A close-up of the muff in Vecellio's woodcut "Winter clothing of Venetian Noblewomen in our time"

Source: Cesare Vecellio's costume woodcuts in Clothing of the Renaissance World. Thames and Hudson, London, 2008.
Date: 1590
Medium & Technique: According to Vecellio, these were made from black velvet or other black silk fabric, lined with sable or marten, and closed with buttons of gold or crystal. Other than that, nothing was known to me about the possible construction of muffs in period, so I had to conjecture.
Dimensions: Approx two hand's-lengths from opening to opening, approx 1 and a quarter hand's lengths wide when closed.

Materials I used:

  • Black cotton velveteen

  • Calico (muslin) for backing velveteen

  • Gold cord for embroidery: woven metallic outer with cotton core

  • Rabbit(?) fur recycled from a damaged jacket

  • Hessian (burlap) for backing fur and giving extra body

  • Rayon cord for button loops

  • Buttons: 5 gold metal and imitation half-pearl

A Venetian Muff, c1590

[Please note that I used real fur (albeit recycled), so if that bothers you please read no further]


"At that time of the year [winter] they also wear a muff lined with fur, which protects their hands against the cold. These furs are marten or sable, and the muff is of black velvet or some other silk fabric, fastened shut with buttons of oriental crystal or gold."

[Cesare Vecellio, trans M. Rosenthal, Clothing of the Renaissance World.
 Thames and Hudson, London, 2008]



A long time ago my first book purchase towards my new costuming obsession  -  Dover Publications' Vecellio's Renaissance Costume Book - was to kindle a desire to make a Venetian muff. For one reason or another, I'd never gotten around to making one, although I did begin looking for a cheap source of real fur I could recycle. It wasn't until after I'd read the new translation of the text (that had originally accompanied the woodcuts and which Dover had stripped from the book) in Clothing of the Renaissance World that I decided the time had come to stop thinking about it and start doing! 

When looking at the close-up of the muff from the Vecellio woodcut and wondering what exactly was being depicted by the criss-cross pattern on the edges, I pictured it as gold cord couching, and I like that idea so I went with it. I had all the materials to hand, all that was needed was to decide on the design for the embroidery. Even though the original design depicted was geometric, I wanted something a little less so. 

I went browsing through my facsimile copy of Giovanni Ostaus' book of designs for lace and embroidery "La Vera Perfezione del Disegno per Punti e Ricami" (1561), and found a design I felt would work well.


From plate xxvii


After deciding on the embroidery design I had to work out the dimensions of the muff, which was nothing more than simple guesswork. Looking at the woodcut for clues, I decided the muff was long enough to put two hands in up to the wrist with fingertips slightly overlapping, and about one a quarter hand lengths (from wrist to fingertips) wide when closed. Using these approximate dimensions and allowing extra for seams and a possible overlapping closure (I had not yet decided whether the closure would overlap or abut), I cut out a rectangle from velveteen, one from calico (muslin), and one from hessian (burlap).

The next step was to draw a grid onto the velveteen with tailor's chalk, similarly to the grid shown above, to suit the dimensions of the fabric. The calico was then basting-stitched to the wrong side of the velveteen at the centre points (both width- and length-ways) and along all edges, and attached to my embroidery frame. 

Beginning the embroidery on the first side, otherwise known as seven-needle madness!


A close-up of the beginning of the embroidery

The embroidery took me several nights of work, but it was very satisfying. The first side took me a little longer than the second, mostly because I mistakenly thought it would be easier to have eight needles working on all eight lines of the design at once. Yeah, how could that not work, right? I was worried about keeping the interlacing pattern right, and thought I'd make mistakes if I did it one line at a time. I was right - I did make a couple of mistakes working the second side one line at a time - but it was far less confusing than trying to manage eight needles at once. Halfway through the first side I was also having a hard time following my tailor's chalk outline due to wearing some of it off by accidentally brushing against it with my hands or sleeves. 

The embroidery on the other side went faster. I was able to be more watchful of not touching the tailor's chalk, and working with just the one needle. I did need to stop and refer to the original design to remind myself of which line went under and which went over, but other than that it was much less confusing the second time around.


After the embroidery was finished and the velveteen taken off the frame, I folded in the seam allowances, ironed them down and stitched them to the calico backing of the velveteen to secure them. I used a hem stitch by hand to ensure the stitching is not visible from the right side. The velveteen was then set aside to work on the fur. 

I decided to utilise one lower edge of the back of the jacket, but in hindsight it would have been better to cut the finished edge off as it was definitely bulkier than the other three sides. Still, since the fur is inside and not on show, it's not a big issue.

Ta-da! The finished embroidery.

 

Cutting into the fur from the skin side.

To cut the fur I laid it fur side down on my worktable and marked the section I needed to cut from it with pen. It was cut from the jacket with an X-Acto knife. This minimises on loss of fur, which also means less gets up your nose! Even so, I should really have used a mask, but I couldn't find one. By that stage I was really keen to get on with it and didn't want to stop to try to find something that would work or wait to buy one. I decided to just do my best to not breathe it in.


I cut a section of fur the same size as the velveteen and hessian. This fur is so soft! Wickedly soft. Mmmmm... Oh. Where was I? Oh yes. What I still needed to do was to decide - abutted closure, or overlapped? In the woodcut it looks like an abutted closure, with the buttons and button loops right on the edges of the opening, but that would leave a gap. Wouldn't that let in the cold? Wouldn't that be counter-productive? I thought so, and so I decided to overlap, which was probably a little more work than doing an abutted closure would have been.

Mmmmm...soft fur....


This shows the selvedge edge of the hessian being whip-stitched to the cut edge of the fur on the overlap side.

The finished fur/hessian layer ready to be sewn to the velveteen/calico layer.

Once that decision was made, I worked out that I would need to leave the overlapping end free of fur to avoid the muff being too bulky in one area. One short and two long edges of the fur and hessian sections were folded over (and ironed in the case of the hessian), laid wrong side to wrong side, and whip-stitched together to create one layer. On the other short side (the closure overlap end), the selvedge of the hessian section and cut edge of the fur were whip-stitched together. 

The result was two sections to be sewn together: the velveteen/calico layer and the fur/hessian layer. Once again I whip-stitched the layers together on the three thicker sides, leaving the thinner side free. This is the where the button loops would go, the knotted ends to be hidden under the fur.


I found some gold rayon cord I had lying around to use for button loops. One by one, the ends were knotted, the loops sewn in place so that the top of the loop lies just beyond the edge of the muff, then a button sewn down on the corresponding edge for precise placement. The original shows six buttons, but I only had five. Close enough.

Close-up of the buttons/loops. You can just see the black bias tape that I used to finish that edge off nicely and to cover the ends of the button loops.


The finished muff! This is my favourite pic of it. It just looks so soft and inviting.

Once all the buttons and loops were in place I neatened the hessian/cut fur edge with bias tape and stitched it down over the loops. The result is a nice neat finish, and one sexy muff. Happy as I am with it, I would have been happier still if I'd been able to find a sable or marten fur item to recycle for period accuracy, and for its solid-coloured fur (unlike the mottled rabbit). But as I said, the fur is mostly not seen, and this muff, despite the embroidery, was just the trial run for the much fancier muff I will make some day, when the right fur comes along.

Oh, and one interesting use for a opened-up muff is that it will make a great lap warmer for when my hands are busy. 

More pics!

   

    


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2001 - 2009 Anabella Wake (Known in the SCA as Bella Lucia da Verona) I hold copyright on all information on these pages, and on all images of clothing/costume that I have made. You are allowed to make one facsimile copy for your own use provided that this notice is included on each page. Please ask permission to copy, disseminate and/or distribute my work - I would like to know when and how you are finding this information of use.