Bess of Hardwick Loose Gown – page under construction



Please note: If you wish to reproduce this in any way please credit me. We all work very hard and share our knowledge freely in the SCA. It would be a shame to find my work in someone elses name. Thank you. 





National Trust Portrait of Bess found here:


A bit about Bess……

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury (c. 1521[1] – 13 February 1608), known as Bess of Hardwick, a notable figure of 16th century Elizabethan English society. By a series of well-made marriages, she rose to the highest levels of English nobility and became enormously wealthy. She was married four times, firstly to Robert Barlow, who died in his teens in December 1535; secondly to the courtierSir William Cavendish; thirdly to Sir William St Loe; and lastly to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, sometime keeper to the captiveMary, Queen of Scots. An accomplished needlewoman, Bess joined her husband’s captive charge, Queen Mary Stuart, at Chatsworth House for extended periods in 1569, 1570, and 1571, during which time they worked together on the Oxburgh Hangings.[2]

In 1601, Bess ordered an inventory of the household furnishings including textiles at her three properties at Chatsworth, Hardwick and Chelsea, which survives, and in her will she bequeathed these items to her heirs to be preserved in perpetuity. The 400-year-old collection, now known as the Hardwick Hall textiles, is the largest collection of tapestryembroiderycanvaswork, and other textiles to have been preserved by a single private family.[3] Bess is also well known for her building projects, the most famous of which are: Chatsworth, now the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire (whose family name is still “Cavendish”, because they are descended from the children of her second marriage), and Hardwick Hall, which inspired the rhyme, “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall”, because of the number and size of its windows.[4]




I decided to make this garment years ago. The level of detail on the shirt and the Gown enticed me to it and because of this I knew it would take me a long time to begin.

One thing I have learnt over the years is that I am a muller.  This means that while I am doing other work I go back and look at the pictures of other projects I have in mind, I also look at other pictures from the period, and keep working out in my head different ideas and possibilities for ways that the item could be constructed in period.

Once I had decided that the ’embroidery’ was couching*, I searched for the ‘right’ gold cord. When I found what I was looking for I started to search for the same cord in shops all around Auckland. I would like to have made the cord, however, The time and resources required for this were impractical.I had also decided to line it with, and therefore collect rabbit fur as it became available to me. Rabbit fur was the obvious choice as it was white (like the painting), accessible and I could take it to different countries by plane.

I worked out the pattern for the sleeves at the beginning of 2012, as I was planning to make a fireside black wool gown for outdoor wear at camping events.

In early 2014 I knew that if I didn’t start the velvet gown, I never would. I had a few days in between work and school where I could slip in designing the couching. I had been doing research for it on and off as mentioned above, and after that was sorted out, it was a matter of purely starting the uncountable hours needed to complete the gold work.

*One of the most accessible couching examples is on the ‘Red Piza dress’, there is a good article examining it found here :


Outer: black velvet

Interlining: light linen

Lining: rabbit fur and teddy bear fur

Couching: gold thread (polyester) and gold cord

Guarding : black velvet

padding for shoulder and back: cotton wadding

stiffening for arms: canvas, linen and metal boning


A bit on Rabbits:

“Rabbits were introduced to Britain during the 12th Century, and during the Middle Ages, the breeding and farming of rabbits for meat and fur became widespread throughout Europe. Sources suggest that some women among the Medieval gentry even kept rabbits as pets. The selective breeding of European rabbits meant that distinct breeds arose in different regions, and the origins of many old breeds can be traced back several centuries. For example; paintings from the 15th century show rabbits in a variety of colours, some even with white ‘Dutch’ markings; 16th century writings suggest that the Flemish Giant was already being pure-bred under the name Ghent Giant, in the Flemish speaking Ghent area of Belgium; 17th century sources tell of the arrival of ‘silver’ rabbits in England and France, brought from India and China by seafarers and influential in the Silver and Champagne de Argente breeds; 18th century sources suggest a breed known as Lapin de Nicard once existed in France and weighed as little as 1.5kg (3½ lbs), some consider this to be the forerunner of all dwarf breeds; the English Lop can also be traced back to 18th century records, and is considered the ancestor of all the lop breeds. – See more at:”

It has also been acknowledged that the Romans kept Rabbits for their own use when in Britain.


The pattern for the sleeve is below:



The sleeves were worked out carefully and sewn with canvas and linen for stiffness. The layers are sewn together leaving the edges raw and open. I created channels next to the seams for the boning, where the fur shows through the slits in the portrait.



Below is the metal corset boning that I pillaged from an old corset from the 1970’s that had disintegrated. The corset was unfortunately in a bag that had gotten wet in the garage, so I saved the boning and disposed of the rest. I decided to use this due to availability and for the reason that I needed something that wouldn’t break while travelling.

Reed boning (which I use in my stays) and whale bone, were the stiffeners of the day. I am not local Iwi and therefore do not have access to whale bone, and while I could shape reeds or put them into the sleeves to shape it, I am not sure whether that would stand up to the travel and abuse that I would be subjecting the gown to.

….quote janet arnold …..


The sleeve holds its shape without the boning, but in order to keep the shape while moving etc, I decided to put it inside after all.

Below is the sleeve with the boning in creating the shape necessary.


Below is the lining before the outer is laid on top and hand-sewn to it.


Before I worked out the pattern for the couching, I needed to cut the black velvet Gown so I could test the cartoon against it for size. The white is the fake fur cut out the same pattern as the black, and the lightweight linen interlining.

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Research for the Couching:

I had experimented with couching on a previous dress I had made. It was a copy of the 1569 ‘unknown woman’s dress’ since re-named ‘Lady Helena Snakenborg’ and I was in my infancy in terms of ‘authenticity’ with this experimental dress. Since then I have learnt a lot about detailing and construction and I would be keen to re-make it knowing what I now know.

For this Gown, I researched into what couching was, the materials involved and how to execute it. I have also looked numerous examples in period portraiture and some extant samples on embroidered garments.

The actual pattern for the couching was something that I agonised over. I needed something that fitted in the period, but less intricate than what was on the actual Gown, as I knew I needed to actually get this Gown made. I looked at couching on garments from the time, and also other decorative practices.

There were no transfer pencils in the 1500’s, and there was no way to freehand draw the pattern again and again onto the velvet accurately, so I used my common sense and previous knowledge of the periods different disciplines, and what had come before.

I had studied at school and knew from reading other sources / seeing them for myself, that artists who painted fresco’s such as Michelangelo, had used cartoons in their practice. A cartoon is a paper pricked stencil that they pushed chalk or charcoal through to transfer the outline on the wall. Some of Michelangelo’s Cartoons were the size of a room, and they were luckily on display in a special exhibition at the V and A in 2012 when I was there.

I took a leap of faith as I needed to get started on the couching, and decided to use the cartoon method on the velvet. I then found this reference in Elizabeth’s wardrobe unlocked……………… which made me very happy and showed that I had done the right thing. Of course, since then I have seen references to using cartoons in things such as leather work.


Below is some of the research I used for deciding upon my design for the couching.

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Decorative Borders,                             Various borders used by the print

Bernard Salamon, Lyon,                      shop of Jean de Tournes and Anton

1558-62.                                               Gryphius, Lyon. 1559-69


20 19

Paris, Decorated title page,                     1529.

Oronce Fine, 1534.



Decorative borders by                        Decoratives for a Low German edition of Ovid’s

Bernard Salomon, 1558-62                Metamorphoses, Bernard Salomon, 1557.




Albrecht Durer, Title page         Skirted doublet of

1523                                             Giovanni Basttista

Ligoza, 1555.



Portrait of Federico II Gonzaga, Titian, c. 1529


15 14

Queen Elizabeth I,           Detail of previous portrait.

Unknown artist,

c. 1577-78


Below is one of the experimental drawings I made for the couching design based on my research.



Once I had decided on a design, I drew it up to the size I thought it could be. This was why I needed the Gown cut and on the dress dummy, for as you can see the pattern was too big and would need to be scaled down.



I had experimented with the scale and then worked the pattern out using a grid.

In the third photo you can see where I punched holes into the paper using an awl. I did this on a surface covered with material, so the prick went through deeper, but without leaving too big a hole. A hard surface would have left a pick too small for the paint to go through.

The original plan was to use chalk to transfer the pattern, however, the chalk didn’t show through and I soon realised that it would rub off while I was trying to couch. Paint seemed to be the most sensible and logical conclusion. Ink patterns for embroidery are still evident on period work, so I figured that if you could see a few paint dots it wouldn’t be so bad.



Below is the paper pinned to the velvet strip and the result of pushing the paint through the pricks. I used a paint brush to apply the paint, and a piece of linen cloth to push the paint through by dragging it along the paper while applying pressure.



The tools used and a several panels completed.



One of the problems I encountered with this process was that the paint clogged the holes, as I had anticipated, and I had to re-punch each time I wanted to use the cartoon. After using a cartoon two or three times, the holes became too big, so I needed quite a few cartoons in the end to make so many panels.

I also took the cartoon and photocopied it, matching it and gluing it into one long cartoon so it could be placed down onto the centre front velvet strips. Not period I know, but re-drawing the cartoon again and again was something that I figured I could compromise on.

The strips of painted velvet were stretched onto a tapestry frame and then the couching was ready to follow the dots. I know I probably should have stretched one big piece, done lots of panels at once and then cut the strips, but I wanted to know if I was on the right track and needed the panels to test on the sleeves as soon as they were done.

I soon learnt my lesson when I tried to use a panel that hadn’t transferred the pattern fully. I carried on, however, without the dots, the couching took longer and at one stage went slightly off. I made sure from that mistake that future transfers were easy to follow, as this sped up the process and kept it even.

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Below are the sleeves. The couched panels were hand stitched onto the black velvet sleeves.




Sleeved pinned on partly done.

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finished sleeve without the arm band

photo (2)


The garment in it’s present state. I was trying to get the Gown finished before I left for Ireland in 2014, however, I wasn’t able to in good faith fit it in, and I was not prepared to rush it. I will be continuing this page and it when I get back to New Zealand in 2015.

Now that I have more time, and depending on the amount of cord that I have left, I will also be looking at couching the side seam as seen in the portrait.

photo (1)36


Please note: If you wish to reproduce this in any way please credit me. We all work very hard and share our knowledge freely in the SCA. It would be a shame to find my work in someone elses name. Thank you. 


2 Responses “Bess of Hardwick Loose Gown – page under construction” →

  1. Tamara Bedic

    November 24, 2014

    Incredibly helpful.
    Thank you so so much for the detailed information and practical advice!

  2. Thank you! that is so very kind – i am sorry that the page isn’t finished….and i am still iffy about the boning in the sleeves, i will be working on it next year when i an back in NZ.


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