. Museo “Firenze com’era”, Florence.

A detail of Buonsignori’s map showing the approximate location of Oratio Franceschini’s inn and home.

Indeed, there are many, many garments listed in this inventory, aspects of which dovetail with the interests of different members of the project, offering points of departure for further research. For instance, three of Oratio’s shirts as well as a number of sheets and napkins are noted as having been ‘in the wash’ when the inventory was made, and there are tubs for laundry listed in the inn’s kitchen suggesting some of this work – washing clothing and linens – was done at the inn.

Ippolito Scarsella’spainting showing the laundering of linens outside of an inn. Ippolito Scarsella, Supper at Emmaus, c. 1600. Oil on canvas, 99 x 124cm. Private Collection. Image courtesy of Fondazione Federico Zeri, University of Bologna.

This is really useful evidence for my research on caring for clothing in this period, part of what our experiments with recipes meant to support in April. We don’t know very much about the laundering of clothes in this period, but that it was usually done by women, who were sometimes hired by other households to wash their linens. These could be washed in a mix of hot water and lye at home, if one had the necessary tools (like Silvia, the inn-keeper’s wife), but it was hard work, carrying loads of wet laundry to a riverbed or well to beat and rinse the items with the water. Women also had to protect the clothing against thieves as it hung to dry, and protect themselves from the unsavoury characters that sometimes lurked about riverbeds. This, and that some laundresses were reformed prostitutes, gave the work negative connotations and meant that it was very important for the women that did this work to be careful in order to stay safe and keep their reputations—and those of their families—intact.

The title page of a poem by the Bolognese poet and songwriter Giulio Cesare Croce, about a laundress in search of clients with clothes for her to wash. Giulio Cesare Croce, La Filippa da Calcara (Bologna: gli eredi di Cochi, 1628).

Keeping linens clean was important for good hygiene but also for social and cultural reasons; for instance, in the early modern period, having bright white linens became a sign of civility, politeness and purity. Laundry was especially important at an establishment like an inn, as both beds and food and drink were provided to guests, meaning bedding, tablecloths and napkins would have been dirtied quickly and frequently. A common complaint about contemporary inns was that they were unclean; for instance, in his description of all the professions found in Venice, Tommaso Garzoni notes in his La piazza universale (1605) how typical it was for inns to have ragged towels, sheets in pieces, cushions that stink of urine and bolsters full of bedbugs (711–2)! To combat this kind of stereotype, it may have been even more important that inn-keepers ensure linens were clean and, as mentioned above, there were tablecloths and napkins in the wash with Oratio’s shirts.

In this period there were many negative ideas about inns and inn-keepers; this moralising engraving shows the debauchery of a local inn with the inscription: “The nuzzle of dogs, the love of whores, the hospitality of inn-keepers: None of it comes without cost.” Gillis van Breen, Inn Scene with Prostitutes, 1597. Engraving, 133 x 194 mm. Prentenkabinet, Universiteit, Leiden.

Evidence in the inventory of Oratio’s home and workplace suggest efforts to keep clothing and linens clean; however, there is also evidence of garments that were in rough shape. The document describes many shirts, hose, cloaks, skirts and doublets as ‘nasty’, and to a lesser degree, ‘broken’ and ‘ragged’. Garments like these, like those ‘in the wash’, are also useful pieces of evidence for my research on how people cared for their clothing and in particular, the very long life-span of garments. ‘Nasty’ and ‘ragged’ clothes remind us that in the past, people did not just get rid of items that were no longer in pristine condition or in the latest style. Instead, these were re-dyed, mended, re-used and worn until they could be worn no more. This is part of why we have so few extant garments from this period, when people rarely threw out clothing and instead sold it off, transformed it into something new, or wore it to rags and then sold those rags on to be made into paper.

These underpants found under the floor of an Austrian castle show signs they were repaired at least three times! Perhaps we should take a lesson from our ancestors? Underpants from Lengberg Castle, Nikolsdorf. Fifteenth-century. Linen. Nikolsdorf, East Tyrol, Austria; Lengberg Castle.

Although much later than this inventory, Gaetano Zompini’s engraving shows a female second-hand clothes dealer at work. Gaetano Zompini, ‘Revendigola (Secondhand Clothes Dealer)’, plate 39 in Le Arti che vanno per via nella Città di Venezia(1785). Engraving and etching on laid paper; plate: 26.7 x 18.3 cm (10 1/2 x 7 3/16 in.).

The inn-keeper’s inventory shows that the family had clothes in the wash and garments in rags, but also some pieces that sound rich and colourful. For example, Silvia had several head-coverings that were trimmed with gold and silver and a muff made of fur. The inventory also describes an over-gown the colour of sea water, a bodice of lavender and a shirt the colour of dried roses. We also find sleeves of silk, a black satin bag and a doublet of light wool. Some of these fabrics, garment-types and colours don’t survive today, and we must turn to contemporary images and other texts to try and understand what they looked like. We can also try to recreate these textures, colours and objects through experiments, as with the project’s colour workshop in September 2019 and the doublet that Sophie is working to recreate. It will be really exciting to see our results!

This small image from a printed game shows in interior of an inn with an inn-keeper, seller of wine and a serving woman. Similar to inventories, it offers some detail about their clothing but not the colour! Detail from Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, Gioco de mestieri a chi va bene e a chi va male, 1698. Etching, 326x438mm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Inventories like that of Oratio Franceschini’s home and workplace can help shed light on the wide variety of clothes that regular sorts of people had – those in the wash, ragged or beautifully coloured. They sometimes offer vivid descriptions and points from which we can investigate further using contemporary texts, poems, images and other archival documents. We can also use experiments to try to recreate fabrics, perfumes, colours and finishing techniques to bring back to life and refashion what is now lost.

Representations of the Supper at Emmaus were popular in the early modern period and give us a glimpse of what might have been worn by contemporary inn-keepers, like the one here with a cap, white ruffled collar, brown jerkin, doublet with red sleeves and a white shirt with sleeves rolled up. Paring these kinds of images with inventories and other sources can help us determine how truthful they are.  Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, 1601. Oil on canvas, 141 x 196 cm. National Gallery, London.


For further reading:

On inn-keepers and their homes/work places:

  • Paula Hohti, “The Innkeeper’s Goods: The Use and Acquisition of Household Property in Sixteenth-Century Siena,” in The Material Renaissance, ed. Michelle O’Malley and Evelyn S. Welch, Studies in Design (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 242–59.

On laundry, hygiene and washer women:

  • Katherine F. Rinne, “The Landscape of Laundry in Late Cinquecento Rome,” Studies in the Decorative Arts9, no. 1 (2001): 34–60.
  • Guido Guerzoni, “Servicing the Casa,” in At Home in Renaissance Italy, ed. Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis (London: V&A Publications, 2006), 146–51.
  • Douglas Biow, The Culture of Cleanliness in Renaissance Italy(Ithaca ; London: Cornell University Press, 2006).
  • Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey, Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), especially chapter 8, ‘Excretions as Excrements: The Hygiene of the Body’, pp. 240-239.

On the second-hand market and the pawning of clothes in early modern Italy:

  • Patricia Allerston, “Reconstructing the Second-Hand Clothes Trade in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Venice,” Costume 33, no. 1 (January 1, 1999): 46–56.
  • Giulia Calvi, “Abito, Genere, Cittadinanza Nella Toscana Moderna (Secoli XVI-XVII),” Quaderni Storici 110 (2002): 477–503.
  • Isabella Cecchini, “A World of Small Objects: Probate Inventories, Pawns, and Domestic Life in Early Modern Venice,” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 35, no. 3 (2012): 39–61.
  • Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli, “From the Closet to the Wallet: Pawning Clothes in Renaissance Italy,” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme 35, no. 3 (2012): 23–38.
  • Carole Collier Frick, “The Florentine ‘Rigattieri’: Second Hand Clothing Dealers and the Circulation of Goods in the Renaissance,” in Old Clothes, New Looks, ed. Alexandra Palmer and Hazel Clark, Dress, Body, Culture (Berg Publishers, 2004), 13–28.