A 15th-16th Century Venetian Camicia as Made by an Amateur Seamstress

[note: come back later and insert a link to my SCA posts so people can know why I’m making this camicia without me having to do a write-up in this post!]

This camicia will not be my only one I make this year; it’s mostly a test-run. I plan on another, even thinner, one later this year that will be MUCH more decorative with lots of fancy blackworking. This one I will probably keep basic unless I go through a big glow-up one day in the SCA and go back and work on this one again.

I planned on using Jen Thompson’s How to Make an Easy Italian Chemise” to pattern my chemise. Her measurements are damn close to mine  as she’s 5’6”, size 12 with a 39” bust and I’m 5’6”, size 12, with a 42” bust (Hey Jen, if you ever have garb to get purge, hit me up! ;D ). However, upon further inspection, her two diagrams are for a 45” fabric and a 60” fabric. Mine is a weird 53”. However, I was deeply concerned with her arm measurements. My arms are 16” around and 25” to my knuckles. Her 36” x 30” sleeve just didn’t feel like it would poof enough on me. She said she added 12” to her arm length for poof… so I’d need 37” x … well, more than 30”. 30” would be a tight sleeve and that’s BEFORE seam allowance. Oof.

Here’s a photo I took this morning of me! It wasn’t originally for this blog post, but whatever. It shows my measurements pretty well.

Heck yeah morning eyeliner smudges…. :/

I took a look around to see what others were doing and found Jeanne C’s Documentation on a Realm of Venus Competition and was hit with way more information than I needed. Thank youuuuu Jeanne.

Here are some quotes:

The fabric is thin white linen, with a thread count of approximately 50 threads/inch. This is in keeping with the thread counts seen in Nutz’s analysis of the Lengberg Castle pleatwork finds, especially the linen shirt labeled find no. 386 which had a thread count of 17-21 threads per centimeter (41-53 threads per inch) (84, 85).

I don’t really know my thread count, but I’ll keep this in mind for my future garment!! This is my linen; it’s whatever was thin-ish and white at Joann’s.

File cabinets make great cutting shelves

In the late fifteenth century the camicia was long and voluminous to allow for folds at the neckline as well as puffs in between the laced openings of the sleeves (Birbari, Dress In Italian Painting 1460-1500. 40, 41). To create this effect, I used a raglan pattern where the sleeves create the shoulder line, as found in Mistress Rainillt’s article “Evolution of the Italian Camicia,” seen in the Spalliera Panels The Story of Griselda Part II Exile, and cited in Tortora’s Survey of Historic Costume 159. The camicia does not have gores to add width due to the massive amount of material used in the pleating.

Ummm. I don’t have the patience right now to make sure my pattern matches the ones she’s talking about since I really need to be able to wear this Saturday. It’s Thursday right now. I’m actually at work and procrastinating working on the camicia my typing this post up as I go. I will just use the pattern from the first post.

The body pieces were as wide as the selvage width (54 inches – though finished size was 53 as the selvages were thick and needed to be cut off) and 48 inches long while the sleeves were each half the selvage width (27) wide and 32.5 inches long. The non-pleated width of the neckline once sewn together was 156 inches wide.

Oh! Oh! This is useful! I’ll use my selvage width x 48”. Woo. *cuts notches, rips* Oh jeesh… I’m going to have to hand-pleat 156″ of fabric tonight….

The camicia is sewn with white silk thread, as documented in Crowfoot’s Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450 (152). While linen thread would also be historically accurate and was more common, I already owned white silk thread and decided to work from my current stash.

All my silk thread is in bright colors (greens, teals, yellow) so if I want to do this by hand with good thread I need to run to a store. All the non-silk thread for hand-sewing I have is this cheap stuff my mom bought me 10+ years ago in a pack of like 30 colors.

I might have been doing this right at my desk at work….

For the seams I used the run and fell method, as this is seen in both extant fifteenth century pleatwork shirts as well as a late fifteenth and several mid-sixteenth century English smocks (Nutz 85, Janet Arnold Patterns of Fashion vol. 4 113, 115, 116). I tried to use very small stitches for this to keep the construction more in line with period sewing techniques. I averaged 10-12 stitches per inch for both sets of running stitches based on Crowfoot’s statement that most of the extant running stitches show a stitch length of 2-3mm to be usual (156). My felled seam is 1/8th inch wide as documented in Arnold (113). This was the smallest I have ever made a felled seam (and was slightly terrifying to attempt at first – cutting so close to the edge of the seam made me paranoid) but it ended up working out very well as I was able to pleat on top of the seam without any issues. The very small stitches also were somehow much more time consuming than my normal eight to ten, but I was very happy with how they were practically invisible in the finished seam.

*Does a Google search for what a run an fell method is* Oh. Oh okay. I think I can manage that. That’s another term for “flat felled seam”. I’ve never done one myself, but I’ve heard of it. The basic steps are:

  1. Make a normal seam like a running stitch or whatever.
  2. Trim one of the seam allowance down
  3. Fold the other side over it then back under, tucking away all the raw edges
  4. Stich over the fold all the way up as close to the edge as you can and at an even distance from the seam

Here are a few tutorials : Nerdy Sewing Tips and How to Hand Sew Seams.

At this point my coworkers have actually noticed that I have a huge pile of fabric on my desk. It was probably the ripping noises. I stopped to explain that with linen especially (but also most natural fabrics) that you actually can get a straighter line by cutting a small notch then just ripping the fabric with your hands than you can buy using the scissors.

They looked at me like I was a Keeper of Knowledge or some shit. Like an expert on all things fabric. It made me giggle really hard. Let’s set expectations here: I do not know how to really make a garment. Everything I know I learned through osmosis by watching my friends Toni and Sigil sew. Anyways….I have the body cut out…. back to figuring out these sleeves.

Quick recap:

  • My fabric is 53”
  • Body pieces will be selvedge x 48” = 53” x 48”

My nipples are about 48” off the ground, so this is pretty perfect. A length pulled up just above the curve of my breasts should hit just above the ankles down below.


Argh. The two ladies above said theirs were “each half the selvage width (27) wide and 32.5 inches long” and “sleeves 36” x 30”” and I really don’t think those measurements are going to work for me. I’ve turned to yet another blog post – Bella Lucia da Verona’s Camicia How To – for more research but… she also has tiny arms as well apparently.


Well, Facebook-Messenger-A-Friend because I’m a millennial.

My bff Sigil is not only one semester away from graduating from a top fashion design school, she’s also about to graduate with a history degree. So she’s kind of the perfect storm of reference material when it comes to this kind of stuff.

She’s never made an Italian camicia as her old SCA persona was 12th century French and her new one is 9th century Norwegian so I sent her pics of the pattern. Once she got past the “holy fuck you’re going to have an 150”+ neckline to pleat by hand by Saturday?!?! And then past the “make a muslin mock up” “you don’t have time for a muslin mock up?!? Ugh” She finally reminded me that the sleeves need to go under outer sleeves and decided on this formula:

  • For very full sleeves add 15-17” to the circumference of your arm
  • For sort-of full sleeves add 7-8”

The outfit I’m wearing Saturday is more of a working class look so I think I’ll use 7-8” for this dress and then go super stupid large with my future, thinner camicia. Therefore my arm sleeve pieces need to be:

  • 37” (length of my shoulder to knuckles + 12” by 15”arm + 7-8” + seam allowance = 24”

My fabric is 53” so I’m just cutting a 37” piece of the full width and then dividing it in two. I’m basically doing what Jeanne did above….. just rotated.

Fabric Cutting Diagram.png

Neat side note here, I own Simplicity pattern 2777 which I’d assumed before might make for a good base pattern to start with…. But it calls for 7 yards of linen. I was able to get mine out of just under 4 yards. So. There’s that. Plus, this method was actually a million times easier than trying to use a store-bought pattern. It’s rectangles… it’s not too hard to mess up. There’s not even gores to worry about!!


Reconstructing History, and some of our extant garments, call for a 10” gusset. Jeanne uses a 6” gusset. FestiveAttyre makes a 7” one. Morgan Donner says anywhere from 4-7” for a shirt on http://www.morgandonner.com/2013/12/16th-century-shirt/ . Realm of Venus uses a 9”.

I decided to hit somewhere in the middle of all this and went with an 8” gusset. I can always change it later if I hate it.

Woo! Everything is all cut-out!

Yay pretty white piles!

Putting it All Together

I didn’t actually get time to hand-sew at work today so I’m taking everything home to assemble by machine. #lazylady

You can open all those blogs up above for more detailed instuctions on these steps, but first I attached the gussets to the sleeves.

Next up was attaching the sleeves to the body. Like one of the ladies in the links above, I attached the front body rectangle 2″ above the gusset seam and attached the back ruffle 6″ above the edge. Note: this also meant that once everything was attached I had 4″ to trim off of one panel!

The front of the camicia attached to the sleeves/gussets
This SO does not look like it could possibly be correct…. but it is!

The next step was to sew together all the side seams. This part was a LITTLE more complicated than I expected only because I had corners to turn and unhemmed fabric edges and…. I mentioned I’m an amateur, right?!

Because of the differences in hem length, my friend told me it was super important that I start my seam at the wrist cuff, go up and over the gusset edge and THEN go from armpit down to the ankle hem.

Once completed, you get something like this:

I did the math and I’m pretty sure my neckline is about 154″. The bottom hem is about 105″. I’ve never made a garment with a bigger neck hole than bottom hem!

I then used my machine to quickly hem all the main raw edges (I haven’t done the internal seams as of this posting).

Look how pretty those neckline corners are! (and ignore my non-trimmed threads)
I just folded the fabric over itself and ran a quick machine stitch as close to the edge of the fold as I could. Top is the interior, bottom exterior. You almost can’t see the thread in real life.
I just had to take a moment to show off how flipping pretty my shoulder gussets are. I’m so proud of these.


Well, the inside isn’t as pretty….

At this point I started to panic a little.

Necklines? Ruffles? Gathers? Ahhhh!

I’d viewed the Realm of Venus Neck How To and pretty much all the text there looked pretty intimidating.

I messaged my SCA group chat ladies like “OMG HELP HOW DO I MAKE 154″ OF PLEATS IN ONE DAY” and the lovely Verena replied with “Fork it!” and sent me a video of an awesome fork method of pleating.

Unfortunately, her method also required me to pin them all to something and created slightly larger pleats than I wanted to make…. I do, afterall, have to turn 154″ into a reasonable neckline.

I ended up using a method from the website above anyways.

I left the tension on my machine where it was (like 4) and moved the running stitch length as large as it goes. I probably could have played with a few other settings to make an even bigger/better stich but it was 7am and I didn’t feel like playing with things. I really have no idea what all the settings on my machine do nor how they affect the stitch.

I ran three lines of thread about 1/4″ apart (give or take a bunch… I’m not great at straight) around each sleeve cuff and all the way around the neckline. I left a break in the thread at each corner of the neckline. Hopefully this photo makes it clear…. white thread on white linen is hard to photograph.


I started with the sleeve cuffs because they seemed the least intimidating. I definitely broke the thread on the first cuff by pulling too tight (don’t do that!).

I’ll fix this at some point…. but it might not be today. I don’t know. Depends how motivated I am later.
Pulling the threads in sections using a nice thick needle to slide under the threads
I tightened and tied off my threads in multiple spots and THEN remembered I have to fit my wrist through this thing so half of one cuff ended up with smaller ruffles than the other half…
I’m definitely going to have to redo these after tomorrow’s event….
This side looks pretty, though!

To keep the bits in place I just tied the threads toghether. Sigil and Verena verified this as the best method, though, to be fair, I wasn’t very careful or neat with it since I know I’m going to have to redo them later anyways.

I’m going to do this completely differently on my second camicia. Apparently I can put someone else’s Flickr album into a post so here’s Morgan Donner’s camicia! I’ll be aiming for a similiar look with my fancy one….

Smocked Neckline and cuff

Onto the Neckline!

The afforementioned Sigil spent the last few days putting together the actual dress I’ll be wearing this under. Since it’s a square neckline (a Campi dress design) I had her send me the measurements for each side individually instead of the neckline as a whole.


My shoulder pieces right now are 18.5″ and they need to be 10.25″. So every 2.31″ needs to become 1.28″.

The back makes 53″ (minus the SA on each side) into 9.25″… oof. That means every 1.5″ needs to become about 1/4″. That’s really going to be a MUCH tighter ruffle than what the shoulders are. Hmmm…

It took a few hours at work this morning, but I finally got everything ruffled!

Looks so good over a t-shirt!
Oops. My ruffle is tucked!

So I thought I was done.

Then I heard the rip.

…..my entire back seam ruffle ripped out of the fabric. But I’m at work and, well, we’re an IT company and we really don’t have sewing machines here.


I had to redo all the ruffle that ripped out with a quick three rows of running stitches. I’m going to go through and maybe whip stitch all the ruffle together….. next week.

Anyways, without further ado. here’s the finally camicia!!!! I’ll update later a photo of it on under my dress!

Gee, that’s just beautiful.



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