Italian Camicia

Chemise with neckband embroidered in a counted-work design from a 16th century pattern book, worked in long-armed cross-stitch with yellow silk on even-weave linen.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has an Italian painting from the 1520’s by Callisto Piazza of a music party. I fell in love with one of the dresses, but didn’t think the style would suit me very well, not to mention my lack of sewing skills. I did try to talk several people into making it for themselves so I could at least see it being worn, but had no luck. I eventually met someone who had made a similar dress and let me try it on. It looked much better than I had expected, and she was willing to help me with the project.

The first step was to make a chemise. Throughout the 16th century, both men’s and women’s undergarments—shirt, shift, smock, chemise, camicia, and so on—were embroidered, as seen in numerous portraits and other paintings. The Piazza painting is no exception, and even in the post card I was working from, the chemise clearly has a band of fairly dense gold/yellow embroidery. To obtain a similar effect, I chose a knot pattern that was published in several pattern books and seems to have been popular for much of the 16th century: it can be found in Troveon’s Patrons of 1533 (Salazar, pp. 60-61, #4); Zoppino’s Gli Universali of 1537 (Mitch, p. 77); and Bassée’s New Modelbuch of 1568 (Bassée, p. 94). I am quite happy with the way the pattern worked out, although after starting the embroidery, I had a chance to re-visit the museum, and was able to see that it is actually a pattern of fleurs-de-lys.

All the 16th century undergarments I know of are made of linen and embroidered with silk. In Italy, chemises seem to have been very full and made of very fine cloth. Although linen would have been used in period, I made the chemise itself out of a cotton batiste both for cost and because linen as fine as this is hard to find. However, my embroidery is done on 32-count Belgian linen, a modern-style evenweave fabric which is considerably coarser than the garment fabrics used in period (and considerably easier to embroider on), using a yellow spun silk floss.

Unfortunately, while quite a few undergarments have survived from the second half of the century, they are all done in blackwork or related types of embroidery, and are not very useful for suggesting what type of stitch might have been used for a solid block pattern. The one earlier piece that I know of is an English boy’s shirt from the 1540’s embroidered in cross-stitch with blue silk. This is a very small sample, and in other types of embroidery, regular cross-stitch and long-armed cross-stitch seem to be used interchangeably, with long-armed cross-stitch being the more common. Whichever type of cross-stitch is used, the preference seems to be for a solidly covered ground. So, after doing a test piece, I decided to use long-armed cross stitch instead of regular cross stitch because it gave better coverage of the ground cloth and a smoother appearance, as well as having been popular in the time period.