Originally published in the online costumer’s journal, Your Wardrobe Unlock’d. [re-editing and images in progress]
16th and 17th c. Strap-work
Written by Alyxx Iannetta
In making 16th century clothing reproductions, we all have our limitations and compromises of budget and modern materials. Strap-work, a common design element in the 16th & 17th centuries, is an interesting and rich-looking textural technique that can enhance your garment without the need to spend a lot of money.
I’ll take you through some inspirational portraits and then show you how to reproduce the look authentically, guiding you past the pitfalls with the minimum of tantrums!
Strap-work was a common design element in the 16th & 17th centuries, popular in architecture, furniture and sometimes clothing. In architecture, this element creates the recognizable “Tudor” style, and interior design strap-work continues to be popular today.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Strap-work is a decorative motif, in flat relief, consisting variously of interlaced scrollwork, braiding, shield forms, or cross-hatching, often pierced with circular or oval holes. At times strap-work is bordered with a raised fillet (band). The whole design is usually formed of connected units, all on the same plane, as though made by an elaborately cut and pierced strap that has been applied to a flat surface. Strap-work is usually done in wood, metal or plaster, although stone has been used occasionally, as in the Salzhaus at Frankfurt am Main (late 16thcentury).
Strap-work developed from the flat scrolls common in Islāmic metalwork. It was used extensively in the 16th and early 17th centuries and was a characteristic form of Mannerist decoration. In Flanders, the Netherlands, and Germany, strap-work was most fully developed. In fact, in the architectural ornamentation and furniture of the Low Countries, it was often the only type of ornament used. Strap-work was introduced into England in the late 16th century by Flemish and German woodworkers, and it was made popular in 18th century French decoration by Jean Berain, court designer to Louis XIV.
Fachwerkhaus – Strap-work on a Tudor style house 1
Mantelpiece frieze – Mantelpiece frieze decorated with strap-work 2
Flemish harpsichord – Flemish harpsichord with designs based on the Claviorganum by Lodewyk Theewes of 1579 3
Examples of Strapwork
I have found a few examples of extant and painted strap-work in 16th century clothing. It is fairly rare, but in the selection below I have examples of several different pattern variations.
Man amoung the Roses, Nicholas Hillard
Nicholas Hilliard, Elizabeth I, c1595-1600
Nicholas Hilliard, Elizabeth I, c1595-1600
Basket-weave pattern doublet & sleeves paired with paned slops
Miniature “Young Man Among Roses” By Nicholas Hilliard, c1585-90,
Open Basket-weave bodice
Miniature of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1595-1600
45º Open Basket-weave as trim panels on gown, stomacher and forepart, and the sleeves are on the straight grain
Miniature of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1595-1600
Nicholas Hilliard, James I
Jacopo da Ponte, Adoration of the Kings detail
Parallel straps on the straight grain divided by smaller parallels on a 45º angle
Miniature of James I, VI by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1605
Parallel straps in chevron strips
Doublet from The Adoration of the Kings by Jacopo Bassano, c1550
Parallel straps in a complicated arrangement of angled and straight grain, edges bound so fabric can show through
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester by Steven van der Muelen, 1565, Wallace Collection –
Detail of portrait of Mary Stuart and James 1583
Arch Duke Rudolf
Detail of Arch Duke Rudolf’s paned slops
Parallel straps on the straight grain, divided by on straps on a 45º angle
Detail from a double portrait of Mary Stuart, Queen Maria I. of Scotland, and her son James, the later King James I. of England, 1583
Arch Duke Rudolf
Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor as a young Archduke, 1567 by Alonso Sanchez Coello.
Tighter Open Basket-weave on slop panes. Only slivers of ground visible through straps
Strap-work or Slashing?
Without access to better images or original artwork, it can be difficult to determine if some portraits are depicting strap-work or slashed fabric, as in these pictures here. I would judge this as slashed but higher resolution may reveal a finished edge on each strap, or that the “cuts” go all the way to the edge and under the next fabric strip.
Nicholas Hilliard, Unknown Young man, 1585
“The Ermine Portrait” of Elizabeth I of England. Attributed to William Segar. A portrait, supposedly of Christopher Marlowe, 1585
Unknown Young Man, by Nicholas Hilliard, c.1585 “The Ermine Portrait” of Elizabeth I of England. Attributed to William Segar. A portrait, supposedly of Christopher Marlowe, 1585
Detail of Lord Fitzwillams doublet, Weiss GalleryStrap-work is all made of the interweaving of straps of fabric. These can be parallel straps that mimic slashes, or woven straps like a basket-weave. Other patterns you might see are usually variations of the basket-weave motif, but may hide the end of each strap under the next strap to leave more open ground fabric visible.
The only “exotic” weave I’ve seen in clothing is of Lord Fitzwilliam which is almost a plaited pattern – it makes me weak in the knees! But it does show that Parallel straps and Basket-weave are not the only options available to us.
Extant Strapwork Doublet from Darmsdat
There is an extant strapwork doublet that is detailed in a German thesis entitled The Hüpsch Costume Collection in the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Johannes Pietsch, 2008 (click on the image of the front page to download). The pattern diagram starts on p. 116 and pictures of the doublet, with a stitching diagram showing how the strapwork was applied are on p. 313 and p. 336.
strapwork construction methods
In making 16c clothing reproductions, we all have our limitations and compromises of budget and modern materials. Strap-work is an interesting and rich-looking textural technique where you can enhance your garment without spending a lot of money.
The three things I found most important to the success of my own strap-work projects are:
Have patience – don’t rush it!
Have patience – don’t skip finishing steps along the way.
Have patience – did I mention this?
What I mean is, depending on the fabric you use you will probably need to use a lot of pins, and do your finishing and ironing between all of your steps to end up with a professional looking product. Skimping on pins or rushing will result in the shifting of your straps. That will lead to crying and swearing and ripping out and re-doing and all manner of mischief. Or at least it does with me…
Three Designs: Basic Basket-weave, Parallel Straps, and Open Basket-weave
Step 1- Lay out your design
Proportion is important to the overall look of your garment. Too many small straps will look just as wrong as big ‘ol fat ones. The smaller the scale of your garment, the smaller the straps can be.
You may be tempted to conserve your strap fabric by applying the strap-work to your pre-cut pieces, but this will give you a less consistent result than if you weave a full piece of ground fabric and cut your garment pieces from it. This uses more fabric but gives a more even result.
Also, most strap-worked fabric will not stretch on the bias like a plain fabric does. If your straight-grain straps are set on the bias angle, your ground fabric will not be able to pull and mold in the ways you’re used to. Give yourself generous seam allowances and time for extra fittings when you get close to end of your project.
Step 2- Prepare your Straps
The easiest way to start on strap-work is to use ribbon. No pesky raw edges to deal with! If you want an authentic look try to avoid ribbons with an obvious selvage edge. This is also a good option if the straps are not going to be sewn down completely to the ground, as with Basket-weaves or Parallels. You may also use a woven trim if you find something that looks appropriate. Stay away from beaded or thick trims unless you want to take the time to remove bulky elements from the sections that weave under the other straps.
If you are going to make your own fabric straps make sure you have absolute consistency in your width. Make straps on the straight grain, not on the bias, as bias straps will not maintain a consistent width and will shift and stretch in the weave giving you a “floppy” result. In the Basket-weave demo I used a silk velvet ribbon with a very small selvedge. On the Italian doublet Parallel chevrons I used a double-sided silk satin ribbon; the edge is very subtle but it is as slippery as the dickens to work with! In the Open Basket-weave sleeves and bodice, I made my own straps by cutting an iron-on interfacing into precise strips, ironing them onto my silk, then ironing the edges folded under. I did not finish the edge because I sewed the straps all the way down to the ground with trim.
Step 3 – Prepare Your Ground
Extant clothing and textile fragments show us that fashion fabrics of the sixteenth century were usually woven with more threads per inch than the fabrics we can buy now. With this in mind, I prefer to flatline 4 silks like taffeta or dupioni to give them more weight and a stiffer hand. My favorite flatlining fabric is silk organza, but a plain-weave cotton sheeting also works. Strap-work creates an outer fashion layer that is fairly thick so I do not advise using something too heavy for flatlining. If you are going to use this on a bodice or doublet, prepare your strap-work fabric and treat it all as the outer fashion fabric to be applied to your heavier lining layers.
Lay out as large an area of your flatlined ground fabric as needed to cut your garment pieces.
Guide Strap More guide strips
Determine the angle of a center guide strap and line up all straps along the guide – both true bias (45º) and straight grain examples of Basket-weave and Parallel strap-work are seen in the portraits above. Open Basket-weave works best on the bias; I have not found any examples of it on the grain.
Find your desired angle and pin your guide strap down securely. You may adjust to a steeper or shallower angle if the proportion of the garment needs it.
Step 4- Apply Straps to Ground
On all weaves, it is important to pin smoothly with no gapping or pulling. You want the straps to be flat against the ground so the whole system works as one layer of fabric on your garment.
For Basket-weave, lay out all your straps, weaving as you go. Adjust each strap against the guide and pin your straps into place. This is the simplest form to get started with, and is great for sleeves or foreparts.
First row in basket weave Completed basket weave
Parallel and Chevron Strap-work
Chevron strapsFor Parallel straps, planning is important. You will be cutting your fabric to pieces then sewing it all back together again so you can cut your garment out of a solid fabric. Sounds crazy when you say it out loud…
Lay out, measure, and pin all straps to cover the ground. Having your straps perfectly even is important, as both chevrons and straight grain parallels may be cut into strips of their own and will need to match up later.
If you are doing angled Parallels, you will need to prepare half of your fabric angled to the right and the other half angled to the left. Don’t forget to leave room for seam allowances along each larger strip or you’ll run out of fabric.
For chevrons, once your straps are all on your ground, zig-zag (or hand baste) along both sides of the cut lines to secure the straps on the edge of each larger strip of ground. Align one left and right angled strip, matching straps to make chevrons, then sew right-sides together. Press open, and repeat with alternating strips until you have attached all strips into one large ground again.
Robert Dudley, arm detail
For straight-grain or angled parallels that do not alternate, as in the young James I portrait, you may pin your straps across the whole ground fabric (on the grain or the bias) and sew a trim at wide intervals to secure the straps.
If your ground and strap fabric have no nap or color change, you may prepare all of your straps at the same angle and rotate your pattern pieces to get right & left sides (one side’s pieces will be 90º rotated from the other). If your ground or strap fabric is a shot 5 silk or has a nap 6 you will need to prepare right and left angled strapwork pieces to get your right and left-side garment pieces to match without a color shift.
For something more complicated, as in the Dudley portrait (left), you’ll need to carefully plan out your pattern and reassembly as if you were doing a patchwork quilt.
For Open Basket-weave, you’ll be sewing the strips down as you go. I made myself a cardboard template to get a consistent 90º angle and spacing between the straps. Sew one strap down then pin and sew the next strap. If you use this treatment in strips, they should line up precisely just like the chevrons. A template helps with this.
Kirtle bodice with strapwork
Planning out the panels of an
Open Basket-weave sleeve design
The finished strip of Open Basket-weave
on a kirtle bodice, to match the sleeves
Step 5 -Preparing Your Garment Pieces
Securing the strap edgesIf you are doing Basket-weave or Parallel straps, you will need to secure the ends of all your straps at the edge of your pattern pieces before you cut them. This is important!
I have tried to secure and cut at the same time with a serger but the feed dogs are vigorous enough that they dislodge the straps as I go, and I can’t use pins with the serger blades. Too bad.
No matter what design you’re using, you want to be careful about the placement of your pattern pieces on the strap-work.
They should be as symmetrically placed as possible to give you an even line up at the center front, center back, and anywhere else seams would show an obvious mismatch.
On the Italian doublet, it was necessary to match the center-front, center-back, shoulder, and curved side-back seams. A bodice or sleeves will be much easier.
Doublet Done Detail 2
Doublet Done Detail 1
Strapwork doublet, back
Close but not perfect – the importance of symmetry and using your guide strap
The man’s doublet draped on the female dress form shows more ground fabric than it does on the owner. A stiffer ribbon would also drape less.
The back of the doublet.
Two methods have worked for me:
Draw your pattern pieces onto the back side of the ground. Make sure you have seam allowances included in case you use a marker that bleeds through to the front. Zig-zag (or hand baste) just inside your cut lines to hold the ends of all your straps. Pay careful attention to the ends of your straps; they may shift from the feed dogs if you do this by machine.
Draw your pattern onto tissue paper and pin on top of your strap-work. Zig-zag (or hand baste) just inside your cut lines to hold the ends of all your straps. Tear away the tissue. This method keeps your straps in place more successfully, and makes it easier to line up pieces symmetrically, but does take extra time in getting the tissue out of the stitches.
Since you want your straps to be as flat and even as possible, this is a great time to add beading. You may sew a bead at each intersection or in a pattern that fits the proportion of the garment. If you bead at this point, make sure you leave enough area to sew your seams without interference. Pearls and round beads need extra room or they will push your presser foot off of the seam line you want. You may fill in edge beads later if there is room. Hand sewers will have an easier time working their stitches around beading that is closer to the seam lines.
TIP: be careful where you bead – they catch on things! Avoid beading areas that will rub, like the underside of your sleeves that will rub on waist tabs or the panes of slops that will rub between the legs.
Now it’s safe to cut out your pieces. Finally! Treat your strap-worked fabric as one layer and construct your garment as you would normally. Pay careful attention when joining your seams to line up straps where possible at the seam-line, not the edge of the seam allowance.
One thing I have not covered yet is various decorative elements that are designed to look like strap-work but aren’t the real thing. The possibilities are endless for these and they look great!
One way is to embroider or apply narrow trims to a ground fabric in a weave design to mimic strap-work. This can be done effectively for any of the weave patterns. One of the best examples of this I’ve seen is a green silk gown by C. Claridge which she called the Frog Princess dress. It’s a lovely gown and a wonderful example of embroidered strap-work.
Front of the gown Back of the gown Close-up of the back
Photos courtesy of C. Claridge, Photographer Chris Clark
Another method I used for the lining of a pendant sleeve was to pierce fabric in a strap-work pattern. Along with stamping, the basket-weave piercing gave my fabric a texture I’m very happy with. For a description on fabric stamping, pinking & punching, feel free to visit my website.
Stamped and punched silk Stamp results
You can use almost anything to mimic a basket-weave design on a flat ground fabric to create your own Strap-work fakery. (Ok, I just really like saying that… strap-work fakery…)
The finished doublet on Allen
One last note about any kind of Strap-work or slashed design – it will catch on things! Be smart about what kind of garments you use this technique on; take into account how it will be worn and for what activities.
I’d hate for all your hard work to be lost in one vigorous swordfight! I hope you enjoy applying this period design element to your garments – it can really make your clothes stand out from the crowd!
Buechnersches Hinterhaus, half-timbered house from 1596 in Meiningen, Germany
Strap-work decoration on the mantelpiece of the library in the Buffalo Seminary. Photo and permission to use granted by Chuck LaChiusa
Flemish harpsichord photographed by Nick Michael
Flatlining is the process of using a second layer of fabric interlining behind the fashion fabric but treating both layers as one layer fabric in construction (as opposed to a true lining which is treated as a separate layer and is either stitched to the outer pieces or sewn as a mirror garment and stitched in).
Shot fabric is usually a plain weave, woven with one color in the warp and another color in the filling, which gives the fabric an iridescent look. As the fabric moves in the light the color changes. If a shot silk garment is not cut out with all the pattern pieces going in the same direction, it will look like it was made with two different colors of fabric.
A fabric with nap is one that usually has a pile and will look different shades from different angles. Velvet and velour fabric are prime examples of fabric with nap. If a velvet gown is not cut out with all the pattern pieces going in the same direction, the garment will look like it was made with two different colors of fabric.