A Ruff Guide, or ‘I’ve Gone a Bit Nuts During Covid’

My hand-sewing binge has gotten a little more out of hand.

Rocking the ruff. With pseudo-Tudor headband, 18th century-style hand-sewn shirt pretending to be Tudor, and the attempted pair-of-bodies from an old tablecloth and cable ties as boning. And bootlaces. Sanity has taken a holiday, it seems.

Regular readers will know that I sometimes attend medieval fairs. I also sing with a choir that performs medieval and Renaissance music, in historical clothing. After sewing myself a 15th century kirtle during lockdown in 2021, a fellow chorister asked if I’d make him a ruff. I’d never considered it before. In the end he bought himself one. But he’d started me digging again.

With my first ruff I used an old cotton sheet, using a rotary cutter to ensure the strips of fabric were perfectly even. I did a narrow hem top and bottom and rolled the fabric tightly, ready for work.  Before stitching the ruffles I looked at a lot of videos and settled on the following for a guide in how to stitch the outer edges of the ruffles together. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHuDl0_Yoqg Probably not canon, but who knows?

I also followed another video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlcGaXql1P0 on how to stitch top and bottom of the neck edge to a neck band. There are other videos which show this.

Some makers are reenactors like me, they break rules in order for the end product to be easy to manage. For example, I don’t consider squishing the neck-side down into a single seam, to be a true ruff. But that’s me. I want to be able to throw it in the washing machine (in a delicates bag!) and not need to starch it. These is for a stage costume.

I finished my first ruff and wore it to our Christmas concert in the heart of Sydney. During Covid lockdown we had nowhere in the city to change, so we travelled on the train in costume. That’s one way to get a seat!

My ‘back story’ as chorister is ‘seamstress’.
Costumed carolling choristers on the train. Masks mandatory on public transport because of Covid.
Post-performance in the city. ROH, unmasked!

By the end of the evening, my ruff was a little the worse for wear. I also found that my new red mask stained the ruff pink. Thankfully, it was the neck band (generally not seen) that bore the brunt.

Feeling tired and very ruff. Coming home on the train at the end of a long day. Rather crumpled.

So I resewed it. That required a new neck band (made out of the same old cotton sheet). The ruffles are stitched to each edge of the band, leaving all the fabric in the middle unattached and free (like many a Lord in Tudor court…)

The re-sew looked more even, but it’s still too densely packed. Back to the drawing board…

My grandson’s ruff taking shape.

My young grandson wants ‘to dress like a Tudor prince’ so I made a small-scale ruff for him. It’s blue, which was a banned colour in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (blue being the colour of the flag of Scotland, over which her hated cousin Mary ruled) but at the time of Elizabeth’s younger brother being King, that was not an issue. His outfit should hopefully be ready for Book Week at school in August.

My grandson, rocking the ruff. And a Tudor cap, just like Edward VI wore. Now for the rest of the costume, and he’s set for “The Prince and the Pauper” by Mark Twain, for Book Week. In August.

So now my guide on how to make a ruff. Remember, I hand-sew so I can still travel around, only not just with a notebook and camera, but also with a needle and thread.

I’ve found stitching the edge of the ruffle can be done discreetly and holds the ruffles in position.  That first link shows how.

Then as the length of ruffle gets longer, start attaching it to the band.

Measurements I use are easy to code, depending on what you want. My first white cotton ruff, and now my new one, were done with X = 1”.

For my grandson’s tiny ruff, X = 1 cm.

Here are the measurements I’ve learned through this process. On your long trip of fabric (historically, linen) I marked intervals along one edge with a very fine soft pencil (I use a propelling pencil so it’s always got a fine point).

Measuring the intervals and stitching the ruffles together. A task to do on the go, this all fitted neatly into my pocket.

Instead of using pins I mark intervals from the left-hand top edge of X, 1.5X, X, 1.5X and so on. When sewing (according to the Elizabethan Ruff Tutorial) you insert the needle two dots across, stitch the two points together then travel the needle back inside the tiny seam to the previous dot. Then stitch through two dots ahead again. And keep going!

Depending on what material you’re using, you might find it starts to get a bit too long to handle. That’s when you start to attach the ruff to a neck band. Make the band the length of your neck plus a cm or two for comfort. A ruff needn’t be uncomfortable! Make the ruff 2X in width. Slightly narrower is okay, don’t make it wider.

Now mark the band with the pencil at 0.5X intervals. Offset top and bottom by 50% (which means the top, say, is 0.0, 0.5, 1.0, 1.5 etc, the bottom is 0.25, 0.75, 1.25 etc). How far it stands out from the neck depends on how wide you cut your strips, and is completely independent. Cut them too wide, though, and it will be more inclined to flop and need starch.

My most recent ruff was a cheat – I bought 6 metres of ribbon (A$3 a roll) and some op-shop lace (3c a metre!). No need to hem the ribbon, which saved me a lot of time and effort.

I tried machine-stitching the lace to the ribbon, but the ribbon didn’t like it, it puckered. Hand stitching was almost as quick and much neater.

By marking the points with a soft lead pencil instead of using pins, it means I could carry the work in progress in a pocket at times. With the last one, I had the lace on a card and the ribbon on a roll, so I worked out of a shoulder bag. I’ve sewed on buses, on trains and in the car. Waiting around at various places. Watching TV, or even historical clothing YouTubes!

I finished sewing the ruff at choir practice and took a quick selfie to see how it looked.

Measurement needs to be as exact as possible, I use a pacer pencil with 2B leads for marking. With a roll of fabric, I used safety pins to stop it unrolling and tangling in my bag (or pocket). The satin ribbon/lace ruff was maybe three or four days of hand-sewing. The neck band can be machine-sewn from cotton or linen, but be accurate! I used press-studs on the neck band to fasten this one. Definitely not canon!

I sewed an extra flap on the neck band so the press-studs aren’t pressing into the neck. The more trad option is narrow ties, but for this one, the ties would have to match, and that ribbon is too slippery. It’s horrible to sew, even slightly rough skin on my thumb was snagging the ribbon and pulling threads.

Testing headwear. Not quite right. Work in progress.

I have a month to be ready for the next costumed outing with the choir. First step, padding…

With the ruff done, it’s time for me to move to the next part of my Mary Queen of Scots gown. But where to start?

Watch this space.

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