A Stitch in Time

Chasuble Fragment

Chasuble with Orphrey Cross

Knowing when and where the velvet pieces were made means Deb Brothers’ students could learn about Renaissance textiles in a deeper context.

A few fragments of deep crimson silk velvet in the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) have opened the door to understanding the history of ecclesiastic ceremonies, trade routes and the relationship between economics and religion during the Renaissance.

Until recently, little was known about the fabric pieces beyond the fact that they were likely of the Renaissance period. Deb Brothers, the college’s costume director and lecturer in theater, used them in her costume design class to explore the painstaking processes of weaving, dyeing and embroidering during that period.

For her students, Brothers says, it was an opportunity to “look at those details and know that every stitch was made by hand. it really is that critical moment of looking a little deeper.”

And then Brothers happened upon a photograph of a similar piece of velvet in the book In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion by Anna Reynolds, curator of paintings at The Royal Collection. A caption identified the fabric as part of a chasuble—a garment worn by Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran priests during Mass and other religious ceremonies.

After researching the fabric pieces in WCMA’s collection, Brothers and Liz Gallerani, curator of Mellon academic programs, confirmed that they were in fact from a chasuble made in Italy between 1420 and 1500. “What looked like some scraps of material suddenly came to life,” Gallerani says.

Knowing where and when the velvet pieces were made means Brothers’ students could learn about Renaissance textiles in a deeper context. Velvet was crafted from silk thread by highly specialized and regulated trade guilds. The fabric was expensive and primarily worn by the wealthy ruling class or made into fine ecclesiastic vestments (such as chasubles). Cochineal, the insect used to make the red dye, also was rare—imported from Poland, Armenia and, later, Mexico, after Columbus returned from the New World. Italian velvets, known for their high quality, were sent to markets all over Europe; in Italy, the papacy was a major consumer.

The textile fragments in WCMA’s collection bring to life other works of art in the museum. When Brothers’ students look at paintings from the Renaissance and other period that feature ornate clothing, they have an intimate window into what is meant to don those pieces and an understanding of how much labor went into making them.

The fragments “have opened up access to the museum in a different way,” Brothers says. “You hope this is an example that makes students start looking at the textures and the nuance.”

—Francesca Shanks

HOW TO MAKE A RENAISSANCE CHASUBLE:

  1. Silk worms are cultivated, and silk filament is collected by hand from their cocoons.
  2. The filaments are spun into thread, which is cleaned, dyed, reeled and mounted onto a loom. The crimson color of the piece of velvet at left probably comes from a dye made out of an insect called cochineal. The color was highly sought after during the Renaissance and is still quite vivid after several centuries.
  3. Thread is carefully woven into velvet—work done by skilled tradesmen in professional guilds with tight quality control and closely guarded construction methods. Weavers, usually men, apprenticed for years under another expert.
  4. A pattern is created in the fabric. The voided pomegranate pattern at the top of this page was likely made by weaving thick and thin silk pile into the same piece of fabric. The pile was carefully shaved down until the pattern was clear.
  5. The fabric is embroidered, a task done mostly by women. Intact chasubles (like the German one above) often had ornate crosses embellished with silver and gold threads as well as representations of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Though the crimson velvet fragment at the top of the page has evidence of prior embroidery, the threads, which were extremely valuable and hard to come by, were likely reused on another garment centuries later.

Chasubles were—and still are—worn by priests during Mass and other sacred ceremonies. They are based on a Roman garment worn during traveling. The crimson fragment at left was probably part of a “fiddleback” chasuble, cut away in the front with an ornate back, allowing a priest to easily join his hands in prayer.

—Courtesy of Deb Brothers, lecturer in theater

Image credit: Roman Iwasiwka