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The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust embroidered bodice on tour in Virginia, USA.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust embroidered bodice on tour in Virginia, USA.

The embroidered bodice, which was expertly replicated and taught by Meredith Willett during our All England Tour Part I in 2018, is currently on display at the Jamestown-Yorktown Federation in Virginia.

The long-sleeved bodice, on loan from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, features an embroidered design of trailing stems and leaves worked in coloured silk and metal threads, with metal spangles. Meredith's recreation featured the repeated, circular tree motive on the upper section of the breast panel.

The Elizabethan Bodice - Meredith Willett's design for the All England Tour Part I 2018

The bodice is part of the “TENACITY: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia” exhibition which explores little-known, captivating personal stories of real women in Jamestown and the early Virginia colony and their tenacious spirit and impact on a fledgling society.

The exhibition features more than 60 artefacts on loan from 22 international and national institutions until 5 January 2020.

Elizabethan Bodice from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford upon Avon

If you get a chance to go to the exhibition and view this remarkable garment we urge you do so. It is a spectacular piece of art, extremely rare and in incredible condition. We had the privilege of viewing the piece during a private study session at the Shakespeare Trust with the textile specialist during our 2018 All England Tour Part I. Tutor Meredith Willett was also present to provide perspective on her replicated version of the design, which added incredible depth to the group's practical learning experience and to our understanding of historic needlework.

Elizabethan Bodice sleeve

As well as the bodice, we also viewed a 17th Century Gentleman's Nightcap, which was taught by Alison Cole for the tour; a Bible Cover taught by Phillipa (these designs have since been developed into our Elizabethan range of needlework kits benefitting the Trust); a beautiful unfinished coif and a blackwork coif (due to be taught at the Stratford Retreat by Mandy Ewing and Kate Barlow respectively). 

As we were viewing these textiles we were extremely aware of their fragility. Naturally, questions followed about how a museum might go about preparing such an artefact for transport to an international exhibition. How could it be protected from damage if it was at risk just sitting in front of us on a table? Well, not long after our visit the Trust were to follow a strict procedure to do just that.

Rosalyn Sklar, Museum Collections Officer for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon explains: "[During the the first stages of preparation for transport to the Jamestown exhibition] the Trust’s textile conservator took the piece off the bustform it was previously displayed on, which allowed us a much clearer view of the construction of the bodice."

The following is a technical report from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's textile conservator detailing what the team discovered about the construction of the bodice as they were removing it from its bustform, preparing it again for display, and securing it for transportation. We apologise for the poor quality of photograph:

Treatment report: preparing a woman’s embroidered bodice c.1620 (1993-35) for inter-continental transport and display

  • Each front and side back of the bodice is cut in one main piece with no side seam. There is, however, a horizontal seam running from the neck edge to the front armhole to make a ‘yoke’. Two godets have been inserted at the waist edge of each front, producing a flared peplum.
  • The front and lower edge of each bodice front has been blanket stitched with metal thread to decorative effect. At the lower edge of the garment this stitching extends as far as the first of the two godets. Thereafter the lower edge is turned once in a narrow hem and secured with a zig-zag running stitch worked in an undyed 2 S-plied linen thread. Similar stitching finishes the neck edge. The edges of the linen twill panels used for the back bodice are turned twice and overstitched to finish.
  • Some of the embroidered leaf motifs appear to have been worked using blended flossy silk yarns. The metal threads consist of a gold-coloured metal lamella wrapped around a straw-coloured flossy silk core thread.

Treatment carried out

  • Following tests to ensure that the embroidery yarns’ dyes were fast in the presence of water, a localised close contact humidification treatment was applied to each lower side back where the main fabric had curled and creased. No more extensive treatment was applied to the sleeves as there were concerns that moisture could potentially damage the metal components.
  • Some stitching was worked to secure a couple of hooks which were loose. A polyester thread was used.
  • A torso shape which was neither padded nor covered was provided by manufacturers, Proportion. The torso was padded to shape by the conservator using acid-free polyester wadding and felt. The padding was stitched to secure. Whilst the width of the torso under the arms was a good fit, it was necessary to add much padding to thicken and raise the waist, and to increase volume in the upper bust and hip areas. The desired finished length of the torso was indicated and the torso returned to Proportion for the application of a cotton calico cover.
  • Soft padded arms provided by Proportion were stitched to the torso. Padding was added to these and covered with nylon stockinette. A little additional padding was required to optimise the final fit of the torso in the upper back and bust. This was stitched to the calico cover and covered with nylon stockinette. (A little crumpled undyed nylon net was used to fill out the bust.)
  • A pleated support of polyester felt was mounted onto a cotton tape and covered with silk jersey. Wrapped around and stitched to the waist of the torso, it supports the bodice peplum.
  • The bodice was mounted onto the torso and fastened at the centre back by lacing the eyelets with a narrow silk ribbon. Each end of the ribbon was secured with a few stitches worked into the calico covering the torso.
  • Bespoke padding was constructed in an effort to immobilise the arms of the torso for transport, and to protect the bodice from crushing. Made from polyester wadding and felt, the two layers of padding were covered with silk jersey and satin where in contact with the bodice, and covered with cotton downproof elsewhere. A Tyvek dust cover was also provided. Each layer of padding was inscribed with instructions to aid unpacking/re-packing, and a photographic step-by-step guide provided.

The Elizabethan Bodice before remounting The garment before re-mounting for display. Note in areas at the side backs (where concealed by outer garments, e.g. a short-sleeved loose gown) embroidery has been partially worked, including no metal threads.

Elizabethan bodice - detail of underdrawingDetail of cuff showing underdrawing of embroidered design.

Elizabethan bodice - left shoulder showing overstitched seamsLeft shoulder, showing overstitched seams joining sleeve head & bodice back to yoke.

Elizabethan bodice - neck showing horizontal seam joining yoke to right sleeveReverse neck edge showing horizontal seam joining yoke to right (R) front.

Elizabethan bodice - fastening edge showing narrow tapes use to cover metal eyes The front fastening edge (reverse), showing narrow linen tape used to cover metal eyes. Note rust- stained pin hole (attributable to a previous method of display?)

Elizabethan bodice - Reverse showing silk yarns of blended coloursReverse embroidery showing silk yarns of blended colours. Note: metal thread is worked in an embroidered/looped/stitched technique (is not a braid which has been applied to the garment). Stitch holes left by attachment of metal spangles, now lost, can be seen all over the garment, between the embroidered motifs.

Elizabethan bodice - reverse lower edge showing insertion of godet Reverse lower edge showing insertion of godet. Narrow open seams are neatened (& allowances flattened) with zig-zag running stitch before being embroidered over.

Elizabethan bodice - showing creasing to side back hem edgeShowing creasing to side back hem edge. Note hem turned once and
secured with zig-zag running stitch. Rust- stained pin hole originates in previous method of display?

Elizabethan Bodice - on new mount before fasteningGarment on new mount, before fastening. Showing padding added to upper bust & polyfelt peplum support.

Elizabethan Bodice - after mounting onto new torso After mounting onto the Proportion torso. Padding added to bust and arms was covered with colour-matched nylon stockinette which was stitched to secure.
A silk ribbon was used to lace the CB fastening, each end of the ribbon being held secure with a stitch into the torso.

Photo guide for packing the mounted the garment for transport

Elizabethan bodice - packing for transport Elizabethan bodice - packing for transport Elizabethan bodice - packing for transport Elizabethan bodice - packing for transport Elizabethan bodice - packing for transport

Comments

Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth

Fascinating. Thank you for sharing all this wonderful detail!

Lana Lipsett

This is a fantastic garment. Who would have made it. The embroidery must have taken hours and hours. Surely the woman that owned it didn’t make it. Whatever it is very lovely and it is quite astonishing that it has survived all these years.

Sarah Hearn

This is absolutely fascinating. I’ve become very interested in the whole conservation/restoration field so this treatment of a old garment is of great interest.

On a different note, are the kits you mention in the article only available at or through the Trust?

Janice Conners

This is so much more beautiful in person. Pictures just do not do it justice. It sparkles!

Yvonne Wright

Absolutely fascinating, thank you for sharing.

Nanci

I can not wait to see this stunning piece! By coincidence we are traveling to Jamestown/Yorktown this October! Thank you for letting us know.

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