Recreating a Fabric - Bronzinos Eleanora de Toledo

Lady Rose Pennyngton (Kim Byrnes)


I have been a member of the SCA for approximately six years and have been working on a version of the dress worn by Eleanora de Toledo in Bronzino’s portrait for almost half of that time. It is one of my favorite portraits, and it initially appeared that no one had made it. There are a number of dresses in the same cut and style as the Bronzino portrait, but I have found only two that use the black/white/gold of the original portrait.

The first has been done by King Studios (, from what I understand from the Google translate on their website, they built a loom and created the fabric before making the dress. Additional photos of the King Studios were provided by Lady Rosamond de Montford who visited an exhibition and discovered not one, but three versions of the dress.

King Studios is a collaborative mix of students, a weaver, sewers, embroiders, gold artisans, choreographers, dancers, makers up, and hairdressers joined together to create the "hard reconstructions" and bring fabrics to life. Their reconstruction was created by researching and then weaving the fabric before constructing the dress.
The second version has been made in painted paper by Isabella de Borchgrave. The images below were published in “Threads” magazine.

I felt that this dress deserved to be made so it could be worn and enjoyed.

The Portrait

The black, white and gold cut voided velvet dress worn by Eleanora of Toledo in the portrait of Eleanora of Toledo and her son Giovanni by Agnolo di Cosimo, commonly known as Bronzino), is arguable one of the most recognised portraits of the Italian renaissance. The gown is in the Florentine style featuring a square neckline, paned sleeves with small puffs at the sleeve head, a gold network partlet.

The portrait itself has been described as representative of Eleanora’s life. The brightly lit foreground shows Eleanora in a state of elegant composure and is reflective of the prestigious station of the Medici family within Florentine society. Nobility within Florentine society had strict behavioural and dress codes that espoused virtuousness and discreet presence in their Ladies whilst at the same time, demonstrating wealth and prestige through dressing them in extravagant gowns and jewellery. The darker background in the portrait features the wilder Tuscan hinterland, where far away from the scrutiny of Florentine society, Eleanora and Cosimo could relax and pursue more relaxed hobbies.

Bronzino was known for his portraiture and became court portraitist to the Medici family in his later years. His portraits have also been described as “superbly realistic´(Artable and with “Uncompromising detail and linear clarity” (Thomas 1994). Whilst some authors have described the portrait as being simply a fantasy rather than depicting an actual dress, the descriptions of Bronzino’s accuracy and attention to detail gave weight to the possible existence of the dress. The existence of similar fabrics lent further weight to this theory.

Civic Museum of Turin,

Riccio sopra riccio – a cut voided velved that has been brocaded and that features closely-packed wefts of boccule metallic threads of gold and silver.

Civic Museum of Turin,

Along with the museum textiles, a piece of cut voided velvet with a gold boccule weft was located on an online art auction. The piece of fabric had been mounted and pictures were taken from several angles which highlighted the difference in height and texture between the white, black and gold sections.

Malleries described the fabric as an Italian brocaded/voided silk velvet circa 1540, “featuring an ogival pattern of branches with a central pomegranate motif. The ground is an ivory satin with a floating brocaded basket weave design of silver metal thread with raised and outlined areas of deep green silk velvet. The heavy areas of green silk velvet about the leaves and flowers have all been highlighted around the edges with beige silk velvet. The flowers, pomegranates and leaves are further embellished with boucle, a heavy gold metal thread pulled up to form loops”. ( What is interesting in the sample is the photograph showing the difference in height between the gold boucle and the deep green velvet.

There are also several other portraits featuring similar fabrics including the one below of Isabel of Austria.

Elizabeth (Isabel) of Austria 1573 Monastry of Descalzas Reales, Madrid.

Some two years and several hundred hours into the project, a presentation on YouTube came to light, confirming the existence of the actual dress. Dr Sheila Barker, a researcher with the Medici Archive project had been studying the documents in the Medici archives, gave a presentation at an exhibition of Bronzino’s drawings, “ The Drawings of Bronzino” (January 20, 2010 – April 18, 2010) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Barkers presentation “Pearls, Prunes and Malaria: behind the scenes of Bronzino’s double portrait of Eleanora di Toledo ad Giovanni de Medici gave for the first time details of the dress and its construction. (see transcript in appendix)

The Dress and Fabric

“Florence was well known for its production of a type of cut velvet known as ferronerie, using pomegranate patterns and ornament resembling iron work” (Bunt 1962 in Thomas 1994)

The fabric in the portrait has been described as a cut voided velvet. Surviving examples of similar fabric are preserved in museums, and the Lisio Foundation in Florence continues the tradition of silk velvet weaving (although the looms they currently use come from a later period).

The following summery of the history of the dress construction is drawn from Dr Barkers presentation.

  • If selection of materials can be considered a starting point for a gown, the dress was started in July of 1540 when Eleanora selected the fabric from amongst samples provided . 47 braccia (approximately 27 metres) was purchased by Cosimo’s agent later that month from the Florentine Duchy of Nurezo [?] at a cost of 390 gold scudi (approximately $48,000 – noting that the cost of living was approximately 20 times greater).

  • In July of 1541, labourers were making the gold and silver threads for the trim. Caterina Salviatia Tomabuoni, a noble lady who was directing the dress construction, identified the need for a special loom to weave the threatds, and when no loom could be found, had a carpenter make one based on drawings obtained by a friends servant.

  • By late 1542, Consanza Garvatzini (male) a veil maker, was engaged to start working on the pearled partlet. Samples were sent to Eleanora wherever she happened to be, for her to review the samples and select the one that appealed to her.

  • Ermine furs for sleeve lining arrived in late 1542 via rome, as did two pairs of “red velvet shoes wit black velvet laces’ which Barker notes was ‘to the particular satisfaction of the duchess’.

  • The dress was completed in the summer of 1543 with a degree of urgency, chiefly because the Pop was taking his court to Pavia for several months. Cosimo joined the Pope at Court, however Eleanora remained home, six moths pregnant with Giovanni.

  • The dress itself took three years to complete, used 10 braccia of fabric and had ermine lined sleeves and a specially make silver and gold trim. Six different weaving processes were required to create the fabric [check the velvet book for details of construction]. The remaining fabric was sent to Eleanoras relatives including her sister in Galazio, Spain, and the ladies at the Neapolitan court of the Viceroy.
The fabric

Despite trawling the internet for suitable fabrics, none appeared to exist.

The only fabric I could find that was even vaguely close to the fabric in the Eleanora portrait was a Faux Velvet Embroidered Silk Dupioni (right) at $44.99 per meter

( However the pattern was too different in both the scale of the design, style and colours for me to consider using it.

In the time since starting the dress I have (with the assistance of another costumer working on the same dress) come across several alternatives.

Humphries in London who are able to weave a version of the fabric in chenille and metal threads for a cost of US$93/m (136cm width) and requiring a minimum order of 15 metres. The chenille version does not have the same texture as the extant pieces.

A company in Czechoslovakia Who can weave the pattern in silk at a cost of US$160/m (260cm width) with a minimum order of 50 meters. The pattern would not have the raised texture evident in the extant examples, and would be somewhat smaller in scale. The company is unable to provide samples until an order is submitted.

A third option is printed fabric. Spoonflower offers various weights and fabrics from $17.50 to $38 per yard.

As none of these options was available to me at the time the project was started and as I possess neither a weaving loom, nor the skill required to weave the complex design on the fabric, alternatives had to be found.

Methods and Construction

Developing a process

In late 2009 I started exploring options to create a fabric that would have a similar design, mimic the varying textures between the black, white and gold, and have a dress that people would recognise as being inspired by the double portrait of Eleanora d Toledo and her son Giovanni. I was interested in techniques that were used in the sixteenth century to decorate clothing.

Appliqué leather, fabric and embroidered slips were used throughout the sixteenth century as a decorative embellishment applied to a range of items including clothing and furnishing. There are at least two extant examples of applique being used as a significant design feature in garments in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (see over page), additional examples will be added as they are identified.

Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion p 111. Detail of a dress featuring appliqué as decoration.

This garment is also featured in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion in black and white. Leather applique on silk background. Example of applique used as an all over design feature.

Appliqué, meaning to apply is a simple process of using simple stitches (taking stitch, running stitch and blanket stitch were often used) to attach a cut out decorative piece of fabric etc to another piece of fabric. Edges can be rolled under to give a tidy edge to the decorative piece of fabric prior to sewing it down, or tack the decorative piece down and apply couching over the top to hide the raw edge. The Renaissance Tailor describes appliqué as a ‘versatile and extremely period embellishment technique” and ‘the Elizabethans used the appliqué technique extensively both by itself and in conjunction with quilting”. ( The examples above demonstrate its use as a technique for decorating fabric and clothing.

The Renaissance Tailor also describes the use of Gum Arabic to prevent fraying along edges or as a sizing bath. Fray stop is a modern equivalent. Vilosoflex, a type of double sided interfacing acts to both prevent fraying (to a certain extent) and also temporarily attach the decorative fabric to the base fabric before applying stitching and/or couching.

Given the use of applique and couching in period generally, and extant examples of items of clothing with applique used as a decorative feature, it was decided that it would be a suitable technique for creating a version of the Eleanora de Toledo fabric.

Black cotton velveteen and ‘gold’ upholstery velvet machine appliqued onto ivory delustered satin (because it was in my fabric stash after being on a sale table for $2/m instead of the usual $29.00-$35.00/m) and highlights couched on using DMC antique effects metallic threads. Easy! But also extremely time consuming.

The fabric pattern

The pattern is not an exact reproduction of the dress fabric or any of the surviving examples – however it is intended that it be close enough in style to be recognizable whilst simplified to construct. Simplistically, I will be happy if people recognise the dress from the portrait.

The process began with a review of extant fabrics and garments similar to the one used in Eleanora’s dress.

Several images of extant fabrics were printed and traced to understand the design. These were compared and simplified to resemble the smoother lines of the portrait fabric and make it easier to sew. The outline was then enlarged to a scale that was representative of the portrait. I estimated the scale based on the position of the centre motif on the bodice in relation to Eleanora’s forearm and compared it to my forearm and a bodice pattern I regularly used for sixteenth century dresses.

A template pattern was made using architects tracing paper. The paper needed to be transparent enough to enable the design to be lined up underneath, robust enough to last the life of the project and not be prone to stretching.

The pattern was traced again, this time onto double sided interfacing (approximately 20-25m) before being cut out. The interfacing acts to hold the fabric in place whilst undertaking the appliqué and also to prevent edges from fraying, similar to the use of gum arabic in the renaissance (Renaissance Tailor). Some 30 hours were spent transferring the pattern onto double sided interfacing which was then ironed on to the reverse side of the velveteen (10 hours) and upholstery velvet. Approximately 60 hours were then spent cutting out the design in velveteen and velvet with very sharp spring loaded scissors to reduce effort on my hands.

Each section was carefully lined up with the original pattern template, pinned in place and ironed onto the satin. A scrap piece of velveteen was used under the iron to minimise damage to the pile.

I did discover that, whilst the double sided interfacing sticks nicely to the velveteen, it does not stick well to satin. This resulted in only small sections being able to be ironed on (and re-ironed on) at a time. Small sections also reduced the majority of the fraying on the edges of the cotton velveteen.

Due to the bulkiness of the velvet being appliquéd, the edges were not turned under. Edges were stitched down using a fine machine blanket stitch (black thread on black velveteen, gold thread on gold fabric) to give a good approximation of the fabric in the portrait. Following the initial positioning of the applique pieces, it became evident that the couching was essential to really bring out the highlights in the fabric.

Hand appliqué was ruled because of the length of time it would take and the weight of the fabric would probably cause RSI in my fingers and hand. Approximately 700 hours were spent machine appliquéing the fabric (I suspect this might be somewhat of an underestimation given that the sample piece supplied took 2 hours to machine appliqué). More than 5000m of black Gutterman thread was used in the applique process (I kept all the cotton reels and had to double check!) Following the applique process, the details were added using DMC Antique effects gold and black metallic threads (the sample piece took approximately 3 hours to couch). Couching is currently being worked over the skirt. I expect this will take several hundred hours. Following this, construction of the dress will be completed.

The side skirt seams were flat fell seamed prior to the side applique being undertaken to ensure that the pattern would be continuous.

The pattern for constructing the dress generally follows that of Eleanora’s burial dress as illustrated in Janet Arnolds Patterns of Fashion, as it is quite similar to a number of Florentine portraits of the period and the extant “Pisa Dress”. One notable exception, the skirt was not cut on an angle, but was created using rectangular sections to ensure that pattern lined up. Piecing of fabric was a common practice in the renaissance period, however my modern sensibilities dictated that the pattern not be broken by angled lines.

Eleanora de Toledo’s burial dress. Image from Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion

Portraits and extant Florentine dresses.

Red Pisa dres,s San Matteo monastery in Pisa . Eleanora de Toledo. Angelo Bronzino 1542 (Národni Galerie, Prague, Czech Republic )

The notes from the Dr Sheila Barker presentation indicate that Eleanora had to create a specific loom to create the striped silver and gold trim. Finding suitable trim has proven to be a modern problem as well. I have sourced a silver and gold diagonally striped trim from Morocco. The colour is different to the colours used in the dress, however it is the best trim found so far. See example attached.

The buttons

Similar to the fabric, the original style of button is not available to the best of my knowledge. So, having spent so long getting the fabric looking close to the original, I wanted the buttons to be close to the original portrait as well. Using a high resolution image of the portrait, I copied and ‘cut out’ each of the visible buttons to study the details, height, shape and colour.

My ability to achieve symmetry in carving or sculpting is somewhat limited, so I looked to modern techniques to achieve the desired effect. I created a design based on the portrait buttons and had this converted to a CAD computer file. After reviewing the original design, the CAD file was adjusted to give more depth to the button. This file was fed into a 3D printer, which resulted in four prototype buttons being printed..

Image from CAD Prototype buttons

Approximately 100 buttons are required for the sleeves of the dress. The prototype buttons will be used to create a mould out of a two part, non-vulcanising rubber which is suitable for casting white metal and pewter. Trial runs making moulds out of the buttons using a two part molding material to make a single mould and fimo and self hardening modeling clay have identified a couple of issues with the buttons. Firstly they are two thin to cast in a two part mould which would enable the button shank to be cast. Secondly, the details are so fine that there is a lot of variability in the samples being produced.

Taking the process back a step, the original line drawing will be modified to add additional depth to the button and a new CAD file and 3D button prototype created.

In period, metailic buttons would have been produced by creating moulds and casting. Rubber moulds have been chosen to enable a large quantity of buttons to be produced without damage to the moulds or the need to produce too many moulds. In addition to my buttons, I will be casting a similar quantity for another costumer who is making a version of the dress (in a different colour way) and in return she has located a source for the pearls and made the partlet and coif  for me.


The dress is a work in progress, however I hope to have it completed by soon......

Additional items currently being worked on include the girdle (including the pearl tassles and ball at the end of the girdle), under garments, stockings and shoes.

The documentation has been kept intentionally brief for the purposes of the LPT. It is my intention to complete the documentation fully including a discussion of the politics of the portrait, the silk industry in renaissance Florence and the techniques for weaving cut voided velvets.


Arnold Kayla (2011) Fashion and Self Fashioning: Clothing Regulation in Renaissance Italy. Research Paper.

Arnold J (1985 ). “Patterns of Fashion: c1560-1620: V3 MacMillan.

Barker, Sheila (2010) Pearls, prunes and malaria: behind the scenes of Bronzino’s double portrait of Eleanora di Toledo and Gioanni de’Medici Lecture by Sheila Barker, Educational Programming Director, Medici Archive Project. Transcript overleaf (note: requires editing) (

Kelly F (1934). The Iconography of Costume. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. Vol. 64. No. 375 (June) pp 278-279 + 281-282.

Thomas J (1994). Fabric and Dress in Bronzino’s Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo and Son Giovanni”. Zietschrift fur Kunstgeschichte, 57 Bd, H 2. Pp 262-267. accessed 7 February 2012.

So as well as putting the dress together (I'm still going) I am aiming to enter the Laurels Prize Tourney Documentation competition. I am relatively new to writing SCA documentation, so comments, thought or feedback would be apprecitated.

I plan on following the following outline:
The Portrait:
a description of the portrait that I am working from.

The artist: Bronzino
I believe he was known for doing portraits that were reflective of the garb in the period. I need to finish researching this and get more references

Existence of the Dress:
I have read various discussions on if the dress actually existed or if it was just 'made up' for the purposes of the portrait (reference this statement).
Based on the research undertaken at the Medici Archives, I can say with a high degree of certainty that I believe it did. Dr Sheila Barker gave a presentation on "Pearls, prunes and malaria: behind the scenes of Bronzino's portrait of Eleanora di Toledo and Giovanni de'Medici" on Friday, 16 April 2010 in conjunction with the "Drawings of Bronzino exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Jan 20, 2010 - April 18, 2010). Dr Barker has been reviewing documents in the medici archives and made the following points in her lecture:
  • The fabric was chosen by Eleanora from amongst samples sent to her in July 1540
  • Construction of the fabric used six different weaving techniques
  • Cosimo's agent purchased 46 braccia (approximately 27m) in July 1540
  • The fabric cost 390 gold scudi - approximately $48,000 today (I am assuming this is US dollars) - , that the relative value of money to the cost of living was about 20 times greater than it is today.
  • ten braccia of the fabric was kept for Eleanora's dress, the remainder was sent to Eleanoras relatives, including her sister in Galizio, Spain and the ladies at the Neapolitan Court of her father, the Viceroy. her father Pedro compensated Eleanora for the fabric two years later to the tune of 246 gold scudi.
  • the gown took three years to construct, beginning in 1540, and being completed in the summer of 1543.
  • the ribbons for the netted partlet and the ribbons that run along the edges of the brocade and the hairnet were started in 1541, when workers laboured day and night to create the gold and silver threads. A special loom was made to weave them into ribbons.
  • the gold netted partlet was began in 1542.
  • 1542 ermine furs arrived via Rome for lining the inside of the sleeves.
  • Along with the furs, two pairs of red velvet shoes with black velvet laces were delivered to court 'to the particular pleasure of the duchess'
Cut Voided Velvets:
construction techniques, availability etc

Extant examples of similar fabrics
I came across the pictures below on an auction website (Malories) a couple of years ago. The thing that interested me were the images that show the difference in texture between the white, black and gold areas in the fabric (I think it was dated to 16 C but need to double check). Although it is a different pattern, I would expect a similar variation in texture in the fabric worn by Eleanora. The item is no longer on the website...

This is why i have used black velveteen and a goldish coloured upholstery fabric on an ivory delustered satin to reflect the variation in height, although the upholstery velvet does not share the same texture of the gold boccule wefts.

Creating the Fabric:
how I came up with the applique and couching method for my version of the dress.
  • Use of applique in sixteenth century and an example (from Janet Arnold) of large areas of applique used to create decoration on a dress.
  • stitches used for applique in sixteenth cenutry.
  • how I combined the two period styles/techniques to create fabric with a combination of machine (due to time contraints) and hand stitching.
  • creating the cord for edging sleeves etc
  • buttons (hopefully I can carve one and get them cast....)
The dress construction:
The pattern for the dress is based on the Eleanora of Toledo buriel dress.

The accessories
  • partlet
  • snood
  • jewellery etc.
Things I have learned, what I would have done differently etc.

Final portrait...taken in Florence (my goal)

Just a bit to think about and write :)

No comments:

Post a Comment