To Be Or Not To Be?

As much as I love fashion books (especially pattern cutting books) I often find myself buying them but rarely using them, even when I have a pattern cutting conundrum. I understand some books are so pretty you never envisage touching them anyway, but some of them can also be too technical to bother reading through.

This is particularly true with a book I ‘wished’ for Christmas about 5 years ago. It was called “Patterns of Fashion 4: The cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women c. 1540 – 1660” by Janet Arnold.

I had this book on my wish list for quite a while, and when my secret Santa asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I chose this book. When I unwrapped it on Christmas, I was completely absorbed with the references and the patterns. However, I eventually left it on the bookshelf and there it sat, gathering dust, until recently.

With the lockdown in full swing, I felt now was the best time to try something new. Looking through my wardrobe, I realised that I don’t have any Elizabethan style garments (casually said, like everyone would have one!) I always wanted a 16th Century shirt (I have a very exploratory fashion sense) so I brushed the dust off this book and browsed through the catalogue of patterns and settled for a man’s shirt c. 1585 to 1620.

I noticed that this shirt is exhibited in the Fashion Museum in Bath, England and as the Museum had a virtual tour of the building, I was able to find it hidden in the basement tucked away in the corner. Looking through the exhibit in the museum got me thinking. Humans have been wearing clothes since the beginning of time but very few have survived. I mean, where are the elaborate costumes that Queen Elizabeth I was wearing in her paintings? Just a thought.

Anyway, I somehow felt that this voluptuous but simple shirt evoked the romanticism and allure of the court of Queen Elizabeth I or maybe it was the work of William Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet. Anyway, I was hooked and decided that this was similar to what I wanted (I’ll figure out how to wear it later) and fastidiously studied the patterns, made some rough drafts, measurements and produced an outline of how the pattern would be drawn.

The actual shirt from the museum was skilfully embroidered with motifs of flowers and hearts. I realised that if I left mine plain it would be quite boring, so I decided to entertain the thought of embroidery. But after looking through my book on needlework (another book that has been gathering dust), I decided that swirly lines and flowers were too complicated. Instead, I reimagined embroideries of text instead of flowers. I immediately thought of quotations from William Shakespeare and settled for three, one around the neckband and two around the cuffs.

However, I had to prepare myself for the mammoth task of cutting the pattern and sewing the garment with all the gathers, including the dreaded gusset. I find gusset quite an offensive word but I think it is due to my past experience of drafting and sewing one. They are an absolute pain! And to rub salt on the wound, this shirt has gussets in the neckline and underarms.

The underarm gusset was quite straightforward to sew, but the neckline gusset was a more complicated as it involved sewing from a tiny seam allowance to virtually none.

Needless to say, it was all a learning curve and my perseverance paid off. To be honest, I’m quite surprised how, when measured properly, you could even make this shirt without any off-cuts as it mainly consisted of rectangles and squares. People back then were already thinking about zero waste cutting but then I would assume fabric was expensive.

With regards to the three quotations that I settled for, the first was ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ from King Henry the Fourth. This is placed on the neckband because anatomically, the text is directly below the head but was also done to give myself a bit of confidence. No doubt some people will be laughing at me for wearing this shirt but I’m not doing this for them.

The other two quotations, ‘All that glitters is not gold’ from The merchant of Venice was placed on my left cuff to lead me out of temptation while ‘Nothing will come from nothing’ from King Lear was placed on my right cuff to remind me that my right hand creates.

How poetic BUT oh dear! As I am typing this, I realised that I have got one of the quotations wrong. It should be ‘Nothing will come of nothing’. So close….yet so far! I’ll just have to unpick it.

I don’t see that as a tragedy but wearing tights with this shirt might be and don’t even go there with the codpiece. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one last quotation from Shakespeare.

“To thine own self be true” – Hamlet.

About syvyaw

Eat, sleep and think Fashion.

4 comments

  1. Fabulous! Yes, fabrics were insanely expensive and labour-consuming. Natural fibres don’t last forever, all fabrics must die eventually, unless we are very lucky and careful in their preservation. Wasn’t a piece of one of QE1’s famous dresses recently discovered in a church having ended its life as a n altar cloth? And of course, garments were passed to servants, then on down the line, cut down and re-used many times. Lots of surviving pieces in museums show precious stitching lines and careful re-piecing.
    I love your embroidery idea, it’s very beautiful.
    Gussets can be easier to sew with the aid of a scrap of silk organza to extend/reinforce the narrow seams…

    • Amazing! People need to check their attic in case something like this is lying around. That said, I did see someone with a huge box of antique garments that they brought to Antiques’ Roadshow in Eltham Palace. I was intrigued but I had already been queueing for 2 hours and was not willing to lose my spot to satisfy my curiosity.

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