Preparing raw wool for use in Early Modern Historical Dress Reconstruction

Man shearing a sheep, early sixteenth century. The British Library, Egerton 1147, f. 11v.


Wool was a commonly used natural material in early modern Europe. Besides being spun for use in cloth production and knitted garments (such as men’s felted flat caps), wool was also commonly used in structural garments as stuffing. My construction of a French farthingale roll and French wheel farthingale, made as part of my PhD research, required the use of wool as stuffing.

We know that some sort of stuffing like wool was used in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries in the garments because wardrobe warrants, such as one for Elizabeth I dating from April 1581, specified its use:

“Item to Robrt Sipthorpe for making of a half verthingale and a rolle of peache color satten stuffed wt cotten woll whale bone and bent: for making of a half verthingale and a rolle of oringe tawnye & watchett damaske stuffed wt cotten woll whale bone & bent…”[1]

Like most early modern sources, terminology often becomes an issue when trying to decipher what materials were used and how. For example, in this wardrobe warrant it is not 100% obvious as to what “cotton wool” refers to. The fibre cotton as we know it was not unheard of in the sixteenth century, but it also was not very commonly used in garment production (although elite women like Elizabeth I would certainly have had access to this raw material from the Indian subcontinent).

Further compounding this uncertainty is that ‘cotton’ often referred to a type of woollen cloth in the sixteenth century.[2] Although these entries might certainly refer to raw cotton, it was probably more common for structured garments in England to be stuffed with wool, a natural fibre that was very readily available and a staple of English industry. As a result I chose to use wool instead of cotton to stuff the rolls of my French farthingale reconstructions.

Not only did I choose to use wool due to its ready availability in early modern England, but it was also easy for me to obtain because I was raised on a sheep farm in rural New South Wales, Australia.  So I asked my dad to put some wool aside for me next time he was shearing.

Raw, unwashed lambs wool


Preparing the Wool

One of the downsides of using this raw material though, especially when it comes from rural Australia, is that it contains a quite a lot of dirt and organic matter. So in order to use it for my reconstructions I had to wash and prepare it. However, as anyone who has ever worked with wool can attest, it is a temperamental fibre to wash. The first difficulty is that if wool is agitated too much in water it has a tendency to felt; great if that is your intention, but a pain if you just want to wash it. Secondly, wool fibres shrink at the high temperatures required to wash it correctly, so I ended up having to use twice as much wool as I thought I would need to allow for this shrinkage.

After chatting to other costumers I decided that the best way to wash and prepare my wool would be to buy some large laundry wash bags, stuff them with the wool and allow them to soak in a tub of hot soapy water (oil removing dish-washing liquid seems to be the best option here).

While these bags were soaking in the hot water I slightly agitated them every now and then, but not too much in case the wool felted together.

As you can see from the pictures the wool did shrink after being immersed in the hot water and A LOT of dirt came out. In fact, I had to repeat this soaking process about three times for each bag of wool in order to get it to a satisfactory state.

After getting the wool as clean as I possibly could, I laid it out on pavement in the hot summer sun to dry.

As you can see in the image above, the wool was still full of burrs and other organic plant matter. I did my best to pick out as much of this as possible, but I’m certain that some of it is sitting in my reconstructions, which is fine.

The wool when stuffed into my French farthingale roll reconstruciton

I hope this post has been helpful to anyone thinking of preparing their own raw wool for spinning or stuffing. If you have any tips or tricks that you use to prepare your wool, feel free to comment below and let us know!

[1] Wardrobe Warrant of Elizabeth I, 6 April 1581. The British Library, Egerton MS 2806, fol. 166r.

[2] Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies, The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing sixteenth-century dress (London: Batsford, 2006), p. 36.



Rebato Collar, c. 1600-1625 | Part One: Pattern and Materials

William Larkin, Portrait of Grey Brydges, 5th Baron Chandos, of Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire, c. 1615, Yale Center for British Art.


The structural fashions of the early modern period in Europe reached a peak at the turn of the seventeenth century. Women wore farthingales, whaleboned bodies and wired sleeves, whilst men donned puffy hose and peascod-bellied doublets. Whilst the ruff, a gathered and starched linen frill that was worn around the neck, was still widely worn, at the beginning of the seventeenth century a new type of standing linen collar became fashionable. Like the ruff before them, these accessories forced the wearers, both male and female, to keep their head held high as they slightly impeded normal neck and head movement. These standing collars also halo-ed the head with bright white, sometimes translucent, linen or silk that was often trimmed with expensive bobbin lace. As a result, early modern neck wear such as ruffs and standing collars  projected aristocratic ideas of wealth, power and prestige.

The rebato, also known as a piccadill and underproper (in England) and a suportasse (in France) was a stiffened support for a standing ruff or collar. These accessories were often made from wire or pasteboard that was covered in silk. Although “piccadills” or “piccadilly collars” appear commonly in English sources, it seems that “rebato”, an Italian term, was most commonly used in England to refer to those collar supports that were made from wire.[1] Unlike the structures made from board and silk, the rebato, with its intricate wire motifs, loops and scallops was both a collar support and a decorative neck ornament.[2]

There are well preserved examples of these stiffened collar supports in many museums in Europe. For example, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has three examples of piccadills and supportasses made from pasteboard or cardboard.

Fig. 1 Picadil of silk satin, pasteboard and silk thread. English, c. 1600-1615, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Fig. 2. Supportasse of linen, silk, whaleboe, card, wire and linen thread. English, c. 1595-1615, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Fig. 3. Supportasse of cardboard, silk, linen, silk and linen thread. English, c. 1600-1625, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Tutorials on how to recreate two of these collar supports, the piaccdill in figure 1 and the supportasse in figure 2, are featured in Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two for anyone who is interested in constructing these particular types of collar support.

At least three examples of the wired rebato exist in European and American collections:

Fig. 4. Rebato of wire, metal-thread bobbin lace, cotton, French, c. early 17th-century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Fig. 5. Rebato or supportasse of wire, bobbin lace, silk and metallic thread. French, c. 1625-1640, Musée national de la Renaissance-Chateau d’Écouen, Paris. [2]

Fig. 6. Rebato of wire and embroidered silk, German?, c. 1615-1625, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich. [2]


As no patterns for these wire frames exist (as far as I’m aware) my rebato is based on a pattern drafted by myself using the rebato from the Musée national de la Renaissance-Chateau d’Écouen in Paris (fig. 5) as inspiration.

The linen standing collar was based primarily on a portrait of a young French woman by an Unknown painter (if you know who painted this and where it currently held please let me know!).

Painting of a Young Woman, unknown, c. early seventeenth century

I also used the standing collar pattern in The Tudor Tailor as a guide and took much inspiration from the rebato made by the Couture Courtesan on her blog.


Rebatos in museum collections are made from varying types of metal wire, including iron wrapped in silver gilt or gilded copper wire. So, for the outer frame of my rebato I decided to use a relatively thick galvanised tie wire that I picked up from my local hardware store. This was to make sure that the rebato would be sturdy and keep its shape.  For the intricate loops and inner frame I chose to use two sizes of copper jewellery wire, as this was easy to bend and mould into any desired shape.

Ruffs, standing collars, and later, falling bands, were usually made from fine linen or silk. So for the collar I chose to use a lightweight linen fabric. As I was making this for an event I didn’t have enough time to buy period accurate lace from the somewhere like the Tudor Tailor Shop. Instead I found some period-looking 3cm wide guipure lace, which is a type of bobbin lace and was known as Genoese lace in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and used this instead.

Additional tools needed were: pliers and a wire-cutter, as well as thread (I used a cotton thread; silk or linen would be more period accurate). As I was pushed for time I also cheated a little on the linen collar and machined sewed parts where a straight running or back stitch would have been used.

Make sure to stay tuned for my next blog post as I’ll be outlining how I constructed the metal rebato frame.


[1]  Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, eds., Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two (London, V&A Publishing, 2012), p. 100.

[2] Denis Bruna, ed., La Mécanique des Dessous: Une Histoire indiscrete de la Silhouette (Paris: Les Arts Décoratifs, 2013), pp. 75-78.

Early Modern Upcycling: Eighteenth-century shoes from the Joseph Box Collection at MAAS

The Museum of Arts and Applied Sciences (MAAS) in Sydney, formerly the Powerhouse Museum, has an amazing collection of shoes that range from medieval work shoes to modern haute couture. The Joseph Box shoemaking archive forms the core of the collection, and when I was a curatorial volunteer in the design and textiles department I was able to view one of the more interesting pieces from this collection.

According to the museum’s curatorial notes the construction of these shoes is as follows: “Women’s pair of straight laced shoes of rand construction with visible stitching and upcurved blunt pointed over needlepoint toe and covered Louis heel. Uppers consist of embroidered linen, lined with silk and leather, featuring a high cut vamp with square tongue, under latchets tieing in centre front, oblique side seams, centre back seam and leather soles. Edges bound in pink silk and uppers decorated with silver scrolls and silk flowers embroidered in the centres.”[1]

Interestingly the design of these shoes leans to a production date in England in the early eighteenth century, around 1705-1715. Now, I’m sure any of my readers that are familiar with seventeenth and eighteenth-century fashions will note that the embroidery motifs on these shoes certainly do not resemble those of the eighteenth century. On close inspection you can see that the embroidery detail features strawberries, rosehips, carnations, thistles and cornflowers that are framed by metallic-thread scrolls.

Indeed when footwear specialist June Swann was invited to view them at the Museum she noted that: “Although shoes were made “straight” and would normally have been swapped daily to equalise wear, each shoe has been pieced at the bunion joint where wear would be greatest, if worn continually on the same foot. There is no evidence the piecing was done after the present soles were attached. This suggests that the uppers were either made into shoes on a previous occasion (probably not before the late 17th century when women’s toe shapes change to a point) or, less likely, that the uppers were pieced during the making of this pair.”[2]

Pair of embroidered linen laced shoes, c. 1710, English. Sydney: Powerhouse Museum, H4448-7

The presence of piecing in the fabric of the shoes indicates that they were most likely made from another older garment. Going purely off the embroidery, it seems that these shoes have been made from an early seventeenth-century garment, possibly a coif, but it is more likely that they were made from an Elizabethan or Jacobean embroidered waistcoat, of which many examples have survived.

Take for example the embroidered motifs on these linen waistcoats from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

This woman’s waistcoat dates from 1600-1625 and features silk embroidery with spangles that depict “honeysuckle, pansies, carnations, foxgloves, borage, strawberries, cornflowers, rosehips, thistles, columbine and vine leaves.”[3] Silver-gilt thread scrolls frame these floral motifs which was characteristic of this style of Jacobean design.

Waistcoat (detail), c. 1600-1625, English. London: Victorian and Albert Museum, 1359-1900

The second waistcoat has a slightly larger date range of 1590-1630 but contains the same sort of silk floral embroidery motifs of “spring sweet peas, oak leaves, acorns, columbine, lilies, pansies, borage, hawthorn, strawberries and honeysuckle.”[4]

As with the previous waistcoat and with most embroidered garments from this period, the floral motifs are framed by embroidered scroll work.

Waistcoat (detail), c. 1590-1630, English. London: Victorian and Albert Museum, 919-1873

How an intricate embroidered waistcoat came to made into a pair of shoes in the early eighteenth century remains a mystery. However, as all dress historians of the early modern period will attest, there are few surviving extant clothing examples, not only due to the age and fragility of these items, but also because many were often remade into other items.

Fabric, particularly silk embroidery, was extremely expensive during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and so early modern people were the thriftiest up-cyclers. Embroidered shoes were also highly fashionable at the start of the eighteenth century, as this other pair of shoes in the Box collection shows. However, as you can see from this example, the style of embroidery, while still focused on floral designs, is much different to that other the early seventeenth century.

Instead of paying for a brand new pair of shoes then, clearly for the original owner of these thought it was cheaper to remake a family heirloom into some fashionable eighteenth-century footwear.



[1] ‘Pair of embroidered linen laced shoes’, MAAS Museum <;

[2] ‘Pair of embroidered linen laced shoes’, MAAS Museum <;

[3] ‘Jacket, c. 1600-1625’, Victoria and Albert Museum <;

[4] ‘Jacket, c. 1590-1630’, Victoria and Albert Museum <;




Apologies & an update!

I just realised that it has been ages since I last posted anything, so apologies to all my blog followers! The last four months has been so hectic and now I’m only a few weeks away from submitting my PhD!
After I submit my PhD and mark my students exams I promise to continue writing my tutorial on making a French farthingale roll.

But until then, here is a blog post on my reconstructions that I wrote for the University of Sydney History Department’s blog.

As well as a sneak peek of the awesome photos of my reconstructions by my friend Georgie Blackie, as well as a behind the scenes video!








Guest Blog Post: JHI Blog

I recently contributed a post titled, ‘“He shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”: Examining notions of Gender through the lens of Material Culture’, to the Journal for the History of Ideas blog. The article uses some of my PhD research on busks and busk-points and focuses on the ways that these items of dress challenged and upheld gender norms in England and France during the sixteenth and seventeen centuries.

If you’re interested in reading the post, head to the JHI Blog to read it!


Fig. 5

Dame Filmer Bodies, c. 1630-1650 Reconstruction | Part Five: Finished Product & Afterthoughts

  1. Filmer Bodies Part One: The Pattern & Materials
  2. Filmer Bodies Part Two: The Busk
  3. Filmer Bodies Part Three: The Stomacher
  4. Filmer Bodies Part Four: Constructing & Finishing
  5. Filmer Bodies Part Five: Finished Product & Afterthoughts

After many months of hand sewing and many pricked fingertips I present my reconstruction of the Filmer Bodies c. 1630-50 from Manchester Galleries.




My reconstruction of the Filmer Bodies (L), the original bodies (R)


Some closeups:







As I was working completely from pictures, a few measurements and curatorial notes when reconstructing these bodies it was only after completing them that I realised that there were a couple of things I got wrong.

The first is that I did not do the boning channels 100% accurately. Although my boning channels run vertically to the centre front of the bodies, after reanalysing pictures of the bodies I can see that the boning is slightly slanted away from the centre-front at the top, like the effigy bodies. This would have been to allow for the bust and could slightly change the way that my reconstruction fits around the bust area, making it less accommodating of larger busts.


Note to self: Make sure you analyse all your photos in detail before sewing boning channels!

Secondly, I also realise that I did not cut the slits between the back tabs high enough. In my original pattern I actually had them much higher, as they should be, however, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be too high so I lowered the slits a bit. Turns out I had it right to begin with! Again this means that the fit of the bodies might be slightly altered, as it makes the waistline lower.


One thing I cannot work out are the shoulder straps. These straps are designed to sit off the shoulder in accordance with mid-seventeenth century fashions. However, the straps on my reconstruciton are very short, even though I checked my measurements and calculations multiple times before I cut out my fabric. Either the original owner had very narrow shoulders or there is meant to be a length of ribbon holding them together. Then again, my blow up mannequin off eBay doesn’t have the best proportions so once I try these on a model hopefully I can work this out more.


Overall though I’m extremely happy with how the bodies turned out and I can’t wait for my models to try them on!

Dame Filmer Bodies, c. 1630-1650 Reconstruction | Part Four: Constructing and Finishing the Bodies


  1. Filmer Bodies Part One: The Pattern & Materials
  2. Filmer Bodies Part Two: The Busk
  3. Filmer Bodies Part Three: The Stomacher
  4. Filmer Bodies Part Four: Constructing & Finishing
  5. Filmer Bodies Part Five: Finished Product & Afterthoughts

After completing the stomacher I proceeded to cut out the three (or, really, six – lining and outer fabric) pattern pieces to complete the bodies. This consisted of two front pieces and one back piece, with extra seam allowance given on the side seams. As with the Effigy bodies I attached both layers of each pieces together by overhanding the silk and linen together, right sides facing each other (so inside out), from the wrong side, and then pulled them right sides out so that the raw edges were on the inside.

I then proceeded to back stitch the boning channels. This is the second time I have done this now and it is by far the most time consuming part of the construction process. The widths of the boning channels in the original are incredibly tiny and much smaller than any of the modern plastic ‘whalebone’ I could find. So each boning channel is 6mm wide to accommodate this 5mm boning.


After the boning channels were complete I then attached the pieces of the bodies to each other at the side seams. On the effigy bodies the side seams were stitched together from the wrong side so that the seam was on the inside of the bodies when worn. However, the Filmer bodies were whip stitched together from the right side so that the seam was facing outwards.[1] This seam was then covered by the decorative metal braid trim.



Whip stitching side seams together from right sides


View of side seam inside the bodies


After placing the boning into all the channels, I backstitched over the tops of them to keep the boning inside and finished adding all the metal braid trim and some grosgrain ribbon.



The centre-front, all the tabs, as well as the stomacher of the original bodies have been double bound – meaning that it was first bound with a thicker strip of the same silk used for the outer fabric, and then bound again with ribbon. This was done in order to prevent the boning from creating a hole and poking through the bottom of the bodies when worn.[2]


To make this binding I took a rectangular piece of the silk taffeta attached it to the stomacher in a manner similar to the ribbon binding: I placed the raw edge of the binding near the raw edge of the tabs, backstitched it down and then folded the silk over both raw edges and then felled the pressed side of the silk binding using a whip stitch onto the wrong side. Afterwards I then added the ribbon binding over the top.



The Filmer bodies also contain gores between the first, second and third tabs. To make these gores I cut four pieces of linen and 4 pieces of silk to size, backstitched the side seams, turned it right sides out and then bound the bottom with ribbon. I then whip stitched the gores to the inside of the tabs.



Eyelet Holes & Lacing

After binding the bodies the last step was to create the eyelet holes – all 42 of them. To do this I first measured where the holes should be and then I took a tailor’s awl (which is similar to a bodkin) and created  a hole in between the fibres of the material. I then used two sizes of knitting needles – 4mm to widen the holes until they were the desired size. After the hole was made I whipped stitched around it until all the raw edges were concealed. To see this process in more detail see my post about how I did it on the effigy bodies here.



After the eyelet holes were complete and the shoulder straps secured, all I had left to do was to lace the bodies together with straight lacing.


I’ll be unveiling the finished bodies and my afterthoughts on the construction process in my next blog post so stay tuned!


[1] Luca Costigliolo, ‘From Straight bodies to Stays’, Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two, Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, eds. (London, V&A Publishing, 2012), p. 10.

[2] Luca Costigliolo, ‘From Straight bodies to Stays’, Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two, Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, eds. (London, V&A Publishing, 2012), p. 10.

Romantic Love and Material Culture Workshop

A couple of months ago I was fortunate enough to participate in a one day workshop supported by the ARC History of Emotions called ‘Romantic Rituals: Making Love in Europe, c. 1600 to the Present‘. By coincidence there were actually four of us who were focusing on the material culture of romantic love from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries – from valentines gifts to mourning jewellery.

I of course spoke about busks and romantic love from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries!


My busk reconstruction (left), based on an original seventeenth-century French busk (right) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The organisers of the workshop, Sally Holloway and Katie Barclay, have written a fantastic summary of the workshop proceedings. If you’re interested you can read it below!


Dame Filmer Bodies, c. 1630-1650 Reconstruction | Part Three: The Stomacher


  1. Filmer Bodies Part One: The Pattern & Materials
  2. Filmer Bodies Part Two: The Busk
  3. Filmer Bodies Part Three: The Stomacher
  4. Filmer Bodies Part Four: Constructing & Finishing
  5. Filmer Bodies Part Five: Finished Product & Afterthoughts

Unlike my earlier effigy bodies reconstruction, the Dame Filmer bodies (along with many other mid-seventeenth-century examples) has one extra component: a stomacher.


The term ‘stomacher’ can refer to various parts of early modern female dress. The first use of the term refers simply to a V-shaped piece of cloth, usually decorated with embroidery, lace, metallic thread or even jewels, that was worn with open front gowns, waistcoats or bodices (concealing the kirtle, petticoat, bodies or stays underneath) from the sixteenth to late eighteenth centuries.

“Portrait of a Lady, probably Elizabeth Southwell née Howard,” c. 1600. Weiss Gallery, London

“Portrait of a Lady, probably Elizabeth Southwell née Howard,” c. 1600. Weiss Gallery, London

Stomacher, English, c. 1730-1750. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Stomacher, English, c. 1730-1750. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In regards to undergarments, the stomacher was a detachable, V-shaped boned forepart that sat underneath the front laces of the bodies and stays. In the mid-seventeenth century when boned bodices were common, the stomacher could also be boned. Stomachers could also include a busk.


Wenceslaus Hollar, Svmmer, c. 1640s

Boned Stomacher with busk channel, 18th century, Museum of London, London

Inside of boned Stomacher with busk channel, 18th century, Museum of London, London

To construct the stomacher from the Dame Filmer bodies I first cut out the stomacher pieces (with no seam allowance): one lining piece from linen and one outer fabric piece from yellow silk taffeta. I then proceeded to sew the boning channels. The boning in this stomacher takes a ‘T’ shape with some horizontal boning at the top.


According to description given of the bodies on the Manchester Gallery online catalogue, the stomacher contains a “central bone and one bone each side.”[1] Examining photographs that I took of the bodies when I was in Manchester last year it seems that the centre front bone is the widest, with the bones on either side being a tad smaller.

As previously mentioned, the width of the boning channels in the original are very very small and unfortunately no modern whalebone substitute is able to be cut that thin. So my boning channels are 6mm wide. The two boning channels on either side of the centre front are 13mm wide and contain 12mm wide plastic boning.


The original stomacher is also decorated with a metallic metal braid in a ‘T’ shape. I managed to pick up this very similar gold and silver metallic braid from my local sewing store, so after the boning was inserted I stitched it onto the middle of the centre-front boning channel.


Next I started to bind the raw edges of the stomacher with a cream grosgrain ribbon. To attach the ribbon I used a half back stitch to stitch the binding to the right side of the bodies, leaving a couple of millimetres between the edge of the taffeta and the edge of the ribbon. Then I folded the ribbon over the raw edge and then felled using a whip stitch onto the wrong side (so the side with the linen). I left the bottom of the stomacher unbound in preparation for the busk to be inserted.


From what I could see of the inside of the stomacher when I viewed the bodies on display in Manchester, it appeared that the centre bone might be what was known as a busk, a long, flat piece of wood, metal or bone that was placed down the front the early modern bodies.[2]  Although busks could be taken in and out of bodies and bodices at will, some were also sewn into the garment itself.

The busk in the original stomacher is most likely made from whalebone (baleen), however, as this material is not available I decided to use wood. For more information about how I made the busk, see my previous post. After the busk was complete I inserted it into the stomacher.


The bottom of the original stomacher has also been double bound – meaning that it was first bound with a thicker strip of the same silk used for the outer fabric, and then bound again with ribbon. This was done in order to prevent the boning from creating a hole and poking through the bottom of the stomacher when worn.[3]


Double binding on Filmer bodies

To make this binding I took a rectangular piece of the silk taffeta and folded one of outside edges in that that there would be no raw edges when it was sewn onto the stomacher, and ironed it flat.


Then I simply attached it to the stomacher in a manner similar to the ribbon binding: I placed the raw edge of the binding near the raw edge of the stomacher, backstitched it down and then folded the silk over both raw edges and then felled the pressed side of the silk binding using a whip stitch onto the wrong side. Afterwards I then added the ribbon binding over the top.

And that was it – the stomacher was complete!


[1] Manchester Galleries – catalogue object description:

[2] Sarah Anne Bendall, ‘To Write a Distick Upon it: Busks and the Language of Courtship and Sexual Desire in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England’, Journal of Gender and History, Vol. 26, No. 2 (2014), p. 199

[3] Luca Costigliolo, ‘From Straight bodies to Stays’, Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns: Book Two, Susan North and Jenny Tiramani, eds. (London, V&A Publishing, 2012), p. 10.

Dame Filmer Bodies, c. 1630-1650 Reconstruction | Part Two: The Busk


  1. Filmer Bodies Part One: The Pattern & Materials
  2. Filmer Bodies Part Two: The Busk
  3. Filmer Bodies Part Three: The Stomacher
  4. Filmer Bodies Part Four: Constructing & Finishing
  5. Filmer Bodies Part Five: Finished Product & Afterthoughts

The busk is one peculiar element of early modern dress that continues to fascinate me the more that I research it. Understandably, most people have never heard of a ‘busk’ before and considering the term for it in English (derived from the French ‘busc’) is very similar to other words already in our common vocabulary, like “busking”, it can often be quite confusing when casually dropped into conversation.


Eighteenth and Nineteenth-century Busks. Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Yet from the mid-sixteenth century until the early nineteenth century, the busk was a commonly known part of female dress: an independent, interchangeable part of the bodies and stays (corsets). It consisted of a long piece of a stiffened substance that was placed into a stitched channel between layers of fabric in the front of the bodies or stays and secured into place at the bottom by a small piece of ribbon called the ‘busk-point’.

Fig. 6

‘Pair of Bodies’ worn by Pfalzgräfin Dorothea Sabin von Neuberg, c. 1598. Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich. Note centre front busk channel and eyelets at the bottom for the busk point

In contrast, modern and later nineteenth-century busks are incorporated in the centre-front of the corset opening.


Corset, British, 1883. Victoria and Albert Museum, London Note new style of steel busk that could be separated to open the corset.

According to Randle Holme’s book, The Academy of Armory and Blazon (1688), the busk existed to keep the posture erect, to ‘keep in the fullness of the breasts’ and to keep the belly flat.[1]

However, the busk didn’t just serve a utilitarian purpose in female dress.

Collections of busks at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York helpfully reveal the social functions that busks played in early modern society. Busks were often elaborately decorated with common love motifs: hearts, cupids and foliate scrolls. Some even bore portraits and lovers’ words, or poetry, making them highly personalised and emotional accessories encoded with various significant meanings.[2]  From the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and with decreasing frequency over nineteenth century, lovers saw the busk as a love token of affection, usually given by a man to a woman during the act of courting, thus entering into the complex social performance of courtship and marriage. [3] The busk’s association with the female body, its closeness to the breasts at one end and to the groin at the other meant that this object was inherently sexualised and participated in the construction of early modern sexuality and sexual practices. If anyone is interested about reading more about the busk in the sexual culture of seventeenth-century England, I have an article about it here.

Fig. 5

Man’s portrait on French metal busk, 17th century [detail]. Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Surviving busks in museum collections are made from a variety of materials such as wood, metal, ivory and horn. Many surviving seventeenth-century busks from France are made of metal or ivory, whilst many from England are wooden. However, due to the sporadic nature of surviving material objects such as busks from the seventeenth century, it is hard to know for sure what materials were the most popular in both countries by looking at surviving examples alone. Other sources such as the wardrobe accounts of Queen Elizabeth I reveal that whalebone (baleen) was also a common material used, for example a warrant dated 28 September 1586 requested an ‘item for making Buskes of Whalesbone and wyer coverid with sarceonet quilted’.[4]

English wooden Stay Busk, c. 1675, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

English wooden Stay Busk, c. 1675, Victoria and Albert Museum, London


As part of the Filmer reconstruction I decided to construct a busk that would be placed into the separate stomacher of the bodies. Surviving busks vary in size depending on the style of fashion that was popular at the time of construction. For example, eighteenth-century busks tend to be short and wide whereas busks from the 1660s are quite long and narrow, as bodices during this period were extremely long-waisted.

Long-waisted Boned Bodice. English, 1660-1669. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The size of my busk depended on the stitched channel at the centre front of the Filmer bodies’ stomacher, which in this case happened to be about 1.5cm wide and 34cm long.


As well as being hard to source, I’m also morally opposed to the use of materials such as ivory or baleen, so I could not use these. The other options would be metal or horn, but again these materials are hard to source (if you don’t live near an Ox farm) and use if you are not familiar with metalwork. Therefore wood is the only historically accurate material that I could use.

I’m no carpenter, so I wanted to find some pre-cut wood that I wouldn’t have to mess around with too much. At my local hardware store I found a coverstrap made from Tasmanian Oak that measured 2cm wide and was 4mm thick. Perfect!


Turning the coverstrap into a busk was quite simple and quick. Firstly, I had to cut the two metre coverstrap to size. I did this with a hacksaw in my father’s workshop. Then I had to reduce the width from 2cm to 1.5cm.


I marked the dimensions on the wood and then I used a very coarse (probably the roughest you can get) type of sandpaper to sand the width of the busk down. 


Halfway there…

Once reduced to the desired width, I used the sandpaper to round off the perpendicular edges on one side. I also rounded off the busk at the top and bottom. I then took another bit of very fine sandpaper and smoothed away the rough edges until I was left with this:

As this busk was going to be sewn into the actual stomacher of the bodies, and therefore wouldn’t be able to be taken in and out of the garment like many busks were, I didn’t need to varnish it and I definitely didn’t need to decorate it.

However, as I will probably make another busk replica to use as a prop in presentations, I decided to use this as a test run (so to speak) for busk decoration. All I did was quickly sketch a folate design onto the busk in pencil, taking inspiration from these two French seventeenth-century ivory busks.


Then I went over the design in a black ball point pen.


And that’s it! While this worked well enough, for my next busk I think I will either burn a design into the busk or draw on it with a felt tipped pen, so that the ink really seeps into the wood. Then I will varnish it.


Sarah Anne Bendall, ‘To Write a Distick upon It: Busks and the Language of Courtship and Sexual Desire in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England’, in Gender & History, Vol.26 No.2 August 2014, pp. 199–222.


[1] Randle Holme, ‘The Academy of Armory and Blazon (Book III) (1688)’, cited in Patterns of Fashion, Vol. 1, Englishwomen’s Dresses and their Construction c. 1660-1860 (London: Macmillan, 1972), p. 3.

[2] Observed from a sample of surviving seventeenth and eighteenth century busks taken from Metropolitan Museum of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum collections. There are no surviving busks from the sixteenth century.

[3] Scrimshaw busks were popular in the nineteenth century at the height of whaling practices and are featured in various museum collections. See: ‘Corset and Whalebone Scrimshaw Busk and Summary, accession no. TR*388604’, On the Water Collection, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Keeneth E. Behring Center (2012) <;.

[4] 1586: Wardrobe Warrant for September 28th, ER 28, MS Egerton 2806, fol 216 v, cited in Drea Leed, ‘Wardrobe Warrant for September 28th, ER 28’, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Uploaded  (2011) <;