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How do you Reproduce the Alcega Farthingale Pattern?

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.)

Alcega's Pattern with my Tracing
Alcega's pattern, shown with my tracing.

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.

The Bara

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…

Pages: 1 2 3 4


  1. Anna-Carin
    Anna-Carin October 13, 2010

    Maybe Arnold simply has a typo in the metric equivalent of 49 1/2 inches, saying 127.5 cm where 125.7 was intended?

    My personal impression is that metric equivalents in UK/US books are wrong as often as not… While I haven’t seen Arnold’s conversion table for Alcega, I think it’s probably just a matter of rounding errors. If 1/48 bara was exactly 11/16″ then it converts to 1.74625 cm, which was neatly rounded off to 1.75 cm for the book. The difference between 11/16″ and 9/13″ is only about 1/200″ or 1/8 mm; a quite acceptable rounding error in itself, though the rounded numbers give very confusing fractions when converting back to inches.

  2. Anna-Carin
    Anna-Carin October 14, 2010

    Actually, I was so carried away with the oddities you pointed out in your interesting article, that I forgot to also mention how much I enjoyed reading it. Sorry! :-(

    At first I thought it seemed strange to attach the flared edge of the back side gores to the back piece, while the front pieces were joined on straight grain, but afterwards it struck me that if you picture the pieces lined up side by side in the order of assembly, like Arnold does in her books, it makes perfect sense. In her 19th century examples, each side gore still has the front edge cut on grain and a flaring back edge; only the proportions of the gores are different. (BTW, she has an interesting remark on the pattern diagram facing page 28 – cutting gores so they flare towards the front instead of the back seems to have been a common mistake.)

  3. missa
    missa October 14, 2010

    Oh, oh, I wanna play! Page 28 of which book? :)
    Thanks for your comments, Anna-Carin – I agree the the numerical differences between what’s in Arnold’s work and what’s in the Alcega conversion table (provided just after the beginning commentary) is probably just a rounding thing, but it’s a rounding thing that’s always bothered me. It’s too small to make a huge difference, sure, but it doesn’t *feel* right. And when the basic numbers in a system don’t feel like the right numbers to be using, it makes me suspicious of the whole thing. It’s sort of like being served a blue egg for breakfast….

  4. Anna-Carin
    Anna-Carin October 14, 2010

    Oops – I did have a feeling I’d left something out… :–( I meant Patterns of Fashion 2.

    It would have made more sense if Arnold had stuck to the base unit of the original text, but then I guess it would’ve confused and frustrated lots of people who were less able to sort it out!

  5. Monique
    Monique November 30, 2010

    I have an issue with my farthingale. I tend to trip over my skirts and I get caught on the bottom hoop.

    Where should my length be? How far from the ground without showing my ankles should I allow?

    Thanks for ANY help you can provide.

  6. missa
    missa November 30, 2010

    Hi, Monique,
    The problem isn’t the length of your hoops. It’s that you walk like a modern western woman. We tend to have a fairly long stride, and to lift our toes as we step. If your stride is longer than radius of your farthingale, you’re going to risk stepping on it. Additionally, if you raise your toes as you step, you’re at risk for catching the hoops.

    The solution is to take smaller steps, and walk more like a small child than a model in an athletic shoe ad. You can also just shuffle along- your skirts can’t get under your feet if your feet don’t leave the ground. (I can “run” over uneven ground in a skirt that’s 6″ too long and a heel with the shuffling trick. No joke – I have witnesses. It’s also the key to successfully backing up in a trained gown. While we’re at it, it’s completely possible to walk up stairs *without* lifting your skirts from the front. There’s an easy way, and an advanced version that leaves your hands free. You can use a hand to press on your hoops from behind, thus raising the front slightly without mussing all your layers. If you don’t have a free hand, you can take a sort of ballet approach by running your toes under your hoop from the side, sliding your foot forward until you locate the stair in question. Then, draw your toes smoothly up the face of the stair and across the stair into position to take a step. If you’ve kept your toes under the edge of the hoops and skirts the whole time, you’ve just gracefully managed to get your foot on the stair without your skirts being under it. I strongly recommend practicing before taking on a full flight…. )

    Practice really is key. You need to know exactly how long of a step you can take, and where your toes will run into the hoop. (I measured, actually, then marked out the living room floor for practice. I’m sort of a geek like that.) You’re going to be safest in your costume when it’s as familiar as clothes. It’s no different to learning to walk in heels, really. You just have to adjust your movement (balance, length of stride, the angle your foot hits the pavement at) slightly. You’ll end up with a walk that’s safer, and an overall look that’s far more natural.

    That all said, I make my hoops so they’re about 1-2″ above ground level so I’m not replacing the bottom hoop casing all the time.

    I’m not sure that’s quite the answer you were looking for, but I hope it helps!

  7. Michael
    Michael August 11, 2011

    While I won’t lie, I got tripped up in all the math but that’s probably because I’m just a tad bit tired at the moment! Loved the work put into this. I also have had issues with the whole “the extra length is for creating tucks/casings for the reeds/boning” issue simply because of the pain it is to create a smooth casing on a conical surface. Now I’m tempted to tackle a scaled down version of this to see if it’s any better!

  8. […] I’ve been reading up heavily on farthingales (and many thanks to the sempstress for her in-depth mathematical analysis. If you didn’t guess from the excel charting of the […]

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