Hot on the heels on my talk on whalebone and early modern fashion, I recently gave another presentation about the work I’ve been doing on farthingale-makers and body-makers in late sixteenth and seventeenth-century London. This paper was given at a University of Melbourne lunchtime seminar and and I’ve made it available for everyone to view below:
1. Using my pattern, draw out the shape of the rebato collar on tracing paper (or baking paper as I’m using here). I took size inspiration from looking at portraits from the period.
2. Place the paper on your mannequin or even a styrofoam head to check the size. Adjust as needed.
3. For the intricate loops and inner frame I chose to use two sizes of copper jewellery wire, as this was easy to bend and mould into any desired shape. I twisted these into loops with long stems as shown. They should look a bit like spoons 🥄 🥄
4. I placed these loops onto my pattern to check for size. It also gave me an idea of how many I would need to make, how long they should be, and how far apart they would be spaced.
5. For the outer frame of my rebato I decided to use a relatively thick galvanised tie wire that I picked up from my local hardware store. This was to make sure that the rebato would be sturdy and keep its shape. Again I kept comparing with my pattern piece to check to shape and size.
6. Place the loops on top of the outer frame to check placement.
7. Once you’re happy with the placement start to attach the stem of the loops by wrapping the excess wire around the frame. To secure the loops themselves use thin jewellery wire, winding it around both lots of wire as shown.
8. Thread other wire through the loops,, following the semi circular shape of the outer frame. This will add stability.
I have recently signed my contract so I am so delighted to announce that my first book based on much of the research that this blog showcases will be published by Bloomsbury Academic/Visual Arts.
Shaping Femininity is the first large-scale study of the materiality, production, consumption, and meanings of foundation garments for women in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. The desirable body during this period was achieved by using two types of foundation garments: bodies (corsetry) and farthingales (skirt-shaping structures). It was this structured female silhouette, first seen in sixteenth-century fashionable dress, that existed in various extremes in Western Europe and beyond until the early twentieth century. By utilising a wide array of archival and early printed materials, visual sources and material objects, as well as historical reconstruction, Shaping Femininity reorients discussions about female foundation garments by exploring the nuances of these items of material culture in the context of their own times. It argues that these objects of material culture shaped understandings of the female body and of ideas of beauty, social status, health, sexuality, and modesty in early modern England, and thus, enduring western notions of femininity.
I’m very excited to be publishing with Bloomsbury and to bring audiences an accessible academic book. At the moment it is early stages, but make sure to keep an eye on this space for more details about release date, etc.
Farthingales were large stiffened structures placed beneath a woman’s skirts in order to push them out and enlarge the lower half of the body. During the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in England criticisms of these garments increasingly focused on their spatial ramifications, decrying their monstrous size and inconvenience. Nonetheless farthingales served important social and cultural functions for women in early modern England, shaping and defining status and wealth in both court and urban spaces. Using surviving textual and visual sources, as well as engaging with the process of historical dress reconstruction, this article argues that spatial anxieties relating to farthingales were less about the actual size of this garment and more related to older fears concerning the ability of farthingales to create intimate personal spaces around the female body, mask the appropriation of social status, and physically displace men. In turn, these anxieties led to the establishment of a common and enduring trope regarding the monstrous size of these garments as women in farthingales were perceived to be challenging their social and gendered place in the world.
Wool was a commonly used natural material in early modern Europe. Besides being spun for use in cloth production and knitted garments (such as men’s felted flat caps), wool was also commonly used in structural garments as stuffing. My construction of a French farthingale roll and French wheel farthingale, made as part of my PhD research, required the use of wool as stuffing.
We know that some sort of stuffing like wool was used in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries in the garments because wardrobe warrants, such as one for Elizabeth I dating from April 1581, specified its use:
“Item to Robrt Sipthorpe for making of a half verthingale and a rolle of peache color satten stuffed wt cotten woll whale bone and bent: for making of a half verthingale and a rolle of oringe tawnye & watchett damaske stuffed wt cotten woll whale bone & bent…”
Like most early modern sources, terminology often becomes an issue when trying to decipher what materials were used and how. For example, in this wardrobe warrant it is not 100% obvious as to what “cotton wool” refers to. The fibre cotton as we know it was not unheard of in the sixteenth century, but it also was not very commonly used in garment production (although elite women like Elizabeth I would certainly have had access to this raw material from the Indian subcontinent).
Further compounding this uncertainty is that ‘cotton’ often referred to a type of woollen cloth in the sixteenth century. Although these entries might certainly refer to raw cotton, it was probably more common for structured garments in England to be stuffed with wool, a natural fibre that was very readily available and a staple of English industry. As a result I chose to use wool instead of cotton to stuff the rolls of my French farthingale reconstructions.
Not only did I choose to use wool due to its ready availability in early modern England, but it was also easy for me to obtain because I was raised on a sheep farm in rural New South Wales, Australia. So I asked my dad to put some wool aside for me next time he was shearing.
Preparing the Wool
One of the downsides of using this raw material though, especially when it comes from rural Australia, is that it contains a quite a lot of dirt and organic matter. So in order to use it for my reconstructions I had to wash and prepare it. However, as anyone who has ever worked with wool can attest, it is a temperamental fibre to wash. The first difficulty is that if wool is agitated too much in water it has a tendency to felt; great if that is your intention, but a pain if you just want to wash it. Secondly, wool fibres shrink at the high temperatures required to wash it correctly, so I ended up having to use twice as much wool as I thought I would need to allow for this shrinkage.
After chatting to other costumers I decided that the best way to wash and prepare my wool would be to buy some large laundry wash bags, stuff them with the wool and allow them to soak in a tub of hot soapy water (oil removing dish-washing liquid seems to be the best option here).
While these bags were soaking in the hot water I slightly agitated them every now and then, but not too much in case the wool felted together.
As you can see from the pictures the wool did shrink after being immersed in the hot water and A LOT of dirt came out. In fact, I had to repeat this soaking process about three times for each bag of wool in order to get it to a satisfactory state.
After getting the wool as clean as I possibly could, I laid it out on pavement in the hot summer sun to dry.
As you can see in the image above, the wool was still full of burrs and other organic plant matter. I did my best to pick out as much of this as possible, but I’m certain that some of it is sitting in my reconstructions, which is fine.
I hope this post has been helpful to anyone thinking of preparing their own raw wool for spinning or stuffing. If you have any tips or tricks that you use to prepare your wool, feel free to comment below and let us know!
 Wardrobe Warrant of Elizabeth I, 6 April 1581. The British Library, Egerton MS 2806, fol. 166r.
 Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies, The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing sixteenth-century dress (London: Batsford, 2006), p. 36.
I just realised that it has been ages since I last posted anything, so apologies to all my blog followers! The last four months has been so hectic and now I’m only a few weeks away from submitting my PhD!
After I submit my PhD and mark my students exams I promise to continue writing my tutorial on making a French farthingale roll.
But until then, here is a blog post on my reconstructions that I wrote for the University of Sydney History Department’s blog.
As well as a sneak peek of the awesome photos of my reconstructions by my friend Georgie Blackie, as well as a behind the scenes video!