1575 English Gown

The spring of 2014 started, with the sewing circle a little uninspired as to what to do. Myself and Helwig put our heads together, though, and decided that this was the time to finally start the projects in our main period and in our main place, namely 1570s England. Helwig was even more specific in that she wanted to do 1575 precisely, because of one particular portrait of Elizabeth from the same year.

By: Circle of Cornelis Ketel, 1575 Portrait of Mary Tresham, Lady Vaux of Harrowden

It has been difficult to get going on this project, for no particular reason, however, when a member of the facebook group Elizabethan Costuming posted his method of drafting a bodice pattern purely by measurements both of us were afire to try it out and make patterns for ourselves. And since we were making new patterns we needed new projects so I put together a pinterest board with English Portraits from 1575 very specifically.

A quick survey showed that a lot of them were black gowns, with white details. Perfect for me as I had been planning to add a black woolen gown to my wardrobe for some time and had two different black woolens in my stash. Also of note is that there were very few portraits without a suite of ruffs. Even when the gown is not doublet-bodiced.

At a sewing circle shortly thereafter, February 8th, myself and Helwig made up the patterns, cut out toiles and tried them out. The patterns created were pretty damn good – but had to be taken in considerably to account for the squishiness of the female form, however, the shapes were absolutely perfect.


The photo is me wearing the toile from the third version that I drafted from my measurements. The back is a thing of beauty already, and the front is a good place to start.

I cut the bodice out of my black wool, and a sturdy linen interlining fabric. I mounted it as I usually do: interlining cut with no seam allowances, the fashion fabric herringbone-stitched to the interlining and the seam allowance of that folded in, herringboned down and then whipstitched the two fronts to the back panel, and tried it on to measure out the shoulder straps. Also integral to the interlining is the lacing. So it laces up the front, and the fashion fabric closes over the lacing with the help of hooks and eyes. I’ve found this to be a beautifully simple and correct-looking way to do up my gowns in front. It also means I can get into and out of my clothes myself, which is tremendously helpful.

When I do my kirtles with a front closing in the interlining layer I find that I have to anchor the fashion fabric just inside the lacing, which means stitching through all layers of fabric. In order to cover up this not too pretty line of stitches I usually use some sort of trim applied at the very last. I find it interesting that in so many paintings these vertical lines of trim follow the front opening, exactly where I find I have to run my line of stitches, and my lines of trim to cover it up.

Once I had the bodice all stitched up it turned out I had to take it in further, and it still ended up very comfortable. Maybe a little too comfortable for me. However, I still believe in the pattern, I just have to work in some compression at the measurements stage, and I will try it out with making a corset with this method in the not too distant future (I hope).

The sleeves were a little bit of a bother, as I wanted the slightly puffy look of the year, without going too large or too small. On my green English fitted gown I had made mutton-chop sleeves, but they were quite modest in comparison to what most portraits showed for 1575. Helwig got a little further than me on the project, and when I came to ponder the sleeves she had already solved the problem by taking the Phoenix-portrait sleeves from Margo Anderson’s patterns. It turned out I could use the exact same pattern, slightly longer, and I had a pair of sleeves that worked.

First finish – Spring Crown 2014

First finish – Spring Crown. Gown from the back

The skirt is entirely unlined, and will stay so. The bodice has the interlining done, but the lining was not put in by the time I wore it for the first time at Spring Crown Tourney the first weekend of April 2014.

The second finish, i.e. the second time I had the opportunity to wear the gown, came at Double Wars 2014 by which time I had managed to apply the trim which disguises the stitching down the front. Besides just covering this up I went twice down the centre front, once around the neckline and once around the hem with a wider tape. The sleeves were also finished with two lines of trim. I decided to go with satin tape for trim, in black, because many portraits of the time seems to use textures to create visual interest on garments. So black wool vs black satin tape. It becomes a very subtle detail, but once you notice it, also very striking.

The third finish for this gown will be when I finally get around to stitching in the lining, and also possibly add the puffs of white that sit on the shoulders, just inside the mutton-chop sleeveheads.