Costume Design and Construction

ISS Third Year Project

For my ISS project I wanted to concentrate on period costume. I want to create a costume as historically accurate as possible so rather than designing my own character costume I would like to choose a historical figure and try to recreate their outfit. I want to look at a period which I haven’t studied before and therefore have chosen women of the 1700’s.

I have briefly looked at a selection of art of the era and would like my chosen portrait to include…

  • Panniers – A hooped skirt, the style of which is very distinctive to the 18th century
  • Embroidery – I have only ever done snippets of embroidery and would like to  take on a larger embroidery project
  • Authentic patterns and materials – this will have its limitations but I will try my best

I now need to look closely at portraits and fashions of the period and select a number portraits of historical figures to look into before I make my final decision of the costume I would like to recreate.


Visit to the V&A museum

Before I headed back to Edinburgh I visited the Victoria and Albert museum in London. They have a lot of examples of embroidery of the period as well as some beautiful court mantua dresses. I have decided to concentrate on goldwork embroidery as my specialist skill for this project, this is a specialist area of embroidery created using metal threads and is featured in many paintings of the 1700’s.

Click on each image for information on its date

Paintings to consider

I have looked at a lot of paintings from the 1700’s and have picked out a few that have drawn my attention. Some look to complicated and would be pricey to construct but I have included them here anyway. I want to challenge myself this year however. Here are some I have short-listed…

These are some of paintings I came across on my search before I decided I wanted to look at goldwork…

Elisabeth Christine of Prussia by Antoine Pesne early 1750’s

Madame de Saint-Maurice by Joseph Siffred Duplessis 1776

Maria Luisa of Parma by Laurent Pécheux 1765

Marie Rinteau by François Hubert Drouais 1761

Maria Christina Duchess of Sachsen-Teschen by Martin van Meytens

Maria Josepha of Bavaria, artist unknow, circa 1740

Wilhelmine von Bayreuth by Antoine Pesne

Le Bal Paré by Antoine-Jean Duclos 1774

And here are a few that feature goldwork embroidery…

Sophie Marie Gräfin Voss by Antoine Pesne 1746

Augusta of Saxe-Gotha by William Hogarth 1736

Augusta of Saxe-Gotha by Jean-Baptiste van Loo 1742

Maria Amalia of Saxony by Louis de Silvestre 1738

Maria Carolina of Austria by Martin van Meytens

Maria Theresia of Austria by Gabriello Mattei, date unknown

Queen Elisabeth Christine of Prussia by Antoine Pesne 1739

Maria Anna von Sachsen by Georg Desmarées 1765

Goldwork Basics

Before I take on the large task of a huge goldwork embroidery piece I need to try out some embroidery first. There are many types of goldwork thread. Thread can be made from real gold, silver or copper plate or metal imitation. Here are some of the main varieties, they all come in a range of sizes No. 9 being the smallest and No. 1 the largest…

Smooth Purl – A tightly coiled spring with a high shine surface which is either cut into small lengths called chips and stitched like beads or couched down

Rough Purl – Also a tightly coiled spring but with a duller surface which is either cut into small lengths called chip and stitched like beads or couched down

Pearl Purl – A heavier thread that has a twisted appearance, usually couched on in longer length

Check Purl – A spangley angular twisted thread, this can be cut into chips and sewn like beads or lengths can be couched

Plate – A high shine stiff ribbon-like metal strip. This can be folded into a zig-zag like pattern to be stitched on

Jap – Gold or silver wrapped around a core of threads. This is always couched down and is often used to fill in large areas, thread ends are taken through to the back of the fabric unlike purls

Cords and braids – Come in various shapes and sizes, the majority are synthetic and can be stitched in many ways

Embroidery yarn and threads – Both hand and machine embroidery thread can be used and come in a multitude of colours and styles

There are a few other essential materials used for goldwork, these are as follows…

Frame – a frame is essential to keep the fabric taught and achieve the correct tension as well as keeping both hands free for embroidery

Needles – Fine crewel needles are needed for couching and particularly for stitching chips as the hollow threads are small. A large chenille needle if needed for taking threads e.g. jap through to the back of the fabric

Threads – Maltese silk or twisted sewing silks are best for couching. In modern goldwork often design incorporate coloured embroidery threads

Beeswax – Threads are run over the wax before use to coat them making them stronger and less prone to twisting

Padding – Often goldwork if padded, this gives the work texture and helps the play of light on the threads. Felt, string or kid leather can be used for this and can be glued or stitched

Cutting board – This is needed for cutting chips (beads) of purl and should be made from felt or velvet. The fabric board stops the coils jumping and skidding around

My First Goldwork Sample

Now I have looked into the basics of goldwork I can create my first sample. I visited the Grassmarket Embroidery Shop to pick up some supplies. Buying goldwork thread is confusing as you never really know how much length wise you are going to get. It is sold by weight, silver is cheaper than gold however so I decided on trying out the silver first. The shop stocked many of the different threads. I decided to use purl as many of my historical findings contain a lot purl threads.

Heres what I bought…

A bag of No.6 Smooth Purl

A bag of No. 4 Smooth Purl

7” Interlocking Bar Frames

6” Interlocking Bar Frames

White Felt

I made up my 7”x6” frame and stretched my fabric over it. I used a calico backing with a tightly woven purple fabric. It is essential the fabric used for the embroidery is tightly woven due to the fineness of stiches. This was pinned taught to my frame with drawing pins…

My first attempt was a really basic design. I just wanted to get a feel of cutting the right length chips and having a good at felt padding. These were my felt shapes, the smallest was sewn down first then the next size then the largest on top…

I could now start my goldwork. I marked the size of my chips by denting the wire coil with my nail, as I have not yet made myself a cutting board I used a plastic pot and lined it with calico to catch my chips. I stitched the outer ‘leaves’ of my design first at an angle. I found applying them at an angle catches the light better. Then the middle section I sewed straight. I am pleased with my first attempt, the design isn’t as raised as I hoped so I will use more padding next time but I will be sure it all gets cover as you can see little bits of felt fluff poking out. Also a couple of my chips were cut slightly to long causing them to buckle but this will hopefully all be sorted out with little practise!

I have also bought some Check purl from ebay so will have a play around with that soon as well

I am hopefully going on a two day goldwork embroidery course at the Grassmarket Embroidery Shop this should give me some rewarding skills and I can then apply them to this project. I will keep a record of my progress here as part of my goldwork research and sampling.

Goldwork embroidery in paintings

I have been trailing through hundreds of paintings trying to find ‘the one’ I want to recreate with all of my criteria. Here are a selection of the ones I have found which contain goldwork, some are way to complicated and intricate for my time and budget but I wanted to include them anyway…

Henriette of Brandenburg-Schwedt by Georg Lisiewski 1747

(All above) Maria Theresia 1717-1780

Marie-Josephe d’Autriche by Louis de Silvestre 1719

Duchess Elisabeth Mecklenburgh-Güstrow by ?

Princess Rakoczi by Nicolas de Largillierre around 1720

Anna Korolina Orzelska by Antoine Pesne around 1730

Barbara of Portugal by Jean Ranc around 1735

Friederike Luise of Prussia by ? 1734

Sophia Dorothea Maria of Prussia by Antoine Pesne

Princess Amalia von Preussen by Antoine Pesne

Portrait of Lady Caroline Darcy, Countess of Ancram by Enoch Seeman before 1745

Christine Charlotte von Württemburg-Winnental by Jan Kupecký and Bernhard Vogel 1745

Elisabeth Therese of Lorraine, Queen of Sardinia by ? 

Countess Kirstina by Olof Arenius

Madame Adelaide by Jean-Marc Nattier 1756

Friederike of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg by ? around1750

Princess Maria Teresa, Duchess of Massa and Carrara by Bianca Spina  1750

Portrait of Maria Antonia of Furstenberg by ?

Marquise de Caumont la Force by François Hubert Drouais 1767

Princess Louisa of Stolberg  by ? 1772

Maria Francisca Benedita by Miguel António do Amaral 1773

Portrait choice

Now I had my brief of 1700’s portraits including goldwork I was on the hunt for a portrait to recreate. After scouring galleries, books and the internet I finally came to a decision. My chosen painting was of Elisabeth von Mecklenburgh-Güstrow 1668 – 1738, artist unknown. I have found very little information about her but have discovered a small amount about her family history…

NAME – Elisabeth of Mecklenburg-Güstrow

BORN – 1668

DIED – 1738

FATHER – Gustav Adolph, Duke of Mecklenburg (26 February 1633 – 6 October 1695)

MOTHER – Magdalene Sibylle of Holstein-Gottorp

MARRIED – Heinrich, Duke of Saxe-Merseburg  ( 2 September 1661 – Doberlug, 28 July 1738)

CHILDREN -Maurice (, 29 October 1694 –  11 April 1695)

                      – Christiana Fredericka (17 May 1697 – 21 August 1722)

                       – Gustava Magdalena (2 October 1699 – 3 October 1699).

Elisabeth was one of 11 children, 10 girls and one boy. Her father was a Duke and the last ruler of Mecklenburg-Güstrow as his only son predeceased him meaning the end of the Mecklenburg-Güstrow line after his death. His wife, Elisabeths mother, was left widowed with a small court however the family’s glory and significance died out with its last duke. Elisabeth however was not subjected to this  degolification as she married Heinrich, Duke of Saxe-Merseburg on the 29 March 1692. Heinrich was regarded as a patron of the arts by his people and had a great love of hunting, he regarded craftsmen highly and commissioned them to build  two three-story wings connected with a wooded gallery’s with tented roofs to there summer residency, Schloss Spremberg, an early Baroque castle which started out as a Romanesque tower in 1100. There home is now used as Lower Lusatian Heath Museum, music and art school and the county library.

Magdalena_Sibylle_von_Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf                 347px-Heinrich_Saxe-Merseburg

Elisabeth’s mother                                                  Elisabeth’s husband


Schloss Spremberg Castle, Elisabeth’s summer residence

From this information I have collected we now know Elisabeth was a Duchess, she came from a wealthy background and married into one and this is reflected in her clothing. Colour was a status symbol, bright colours were very difficult to achieve with the natural dyes which were all that were available in the 1700’s. The dye of Elisabeth’s deep indigo blue dress would have been shipped over from India and was very popular and fashionable for a while as well as being very costly. Her ermine fur cloak and the metalwork embroidery which contains real silver is another portrayal of high rank and a power dressing statement. Now I have chosen my portrait I can look into fabrics of the era and start ordering my materials.

Visit to the National museum of Scotland, National Gallery and Portrait Gallery

After choosing my portrait I wanted to go and have a look at some 18th century art. I was on the look out for paintings that contained goldwork and distinctive styles of the era. I also visited a special temporary exhibition about Catherine the Great, this contained a lot of surviving 18th century garments, lots of which included goldwork. Unfortunately I was unable to take photographs but you can see my sketch book for some sketches from the gallery’s.