There is much evidence to support the notion that separate sleeves were regularly worn during the mid 17th Century period (c.1620 – c.1660). This comes from extant clothing items in museum collections, written records such as inventories, wills and account books, and the visual record (including portraits, engravings and woodcut illustrations).
Sleeves are perhaps the one part of an outfit which changed the most with fashion. During the 1620s ‘virago’ sleeves were most popular. Virago sleeves were usually ‘paned’ – cut or slashed into many long strips the length of the sleeve – and tied close to the arm just above the elbow to create two large puffs. The panes of fabric allowed the linen smock or contrasting lining to be seen. The panes were often beautifully decorated using embroidery, braid and applied ribbon. They must also have been stiffened in some way, using interlining and/or wire, whalebone or ‘bents’. Additional foundation linings might also have been used to create and help maintain the correct shape.
Everything softens up in the 1630s, sleeves lose their stiffness, and by mid decade become huge. Paned sleeves disappear, sometimes leaving one long vertical slash displaying the fine, white linen of the smock worn beneath. Decoration is minimal, perhaps braid applied down the centre front of the arm, or jewelled brooches or buttons holding the slash together.
Things narrow down during the 1640s, sleeves lose a lot of their fullness, but decoration is similar. One style is peculiar to the later part of this decade – where the lower part of the sleeve only is paned. This was a popular fashion but short lived as by 1650 sleeves are full again and dropping off the shoulder, creating the iconic Restoration silhouette of the later 17th Century.
Version 1 – Virago (fashionable c.1625 to c.1635)
These were a labour of love! I found it difficult to find a pattern for these or any modern recreations which looked right.
I started by using a slimmed down version of the pattern I use for my waistcoat sleeves. I marked slash lines at equal distances to create 8 panes. I left the fabric as one piece for about an inch at the top, bottom and middle of the pattern. I also made the pattern longer than I wanted the finished length of the sleeve. The best way I can describe what I was aiming for was a paper lantern you might have made as a child for Christmas. When the sleeve was shortened to the correct length, the panes would spread apart from each other and create the round shape and fullness.
I cut the outer layer from yellow duchess satin and the lining from blue duchess satin. Both were interlined with a layer of calico. I machine stitched each satin pattern piece to its matching interlining around the outside edge, and also around the areas which I would later cut to create the panes.
Then I applied the decoration. Bands of ribbon were hand stitched down the centre of each pane. I then basted the outer layer to its lining (wrong sides together). I basted either side of the slash lines before cutting these lines to create the panes. I then bound all raw edges by hand with ribbon. In total I hand stitched 25 metres of ribbon onto one pair of sleeves! After I finished the first sleeve I had a couple of months off before I felt up to starting the second one.
But I still hadn’t finished. I added two additional linen linings to each sleeve – one which was larger all round and cartridge pleated inside the sleeve, and one final lining which was the desired length of the finished sleeve. Once sewn inside, this bunched all the other layers up, opening out the panes and creating fullness. As I had left a band of uncut fabric roughly half way down the sleeves, this helped to create the two tier puffs depicted in images of the time.
What I would do differently – although I am not unhappy with this first pair of virago sleeves, they are not perfect and I will definitely be making several others. I feel I could improve the overall look by shortening the sleeve before it is attached to its foundation lining, also not leaving so much uncut fabric at top, middle and bottom. I’d also like to experiment with additional stiffening, using bents (though I feel whalebone would be too extreme). I’d love to try different decorative techniques on the panes, such as embroidery and quilting, and pinking the edges of the panes. It’s the sort of thing I go to sleep thinking about!