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Making Material: Reconstructing Early Modern Fashion Using Experimental Methods

Sophie Pitman

As the experimental lead on the Refashioning the Renaissance Project, my research combines archival, visual, and material sources with hands-on experimentation in order to study the clothing of artisans in early modern Europe.

Very few items of clothing survive from the Renaissance, and those that do can give us a skewed image of clothing in that era. Most of the garments that have been well preserved in collections belonged to the elites, and even when they are in good condition, many objects show signs of later alterations and are faded and damaged. Archaeological finds can also give the impression that everyday clothing was somewhat flat and brown. So how can we bring to life objects that no longer exist?

In 2019, the project will be focused on experimental techniques and will take three different approaches:

  • First, the Refashioning research team will organise and take part in a series of hands-on workshops, often alongside craftspeople, to get hands-on experience in each stage of the processes involved in making clothing in a pre-industrial era. From reeling silk, spinning wool and turning the flax plant into linen, to dyeing textiles following sixteenth- and seventeenth century recipe books, and weaving fabrics using various weave structures, we will then learn the techniques used by tailors and seamstresses to make garments and fit them to the body, and will also experiment with cleaning and caring for textiles.
  • Second, we will be commissioning garments from expert makers. By combine their hands-on skills with our archival, visual, and material data, we will create clothing that showcases the wide range of materials, structures, decorative techniques, and colours available to the emerging and upwardly mobile artisan classes in the early modern period.
  • Third, we will be working with scientists and digital experts to investigate surviving garments to find out their fibres and dyestuffs, and to reconstruct garments through 3D printing, digital reconstruction, and animation. What can we learn through these emerging technologies about the history and future of fashion?

For the remainder of the project, I will be working on a methodological study of hands-on, scientific, and digital experimentation. In addition to charting the state of the field, which is increasingly embracing experimental and embodied methods of research, this work will investigate how best to share our findings. The academic communication of experimental methods is still not yet established in the field – how, for example, can we footnote experience? Therefore we will be communicating our research through a range of articles, chapters, online blogs, photographs and films, many of which will be hosted on this website.

By analysing surviving textiles through dye- and fibre analysis, working with craftspeople to reconstruct objects, and creating digital reconstructions, we can make objects that no longer survive visible and material, and expand the range of historical sources available to historians of early modern clothing.


Read Sophie’s blog posts