Semper Ubi Sub Ubi (Part 2: No clever subtitle this week)

Intro: This is the second half of my post about sixteenth century Florentine underwear.  Part 1 is here.

Level of Authenticity:  Adequate, though I used many shortcuts and modern hacks because of time constraints.  Much of the discussion in this post is adapted from documentation I submitted with a different shift that I won a baronial championship with and my bibliography is at the end of the post.  If you’d like a more in-depth read, please feel free to contact me and I’ll send you my complete documentation.

What/When/Where:  These are the underpinnings I wear with my first quarter of the sixteenth century Florentine clothing.  I usually use (sixteenth century) English language terms to describe my garments and I’ll do so here as well.  In this post I’ll be discussing the shift.  Note that the standout feature of this particular shift is the wonderful embroidery done by my talented house sister Althea Tambourri.  Here is the portrait she worked from (by Agnolo Bronzino, of an unknown sitter, circa 1530) and here are some details of the work she did:


The geometric pattern on the inside of the collar and the star-shaped symbols are copied directly from the exemplar portrait, and when she researched the meaning of the symbols Althea discovered that the star-shaped symbol is one of the insignia of the Arte dei Giudici e Notai (the Florentine guild of judges and notaries), an interesting coincidence given my real-life profession.  When it came to the broader outside decorative band, Althea preferred to personalize the motifs for me and also to work in a more geometric style.  I haven’t done a huge amount of research on sixteenth century Italian embroidery but I have seen extant pieces from this time period in both the more free-form style seen in the portrait as well as the geometric style employed by Althea.  The fleur-de-lys with two crossed swords is the symbol of our household, House Fines Lames; and the cats and shears are symbols I may someday choose to incorporate into my personal device should I ever choose to register one.  For the rest of the post, I’m going to pass only briefly over the embroidery element as it is someone else’s research and handiwork.

Why: As I mentioned last week, in order to get the complete look that looks like you stepped out of a painting, it’s important to start with your foundation garments.  The purpose of your shift is to protect your fancy clothes, which usually can’t be laundered, from your sweat and body oils.  By the Early Modern period and possibly reaching back earlier into the Renaissance, there was a belief that wearing freshly-laundered linen was just as good as or even preferable to bathing for keeping clean (see The Dirt on Clean for a pop-hist take on this and other beliefs about cleanliness!).

Who:  Producers: In renaissance Florence, outer garments and the cloths used to construct them were produced by (primarily male) artisans working in the semi-industrialized context of the guilds.  By contrast, flax processing, linen weaving, and construction of household and wearing linens seem to have primarily been conducted by the women of each household, sometimes using flax grown on land owned by the household and often according to traditional patterns for wearing linens passed down within the household.  Fine embroidery might also be done by the women of the house, or might be sent out to a convent to be worked by nuns.

Consumers: Women of all walks of life would have worn shifts as underlayers.  Women at the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum might have as many as 50-60 shifts in their wedding trousseaux, while even women from relatively modest backgrounds went to their marriages with 15-20 shifts in their trousseaux.  By contrast, I now have three shifts for this time period, though to be fair I am not dressing in them every day.

How: Materials:  I used a lightweight tabby weave linen for the majority of the shift.  Althea used a slightly heavier weight tabby weave linen to work the embroidery on.  Althea used silk thread for the embroidery and I also used silk thread for the stitching.  These are all materials that would have been available in sixteenth century Florence.  I have had the opportunity to visually inspect (though not handle) a number of extant pieces of silk embroidery on linen from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in various other Italian city-states and the weight and quality of materials appears quite similar.  From the information available to me, I believe it likely that linen thread would have been preferred for stitching wearing linens together.  I have linen thread and would have preferred to use it here as well but due to time constraints, I did most of the construction of this shift on the sewing machine, for which the linen thread in my stash is not suitable.

If you’re reading this post as a resource to help you put together your own Italian Renaissance wardrobe, bear with me a little longer as I talk about fabric choice.  As far as I have been able to tell, the only material ever used for shirts and other wearing linens was white linen.  The fiber was linen because cotton was a rarity and European artisans did not yet know how to spin it strong enough to warp with it; and the color was white because linen is particularly bad at taking and holding a natural dye.  The only evidence I have come across otherwise is that (for fibers) Carole Collier Frick in “Dressing Renaissance Florence” refers to a couple of silk “underblouses” in one of the transcribed trousseaux, but without providing the original Italian word she translates as “underblouse”; and (for colours) in the last decade of the sixteenth century as well as the first decade of the seventeenth century, some English nobles were wearing linens that were somehow coloured pastel shades of yellow and blue, perhaps using tinted starch, and seemingly as some sort of political statement.  If you don’t want to or can’t afford to use linen for your shift, I recommend using a fabric that feels nice against your skin and has some breathability, because you will still be using it as a foundation layer that absorbs your sweat and body oils so your nice clothes don’t.  As for weave and colour, plain white tabby weave is still your best choice.

Tools:  My research indicated that patterns for wearing linens were often handed down within a household, such that each house might have had its own particular shift pattern.  I have previously patterned shifts based on two extant samples from Mediterranean countries in “Patterns of Fashion 4”, which has yielded a satisfactory result.  I had also previously made a shirt for a male outfit based on the “Holbein shirt” pattern in the Tudor Tailors’ “The King’s Servants”.  Because the collar that Althea embroidered for me is meant to be seen from both the inside and the outside, and the differing features between the two cutting patterns, I concluded that here the preferable of the two patterns was the Holbein shirt pattern.

I used my sewing machine for the majority of this project because I was under a very tight timeline.  I would have preferred to hand sew so that I could have done the seams the way I wanted (see under “Techniques” below), but as I mentioned last week, I consider machine sewing to be functionally equivalent to a practice that was available during the sixteenth century, namely giving out piecework to be stitched together by nuns or junior seamstresses in the home.

I don’t propose to go into the tools and techniques Althea used for the embroidery, because it’s not an area I myself have made a study of, but note that, like the piecework just mentioned, it would have been common for the women of the house making wearing linens to rely on relatives or contacts in a convent to complete the embroidery for the piece.

Techniques: The primary way that shifts described in “Patterns of Fashion 4” are constructed is that each separate pattern piece is finished with a narrow hem or other method, and then the pattern pieces are either whip-stitched together or joined together with fancier openwork techniques.  I would have liked to construct my shift this way, but this is a method that requires a considerable amount of hand work and I did not have time.  Instead, I machine-sewed all of my seams.  I then had the time and ability to finish most of the seams with a faux French seam, a finish that doesn’t show on the right side of the fabric and that can be done by machine (although again it’s nicer if you have the time to do it by hand).IMG_6082.jpeg

The sleeve seams were not able to be finished in this manner, which means that at the time of wearing, these seams merely went unfinished.  I strongly recommend against leaving the seams of your wearing linens unfinished, because it will allow them to wear through and come apart much more quickly.  In this case, although I’ve now worn the shift, I plan to finish the seams before I even put it into the wash because a modern washing machine is very hard on unfinished linen edges.

The other technique I want to talk about here is the way that I made the ruff.  If you scroll back up to the detail picture, you can see that I used a folded length of fabric pleated up into 1/2″ box pleats.  This was another time-saver.  The extant garments as well as the exemplar portraits I’ve looked at use a single length of fabric with a rolled hem and often finished with a line of very tiny blanket stitches in black silk along the top edge.  Unfortunately, this was one more detail I did not have time to execute.


Not every book in the following list may have provided information that can be specifically referenced to information given above. However, this is a list of books that I have found extremely helpful and informative during my adventures in renaissance costuming.

Ajmart-Wollheim, Marta and Flora Dennis, eds., At Home in Renaissance Italy, London, V&A Publications, 2006

de Alcega, Juan, Geometria, pratica, y traça, Madrid, 1589, facsimile trans. by Jean Pain and Cecilia Bainton as Tailor’s Pattern Book, 1589, Carlton, Bedford, 1979

Anderson, Ruth Matilda, Hispanic Costume 1480-1530, New York, Hispanic Society of America, 1979

Arnold, Janet, Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c1560-1620, London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1985

Arnold, Janet, with Jenny Tiramani and Santina M. Levey, Patterns of Fashion 4: The cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women c.1540-1660, London, Pan Macmillan Ltd., 2008

Birbari, Elizabeth, Dress in Italian Painting 1460-1500, Chatham, UK, W & J Mackay Limited, 1975

Crowfoot, Elisabeth, Frances Pritchard and Kay Staniland, Textiles and Clothing c.1150-c.1450, Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4, London, Boydell Press, 1992, 2001

Frick, Carole Collier, Dressing Renaissance Florence: Families, Fortunes and Fine Clothing, Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002

Hayward, Maria, Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII, Leeds, UK, Maney Publishing, 2007

Landini, Roberta Orsi and Bruna Niccoli, Moda a Firenze: lo Stile di Eleonora di Toledo e la sua influenza, Florence, Edizioni Polistampa, 2005

Newton, Stella Mary, The Dress of the Venetians, 1495-1525, Aldershot, UK and Brookfield, VT, USA, Scolar Press, 1988

Welch, Evelyn, Shopping in the Renaissance, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2005


  1. Maybe more of a question for Althea, but do you think that embroidery would have ever been done after the garment was completed? For instance, someone doing some elements, constructing the garment, wearing it, and then adding more to it in time?

    • I have to admit that I have not really concentrated on embroidery in my research. I haven’t come across any discussion of practices like this. What I have come across is evidence that once a piece of embroidery or other embellishment was finished, it could be cut off and transferred to a new piece after the original garment wore out.

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