How Much Enough?: Fabric Usage in 16th Century Women’s Clothing
A version of this paper was printed in Costume and Dressmaker, Vol 1, No. 2 (January 1997) 10–14.
Footnotes are denoted by bold-faced numbers in parentheses. If you click on these numbers, you will go to the footnote indicated. Click on the first word of the footnote to return to your place in the text.
This paper was prompted by a request to help lay out a pattern for a mid-16th century upper-middle class/lower gentry “best dress” for a costume competition. The seamstress had but a scant 5 yards of 60-inch-wide brocade and was lamenting that she did not have enough to make a proper gown. With a little help, she designed a layout using minimal fabric wastage cutting and she was able to create an suitable-looking gown from the fabric at hand. While she was away at the competition, I pulled out two articles on clothing accounts from the mid-16th century I had been intending to read and found that royalty used the equivalent of six yards or so of 60-inch-wide fabric to construct a similar garment. The five yards of fabric she used was surely appropriate to the social class she was interpreting.
When reproducing clothing from 16th century visual sources, we often think that we need nine or ten yards of 45-inch fabric to make many 16th century women’s garments look “right.” After seeing some indication that actual usages may be been much smaller, I decided to do further research into the available printed information (in English) and look at the amounts of fabric designated for various types of women’s garments from about 1540 to 1600. I have chosen to focus on the amount of fabric used for the base garment, the outer fabric only, not the fabric for the linings, interlinings, or trims.
Five sources mentioning lengths of fabrics were found. In four of the sources, the quantities for only a few garments were specified, but these tended to confirm a trend. The sources were: “The Clothes of Thomasine Petre 1555–1559,” by Anne Buck; “Mary Tudor’s Wardrobe,” by Alison J. Carter; Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, by Janet Arnold; Patterns of Fashion, 1560–1620, by Janet Arnold; and Libro de geometría práctica y traça, by Juan de Alcega. Three of the sources concentrated on English clothing; one source was Spanish, and the fifth contained data about clothing throughout Western Europe except France. (1)
In her study of Mary Tudor’s wardrobe accounts, Alison J. Carter was more concerned with how the types of garments belonging to Mary Tudor changed during her lifetime than with how much cloth was consumed. However, she did give amounts for 5 garments from 1539 to 1557 and provided average amounts used for four classes of garments.
“The Clothing of Thomasine Petre 1555–1559” described the clothing of a daughter of a lawyer, civil servant, and knight based on surviving household accounts. Twelve-year-old Thomasine Petre became a lady-in-waiting to the Marchioness of Exeter in 1555 and was married in 1559. This article also discussed in detail definitions of various items of clothing and characteristics, including the typical widths found in England, of the fabrics used for some of garments. For this study, only the data about clothing from 1559 were used. It would have been likely that Thomasine Petre would have attained her adult height by age sixteen, and the fabric consumed for her clothing may have been more typical of women’s clothing of the time. However, she used so little fabric for her garments that she may have been an unusually petite woman.
Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d was a study of inventory accounts which described already made and stored garments. Accounts for yardages of cloth given for various garments also exist and Janet Arnold quoted some of these. Amounts for five garments from 1569 to 1582 were given.
The extant clothing described in Patterns of Fashion 1560–1620 primarily belonged to non-royal nobility and wealthy gentry. Each pattern piece in the layouts was measured, the widths of the fabrics used were found and the lengths were added together. This produced total amounts that use more fabric than if pattern pieces were laid out on the cloth wasting as little fabric as possible. Generally, clothing dated after 1610 was excluded from this study. (2)
The patterns found in Juan de Alcega’s tailor’s book were designed for non-royal upper class garments worn in Spain and Portugal. De Alcega’s patterns were generic and with few exceptions, they did not take into account individual differences of size and height. (3) He supplied suggested fabric lengths for each of the types of garments shown and these amounts are the ones used here. These lengths, of course, would have varied with the size of the patron. Still, there is often a close correspondence between his pattern layouts and the lengths used therein and the actual patterns of and yardages used in similar extant garments depicted in Patterns of Fashion 1560–1620, regardless of regional origin.
Readers should be aware that most of the garments described were made for individual people, and the yardages used were specific to them. De Alcega’s lengths were approximate. Also the conversions used (discussed below) are also approximate. When making garments for yourselves, the yardages will probably vary from those given here.
Several major factors affecting cloth consumption were the widths of the fabric used, the social status of the wearer, the type of garment made, and changes in styles over time. Fabric widths varied from country to country and often from city to city. (4) In order to make the lengths found in these divers sources meaningful to the modern reader, the lengths given for fabrics woven in various widths must be translated into modern equivalents by some method. Conversions of the original lengths to their equivalents in 45-inch-wide fabrics or in 60-inch-wide fabrics have been done as follows. English cloth was supposed to be woven to the following standard widths: wool broadcloth, 63 inches; kersey (a type of wool), 36 inches; cottons; (5) and friezes, 27 inches; and silks, 20 to 22 inches. (6) Most of the the English garments studied used either broadcloth or silk. To compensate for modern 60-inch cloth being narrower than the standard wool broadcloth, I converted woolens by multiplying the original lengths by 1.05 (63/60). For example, if an account described 3 yards of broadcloth, I counted it as the equivalent of 3.15 yards of 60-inch-wide fabric. However, since the standard wool broadcloth is so close to the modern standard width of 60 inches wide, a 1:1 conversion could also be used. Silk was produced in widths that were nearly half of a 45-in-wide fabric, so I divided the original length in half to give its equivalents in a 45-in-wide fabric.
De Alcega generally designated wool fabrics with the width of 2 ells or “baras,” and designated silks as 2/3 bara wide. (7) According to his translators, a bara was equivalent to 33 English inches. For de Alcega, this makes wool cloth equal to 66 inches wide and silk equal to 22 inches wide. Silk lengths are converted in the same way as above. I converted woolens by multiplying the original lengths by 1.1 (66/60). Again, I remind the reader that when making garments, the lengths below are approximations only.
Finally, nearly all the women’s garments used in Patterns of Fashion were constructed from 22-inch-wide silks and so the two yards of original length equal to one yard of 45-inch fabric conversion was used. The exceptions are listed in the tables below.
Type of garment would also vary over time and prevalence of different types may have also varied by place. This article will examine various types of garments worn in two time spans, 1540–1570 and 1570–1610 and the differences in consumption for various apparent social classes will be discussed with each garment type. Three social statuses are distinguished: royalty, represented by the clothing of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor; non-royal nobility, represented by the clothing of Eleanor of Toledo, Pfalzgrafin Dorothea Sabina von Neuburg, and others as depicted in Patterns of Fashion, and the layout described by Juan de Alcega; and rising gentry as represented by Thomasine Petre.
Another problem with this type of research is that of vocabulary. Sometimes the same garment type changed name over time and sometimes the same name was used for different garments. The meaning of “kirtle” underwent many changes from the 15th to the 16th centuries. For middle of the 16th century, it may either have referred to a petticoat or underskirt or it may have referred to a garment with a skirt and bodice. Most of the garments for which we have information from this time period were English and generally English kirtles had a bodice and skirt and was worn under a gown of some sort. Since the front of the kirtle was the only part seen, the back was sometimes constructed with a cheaper material. The basic outer fabric listed for a garment may have been less than that actually needed, which may have been the case for Thomasine Petre’s small kirtles. Round kirtles had skirts cut and hemmed at an even distance from the floor all the way around while French kirtles had skirts with trains. The French gown described a trained, straight-bodied, and wide-sleeved overgown often called today a “Tudor gown.” The loose gown and the night gown were generally loose-fitting gowns, although they may have been fitted to the waist, semi-fitted to the waist, or falling loose from the shoulder. These gowns often had short, puffed sleeves or hanging sleeves. (8)
Tables 1 and 2 show the fabric consumption of the various garments studied from this time period. Yardages used in kirtles for royalty ranged from the equivalent 3.5 to 3.88 yards of 45-inch-wide fabrics in contrast to Thomasine Petre’s kirtles which ranged from the equivalent of 1.5 to 2.38 yards of 45-inch-wide fabrics. This may have been because the upper classes could afford to use more fabric even in a gown that was largely covered by another, or because we only have the example of three individual’s garments and the differences could be accounted for by the variations in the three persons’ sizes. Loose gowns for both Mary Tudor and Thomasine Petre had similar amounts of fabric; 3.75 equivalent yards of 45-inch-wide fabric for Mary Tudor and 3.12 yards for Thomasine Petre. Mary Tudor’s two nightgowns were more generously cut using 6–7.5 equivalent yards of 45-in-wide fabric.
French gowns and straight-bodied gowns were cut similarly to kirtles with trains, but also had wide sleeves. The French gowns of both Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor took about 8 equivalent yards of 45-inch-wide fabric Notice that the main difference between a French kirtle and a French gown was the addition of sleeves. When both Mary Tudor’s French gown and Elizabeth Tudor’s straight-bodied gown were compared to their French kirtles, the French gowns took up 3 extra equivalent yards — presumably for the sleeves and perhaps for a longer train.
The other garments we have yardages for were Elizabeth Tudor’s farthingales which used an extravagant 5.62 equivalent yards and 2 petticoats of Thomasine Petre which used only about 1.25 equivalent yards of 60-inch-wide fabric.
|1539||MT||Kirtle||7.75 yds||22. in||3.88 yds|
|1559||TP||Kirtle with Train||8||22||4|
|1560||ELT||Trained Gown w/o sleeve||8.5||22||4.25|
|MT = Mary Tudor; ET = Elizabeth Tudor; TP = Thomasine Petrie; ELT = Eleanor of Toledo|
|1559||TP||Petticoat||1.25 yds||63. in||1.3 yds|
|TP = Thomasine Petrie|
For this time period, there were very few garments in the sample worn by royalty (one loose gown and one French gown). Most of the rest were worn by non-royal nobles and other very wealthy people, so class differences in the consumption of fabric cannot really be compared. However, the theoretical yardages used in Juan de Alcega’s Tailor’s Libro de geometría práctica y traça can be compared to similar actual garments depicted in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion, 1560–1620. Tables 3 and 4 show the fabric consumption of the various garments studied from the later 16th century–early 17th century. I remind the reader that the total yardages from the garments in Patterns of Fashion were calculated in a way that did not account for an economical patterns layout, so it is possible that the actual yardages used for these items were even less than I have indicated.
Patterns of Fashion showed four loose gowns and de Alcega showed 5 layouts for loose gowns. The yardages used for the extant gowns ranged from 3.3 equivalent yards of 45-inch-wide fabric to 4.5 equivalent yards averaging about 4 equivalent yards; the yardages proposed by de Alcega ranged from 3 to 5.33 equivalent yards averaging 4.3 equivalent yards. By comparison, Elizabeth Tudor’s loose gown used an immense 9.25 equivalent yards.
The yardages used for one of Elizabeth Tudor’s French gowns and used for a gown consisting of bodice, trained skirt, and hanging sleeves worn by Pfalzgrafin Dorothea Sabina von Neuburg were available as were the yardages proposed by Juan de Alcega for five similar gowns with hanging sleeves. Yardages for de Alcega’s gowns ranged from 6.125 equivalent yards of 45-inch-wide fabric to 7.75 equivalent yards, averaging about 7 equivalent yards. Pfalzgrafin Dorothea Sabina von Neuburg’s gown, with floor length hanging sleeves, took up 7.5 equivalent yards, well within de Alcega’s range, and Elizabeth Tudor’s gown took up 8 equivalent yards, only a quarter-yard more than de Alcega gown that used the most fabric.
There are two other types of garments for which comparisons between the fabric consumption of extant garments and those proposed by Juan de Alcega could be made, the doublet and the kirtle with bodice. (9) The doublet shown in Patterns of Fashion used 0.88 equivalent yards of 45-inch-wide fabric and both of the doublets shown in de Alcega were to use 1.25 equivalent yards. The difference in fabric usage could easily be explained by size differences. The German kirtle presented in Patterns of Fashion was constructed differently than either of de Alcega’s, but did not use much more fabric than his proposed kirtles with bodices; 2.7 equivalent yards of 60-inch-wide fabric for the German kirtle as compared to 2.56 and 2.2 equivalent yards of 60-inch-wide fabric for de Alcega’s. These examples, limited as they may be, suggest that the yardages proposed by Juan de Alcega can be reliable as guides to how much fabric was used for various types of garments worn in the late 16th century. A summary of the yardages provided by de Alcega can be found in the tables below.
|1589||JdA||Kirtle (skirt)||6.125 yds||22. in.||3.07 yds|
|1589||JdA||Kirtle, “Fat” Woman’s||7.5||22||3.75|
|1589||JdA||Skirt, Bodice, Sleeves||15.5||22||7.75|
|1589||JdA||Skirt, Bodice, Sleeves||13.5||22||6.75|
|1589||JdA||Skirt, Bodice, Sleeves||12.25||22||6.125|
|1589||JdA||Skirt, Bodice, Sleeves||14.5||22||7.25|
|1589||JdA||Skirt, Bodice, Sleeves||13.75||22||6.88|
|JdA = Juan de Alcega; GE = German; PF = Patterns of Fashion; SW = Swedish; EG = English|
|1589||JdA||Kirtle (skirt)||2. yds||66. in.||2.2 yds|
|1589||JdA||2 Kirtles (skirts)||4.25||58||4.25|
|1589||JdA||Kirtle, “Fat” Woman’s||2.25||66||2.48|
|1589||JdA||Kirtle, “Fat” Woman’s||2.25||66||2.48|
|1589||JdA||Trained Skirt, Narrow||2.5||66||2.75|
|1589||JdA||Loose Gown, Girl’s||1.67||66||1.84|
|1589||JdA||Skirt, Bodice, Sleeves||4.25||66||4.68|
|1589||JdA||Skirt, Bodice, Sleeves||4.75||66||5.22|
|1589||JdA||Skirt, Bodice, Sleeves||5.33||66||5.86|
|JdA = Juan de Alcega; GE = German; PF = Patterns of Fashion|
There is one style that is not represented in our data that probably did use greater yardages, that of the tucked and flounced skirts, worn over the French farthingale or the drum farthingale in England and France (10) in the 1590s through the early 16th century. Janet Arnold cited one example from Denmark dated 1615–1620, but worn in the same style as in the 1590s, that used 7 equivalent yards of 45-inch-wide fabric. (11) A bodice would have added only about 0.75 to 1.5 equivalent yards and sleeves would have added 1 to 3 equivalent yards, depending on style. With the small sample available and with the differences between regions represented, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make meaningful comparisons between the two time periods studied. However, for the few garments that seem to be equivalent across time, they appear to consume about the same amounts of fabric in both time periods.
With the evidence at hand, it looks as if modest quantities of fabric were used for basic garments of the late 16th century. Yardages for most women’s clothing items seldom exceeded 7 equivalent yards of 45-in-wide fabric or 4 equivalent yards of 60-inch-wide fabric. Garments using significantly more than these amounts often had very full or long sleeves and/or trains. When devising patterns and fabric layouts for the later 16th century, you may find this information helpful as a general guideline in creating a more accurate design. Do keep in mind that the examples given were not necessarily representative for all garments, and that your individual needs will vary.
- Alison J. Carter, “Mary Tudor’s Wardrobe,” Costume 18, 1984 ,9–28; Anne Buck, “The Clothes of Thomasine Petre 1555–1559,” Costume 24, 1990, 15–33; Janet Arnold, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d (London: Maney, 1988); Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 1560–1620 (New York: Drama Books, 1985); and Juan de Alcega, Libro de geometría práctica y traça, (Madrid: Guillermo Drouy, 1589), tr. Jean Pain and Cecilia Bainton (facs. Carlton, Bedford, UK: Ruth Bean, 1979).
- Three loose gowns dated ca. 1610 were included because their layouts were similar to those in de Alcega’s book and it can be reasonably surmised that these were representative of fabric consumption for similar garments prior to 1600.
- De Alcega apportioned two sections of his book to width conversions of cloth. One section provided tables on how to find equivalent lengths if a tailor knew how much fabric was required from a given width and needed to find the equivalent length from a cloth of a different width (translation: 18–19; original: folios 1–11a). Another section gave tables for different types of garment to enable a tailor to find from a given length of a garment (such as waist to floor length or neck to waist length) the various lengths required from a range of fabric widths (translation: 58–60; original: folios 78–88a). This last set of tables may be useful to estimate quantities of fabric used by people of various heights.
- Arnold, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe, 164–165 and de Alcega, 61.
- Buck, 32. Cotton in this period often refers to a inferior wool used for linings or in cheap garments.
- Buck, 25. Although it was difficult to do so, manufacturers could purchase a license to vary from the standard widths.
- De Alcega, 17 (translation; original, folio viii).
- Buck, 18–19, and Carter, 13–14.
- Kirtles in Libro de geometría … were simply untrained skirts or petticoats. De Alcega also showed several examples of kirtles with bodices.
- These can also be found elsewhere, but it was in France and England that these skirts were more often seen.
- Arnold, Patterns of Fashion, 116–117.
Alcega, Juan de. Libro de geometría práctica y traça [Tailor’s Pattern Book 1589]. Trans. Jean Pain and Cecilia Bainton. Carlton, Bedford, UK: Ruth Bean, 1979.
Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d. London: Maney, 1988.
________. Patterns of Fashion, 1560–1620. New York: Drama Books, 1985.
Buck, Anne. “The Clothes of Thomasine Petre 1555–1559.” Costume 24 (1990): 15–33.
Carter, Alison J. “Mary Tudor’s Wardrobe.” Costume 18 (1984): 9–28.