Gown Construction Undergarments Bibliography
Sleeves Resources A Selection of Paintings

SECTION VI Embellishments

The basic garment as you learned to construct it is an elegant gown by itself, but often a little embellishment on the bodice, skirt or sleeves will turn the basic dress into an "Oh, Wow" garb. There are as many ways to embellish a garment as you can imagine and imagination is the key. This is the part of the process we truly enjoy, where your artistic talent can shine! Here are a few of the techniques that have been used successfully in the past, but these are only starting points. Use your imagination and come up with something new.

Embroidery gives a rich look to a garment and provides an opportunity to bring more color and texture into the gown. Designs run from simple geometrics to intricate, dense patterns. Always choose the level of design you are comfortable with. If you are not a very experienced embroiderer, try a simple geometric or line design. A great deal can be done with simple stitches and straight forward patterns to enhance your garment.

Embroidery is often used to enrich a part of the garment such as the sleeves or a border decoration around the neckline. The time needed to complete an embroidery project directly depends on the complexity of the design and a design does not necessarily have to be complex to be striking. There are a few portraits from the Tudor period showing embroidered lines in a simple pattern across the top of the bodice. While elegant, this is a simple decoration requiring only the outline stitch in metallic thread.

When you consider using embroidery on a costume, there a number of factors to weigh: your own expertise in this art form, the suitability of the fabric for transferring a design onto and embroidering on, what would best enhance the overall design of the gown, and how much time you have available to devote to this part of the project. Once you decide to use embroidery as an embellishment, be aware there are many period designs ranging from simple geometric lines and shapes to intricate, dense, scroll-like designs. There are many sources for ideas (see bibliography) including some iron-on period patterns fro those who would rather do needlework than drawing.

You can either embroider on a separate piece of fabric then attach that to the garment, or embroider directly onto the garment. Whenever you embroider on the fabric of the garment, cut out the piece, then do embroidery before you sew it together. Backing it with fusable innerfacing after embroidering it will reduce any possibility of snagging. When you embroider the piece, remember to leave room for the seam allowance.

Purchased trim will reduce the time spent on embellishment greatly and, with little effort, can add depth and richness to the garment. The practice of applying trim, as we refer to it, or woven ribbon to a garment is time honored and easily documentable as a period form of decoration. You should consider the pattern of the trim to be sure it is period. This is becoming easier said than done as good trim is hard to find (much like men, wouldn't you say?). A good place to stock up is at the Pennsic War where you can find a good variety of period trims.

Here are a couple of ways to dress up a piece of trim to make it look less "put there" and more of a piece with the garment. You can edge the trim with thin metallic cording by hand to give it a finished look. or sew beads to the trim to enhance the design. Doing the beading before you sew the trim to the garment protects the threads from snagging or breaking. When the beading is used in conjunction with the edging, it really stand out and is very easy to do.

This is our favorite form of embellishment because beading a dress adds a sparkle and richness that looks and feels elegant and it's fun to play with pretty baubles. The idea of sewing jewels, pearls, silver and gold onto a garment is an old one and was practiced long before the Renaissance and has remained popular even today; evidence beaded sweaters and dresses.

There are a few factors to consider when using beading as an embellishment: design, color, size and shape of beads, how and where using beads will enhance the overall design of the garment and added weight. A simple geometric pattern that highlights the beads such as diamond, square, or circular patterns are easy to bead and look elegant when finished. Often the size and shape of the beads chosen will determine the design or you may choose beads to augment a particular pattern. Beading can be a very dramatic embellishment and care must be taken when planning the overall effect to consider balance within the dress design. For example, beading on the sleeves might diminish a subtle brocade bodice.

Whatever type of bead and design you decide on, sewing them onto the garment takes patience. Depending on the design, sew each bead twice through to secure it and knot the thread about every fifth bead, Make sure they are well secured or they will pull out or break off easily.

Using only beads gives an elegant, wealthy look to a garment, but beads can also be used with embroidery, trim or couching. Creativity is the key.


Couching is creating a design with slender cording on top of the fabric and handsewing it down. This is generally done with metallic cord, but not necessarily. Some very nice metallic cord can be purchased in specialty yarn stores or better fabric shops. Curving, looping or geometric designs work best for this and you may want to use beads to highlight your couching work.

Whatever type of embellishment you decide to use, plan it out before you start the garment. Italian Renaissance gowns as basically three parts; the bodice, sleeves and skirt, and the three parts must work together as a whole design. Embellishment is an integral part of this design and can be used not only as decoration, but as a motif that brings the dress together. Consider carefully the fabric, bodice and sleeve designs when you are trying to come up with an idea for the embellishment.

Remember that not all of the techniques possible for decoration are covered here, only a few of the most successfully tried ones. You may want to try applique, lace, ribbons, buttons, or any number of ideas. Inspiration comes in many ways, so don't limit yourself. Remember that your imagination is the key.

The important thing is to have a fully formed plan before you cut the fabric so your project will look the best it possible can. Be patient with yourself. If the dress does not come out exactly the way you planned, at least you learned something for next time. We have yet to make a dress and not learned something to do better in the next dress. Look around at what other people are doing and get ideas from them. Don't be embarrassed to ask questions. Most people are flattered when you admire their garb and ask how they did something and are more than willing to share what they have learned. The point here is to not be afraid to experiment, to keep and open mind and to continue learning.

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Gown Construction Undergarments Bibliography
Sleeves Appendix A Selection of Paintings