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If you’ve ever made a doublet that looked floppy and shapeless and generally not like a 16th century portrait, perhaps you thought you were using the wrong fabric or that your fitting techniques needed to improve. While these things may also be true, if your doublets don’t have the form you see in period portraiture, it might be the bits you don’t see that are to blame.
No one knows when the art of tailoring really started — there are garments that appear to have structure as far back as ancient Egypt — but tailoring as we know it today seems to be pervasive in Western Europe by the late 16th century. Interlinings, canvasses, stiffeners and padding were added between the doublet’s outer shell and lining to enhance the wearer’s shape or even make him into a shape he did not possess naturally.
The techniques of 16th century tailoring are not far and removed from the ways in which men’s high-end suits are still tailored even today. If you have a man’s suit coat in your closet, go and feel it. See? There are more layers in there than you thought! Turn up the collar. See the felt pad stitched onto the underside? It’s really quite complex, isn’t it?
The modern suit coat starts with an interlining, usually called the canvas. To this is stitched the haircanvas, a fabric made stiff with horse hair, that lays diagonally across the chest to make sure the lapel breaks cleanly and exactly where the tailor decides. A layer of wool felt is added ontop of the canvas to pad out the armhole, just like in the 16th century. Last but not least, a shoulder pad is sewn to the inside of the coat.
In the 16th century (and the 17th, and the 18, and the 19th), the fashionable man’s shape was different from what it is today. In the 1560s, the waistline of doublets was at natural waist level. In the third quarter of the 16th century, the peascod belly came into fashion, causing the young and slim to have their doublets padded over the belly to achieve the fashionable silhouette. By the turn of the century, slim was in and peascod bellies were replaced by super-stiffened front points on doublets, sometimes boned or interfaced with wood to hide the previously-stylish paunch. In the early years of the 17th century, waistlines rose to the floating ribs, creating a need for tailoring techniques to provide for this excentricity.
Let’s take a look at one of Janet Arnold’s sketches of the interior of an extant doublet. The sketch at left is from the Lord Middleton Collection in the Museum of Costume and Textiles in Nottingham and dates to around 1615.
This sketch shows a heavy linen canvas front, back and collar. The front has a 2″ wide strip of linen canvas pad stitched to the front edge. This stablizes the button and buttonhole edge of the doublet which is under constant strain. A rigid belly piece covers the lower point of the front; Arnold remarks that she thought she felt boning inside this. This belly piece is built up from layers of canvas to a thickness of 3/8″. It is set back from the edge of the doublet so buttonholes do not have to be worked through it. A tab with a single eyelet is stitched to this belly piece to help draw the fronts closed for buttoning. Over the shoulders of the front and back canvas is pad stitched a thick brown woollen cloth. This cloth pads out the shoulders and combats any hollowness that would show around the join of the arms. The collar (seen above the back) is backed with linen canvas and has a piece of cardboard inside it as well as the same brown woollen cloth as is pad stitched over the shoulders. The finished width of the collar is about 1/4″, too thick to put buttonholes through, so the collar closes with loops.
© 2010 Kass McGann and Reconstructing History. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice, the author’s name and website, and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.