Saturday, January 21, 2012

Housebook Documentation....

Patterned after the Housebook Master:
A 1480’s German Dress

Lady Petronia Casta
mka Lorien Haigh

This Dress in History

This dress is based off several images from the Medieval Housebook, an impressive manuscript started in 1475 in southern Germany.  This collection of images, mostly pen and ink drawings, illustrating life in and around a princely court, are the majority of the works attributed to the Housebook Master (Getty).  His work occasionally features young women wearing an unusual dress that fascinated me.

The dress (kleid) features a very tightly fitted bodice with an odd pleated section on the stomach and center back, an extremely low cut neckline that shows off the undergarment (hemd) (Fig. 1), with lacing that crosses over the collarbone often from a decorative lacing jewelry piece sewn onto the dress, and a full, overly long skirt that pools on the ground, and trails behind some women in a train. (Fig. 2)

The Housebook Master isn’t the only artist to have depicted this style of dress, and there are a few variations in the style.  Some images show the sleeves to be widely cut, and consistent in width from bicep to wrist or longer. (Fig. 3)  The armscye of this sleeve is deeply cut on the back of the dress, causing the sleeve to cover the shoulder blade. (Fig. 4)  The alternative version of the sleeve is three quarter length, and tightly fitted from the bicep to the middle of the forearm.  It is usually shown with a cut away on the sleeve from hem to just above the elbow.  The sleeve is then laced across the opening and the hemd’s sleeve. (Fig. 5)

The shape of the neckline varies a little from dress to dress, though the majority of them are a slightly rounded V-shape from the collarbone.  There are a few higher, more rounded necklines, (Fig. 6) and some have decorative collars around the back or decorative bands all the way around the neckline. (Fig. 3)  The dress is frequently worn with a belt, either to hold pouches, (Fig. 4) or used to hike up the extra long skirts for walking. (Fig. 2)  Occasionally, the lifted skirts show off another garment below the outer dress, either a petticoat, or likely, and under dress that is fitted throughout the body.  In one example, the under dress is checky patterned. (Fig. 2)

The hemd is usually only visible at the front of the neckline, but an couple images of peasant women in their hemds show a banded neckline, pleated only at the center front (presumably also the center back) and full long sleeves, loose or gathered into a band at mid-forearm (Figs. 7&8).  The dress is most frequently worn with poulaines, shoes with pointed toes that can sometimes be extremely long. (Figs. 1, 2, 5, 6&7)

There is also some variety to the styles of headdress worn with this kleid, though they almost always worn over a pair of braids, drawn up over the head in front of the ears. (Figs. 1-5&7)  (There are occasions of loose hair, but these are often scenes of saints, young women, or extremely casual.)  With these braids is worn most commonly either a fringed cap (Figs. 1&2) (seen most often in conjunction with the large loose sleeves), or a wulsthaube, a peculiar German headdress of white or patterned fabric drawn tight over a bump along the top back of the woman’s head (Figs. 5&6).  A narrow ribbon around the head that supports a fringe (called a gefranse) that drapes over the back of the neck was sometimes worn alone, (Fig 9) with a floral wreath, (Fig. 10) or some combination of other hats.  A cap and neck fringe are in at least one image, (Fig. 4) the wulsthaube and fringe are pretty common for this style, (Figs. 5&9) and occasionally there are unique hats seen only once in imagery. (Fig. 11)

Historical Methods

I have found very little information on how this particular garment would have been constructed in period.  Much of the construction information available is for either earlier or later garments and from other geographical regions, but from this information can be extrapolated to give an idea on how this dress was constructed.

Natural fibers are the only ones that existed in the 15th century.  Wool and Linen were the most common fibers in southern German at the time, though some silk was available, and there are other varieties of bast fibers that would have been known.  Very little linen survives from the medieval period, as plant fibers decompose more quickly than protein fibers.  Wool fibers have a certain amount of stretch to them, and this would help produce a smooth fitted body, but a fabric with less give would be beneficial for the supportive nature of the bodice, like linen of moderate weight.  The images of this dress show the fabric puddling in thick folds on the ground.  This indicates a heavy, denser fabric, likely mid- to heavy-weight wool.  The images from the Housebook don’t have much detail of the texture of the fabric, and most of the outer gowns have no pattern; the few images in color show a solid color garment. (Fig. 12)

Linen would be the most likely material for the hemd, as such a garment would need to hold up to both body dirt and oils and repeated washing.  Colored images present the hemd as mostly white, though several are embellished with bands of other colors, and embroidery or beadwork.

Hand sewing was the only option for constructing garments during this period.  Garments have been found in London, a little earlier than the Housebook Master was working, where the stitching has completely decomposed, leaving the impression of seam lines, indicating the predominate sewing thread of the period was linen (Crowfoot, Ritchard, and Staniland 151).  Techniques for sewing wool from Hedby in northern Germany show a few varieties in joining methods.  The raw edges of the garment would be turned under once and hem stitched before joining pieces together with an overcast stitch, or the seam would be sewn first with a running stitch, and the edges overcast together afterwards (Jones).

The pleating at center front and back is cause for confusion.  Knife pleats and box pleats are the most common forms of pleating in garments depicted in historical costume, but create a fairly flat pleat.  Cartridge pleats and rolled pleats are less frequent and are used to create volume in the pleat.  Cartridge pleats are intended to gather a large amount of fabric into a small space without creating a bulky seam, and makes the fabric spring away from the body.  Rolled pleats are rare, and there is very little evidence that it was used before Victorian times, but it creates long tubular pleats and seems to be the method used to create the skirts in some Renaissance paintings, specifically Lucas Cranach’s 16th century German gowns (Leed).  The dress appears to close center front, and a few images show center front lacing hiding behind the pleats.

What I Did

I decided to make this gown a little less than three weeks out from the event it debuted at, though I’d been considering the dress for over half a year before.  I’ve used historical materials and techniques where I could, given the time crunch and a lack of available funds.

I was given a five-yard piece of wool coating as a thank you gift from friends.  It is thick enough to create the beautiful folds when draped.  It came to my possession as a chai-grey color, and, being in love with the teal color of the woman’s dress in Gotha Lovers (Fig. 12), I decided to dye the fabric.  I began with some RIT dye, but it was insufficient to color the fabric to any real depth, so I purchased some Jacquard Acid dye.  Neither of these is period, but the depth of color was my goal, and I have very little knowledge of period dyes.  In the short amount of time I had, I chose the dyeing technique I had some familiarity with.

To line the bodice and sleeves, I used some medium weight blue linen that I had for another project.  The dress is sewn with modern polyester thread for several reasons, but primary was cost and color, I couldn’t find a good color match in silk thread to justify it costing more.  Lacing cord is supposed to be black silk I bartered for, but the thread has gone walkabout since the dress’s debut, and has been replaced (hopefully temporarily) by cotton embroidery floss.  With no skill in casting jewelry, I purchased a modern necklace clasp and used it to create my lacing loops.  The hemd is made from light weight white linen.

I decided to pattern myself for this garment, mostly to see if I could.  I believe that in period at least one other person would be doing the patterning, and it would have made it easier, but my work schedule made meeting someone else difficult.  Patterning the sleeves was an impressive bit of torture.  I went through over a dozen incarnations of the pattern before settling on the one I have now, and I’m not entirely convinced its right.  The technique is based off that of the Grande Assiette, where the armscye is cut deep in back, and has a gore set into the back seam to create the large circumference necessary without adding bulk to the upper arm of the sleeve.  The sleeve is patterned with the seam running up the center back of the arm, as is correct for most period garments.  The elbow opening follows the seam, but is asymmetric, as the sleeve is angled to reduce bunching in the elbow.  The eyelets on the sleeve opening are done by hand, though they are bound with polyester thread.  The cord for lacing is made by hand by pulling a chain stitch tight, though I didn’t use a crochet hook.

The deep neckline of the dress is rounded, which was uncommon, but necessary because I am not shaped like the small women of the time.  The dress has been modified since the first wearing to open the neckline wider, since it seemed too narrow when first patterned.  The bodice has fairly straightforward seams; waist seam at natural waist or even a little below, side seams run vertically on the sides, center back seam.  The only unusual seam was the shoulder seams, which all appear to be to the back of the shoulder line.  I chose to close the dress with hooks and eyes that run down the center front, which is boned with a piece of plastic cable tie.  I believe the dress in period was either laced closed, or had hooks and eyes, but cannot document the hooks.  I also cannot prove there was boning in the dress, but my large bust requires more support.

I only had enough fabric left after cutting out the bodice and sleeves to make two panels of skirt.  I chose to cut a back panel and two fronts from this fabric.  The pleated portion of the skirt is cut in one with the smooth sides.  I carefully measured the width I needed for the pleats, measured down the necessary height difference of the pleats, added the width I needed for the smooth sections of the skirt, and drew a diagonal line from the end of the waist to the length of the hem, giving the skirt panels a tiny amount of flare.  The small triangular wedge that was left was flipped upside down to create a narrow gore to add just a tiny bit more flare at the hem.  I purposefully cut the skirt about six inches too long in the front, and twelve to sixteen inches long in the back to create not only the train, but also the fabric puddling on the floor when the skirts are unbelted.

For the pleating, I choose to use six rolled pleats each for the back and the front.  Most of the images showed six to ten pleats across the front.  I had seen the results of others’ cartridge pleating, and decided the pleats were too narrow and too many to be the best method for my pleats.  I specifically choose to sew my pleated portion to the bodice of the dress by leaving the bodice whole underneath it.  In every version I’d read about online, the seamstress had chosen to cut out the portion of the bodice where the pleating was, and inset the pleated panel.  Doing that perplexed me, and one seamstress who had done it mentioned trouble with the pleats pulling apart under the strain of being such a tight fitted garment.  By leaving the fabric whole as a background to sew the pleats to, most of the strain is off the pleats.  My fabric tends to have more stretch to it than I want.

For the hemd, I drew up a cutting diagram and made the whole garment in about 12 hours.  The shape is based entirely off the image of the peasant woman with sickle and shield. (Fig. 7)  The center front and center back are gathered, and the whole neckline edge is bound.  The armscyes are curved, but the sleeve is cut as a rectangle with no sleevehead.  I cut the side seams at an angle, similar to the skirt panels, and inserted the resulting triangles as gores on the side seams to increase the width of the fabric.  When I finished, I discovered that I hadn’t allowed quite enough room in the armscye, and the fit was too tight, so I added two small gussets to the armpits for more room.

With this dress I wear my fringed red hat, until I have time to make myself a wulsthaube.  I wear cheap pointed toe shoes, because proper poulaines are expensive, and a belt to hike up my skirts so I can walk and dance.  I’m looking forward to making a gefranse to wear over my hair on warmer days, and  I hope to create something checky to wear beneath this dress, but need to do more research on whether that is a full under dress or simply a petticoat.
Fig. 1

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Fig. 12


Crowfoot, Elisabeth, Frances Ritchard, and Kay Staniland.  Textiles and Clothing, c.1150-c.1450.  London: Museum of London Publishing, 1992.  eBook.  14 Jan 2012.

Gotha Lovers(Fig. 12)  Master of the Housebook.  c. 1484. Schlossmuseum.  Freidenstein, Germany.  Wikipedia Commons.  20 Jan 2010.  <>.  <>.  14 Mar 2011.

Jones, Heather Rose.  "Archaeological Sewing."  Heather Rose Jones.  29 Feb 2004.  Web.  14 Jan 2012. 

Lady with Letter Coat of Arms. (Fig. 1)  Master of the Housebook.  c. 1475/1500.  National Art Collections Dresden. Dresden, Germany. Bildindex der Kunst und Architektur. 19 Jan. 2010, <>.  <>.  14 Mar 2011

Lady with Radish Coat of Arms. (Fig. 2)  Master of the Housebook.  c. 1475/1500.  National Art Collections Dresden. Dresden, Germany. Bildindex der Kunst und Architektur. 19 Jan. 2010, <>.  <>.  14 Mar 2011.

Leed, Drea.  "Period Pleats."  Elizabethan Costuming Page.  N.p., n.d.  Web.  <>.  14 Jan 2012.

Lovers on Horseback(Fig. 11)  Attributed to Master bxg, active c. 1470-1490.  <>.  14 Mar 2011

Lovers with a Falcon(Fig. 10)  Master of the Housebook.  c. 1480. National Art Collections Dresden. Dresden, Germany. Bildindex der Kunst und Architektur. 19 Jan. 2010, <>.  <>.  14 Mar 2011

"Master of the Housebook (Getty Museum)."  The Getty.  The Getty, n.d.  Web.  <>.  11 Jan 2012.

Peasant woman with sickle and shield.  (Fig. 7)  Livelier than Life- The Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet or the Housebook Master. JP Filedt Kok. Amsterdam 1985.  <>.  12 Nov 2011

Playing Cards(Fig. 4)  Attributed to Master bxg, active c. 1470-1490.  <>.  12 Jan 2012

Standing Couple(Fig. 5)  Master of the Housebook.  c. 1480. Staatliche Museen. Berlin, Germany. Web Gallery of Art. 20 Jan 2010. <>.  <>.  12 Jan 2012

St Barbara and St Catherine(Fig. 3)  Master of the Housebook.  c. 1485/1490.  Rijksmuseum.  Amsterdam, Netherlands.  Web Gallery of Art. 20 Jan 2010. <>.  <>.  19 Nov 2011

Woman with Two Children and a Blank Shield(Fig. 8)  Master of the Housebook.  c. 1475/1500. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston, Massachusetts. 20 Jan 2010. <>.  <>.  12 Jan 2012

Young Couple(Fig. 6)  Master of the Housebook.  c. 1480. Universitätsbibliothek. Erlangen, Germany. Bildindex der Kunst und Architektur. 19 Jan 2010, <>.  <>.  19 Nov 2011

Young man and two girl  (Fig. 9) Livelier than Life- The Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet or the Housebook Master. JP Filedt Kok. Amsteram 1985.  <>.  12 Jan 2012

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