The Curious Frau

Early Modern German Clothing

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Deciphering Juan de Alcega: f59a - Kirtle and low cut bodice of silk

Spring 2003

Juan de Alcega's Tailor's Book of Patterns from 1589 can be confusing and hard to understand, the text provided by the translators doesn't help in understanding how the pieces go together, how to draft the patterns, adjust them to your size and measurements or any of the things that would make using this gem of a book easier. However, Alcega himself gives us the clues we need to be able to use his wonderful patterns and layouts over 400 years latter.


My aim is to show you how I deciphered this pattern from Alcega and how it can be adjusted it to fit your measurements and fabric.

The real key to understanding the patterns is the conversion table that converts the little letters and symbols on the patterns into actual measurements. The one in the book translates it into centimeters, but I have translated it here into inches, since that is what I think and sew in.

Symbol Fraction of a Bara Inches
i 1/48 5/8
ij 1/24 1 3/8
d 1/12 2 3/4
o 1/8 4 1/8
s 1/6 5 1/2
Q 1/4 8 1/4
t 1/3 11
ooo 3/8 12 3/8
m 1/2 16 1/2
mo 5/8 20 5/8
tt 2/3 22
QQQ 3/4 24 3/4
sb 5/6 27 1/2
ob 7/8 28 7/8
db 11/12 30 1/4
ijb 23/24 31 1/2
b 1 33
bb 2 66
bm 1 1/2 49 1/2
sb 1 barra minus 1/6 27.5

Take a look at the diagram of f.59a in the book, it calls for 6 3/4 baras of 2/3 wide bara fabric. Since we know a Castilian Bara is 33" its easy to figure out that this dress is calling for 6 1/4 yards of 22" wide fabric. Put into a more common fabric width of 44", it calls for 3 1/2 yards.

For the pattern pieces themselves, here is how I decipher the measurements

Bodice front
m - length of front center edge - 16 1/2"
t - width of front bodice at neckline (bust) - 11"
Q - along side seam - 8 1/4"
Q - width of waist seam - 8 1/4"

Bodice Back
t - length of center back edge - 11"
s - width of back bodice at neckline (bust) - 5 1/2"
s - width of back waist - 5 1/2"
Q - along side seam - 8 /14"

Skirt Front
bm - along front center- 49 1/2"
t - at waist- 11"
sb - at hem - 27 1/2"

Skirt Back
bm - at back center - 49.5"
m - at waist - 16 1/2"
b - at hem - 33"

You notice that the skirt piecings have no letter measurements on them to tell you how big they should be. That is because Alcega gives you the measurements of the final garment pieces and leaves it up to you to figure out what you need to piece into the skirt to get it to the finished width , and this can vary a great deal according to your fabric width.

Since all of the skirt pieces are cut on the fold, as well as the bodice pieces, we have to double the width measurements to get the finished size.

Neck/Bust: Front 22" + Back 11" = Total bust 33"
Waist: Front 16.5" + Back 11" = Total waist 27.5"
Skirt waist: Front 22" + Back 33" = Total skirt waist 55"
Skirt hem: Front 55" + Back 66" = Total skirt hem 121"

Now I don't know about you, but my waist is not 27.5" around, not even corseted. To adjust the pattern to the right measurements, lets look at the multiplier factor between the waist, skirt waist and skirt hem.

Skirt waist/Waist = 2
Skirt hem/Waist = 4.4

So, using my sister's measurements

Total Bodice waist = 30"
Total Skirt Waist = 30 * 2 = 60"
Total Skirt Hem = 30 * 4.4 = 132

Then to determine how much is in the skirt front vs the skirt back, we take the skirt front divided by the total to get the percentage, then we take the percentage * the new total.

Original Skirt waist: Front 22" + Back 33" = Total skirt waist 55"
% in Front: 22/55 = 0.4
% in Back: 33/55 = 0.6

New Skirt Waist = 60"
Front: 60" * 0.4 = 24
Back: 60" * 0.6 = 36

Original Skirt hem: Front 55" + Back 66" = Total skirt hem 121"
% in Front: 55/121 = 0.45
% in Back: 66/121 = 0.55

New Skirt Hem
Front: 132 * 0.45 = 59 1/2"
Back: 132* 0.55 = 72 1/2


The fabric that I am using for this dress is not the most authentic, it is an unknown man-made content fabric which I bought for curtains some years ago, pale celery green, woven with a ribbed weave and horizontal slubs occasionally woven in throughout the width. My sister found it in the stash and loved it, so that was that. I purchased some deep brown cotton velvet for an accent color and then decided that it really needed a third element to pull things together. After looking at trim for too long, I found a yarn that looks like cord that brings out the best in both colors and harmonizes nicely. Here's a sample, the brown velvet doesn't seem to photograph very well.

Fabric and Trim

Drafting the Pattern

To draft the bodice part of the dress, I used the body block drafting instructions that can be found here on the Ren Tailor website. Once I had the basic body block drafted, I then drew in the shape of the bodice from Alcega. I did change it slightly however, I needed to make the shoulder straps wide enough to cover the straps of the Effigy corset that I made for her, I also changed the neckline from a high arched neck to a square neck with a slight arch in it. We tried the high arch neck on a mockup and it just didn't look good on her body, so we went with a square neck. I also shortened the front point from about 8" to 5".

Here is a pic of the finished pattern pieces. The neck doesn't look that arched, but it is just the tiniest bit.

For the skirt, the pattern pieces are really just two trapezoids, since they are cut on double fabric, the finished widths that were calculated above are divided by two and measured out. Since there is a horizontal rib to the fabric, my sister requested that the dress be cut out so that the ribs were going vertical instead, this made cutting out the skirt much easier as there was no need to piece anything.

Here is the cutting layout diagram

Skirt layout

To Farthingale or Not To Farthingale?

Should this dress be worn over a farthingale? That was a question that was going through my head, so I decided to look into the facts. From my yet as uncompleted Alcega farthingale diary (yes, I promise it WILL get done, one of these days or other) I pulled the finished hem circumference for Alcega's farthingale of 102". This dress in its original form would have a finished circumference of 121". So the dress would fit over the farthingale, but quite snugly I think. I am not sure about what the usual ease over a farthingale should be so that the skirt behaves nicely.

Then the question arose, Should a middle class woman be wearing a farthingale? Was it always worn? Hmm. Then I remembered about these pictures.

This is a close up of the ladies in waiting from Elizabeth receiving the Dutch Ambassador attrib. Levina Teerline, c.1565, they do not seem to be wearing farthingales and the front skirts are not split.

Elizabeth I greeting the French Ambassadors

And this is a close up from Fete at Bermondsey, the woman in pink doesn't seem to be wearing one, and I wonder about the woman in yellow, Can you get that effect with the cut of the skirt and petticoats underneath and no farthingale? I am going to experiment and see.

Detail of the Fete at Bermondsey

Details, Details

showed my sister the picture from the Fete at Bermondsey and she liked the shoulder rolls that are on the yellow dress. It looks to me like it also has waist tabs.

Here is a picture of the finished bodice with some mocked up decorative treatments just to see how it would look. The brown paper is standing in for velvet. I really like the look of shoulder tabs rather than rolls, so that is what I am going to do. I am modeling them on several of the dresses in Patterns of Fashion.

Bodice with sample trim

July 8th, 2003

The dress has been done for almost two weeks, but with starting a new job on June 30th, its been hard to find time to update the site lately. So I am going to do a recap.

The Shoulder Treatment

I decided to read through PoF and copy the shoulder tab treatment that I liked the looks of the best. After debating over which looked best in the drawings, I decided to go with the design of the shoulder wings from the Women's Loose Gown, pg 118. The gown is from 1610-1615, but they looked most like the ones in the pictures above, I really wanted something with a bit of a cap that would cause the tabs to be off the shoulder, not standing straight up. I was able to take the size of the shoulder wing right out of PoF as the size of the armholes was very similar, I did reduce the number of tabs to 10 per shoulder however, down from the original 14. Here is a pic of the pattern for the shoulder wings, you can see the part on the bottom that is the shoulder wing and the top above that is the individual tabs marked out.

Once I had this, I cut 20 pieces of fabric that were the length of the longest tab + 1" by the width of the finished tab size*2 +1/4" seam allowance. I then sewed these into tubs, turned them inside out, ironed them flat and then using the top part of the shoulder wing pattern, I turned the ends in, trimming as necessary, to get the right length and angle of the tabs. Here is a pic of one of the set of tabs on the pattern finished being fitted to its pattern. Then I sewed the shoulder wing parts together, turned and ironed them. Using a double strand of sewing thread I whip stitched the tabs to the wing with right sides together and then painstakingly hand sewed the trim onto the tabs. This part took the longest, I was so sick of these shoulder wings by the time I got them done. They look fabulous, but they just ate time like you wouldn't believe! After the trim was on, I sewed the shoulder wings to the bodice, this is what they liked before I sewed the other ends down onto the bodice.

Shoulder tabs Shoulder tabs Shoulder tabs finished

Tabs for a Waist, a Waist for Tabs

I used another garment from PoF for inspiration on the waist tabs, 1620 Jerkin, pg 8. I specifically chose this jerkin as it has a pointed waist and larger size tabs. The center front tabs are shaped specially to continue the point of the waist and the straight line of the opening, the rest are the same shape, a slope sided rectangle. These were all made out of 5"x 4 3/4" pieces of fabric, folded in half, sewn and turned. The actual slope of the rectangle was determined by playing around with it, stepping back from the ironing board and seeing how it looked. Once all 13 were sewn, I pressed the raw edges in and sewed a strand of the yarn around the edges.

The finished shoulder wings with a sample front guard style and the finished waist tabs waiting to be sewn on. As you can see, the center front waist tabs should have had a steeper angle to them.

Front with tabs and shoulders


I decided to try out a new fastening for this dress and chose split rings found in the fishing tackle section of sporting goods store. They went in well, but the ends tend to catch on things, like sewing thread or hair or the lacing cord itself. I like rings, but I think I will use a different kind of rings next time.

The Skirt

Since Alcega makes no mention of a separate waistband for this kirtle, I decided that was an indication that the bodice and the skirt are joined together. The skirt was finished as a separate piece, except for the hem, and then sewn to the bodice. Since the bodice has a point to it, I needed to fold/cut/arrange the front to accommodate the point. The Pfalzgrafin dress in PoF has the center section of the skirt folded down to accommodate the point, but on this pattern the bodice point has too much curve on the sides for the skirt fabric to take a fold easily. Pining the bodice to the skirt, over lapping the top edges by 1/2" to accommodate the seam allowance when I finished the top skirt edge, I then drew the curve of the bodice onto the skirt fabric with a pencil, measured up 1" and drew that line. This second line was my cutting line, the first was the fold line. I then folded and ironed on the fold line, and then because it wouldn't stay, I did a line of hand topstitching to keep in place. I just tucked the raw edge under on the inside and hemmed it down so that it wouldn't ravel.

For the top edge, I really wanted to add a bit of poof to the pleats, so I sewed a doubled length of wool to the inside. The finished width of this wool strip is about 4", it does give nice body to the pleats.

Here is a picture of the finished skirt waist before its sewn to the bodice.

Finishing Up

To attach the bodice to the skirt, I placed them right sides together, matching center fronts to center front. I had marked on the bodice where I wanted the pleats to start, and I whip stitched, or as Janet Arnold says overhanded, the flat sections of the bodice to that mark. I then arranged the rest of the skirt into radiating knife pleats from a center back box pleat, pinned it and finished overhanding it to the bodice. I overhanded the waist tabs to the bodice from the wrong side. Next time I will either overhand them from the front side or stab stitch them to the bodice as they kept wanting to flip up and generally misbehave using this method. The last thing that went on was the velvet guard around the neck and down the front.

For a petticoat for this dress, I whipped one up using Alcega's f.56, A Narrow Skirt of Cloth, this skirt is a half circle skirt. The linen I used was 60" wide and I used 2 1/4 yards for a skirt that was 34" around the waist and 46" long. I had to piece one side of the skirt, and the waistband was cut out of a scrap piece from the bottom edge of the skirt. I had a small handful of scraps left over.

Here is the finished dress

Elizabeth wearing the finished dress

A close up of the bodice.

Elizabeth and I


I don't know why the wrinkles in the bodice appeared, they weren't there in fitting or when she first put the dress on, they only appeared after she had been sitting on a bench for 3 hours. The bodice just has two layers to it, the fashion fabric and the linen lining, I wanted to see if it was possible to not have a layer of duck or similar canvas fabric in the bodice since this dress was made to be worn in hot weather of around 100 degrees and I wanted to spare my sister the heat stroke I ended up getting in my wool Enn's dress.

The skirt needs more under it to fill it out to the proper shape, probably just another petticoat, or maybe starch would help give it more body?