A Supportive Camisa Pattern

Thi past Sunday, I was privileged to attend a sewing party called the 12th Night Panic Meeting, hosted by Lady Cecelia Lightfoot (outside the SCA she is Leslie Lightfoot, which is also a fantastic name!) and led by Dame Arianna (Ann Hartl is her name outside the SCA, but the rest of her SCA name I don’t know), who is as kind as she is talented, and as good a teacher as any I’ve had the privilege to learn by. The objective of the party was to get a lot of people fitted for garb, or get them forwarder in the making of garb. Arianna (also a Baroness, a Lady, and a lady, as I am and my mother would be impressed enough to comment) put myself and my friend Barbara Hu McGahey first on her fitting list.

I wish I’d learned far more names, and written them down, because I quite enjoyed everyone there. I remember seeing Susan Haseltine (Bránduşa), and a really sweet woman named Sarah Elyse (her non-SCA name has a Q in it and starts with an S, but I don’t remember it — update: it might be Sequentia, according to Bránduşa, who commented below), and there was Ann’s husband Sir Mons, and a very tall gentleman called Bjorn who’s a bard and a fencer, a young woman whose name I didn’t catch (update: Bránduşa says it’s pronounced Elf-dees and that she’s a singer; I remember her being strawberry-blonde and fairly quiet as she worked on her Viking tunic), and I want to say there was at least one other man, possibly two… but I spent a lot of time sequestered in the back, because there were men there and also large gorgeous picture-windows, and I may not have seen everyone.

I was fortunate to be fitted first, once I’d finished with my little panicky moment. I had prepared mentally for there to be touching, because I know you can’t get fitted without that. I had not really processed the fact that there would be men present, and had never been to Lady Cecelia place before so I didn’t realize there were large windows to prepare for (her home, by the way, is truly beautiful, and I loved the drive to it, so rolling and hilly and scenic).

I also didn’t realize just how dependent I am on all my usual layers of attire. To be fitted for a skin-layer — the layer that, by definition, goes right up against the skin — one needs to actually get down to the skin, then have muslin draped over oneself and pinned into place. I had not sufficiently prepared for that, either mentally or physically; though, to be fair, one can’t really prepare physically for removing the bra. It’s not like you can build muscles in your breasts and have them be self-supporting even for an instant, and mine are large and a bit heavy for their size. Arianna was very kind to let me put on a previously made linen undergarment (it doesn’t fit properly, but she understood that I would be needing at least one more layer between myself and the rest of the women, who were present so they could learn more about the fitting process) beneath the draping muslin. I spent a lot of time trying to cross my arms over my chest, and she very patiently spent a lot of time getting me to move my arms for the sake of the fitting.

There was a lot of “hold this,” a lot of “you may want to shift these up a bit,” and so on; lots of fabric-tugging and safety pinning. I have to say, after a very short time of this, I felt still naked, but as supported as I usually am in my modern brassiere. Then Arianna had me lie down on the floor so she could do yet more shaping, tugging, and pinning. Every time I thought she couldn’t do any more pulling, she did it, and pinned, and I felt more and more like this was going to be a truly functional piece of garb when it was all done. I wish I could remember all that Arianna said, all the questions asked and answered, but I can’t. First of all, I was handling the fact that I was being touched and people were looking at me. None of this was happening with anything but gentleness, but to put it both bluntly and charitably, I’m… not neurotypical, and therefore things are a big deal for me that aren’t, objectively speaking, a big deal. Secondly, I was actually learning quite a lot more from the physical sensations of being fitted than any amount of words, or pictures, or videos could ever tell me. I’ll still need the words and pictures if I try to do this process on anyone else, but the physical sensations will instruct me just as much on what should be happening and how it should feel.

By the time Arianna said I could stand up, I was feeling well-trussed, and not in a bad way. The fabric was tight to me, for sure, but it was comfortable as heck at the same time. I stood, bounced a little bit on my toes, and realized that my breasts actually felt even more supported than they usually do in anything but my most robust sports bras. Seriously, I want to wear nothing but this type of garment, for the rest of my life.

I couldn’t take any pictures of the fittings, for the sake of modesty, but these are the results:


About the penciled-in compromise lines: I’d thought that having the fitting, alone, would be enough. But it isn’t! Arianna acknowledged that every body is different, and most bodies aren’t symmetrical. Some are even wildly asymmetrical, as mine seems to be, when I look at these pieces — I’d never realized most of what I’m seeing when I look at this. She also said, however, that unless you want to look asymmetrical, you would probably want a symmetrical gown, so the best thing to do in most cases is to fit both sides, then draw the pattern lines and curves as compromises between the two halves of the body. There would be one side that wouldn’t be quite as well supported here, but would be a little tight there, but overall, symmetrical clothing tends to look better.

Because this will very likely be the first garment I’ve worn without a bra underneath since the 2nd grade (other than one really rebellious day in 6th grade, at the end of which I was sore and chafed and prepared to never again rebel against anything society every told me I should do), I’m tending to feel very skittish about this, and am fully prepared to make a garment, or at least a toile, that is fitted to each side of me instead of to the compromised middle path. But since I’ll be making toiles anyway for the symmetrical pattern, that shouldn’t be any big problem. I’ll be using my sewing machine for all of the toiles anyway, so at least they won’t take weeks for each one.

In fact, that’s my homework:

  1. Take tracings of the fit-pieces and trace them onto tracing paper, as-is, for an asymmetrical pattern;
  2. pencil in the ‘compromise’ lines and trace these onto tracing paper for a symmetrical pattern;
  3. make a toile of each pattern;
  4. bring the toiles to Gyldenholt’s Winterfest, where Arianna will meet me up in the ladies’ loo and see how I’ve done, and what adjustments need to be made.
  5. Bonus points: I might wear the toile instead of a regular bra, both to see how well they work, and to avoid having to do too much in the way of clothing changes in public bathrooms.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of… however many parts it takes to get a usable garment out of this fitting!

UPDATE (February 2015): I took the toiles to Winterfest, but given the amount of traffic in and out of the bathroom, Dame Arianna rightly felt I’d be uncomfortable changing in there and demonstrating the fit. So I’ve taken it to her home now instead. As I’d thought, she agreed that a symmetrical garment on me does the exact opposite of making me look symmetrical. Instead, it highlights all the ways in which I’m not: one shoulder an inch and a half higher than the other, one breast a full cup size larger, one hip about 2 inches lower than the other. Plus, it’s deucedly uncomfortable. Arianna generously offered to retrofit the symmetrical toile back down to my actual shape.

Honestly, we got a lot closer than I thought we would, before her husband Sir Mons was due home. The basic shape was great, actually. It just wasn’t quite tight enough at the underbust to really offer support, so I kept slipping down below the desired level. I couldn’t continue to monopolize Arianna’s evening, so I departed, promising to get further on it.

UPDATE (sometime in January 2016?): I’ve had help from both Su of the Silver Horn and Ceara ingen Chonaill in trying to get the garment to fit. There have been five muslin toiles, plus a linen toile when I felt the muslin had gotten as close as it could. At some point, I got the right underbust fit, but it managed to flatten the actual breasts in a really unflattering way. The phrase “quad-boob” has been bandied about, with some accuracy.

I wanted to throw the garment across the room and leave it there till Mashiach comes. Instead I folded it up neatly, put it in a folder, and labeled the folder with the contents. The same steps I take with every pattern and every toile. (The box of pattern-attempts and toiles is getting pretty full; the box of successful patterns is still depressingly empty.) Maybe I’ll revisit this garment after I have more experience. Or maybe start from scratch. I honestly don’t know.

UPDATE (6 July 2016): Dame Arianna has a lot going on, as does everyone else in life, really. While I think she is probably the best person to help me continue the process of getting a good and supportive fit, I can’t in good conscience ask her to devote any more time to it. For now I’ll be using my squish-em-high sports bra for 14th century support beneath a regular (non-supportive, barely-fitted) camisa, and fitting my dresses on top of that. I’ll come back to this when I have a lot more sewing experience.

2 replies on “A Supportive Camisa Pattern”

  1. Hi, D’vorah,
    I’m Brandusa in the simple form, in Romanian it’s Bránduşa. Bran – du – sha.
    Marc the tall fellow goes by Bjorn. Seqentia (60% sure of the spelling) is the lady who goes by Sarah Elyse & Sir Mons is the many talented knight. I would not guess how to spell the name of the young singer whose SCA name is pronounced Elf – dees.

    1. Thank you much, good madame! 🙂 Post being corrected above. Also, it was wonderful to see you again.

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