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How do you Reproduce the Alcega Farthingale Pattern?

One Last Thing: the Translation and Assumptions

One of the most tantalizing things, for me, about the Alcega Farthingale has always been a discrepancy in translations regarding the front gore. Arnold says:

The front of this farthingale has more at the hem than the back. (Patterns of Fashion, pg 7)

While the translation says:

The Front of this farthingale is wider than the Back [not clear from the measurements given] and from the remaining silk you can make a hem (ruedo). (pg 49)

So what’s the case? The original text of the contended passage is:

Y la delantera defte verdugado lleua mas ruedo que la trafera, y de la feda que fobra fe podra echar vn ruedo. (f. 67, untranslated)

Now, if you’re not used to reading things from the 16th century, there’s some tidbits you should know: ‘v’ may be a ‘v’ or a ‘u’ – this apparently goes back to the days of carving messages into stones, when angles were easier than curves. ‘f’ may be an ‘f. but since the spanish for ‘silk’ is ‘seda’ rather than ‘feda’, we might surmise that it could also be an ‘s’. (On the other hand, Alcega might have had a bit of the Castilian lisp. Spelling was pretty phonetic, back in the day.) Apostrophe’s were hoarded, instead of being used where needed. So a rough translation to a sounding-out of the phrase might be:

Y la d’elantera d’este verdugado lleua mas ruedo que la trasera, y de la seda que sobra se podra echar un ruedo

My spanish, unfortunately, is mostly limited to things I can shout at a cook who has mysteriously forgotten english while I attempt to get food out to a table. This particular recipe has neither ajo nor sebellos for me to say nada to, so I’m looking at a dictionary. I’m specifically looking up the word ‘ruedo’, which seems to be the crux of the matter. According to, it can be translated in the following ways: a bullrign or arena, a ring, an edge or border, a circumference, a hem, a mat or round mat, the idea of luck or a gambler’s luck, a turn or rotation.

Well, now, ‘hem’ would confirm Arnold’s translation. But I’m intrigued by ‘an edge or border’ as well as ‘a circumference’. Does this mean that the extra fabric cut during hemming might be used to bind the waist edge (edge or border) and provide casings to be applied for the bents (circumference)? Again,I’ve no idea, but it’s an intriguing possibility. After all, any hem you cut off will be on a slight bias – that makes it perfect for any of these uses.

Assuming you only cut off the bottom of the gores as you hem them, you get this:

the waste cut off the Alcega gores
The front gore of the Alcega pattern has more waste at the hem than the back does.

Again, this is based on Arnold’s layout. You can see that there is much more waste at the bottom of the front hem than the back. The gores aren’t wider, as the translation suggests, but longer, per Arnold. The precise fate of the extra fabric is not to be known.

The Last Assumption

Arnold’s reproduction uses tucks in the pattern to hold osiers, or bents, to stiffen the skirt. Every image I’ve seen of a farthingale shows bents encased in an applied band. Why?

Well, for the full length of the Alcega farthingale, the length is 49 1/2″. Apply a little trigonometry, and you’ve got a waist to ground measure of 47.3″. That’s.. tall. I have had a client with a 45″ waist to ground measure. I believe she’s 5’11”.

Now, it seems to me, from the information and measurements given, that a fairly clever tailor (without any triginometric formulas) could substitute the waist to ground measurement he needed (plus a hair for the angle) for the 49 1/2″ panels, then follow the rest of the instructions. It’s just easier to sew that way. Alternately, he might make up the pattern, hem it on the client, and use the leavings from the hem to make casings for the bents. Again, it’s easier.

I could throw a lot of maths at this, but the truth is that I just don’t think lazy is anything new to the human species. If there’s an easy way (where you just shorten a length or trim a top) and a hard way (where you have to pregather lines for the large sides of channels), who’s going to take the hard way? Especially when the hard way is less aesthetically pleasing because it’s covered in puckers and creases…. (Yes, this is the ‘gut instinct’ part.)


  • By the later 1500s, tailors had a sophisticated knowledge of gores.
  • The Alcega diagram relies firstly on measurements listed, and secondly on specific details of the illustration
  • The front gore of the farthingale is intended to have a greater angle, while the back gore is intended to be significantly wider at the waist.
  • The widths of the gores equalize by the hem.
  • the “patterns” in period tailor’s books of the 16th century are more like cutting diagrams with some suggestions about how to assemble the pieces.
  • I’ve gone on long enough…


Alcega, Juan de. Tailor’s Pattern Book 1589. 1979. Trans. Cecelia Bainton and Jean Pain. New York: Costume & Fashion Press, 1999.

Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c1560 – 1620. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1985.

Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d. Leeds: W. S. Maney & Son Ltd, 1988.

Mikhaila, Ninya, and Jane Malcolm-Davies. The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing Sixteenth Century Dress. London: B T Batsford, 2006.

    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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