A Cranach Gown for Twelfth Night- Part 1

Cranach gown
Photo credit Joel Schonbrunn

FYI, this is going to be a long, wordy post. But, if you’d like to know how I went about making my Cranach gown, please read on!

When I first started in the SCA, almost 4 years ago, I was given the advice to choose a persona based on the kind of clothing I liked the best. My good friend who introduced us to the SCA, Master Nicolas l’Anguille, showed me his favorite culture and time period, 16th century German, and I was in love. There is a fair amount of variety in the clothing of that period and place depending on social status and region, but I love it all– the outlandish Landsknechts, the “mushroom” and giant false braid headdress, the wonderful hats with sooo many feathers, the rich velvet and gold dresses of the nobility. It’s all truly fantastic. If you’re unfamiliar with late period German clothing, check out my Pinterest boards for Landsknecht and Cranach gowns.

I tried (and failed) to sew a Landsknecht outfit for my husband last Twelfth Night, but it was beyond my skill. I decided to take a step back a couple of centuries and make some 14th century garb for us, and that worked out much better. Making those 14th century cotehardies helped me better learn how to properly draft a pattern that would fit. So, when a few of my friends suggested we all wear late period Germans (aka Cranach gowns) to Twelfth Night, I was totally on board. By the way, the reason they’re often called “Cranach gowns” is because they are they style of gown frequently seen in paintings by the prolific German Renaissance painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder. They are also referred to as Saxon court gowns. Here are a couple of examples.

 Lucas_Cranach_d._Ä._1506 Katharinenaltar
 KIng David & Bathsheba


Fortunately, I had been gifted several yards of a cotton-polyester blend brocade heavy weight fabric in gold and green by two different friends, and they happened to be the same brocade pattern. Talk about serendipity! It was perfect for a Cranach style dress, and it was in our Kingdom’s colors. One of the things I love the most about the SCA is the generosity of its members. People are not only generous with their possessions but also with their time and skills. I benefited from all three forms in the making of this dress.

There are a few types of fabric that you can use to make an authentic looking Cranach gown. When looking at the paintings, the fabrics we most often see are velvet in dark red or dark green accented by gold brocade.

If I were going out and buying fabric for one of these, I probably would have chosen a dark red cotton velveteen for the main color and a gold brocade for the accents. I’ve always loved dark red, and the velvet dresses look so sumptuous. Silk velvet is beyond my means, so cotton velveteen is good substitute. You could also use a polyester velvet, but that would be fairly expensive and not very breathable.

In addition to the fashion fabric, you will need a tough fabric for interfacing the bodice and another fabric for the bodice lining. I used cotton duck for my interlining (pre-shrunk) and cotton twill for the liner. You could also use linen for the lining; I just happened to have the twill on hand in a similar color to my fashion fabric. For the center panel, you will need a white fabric for the bottom part. I used a medium weight linen.

You will also need handkerchief linen to make a chemise to be worn under the dress, and if you’ll be making a goldhaube, you will need gold silk or a similar gold fabric.

In addition to the fabric, you will need hooks and eyes for closures and lacing rings for the lacing at the middle of the panel and possibly for your sleeves depending on the style you have chosen. If you want to add pearls or beads to decorate your brustfleck or goldhaube, you will need those as well.

Back when we were starting out and my husband and I settled on our SCA personas, we purchased patterns from Reconstructing History for the Cranach gown for me and one for Japanese garb for my husband. But since buying them and making my husband’s garb using the pattern we had bought, I realized that the patterns were not the best for actually showing you how to construct the garment. The construction directions were very difficult to understand, and I had to get help from a friend when making that garb. So, I pretty much wrote off the Cranach gown pattern.

I had looked at a LOT of blogs about how people had made their Cranach gowns (most of them can be found on my Pinterest board), but I learn better from someone physically showing me how it’s done. So, I reached out to my sewing SCA friends to see if there was anyone willing to show me how to create a pattern for this style of dress. One friend hooked me up with another costumer in Arizona who had done several of the style of dress, and her advice was extremely helpful. She sent me lots of pictures of how she’d constructed dresses she had made and patiently answered all of my questions. Another one of my costuming friends who had made plenty of late period German dresses, Mistress Ghislane d’Auxerre, offered to draft a pattern for the bodice for me by starting from a block/toile and then outlining the correct shape. There are several tutorials online for doing this, or, if you have a copy of The Tudor Tailor there are instructions on page 66 for making a toile for a similar shaped bodice.

The bodice for the Cranach gown can be a little tricky to pattern. The bodice does not meet in the middle— it joins at a center panel. So, if you’re using a tutorial for making a kirtle or another bodice that joins in the middle, you need to make sure you account for the seam allowance of the edges and figure out what the dimensions of your center panel should be. Another difficult aspect is getting it to look like it’s just barely hanging on the shoulders while simultaneously not falling off the shoulder. There is also some debate about whether the edges of the sides should be cut straight or cut at an angle. For mine, we cut them at an angle, but I think I will try a straight edge next time. In addition to the main shape of the bodice, you also need to make a center panel that will join the two sides.

For the skirt, I took the advice of my friend in Arizona and made it from a long rectangle rather than piecing it together to make it more cone shaped. The pleats you make during construction will give it the conical shape you see in the paintings. I chose to do rolled pleats which requires doing some math to figure out how much fabric you will need. I used this wonderful calculator created by Genoveva von Lubeck.

The pattern that I bought from Reconstructing History did come in handy for one thing— patterning the sleeves. When I made my 14th century cotehardie, I had such a hard time with setting in the sleeves that I was dreading doing the sleeves for this dress. And if I wanted to do the paneled sleeves, It would just be that much more complicated. So, because I was in a bit of a time crunch with this dress and because I wanted to keep it as simple as possible, I opted to make lace-on sleeves. I made some minor adjustments to the pattern— namely cutting the sleeve pattern in the middle and adding the necessary seam allowances. I lined the sleeves with the same cotton twill that I used to line the bodice.

Another piece of the outfit that I have not yet addressed is the chemise. You have a couple of options as to what type of chemise you want to wear. There are examples of both high-necked and low-necked chemises, or hemds. You can also choose to have billowing sleeves or more snugly fitting sleeves (if you would be wearing it under a dress with joined sleeves). I wanted a low necked chemise with billowing sleeves that would puff out between the lacing of the sleeves on my dress. It was surprisingly difficult to find a pattern for this, so I had to modify one that was close. I had a commercial pattern for a Tudor chemise that had the right neckline but not the right kind of sleeves. Since all I needed was more volume to the sleeves, I simply expanded their width and then gathered them at the top where they joined to the body to make them fit into the armscyes. For the ends of the sleeves, I used honeycomb smocking. I’ll go into more detail about its construction in a later post.

That’s all for Part 1! Part 2 coming soon!

About Apollonia

Apollonia lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and plays in the SCA in the Kingdom of the West. She loves learning about and making stuff.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *