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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.

Visit to the Turku Cathedral

On Wednesday 20 February 2019 our team members Piia Lempiäinen and Sophie Pitman travelled to Turku, the old capital of Finland, to visit the Turku Cathedral and their museum storage. The aim of this visit was to study the 17th century burial clothes collected from the cathedral graves in 1920’s, and especially the knitted stockings, for our upcoming citizen science project. Turku Cathedral Museum Intendant Elina Ovaska was kind enough to host us, and Conservator of Church Textiles Päivi Allinniemi from the Turun museokeskus joined us to study the stockings.

There are nine knitted and one woven stocking in the Turku Cathedral Museum collection, and we were able to study, measure, and photograph all of them, and take fibre samples of two of the stockings. While all the stockings originate from early modern graves from inside the cathedral, most of them lack dating. The only exception is the pair of knitted silk stockings found in the coffin of Elisabeth Bure, dated to 1650, a pair we are going to study and recreate in our citizen science project. These stockings are knitted with fine c. 0,7 mm needles in dark, lustrous silk, and feature beautiful decorative elements. We are commissioning fibre and colour analysis of these stockings to help us gain information on and reconstruct them.

We were very excited to visit the storage and were so thankful for all the help from Elina and Päivi! After our visit, Päivi transported the stocking from Elisabeth Bure’s coffin to Turku Castle, where everyone will be able to see this beautiful stocking on 8 Mar 2019–8 Mar 2020 in the A Few Words about Women exhibition.

Intendent Elina Ovaska showing some of the burial clothes in the Turku Cathdedral Museum storage.

Stockings, ribbons, and printed fabric.

Taking a sample from a stocking.

Detail of a stocking found in Elisabeth Bure’s coffin.

Visit to Uppsala and Stockholm, 17–18 October 2018

On the 17th and 18th October Paula Hohti, Michele Robinson, Piia Lempiäinen and Anne-Kristine Sindvald Larsen travelled to Sweden to meet our fellow textile researchers and colleagues and share research ideas about historical textile research. It was Dr. Cecilia Aneer, who so kindly had arranged a very exciting two-day program for us. 

We spent the first day at Uppsala University, were we met the researchers from the Textile Studies unit and had a seminar, with each of us presenting our current research. We talked about the aims and goals of our project, and heard presentations covering a range of topics, from tailoring techniques and textile science to cultural meanings of dress. This gave us an insight into the topics that textile researchers in the Scandinavian context are currently discussing. 

After the seminar, we walked through the beautiful city centre of Uppsala, into the Cathedral, which holds a museum collection of historical liturgical textiles. Many of these are made of stunning medieval and early modern patterned silks and velvets. In the museum, we also got a chance to see some unique surviving garments from our period, including the golden gown of Queen Margareta (d. 1412), and the famous ‘Sture costumes’ that used to belong to Svante Sture, a sixteenth-century Swedish Count and statesman, and his two sons Erik and Niels, all murdered in Uppsala Castle in 1567. 

Queen Margareta’s gown.

The Sture Costumes.

We ended the day with a lovely dinner at the Art history Department of Uppsala University, where we had a chance to get to know each better and learn more about each other’s projects.

On the second day we travelled, together with Cecilia Aneer, from Uppsala to Stockholm to visit the Vasa Museum. Here, we were greeted by Fred Hocker, the research leader of the museum’s collections, and the textile research assistants, Anna Silwerulv and Karolina Pallin. 

The Vasa ship.

With this team of experts, we learned about Vasa-ship and its history, and the textiles that were found in the ship when it sank in the harbour of Stockholm in 1628. In addition to examining the textiles and objects that were on display at the museum space, we were fortunate to be able to visit also the storerooms of the museum that included a notable collection of further clothing and textile objects, from shoes and shirts to delicate buttons, pins and jewellery. 

Textile fragments from the ship.

After the guided tour to the impressive collections of the Vasa-museum, we spent the rest of the day with the research team, learning how they document, study, and re-interpret the textile fragments that were found at the 16-century ship in the museum textile documentation project, simply by looking at the objects closely, or by using microscopic analysis. This was really interesting for us, since most of the textiles that were found were from ordinary people.