Decades ago, when re-enactment groups first began showing an interest in Elizabethan clothing, the average re-enactor was lucky to find patterns resembling anything historic. Over the last decade, however, the number of available patterns for historic clothing has grown substantially. Most of these patterns fall into one of two groups: the first (and largest) are costume patterns put out by mainstream pattern companies, which are designed to be made by novice to intermediate seamstresses using modern sewing techniques and materials. These have the advantage of clear directions that are easy to follow, good sizing, and accessibility to a wide number of amateur costumers, but often produce garments with at most a passing resemblance to the original historic item.
Then there are patterns put out by smaller costume companies, focused on historical garments, rather than "costume." Their quality can vary widely. One pattern may have a large number of garment options and impressive documentation, but provide terrible sizing or instructions that would drive a tailor to tears. Other patterns will sacrifice authenticity or fit for ease of construction. For the most part, a costumer who wants a gown which is pretty, easy to make, well sized and authentic in cut and design will inevitably have to sacrifice one of their requirements if they plan to make it from a store-bought pattern.
Margo Anderson, an experienced professional costumer who has heard and seen her fair share of pattern horror stories, set out to change this sad situation. With her new set of patterns, The Elizabethan Lady's Wardrobe Ensemble, she has succeeded.
This pattern sits collar and sleeves above other available patterns for this time period. It fits sizes 2 to 30, something unheard of by most other historic pattern lines. What's more, the sizing (in the sizes I've seen it made, 12 through 18) is quite accurate and requires little tweaking to get a perfect fit. Ms. Anderson includes detailed instructions on how to fit a mock-up of each piece, so that the user can obtain that custom, fits-like-a-glove look that really makes a gown stand out.
The 16th century is a particularly difficult era to design patterns for, due to the number of underpinnings and structural support items required before a person can even start on the outer garments. Margo's Wardrobe addresses this issue by offering an all-in-one source for every piece of clothing an Elizabethan woman would need.
The Elizabethan Lady's Wardrobe Ensemble contains everything required to make several different complete outfits, from the skin out. It is divided into three separate pattern packages: The Elizabethan Lady's Underpinnings, The Elizabethan Lady's Wardrobe, and The Elizabethan Lady's Accessories.
The first, Elizabethan Lady's Underpinnings, contains patterns for smocks, bumrolls, corsets, partlets and farthingale hoopskirts. Two separate smock patterns are included: one with the body and sleeves gathered to collar and cuffs, and one with a low, square neck and close-fitting sleeves. Both are based on existing 16th century smocks. The corset pattern has variations for boned tabs, tabs and no tabs, and can lace up the front or back. It is also based on real Elizabethan corsets, with a few small changes made for ease of construction. The pattern for the farthingale hoopskirt is based on one found in a 1589 pattern book.
These items are mostly simple in cut --most of the work is involved in stitching boning casings for the hoopskirt and corset--and are surprisingly easy to make. Each item has illustrated, step-by-step instructions on how to sew it together. The corset, being essential to the Elizabethan silhouette and a hard item to fit well, is given much attention in the instructions.
The second package, The Elizabethan Lady's Wardrobe, contains a rich array of Elizabethan garments and options designed to be worn over the aforementioned underpinnings. The pattern is modularized and has different bodice, skirt, and sleeve patterns that can be mixed and matched to make dozens of unique gowns. Bodice patterns include a doublet bodice, a front-closing bodice, and a bodice which laces at the center back or side backs. The skirt can be open in the front or closed all the way around, and there are six Elizabethan sleeves to choose from as well as six shoulder treatments and six alternatives for waist tabs, loops or pickadils. The patterns are remarkably authentic in cut and design, and require minimal alteration for a good fit.
The Elizabethan Lady's Accessories contains a variety of patterns for tall hats, cauls, coifs, attifets, and other headwear as well as patterns for pouches, neck and wrist ruffs, and a feather fan to finish off your outfit. All in all, this pattern collection is what a lot of late-period costumers have been seeking for a long time.
There are several little touches to this pattern that have endeared it to me further. For one thing, the instructions are printed on 8 1/2 by 11 paper which has been pre-punched for insertion into a binder. This is much easier to reference while sewing than the usual blueprint-sized instruction sheets included in commercial patterns.
For another, the pattern pieces themselves come in a 9" by 11" plastic envelope rather than the small paper envelope favored by commercial pattern companies. I can re-fold the patterns and put them away easily, with no need to warp the fabric of space and time in an attempt to fit 5 cubic inches of pattern into 3 cubic inches of envelope.
Unfortunately, as I've been drafting my own patterns and sewing for several years, I can't give a novice's-eye view of the patterns. The instructions seem to me to be as straightforward as any patterns currently available, breaking down what can be a complex costume into easily-achievable steps. I've talked to some intermediate-level seamstresses who were very happy with the pattern results.
The only drawback to these patterns that I've found is their price. They are not cheap. The Elizabethan Lady's Underpinnings pattern set sells for $25, and the Elizabethan Lady's Wardrobe pattern for $30. However, as the Elizabethan Lady's Wardrobe Ensemble contains patterns for more than 20 items for sizes 2 to 30, it will keep several ladies in lovely new gowns for a decade or more. In my opinion, the investment is worth it.
The patterns are available from several costume companies and SCA vendors. You can find out more information at the official website, http://www.margospatterns.com
What next? Margo is currently working on a similarly comprehensive pattern set for the 16th century Gentlemen, the Elizabethan Man's Wardrobe. Future pattern possibilities include a 16th century "comfort wardrobe" (patterns for loose kirtles, loose gowns and uncorseted bodices) and a "Workingwoman's wardrobe", a collection of patterns for lower and middle class Renaissance dress.