Embarking on Elizabethan

Remember last year when I made a late Elizabethan pair of bodies?  And a farthingale?

Now I’m finally tackling a dress to go over them!

The dress is more of my ‘dabbling’ in Elizabethan, so it’s testing concepts rather than being 100% period accurate, and it’s also meant to be all from stash.

Thanks to the fabulous Lynne, I had two huge curtains in red velvet, so that decided the dress fabric.  With red velvet in mind, I went looking for inspiration.  The obvious place to start for construction is  Janet Arnold, and for inspiration, (since it is Elizabethan), portraits of Queen Elizabeth I.

I quite like van der Meulens’ 1560s portrait:

I particularly like the more restrained ruff, and the open effect of the neckline.  And the fact that it’s in red velvet is an added perk!

This portrait by an unknown artist has many of the same general design elements:

I like the idea of separate rather than matching sleeves, a look that is also repeated in the Pelican Portrait:

I am madly in love with her embroidered shirt, but doubt I will ever have the time to recreate it!

There is, of course, the Phoenix portrait, which Arnold helpfully provides a (very, very simple) conjectured pattern for in Patterns of Fashion.

The more I look at the portrait, the more I suspect that Arnold has gotten the sleeves wrong, but it’s still a helpful starting point.

And finally, the last portrait of Elizabeth that I find useful and interesting is Gowers’ Sieve portrait:

Once again, we’ve got lots of delicious red velvet, an open neckline, and contrasting sleeves.  The sleeves are starting to move towards 1580s gargantuanism* (blech), and the ruff is heading towards head on a platter (also blech).

So – conclusions.  There is obviously a lot that I could go into with clothing symbolism in Elizabeths portraits (hey, there are multiple books on it), but, in brief, her portraits reveal I like Elizabethan between 1563 & 1579.

My stays and farthingale are quite formal, so I’m aiming for equally formal in the dress: though not quite Queen status!  I’d like a skirt that can be worn open over a frontpiece, or closed, and sleeve puffs with detachable sleeves, rather than joined (I really need to stop writing posts at 11pm, because my brain starts going to sleep and I forget all the technical terms for everything)

So what have I got so far?

A skirt!

Sewing Elizabethan

The skirt shape is based on Eleanora of Toledo’s gown in Arnold.  It’s made from the red velvet, and trimmed with a gold metallic lace.

Sewing Elizabethan

I’d bought a couple of full rolls  of vintage jacquard woven trim specifically for this at fabric-a-brac, but they didn’t look good on the velvet, so I went for the gold (which was originally bought for Ninon, but didn’t look good on the yellow…).  The massive drawback to the gold lace is that it all had to be hand-sewn down.

6 hours of hand-sewing later…

The skirt is hemmed and faced with the same gilt linen I made the pair of bodies with:

Sewing Elizabethan

To go under the skirt, I’ve made a front part:

Sewing Elizabethan

The shape is based on the front part in Arnold, but this is definitely historical accuracy lite: it’s entirely finished with bias binding.

Sewing Elizabethan

Isn’t the fabric fabulous?  I inherited it from Nana, and as soon as I saw it I thought ‘that would make something fabulous and Elizabethan.”  It’s been sitting in my stash for 5 and a half years, waiting for me to sew Elizabethan.  It’s good to be finally putting it to use!

I have exactly enough of Nana’s brown and gold brocade to make a pair of sleeves out of (below you can see my pattern mock-up of Arnold’s conjecture of the sleeves of the Phoenix portrait, which I now think are inaccurate).  I’m not sure about the accuracy of matching sleeves + forepart, so those may not happen…

Sewing Elizabethan

This weekend is going to be devoted to constructing and trimming the bodice.  I’ve got a basic foundation made, I just need to do eyelets, and then attach skirt, cover and trim.

Sewing Elizabethan

Oh, and sew lace on the hem edge of a ruff, which (even when done by machine) is quickly becoming one of my least favourite tasks ever.

Sewing Elizabethan

So, if blog posts become a bit scanty in the next few weeks, you know what I’ll be doing!

* Have you noticed that they make her arms look exactly like some sort of disgusting maggot or grub-worm?


  1. This is my dream project! I’m waiting for the day when I can recreate all the lush embroidery (super intimidating). Can’t wait to see your results! Can you recommend any books on clothing symbolism in Elizabethan portraits?

  2. Elizabethan is always crazy fun. Don’t forget to check out some of the extant doublets and dresses from the 16th century. They may not be exactly what you are looking for, but they will give you ideas on techniques for the gown – like how to hide the eyelets under the shoulder rolls so you can lace your sleeves on without a gap being seen. 🙂

  3. I love that gown. I have a client who commissioned a recreation. I had the sleeves from the green gown reproduced in an embroidery pattern for my machine.

  4. All I can notice is the sleeves that have those horrible bubbley skin disease puffs like the nightmare daisy dress.

  5. Yup, worms and grubs, they are well creepy! Your dress however is gorgeous. I have a ton of cream glass pearls too that would look amazing sewn onto that skirt. Because, you know, madness. 😉 (Volunteering to help with that)

  6. Lynne says

    On a day when I am in a considerable state of delapidation, it is a tonic to be told that I’m fabulous! I’m delighted the lovely heavy red velvet (it used to be stage curtains for an old, traditional school hall, so it has real substance) is at last being made into something ‘proper’. And this is very proper. It looks so good with the lace, and with your Nana’s fabric! MrsC is onto it – just add more pearls. 🙂 May it all go well, and may the issue of the sleeves resolve itself happily. Even St Janet could have got it wrong some times. (Felt like making a small act of contrition when I typed that, mind!)

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