I’m totally obsessed with the Alcega farthingale. I mean, I’m always a little obsessed with it, because it’s sort of the great rock candy mountain for costumers, right? But I’ve been working on an eBook about drafting gored skirts for period costumes, and I thought I’d throw in a little bit of a redraft for the Alcega farthingale. Oh, silly me… I went back through some of my old notes (mostly questions, like “Why aren’t the gores at the same angle?!”), and I’m struck by how much there is to know about the darn thing. So I’ve been in obsessive research mode since yesterday evening, and I’ve learned some new things….
I was trying to cross a few things off my list of silly questions, like: Can you just enlarge it? Why are the two side gores shown at different angles? How accurate is the drawing? Why is the back so much wider than the front? What does this thing really tell us about tailoring skills in the later 16th century? What drove Janet Arnold to the conclusion that the bents were held in tucks when there’s absolutely no instruction about doing that, every bit of pictoral evidence against it, and it’s the harder way to do it? (That one really gets me!) And what does Alcega’s note, “The front of this farthingale has more at the hem than the back” mean? (translation from Arnold, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, pg 196) Why is the translation in the facsimile of Alcega different from Arnold’s, and which is more correct?
Basic Metrics of the Drawing
I’m basing all of my measurements and mockup of the farthingale on the facsimile reproduction of the second edition of Alcega’s Libro de Geometria, Practica y Traca, published by Costume and Fashion Press – specifically the 1999 reprint edition. The Biographical Note on pg 8 indicates that the original page size for the folio was 21x30cm. The pages are reproduced on paper that is 20×27.8cm, and logic dictates that they have been resized to fit. That said, this book still contains the largest reproduction of the farthingale pieces and text. It is f.67, with translation on pg 49 of the book. (The page numbering only applies to the sections written in english – ie, the white pages. The folio pages (manilla) start after page 12b.)
Since the lines in the original are rather wide, I traced off down the centers (using a ruler where possible.) I’ve used this tracing for my measurements of lengths and angles.
Each panel measures 3 3/8″ long. The front and back panels are 7/8″ wide. The lines are drawn quite parallel to each other. The panel for the gores measures 1 5/8″ wide. The beginning of the sideline at the top of the front panel lies at a 51 degree angle. The sloped side of the front gore lies at a 68 degree angle. The sloped line of the back gore lies at a 73 degree angle.
It’s important to understand the measurements given in Alcega’s farthingale diagram. The basic unit of measurement is the bara, referred to on pg 12b of the translation as the ‘Castilian ell’. All measurements listed by Alcega are in fractions of this unit. Recreating the farthingale means coming to terms with the bara.
The text and markings given by Alcega state that the farthingale is 1 1/2 baras long. The Castillian ell is a convenient 84cm (Alcega, p 12b of translation text), which is approximately 33 inches. Folio VII of Alcega gives information on the origin of the bara in Castile, tracing it back to the Roman dedo. The proper measurement of the dedo, which is 1/48th of a full bara, is shown in the folio. Unfortunately, as noted, the folio pages may have been reduced in size to fit the paper (although, for the record, this line does measure 11/16″). The listing on page 12b says that 1/48th of a bara is 1.75 centimeters. Additional information is available on pg 124 of Patterns of Fashion (Arnold), which confirms the length of the line indicating a standard dedo as 11/16″ (17.4mm) long in the original folio. Rather disappointingly, the bibliography of Pattern of Fashion lists the facsimile version of Alcega’s book, so it is impossible to know for certain if her measurement comes from the extant copy of Alcega’s book housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, or the 1978 facsimile. However, multiplying 11/16″ by 48 does, indeed, give 33″. 1 1/2 baras, then is 49.5″.
Now, I went through all that to dig up the numbers and their origins because I’ve been puzzled by something in Arnold’s work on the Alcega farthingale for some time. On pg 196 of Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, she says,
The ‘bara’ was a Castilian measure of 33 inches, so the full length of the farthingale, 49 1/2 inches, (127.5 cm) included an allowance for tucks to be made as casings for ropes, bents, or whalebone.
The first thing that puzzled me was how she got to that conclusion, although I’ll happily grant that you’d have to be plenty tall to need a skirt that was 49.5″ long. (More on that later.) Right now, it’s a second thing about the statement that confused me: Is the skirt 49 1/2 inches, or is it 127.5 centimeters? I ask because, as we all know, one centimeter is roughly .39370 inches. Well, ok, on this side of the Atlantic, we usually know that there are 2.54 cm in an inch – it’s just an easier number to remember. 127.5 centimeters is 50.19675 inches. Conversely, 49 1/2″ is about 125.73 centimeters.
You can see where this might trip a girl up. Given the information presented by Arnold regarding the length of the dedo drawn out in folio VII, however, I think it’s safe to go with the measure in inches. This is slightly unfortunate, however, as the table given on 12b of the Alcega translation lists 1/48th of a bara as 1.75cm, which is .69″ – roughly 9/13th. Bother. In fact, all of the fractions of the bara listed are given in metric, and often convert out to measures with a stray 13th, 21st, 23rd, 49th and 5th of an inch. As Alcega himself notes in f.VII, fractions used for measurements of cloth are generally
…a twelfth, and eighth, a sixth, a quarter, a third, and a half [of the measurement]: and all these divisions of the [measurement] are perfect fractions relative to the [measurement] itself, since each division constitutes one half or an exact third, or in some dases one half and an exact quarter part. [The measurement] is not divided into a fifth, nor a seventh nor a ninth, since those are uneven numbers and doo not have an exact half. (translation from pg 17)
As Arnold points out, anyone who has ever folded a sheet knows this you fold it in half and half and half again – eighths, if you’re counting. If the basis of the bara itself is 11/16th of an inch, it should be impossible to create the larger subunits of the measure and end up with ridiculously goofy fractions. I will be basing all further math based on Alcega’s measurements, listed as fractions of the bara, on the 33″ value, rather than using the chart on 12b of the translation text. At the end of the day, I trust Janet Arnold.
The scale of the drawing in the folio pages of the Alcega facsimile is approximately 1″ : 14 2/3″. (3 3/8″ = 49.5″) That would be useful, if it were possible to simply enlarge the diagram. A few quick mockups and some analysis show that it’s not.
Next: the Mockups…