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New Research in Dress History Conference, 24 May 2019

Man’s doublet, possibly Italian, c. 1550-60. Red satin lined in canvas, trimmed with handmade silk buttons. National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh boasts a wonderful collection of clothing and textiles, like the Italian doublet pictured above. This made it the perfect venue for the New Research in Dress History Conference, which took place on Friday the 24th of May. This is an annual event organised by the Association of Dress Historians, and this year it featured seventeen presentations on research spanning the late medieval period to today, and covering North and South America, Europe and Asia.
 
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to present my paper, ‘Books of Secrets and Artisans’ Dress in Italy, 1550–1650′, in the first panel of the day. The paper brought together my research on recipe books and the results of the workshop that the Refashioning the Renaissance project hosted in April. I spoke about the considerable investment that average people living in early modern Italy had to make in order to obtain clothing, drawing on examples from the inventories of artisans’ household that Stefania has been gathering and transcribing over the last 18 months. I then presented some ideas about ways that people might have cared for their clothes – to keep them in good condition and to help them keep their value – based on evidence from recipe books. I then spoke about the project’s ‘Dirty Laundry’ workshop, where we recreated different recipes for stain removers, simple dyes and a perfume for linen chests. As I explained at the conference, recreating the recipes helped us to ask new questions about artisans’ dress, look at things from new perspectives and recognise the importance of socialising and relationships in shaping the ways that people cared for their clothing.

A slide from my presentation showing our team admiring the results of our efforts at the workshop alongside an image of washing day from a German manuscript. Both show the importance of collaboration. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

I was on the same panel as Astrid Pajur, a PhD student that the Refashioning the Renaissance team met on our trip to Uppsala University last year. In her paper, ‘Clothes, Practices, and Social Relations in Seventeenth Century Tallinn, Swedish Baltic Empire’, Astrid also spoke about the importance of social networks in relation to dress. She presented the wonderful example of an organ builder who did not feel he was provided with the outfit ‘in the latest fashion’ that he had requested from a local tailor and decided to take action against him. This resulted in a long and complicated dispute between the two men, each leaning on their colleagues and fellow townspeople for support. As Astrid demonstrated, the value of the clothes also had a social aspect, as the organ builder felt he would face ridicule and damage to his honour if he wore the unfashionable outfit provided by the tailor.

A slide from Astrid Pajur’s presentation. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

The panels in the afternoon featured presentations on a range of interesting topics, including the female suppliers of clothing and accessories to the nineteenth-century French court, metallic bobbin lace from Sweden’s royal wardrobe, dress for cycling in the First Brazilian Republic and the problem of women’s hats in late nineteenth-century American theatres. I was quite intrigued by Eliza McKee’s paper, ‘Landed Estate Clothing Societies in Rural Ulster, Ireland, 1830–1914′, which explored the dress of the poor through evidence around clothing clubs. As part of these clubs, the wives and daughters of wealthy landowners brought together donations that provided their impoverished tenants with clothing, especially for winter. The details of these garments and lengths of fabrics were captured in detailed account books and registers kept by the club members, monitoring this important aspect of their tenants’ lives.

Eliza McKee presenting her research. Photo copyright Refashioning the Renaissance Project.

I also saw some interesting connections between my paper and that of Leren Li, titled: ‘Japanese Boro and the Designing of Frugality in Contemporary Fashion’. Leren explained the Japanese terms boroand boroboro, which refer to tattered garments and soft furnishings. In the past, when many Japanese people lived in rural areas with very little money, women mended and created new garments clothing through the recycling of pieces and patches from other textiles.

Robe worn by a Japanese peasant or fisherman and pieced together with indigo-dyed cotton, c. 1850-1900. Cotton, 115x120cm. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Today, at least in urban centres in Japan but also Europe and North America, garments are still patched up in this way, but for reasons of fashion rather than poverty. For instance, the jacket pictured below, which features hand-stitched ‘boro’ patchwork, can be purchased for just under 1400 Euros on Etsy! Leren also spoke about workshops that teach people to mend their clothing in the borostyle, and in some instances, participants bring new t-shirts with purposely cut holes, which they patch with vintage fabric.

Although the papers presented at the conference were many and diverse, they were unified by the importance all placed on how meaningful dress is and was in the past. Each paper, in its way, highlighted the multiple ways that different people and groups develop or derive meaning from clothing – whether their own, that for their families, friends or customers and through production, consumption or even just spectatorship. Most importantly, as each paper demonstrated, clothing takes its multiple, complex meanings from the social realms in which it lives.

Refashioning the Renaissance Citizen Science Project: Voluntary knitting initiative

Several times over the past two years, students and enthusiastic craftspeople have contacted us, asking how they could be involved in our project. Having thought about this with the rest of our team members, we decided to set up a voluntary knitting initiative. Following my initial enquiries early last Autumn in Facebook, and our official call at the start of this year, we now have about thirty-five voluntary craft experts in our project to create different types of Renaissance stockings for our project, from more simple artisanal ones to the fine and rare seventeenth-century silk stockings that survive in Turku Cathedral Museum.

The project started officially in February 2019. Assisted by the textile conservator Maj Ringaard from the National Museum of Denmark who is an expert in historical knitting, our voluntary knitters first made test samples. We provided them with very fine 0,7mm, 1mm and 2 mm knitting needles, as well as fine wool that resembled the original historical yarn as closely as possible.

Volunteer knitters testing out needles and yarns.

Our volunteers then had to decide what they wanted to start working on, choosing from several alternatives. One option was to reconstruct a coarse and a simpler type of artisanal stocking, based on surviving examples at the National Museum of Denmark; another option was to try to reconstruct a stocking using the first known knitting hose recipe from England in 1655; and the third—and most challenging—option was to reconstruct a fine knitted stocking from Turku Cathedral Museum, either using fine wool or silk.

We are concentrating on three different stocking models in our project. Stocking pattern on the right courtesy of Maj Ringgaard.

It takes quite a lot of skill and patience to knit a Renaissance stocking. What makes this a challenging project is, first, that, as we do not have instuctions for any of the stockings, the group has to come up with the instructions and patterns for the decorations, and then solve the technical issues as they knit the stockings. It is also extremely difficult and time-consuming to knit on 1mm needles, as I discovered myself too during our test session. Another similar knitting project, Silk Stockings from Texel, led by Dr. Chrystel Brandenburgh, carried out at the Textile Research Centre in Leiden, showed that it takes about 200 hours to knit just one fine silk stocking, such as these ones seen below, which I saw in January at the ”Burgundian Black Collaboratory” workshop.

Silk stockings knitted for the Silk Stocking Project led by Dr. Chrystel Brandenburgh.

This type voluntary research initiative is called a Citizen Science Project. The aim of our experiment is not only to reconstruct Renaissance stockings, but we also want to investigate the process, such as, how long does it take to knit a silk stocking or what level of sophistication was needed to produce an artisanal stocking compared to a fine stocking. Therefore, our voluntary knitters are not only experts in knitting, but they also produce important scientific research data of the process of making for our project. 

You can follow the progress of the stockings on our website, from on our blog and in the future in our research section!

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.