Experiments with Calligraphy on Fabric

Calligraphy presents enough challenges on its own, without adding the excitement of a surface that makes lettering difficult. Think of papers that are too rough as a road with minor potholes. Frustrating, but if you drive carefully, it can be alright. It’s harder in a tiny sports car (tiny nib), but may not be that noticeable in a truck with off-road tires (a giant nib for lettering posters). In this metaphor, writing on fabric is akin to driving on a washed out caliche trail, and your Porsche has bald tires. Each tiny warp and weft thread catches at your nib. Fabric and ink are a horrible combination where everything bleeds, and even the queen’s own calligrapher’s lettering looks awful.

I’ve known this for ages. Have you tried to write on ribbon? Even with all of our modern fabrics and stabilizers and mediums and acrylic stuff, it’s a nightmare. So naturally, when presented with a project where I’d have to write an entire manuscript’s worth of calligraphy in a foreign language and alphabet on fabric using 500 year-old methods and materials, I said, “SIGN ME UP.” (There should be an cunning term for calligraphic masochists, but I can’t seem to mash the words together cleverly…) And it’s mostly not big calligraphy. No. It’s T-I-N-Y.

Zoomed in from a pic in the book, Tismili Gomleckler.
Zoomed in from a pic in the book, Tismili Gomleckler.

Look at how small that is compared to the weave of the fabric. The fabric is cotton, and it’s not woven like cheesecloth. I blew up images from one of the Mughal shirts and did rough estimations, and the bulk of the calligraphy on that shirt is 1/4″ high. That shirt in question has THE ENTIRE TEXT OF THE QUR’AN ON IT. Plus other stuff. So tiny calligraphy on fabric is kind of the gating item on determining whether or not I can actually pull off making a whole shirt.

I started my experiments on working with fabric as my calligraphic surface before a friend found this particular image and sent it to me. It’s the most up-close, zoomed in example I’ve seen anywhere. It answered some questions I had, namely:

  1. What writing instrument was being used?
  2. When the work is that small and on such a problematic surface, how fussy were the scribes about perfectly neat writing and painting?

Clearly, they weren’t insanely fussy about how tidy the work was when it was so small and there was so much of it. This is a relief. The writing instrument used here is most likely a brush. I came to that conclusion on my own, through experimentation. It made me happy to receive this photo and see that I was on track. I tried brushes after striking out in the small lettering department with reed pens and quills.FullSizeRender (2)

There’s not much research on these shirts, particularly in English. The V&A did chemical analysis on that one with the full text of the Qur’an, which said that it was cotton treated with starch. My friend and Ottoman ninja extraordinaire, Mistress Behiye, did a rough scan of the Turkish book on the shirts and found that their researchers also said the fabric was sized and prepared like paper. This means that a starch paste was applied, allowed to dry, and polished smooth with a smooth, heavy stone or glass implement. If ink doesn’t bleed on your paper, that means it’s been properly sized. I tried different kinds of sizing and different thicknesses and levels of coating for both rice and wheat. Then I tried to do calligraphy on all of them.

My sample fabrics all laid out.
My sample fabrics all laid out for the competition. I wanted people to be able to touch them and play with them, since it helps with understanding why some work better than others for calligraphy.

I competed with this at Stella Nova, in November. The project was received well, and I got great feedback that will shape the rest of the projects that go into completing the shirt. I also made some cool connections that are helping me learn more about really important things, like doing this in a respectful cultural context and figuring out Arabic calligraphy.

Since these samples are where I’m testing every aspect of the project, one of the next things to do is make up some more of the best performers, sew them into a t-shirt, and stick them on a sweaty fighter. The research on these says the best theory is that these would have been worn next to the skin, under clothing and armor, to protect important people in battle. Before I do the whole thing, I want to test the inks and paints and such to make sure they don’t just run all over the place once they’re in contact with sweat. For now, I’m researching Arabic approaches to making paints and inks while I do sewing preparation for classes I’m teaching at the end of January.

The Start of Something Big

I’ve been missing from the blog. Apologies. We bought a house and renovated it during October, then there were holidays and loads of house guests, and now it’s January. I haven’t been inactive, though! An uncomfortable but highly effective dose of steroids injected directly into the nerve bundle in my wrist has given me mostly normal use of my hand back. Temporary, but its success tells us that surgery will fix it permanently – and that’s a massive relief for this calligrapher.

Since I have no way of knowing how much I’ll be able to do, or how long the shots will last, I picked a new project to start that has some projects at the beginning that are more research than hands-on work. It’s going to take a long time to do, and it’s a little bit crazy to take on. What is it? I’m making an Ottoman talismanic shirt. Most people have no idea what that is, so let me show you.

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This shirt was auctioned at Sotheby’s in October 2015 and sold for £185,000. It’s from 1583, Ottoman, and in especially fine condition. The gold in the gilding is still very shiny, and the colored inks are bright and crisp.

A talisman is an object that has magical protective powers. They come in many forms, are found all over the world, all throughout history, across all religions. Crystals, St. Christopher medals, lucky rabbit’s feet – all things that anthropologists would consider talismans. The shirts are based on Qur’anic verses that talk about shirts imbued with magical powers.

The shirts feature elaborate calligraphic decorations that include the 99 names of Allah, verses of protection from the Qur’an, magical seals and squares, and decorative motifs of various shapes. Most of the shirts are cotton, which was a luxury fabric in the Levant. Some are dated, so we know that they took a long time to make: 1-3 years, depending on the shirt. Some of that may be due to the shirts being begun and finished under especially auspicious astrological circumstances.

Talismanic undershirts are a rare thing. There are fewer than 100 of these known to exist in the world right now. There are examples of them from Mughal India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and there’s even one in Spain. Turkey has the most shirts, because the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul has preserved the royal garments for hundreds of years. Nothing in my research has turned up how far back the practice goes, but it is seen throughout the middle/late medieval period.

A friend showed me one three or four years ago, and I’ve been quietly obsessed ever since. The shirts are such a complex and unusual calligraphic challenge, which is appealing to someone who has grown up surrounded by medieval European manuscript pages and aesthetics. Arabic calligraphic art is some of the finest in the world. I love to look at it. Do I speak or read Arabic? Nope. So there’s a giant language barrier making this harder. Still, I’m going to do the research and make a thing. My plan is to do everything but weave the fabric and make the lampblack ink, as both are outside my skill set. Plus, I don’t think the calligraphers were likely to be the ones weaving fabric anyway.

 

Final Sugar Project: Flowers, Fruits, and Birds!

I didn’t wind up entering gum paste dishes – I did flowers, birds, and fruit!  So indecisive, I know. I wanted to do the flowers most, and then a friend mentioned that there’s an account of them in 16th c. Ottoman Turkey. She forwarded a few articles on the big Ottoman festivals, and one of them had a list of what these small sugar figures were: birds, pomegranates, quince, anemone, crocus, rose, carnation, and narcissus. All of my research still applied, and investigating the Ottoman avenue opened up some additional sources that really rounded out my understanding of the cultural place sugar work had in noble households.

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My work competed in Meridies’ Kingdom A&S this weekend, and it was very well-received. I’m so pleased! This was such a fun project to do, in spite of all the frustrations I had with sugar paste in the humidity. I even won a beautiful gift basket for my category. Now I have a lovely olive wood salt cellar and tiny salt bowls – something I’ve wanted for some time!

If you want to read the documentation or see tutorials for how I made each flower, it’s here, on my Documentation and Handouts page. You, too could make a carnation like this:

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German Court Barony: Completed

My very German court barony got finished and delivered at the beginning of March, so now I can share it! This was a really fun project for me, and I’m glad that the recipient loves it. It feels SO GOOD to be doing scribal work again.

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Naturally, I managed to smudge wet ink with the edge of my hand in a couple of spots. Those cleaned up easily with a scalpel. Other than that, this wasn’t a tough project once I nailed down the design. HE Don Pieter also does A&S research into torture methods and the Inquisition. I worked a couple of little torture devices into the S. Can you spot them?

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The grotesque mask on the tip of the S is called a scold’s bridle or a mask of infamyThey were used to publicly humiliate and correct people who did things like spread malicious lies and gossip. At the top left of the S, hanging from the flourishing, there is a pear.

16th Century German Manuscript Research

I’m working on the custom award scroll for a court barony that was given in November 2013. I’ve had the commission for about a year, but it had to wait on my wrist to heal. I’ve spent a lot of time doing research to pick the right hand, design elements, and really get a feel for late 16th century German manuscripts.  The recipient is Very German, and he is a clever man who enjoys deep research, so I wanted to be certain that whatever I did was correct.

What’s happening in the 1590’s? The printing press had been around for about 150 years, and much of the hand-painted illustration that makes manuscripts so beautiful had been set aside for more economical woodcut prints. Sometimes these are painted with a wash of watercolor, but the quality is nothing like what you see in previous centuries. The good illustrations have taken full advantage of the Renaissance’s advancements in painting more realistic figures, textures, and perspectives. I’m not a good enough painter to pull that off, let alone in miniature. Seriously, go check out the Mira Calligraphiae.

Dig through a bunch of German manuscripts, and you’re going to see a focus on elaborate knot-work initials done in pen and ink, called cadels. This is from the French cadeaux, meaning “gift”. They’re much larger than the text, and there are tons of examples where the page orientation is landscape to give room for the initial to be in line with the text. The calligraphy has also gotten more elaborate and decorative. I think with printed books being readily available, pressure was off for scribes to make their writing ultra legible. There’s more freedom to put beauty before readability, which is fun for modern calligraphers.

Nuremberg, 1550-1599 New York, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Plimpton MS 300
Nuremberg, 1550-1599 New York, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Plimpton MS 300

These sometimes have fine pen and ink figures in them, and in a couple of royal cases, have illuminated gouache portraits of the king inside the letter. Here’s one from one of Henry VIII’s legal documents, 1529.

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I prefer calligraphy over painting, so I’m already excited about working with pens over brushes. The cadels are stunning and offer a chance to draw in little scenes or items of personal significance to the recipient, and I have one with some diverse and passionate interests. Done. I spent months trying to draw my own, but they’re really hard to do at first. I decided to modify an existing one so that I wasn’t fighting knotwork and proportions and trying to fit little people in there.

I came up with this as my draft. It’s already changed some to replace the grotesque at the top of the S with a mask and add in little extras. The little rapier guys will definitely need some practice sketches and a more specific wardrobe. The one on the left needs more aggression! He’s a bit nonchalant about his life being at stake…

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I sized it down a couple of times on my copier so that I could see which one works best with the amount of text I have and the overall size of the finished piece (11x14in). There will be more knotwork across the top, plus vinework between the rows of text, like this:

Calligraphy Letterform Album 'Kalligraphische Schriftvorlagen' (calligraphic writing styles) was produced in the 1620s in Germany by the scribe, Johann Hering.
Calligraphy Letterform Album ‘Kalligraphische Schriftvorlagen’ (calligraphic writing styles) was produced in the 1620s in Germany by the scribe, Johann Hering.

 

 

Back in the saddle

I’ve been working on calligraphy a little bit almost every day for the last couple of weeks. I’m a little bit rusty after 9 months of letting my wrist heal. But it feels so good to have a pen in my hand again!

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I’m gearing up to start back into commissions. I have three that have been waiting patiently for about a year. The first up is a late 16th century court barony for a very German gentleman. Someone translated the text into proper German for me, which is a real treat to practice and research!

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Naturally, it should have glorious cadels. Someone gave me a book that has a section in crafting them, and it’s starting to click freehand drawing them. My pointed pen flourishing lessons have definitely helped me understand placement and weight better. And they’ve taught me that I’m allowed to move the paper around a lot since you can’t get the right pen angles in the right places otherwise.
(And yes, I practice weird words…)

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Dress Diary: Mardi Gras Italian – Sleeves and Details

Details!

I wanted to do a lot more with this dress than I’ve been able to in the time before war. Some of it will get done down the line. Some might get done before we turn the house over to the friend doing dog sitting on Friday night. Who knows? I really want a cool shoulder detail. So many of the gowns have them, and I never seem to pull it off.

What I have pulled off are really lazy lacing rings on the cheap. These sturdy little white plastic rings. I have no idea what they’re for, but they were in the sewing section, and I have been tacking them down as fast as I can while we’ve watched the new season of House of Cards. This dress is side lacing, and it’s taken a little less than one pack. I usually do eyelets, but never, ever again on synthetic fabrics. Yuck. Hopefully, these will work out well. To lace it up, I’ve made a purple cord on my lucet with very thin nylon cord. The nylon satin ribbon lace on my gold Italian dress is far sturdier than the one I braided from silk needlepoint thread for my green linen Italian. In retrospect, I have no idea why I didn’t just grab some ribbon and be done with it… *sigh*

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Sleeves!

I already have some sleeves made that I threw together before last year’s Known World Scribal and Heraldic Symposium. They’re gold polysilk from the dress I made for that, lined in completely obnoxious red Chinese brocade I bought to line sleeves with. The pattern I made them with has proved problematic. I made it and made it WAY too big because I was having one of those days where I’m convinced that I am much larger than I am and added about 4″ too much room in the bicep. This was the perfect chance to do something with them that made taking in the extra room a decorative feature and made them special.

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I’ve put an inverted box pleat up the center length. The pleat is relatively narrow at the wrist and gets much wider as it goes up. They still won’t be tight, but I think they’ll be a much better fit overall. (Here I am at the symposium in my gold dress, and the sleeves are nothing special. After this, I ripped off the shoulder poufs so the dress can be worn with a loose coat in black cherry silk over it.)

While Italian is forgiving, I would like the sleeves to actually add some panache to the outfit instead of being sad and droopy. I’m not in possession of dainty little arms and get scared of fancy sleeves doing some horrible body morphing thing that make people say, “OH MY LORD. Until Peeps put on those sleeves, after all those hours of handwork, I had not realized how fat her arms are! But now that’s all I’ll ever see when I look at her!” That’s really dumb because beautiful work is always beautiful, and I am delighted by all sorts of bodies in costume. And amazing costuming is much more likely to showcase someone’s loveliness than it is to detract from it. BUT I DIGRESS.

Velvet ribbon is a deficit in this country’s craft stores, as I’m sure you are well aware. I wanted GREEN! and GOLD! for Mardi Gras. Big, fat strips of green and rich golden velvet. The best I found was skinny strips of moss green velveteen ribbon, and in small quantities. It’s the best I’m going to do. Not even Amazon could save me. Velvet sort of demands hand-sewing to look right anyway, and the thinly flocked stuff I found has not inspired confidence in it looking presentable if I run machine stitching down it.

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Attaching the velvet ribbons to the sleeves has been an adventure. I did the first four with this careful, tiny stitch where I passed the long part of the thread back and forth between the two sleeve fabrics so as to not do anything to compromise the other side. It was SO. DANG. SLOW. y’all. And kind of lumpy and wrinkly. Part of that is the nature of cheap, cheap velveteen crafting ribbon that you have been forced to scour multiple Hobby Lobby stores to obtain enough of. The other part is that I was being all kinds of precious with something that I should acknowledge is a rushed salvage job on some sad sleeves using inferior materials.

On my way out of town to go to San Angelo for a last-minute sewing weekend, I stopped at Hobby Lobby to look for more pearls to sew on and stumbled onto a giant display of fabric glues. I forgot about gluing fabric. One of them is even called “OK To Wash” to make it even easier for me. Sold. The rest of this sleeve action has gone a heck of a lot faster now! Sadly, the glue is visible when dry if you accidentally squish a little out onto your fabric. I’m trying to not be bothered by this and am moving on with life. Now let’s hope I get busy tonight and finish slapping the velvet on the last sleeve tonight since it has to dry for 8 hours (gah!) and needs a teeny bit of hand finishing at each little area to tack down the pleats.

EDIT – I lost the glue at some point and had no option but to try machine stitching it down. Turns out I’m a total doofus. Machine stitching was the most subtle, quickest method. *FACEPALM* I’m such a special darling sometimes. Maybe one day, before I spend a dozen hours on something by hand, I might remember to actually TEST the attachment methods and not just assume that the most time consuming will be the best.

Dress Diary: Mardi Gras Italian – Putting It All Together

The basic pieces of the dress are done: the underskirt is all pinned into the completed skirt, the bodice is all ready with the waist seam allowance ironed under, and to have a wearable thing, I just need to attach them. If you are doing attached sleeves, attach them to the bodice before you sew the pieces together. I’m doing tie on sleeves because they’re period, and I hate sewing sleeves. Plus, I just have to make one really fancy reversible pair to be forever a Super Fancy Lady. I had wanted to do obnoxious shoulder loopy things, but this is war sewing, and I am already behind schedule.

Before you attach the skirt and bodice, put on the bodice and tug it roughly into the right place, then put on the skirt and check yourself out in the mirror. This is your last chance to easily add or remove any details, like ribbons or edgings. The pieces are really easy to work with separately, and kind of like wrestling a drunken octopus once you’ve put them together. Make sure your look is balanced and that any design choices you made look balanced on YOUR body. If you’re busty, pin those bodice details on and check them before you sew them down since that’s the biggest culprit for things on paintings of Italian dresses that inadvertently make you look weird in real life. (Ok, holding the severed head of John the Baptist would make you look weirder, but badly placed velvet boob rectangles are a close second.)

In my case, I took off the gold ribbons I had planned to run up the front of the purple split front and up the bodice. They weren’t very visible from a distance because it was shiny on shiny, it looked a little off balance over my bust without also having the neckline edged in the same ribbon (oh HELL no not doing that at this point) and sewing them was going to add more time than is worth it for a detail that doesn’t make much impact.

Pro tips for attaching skirt to bodice (you’re almost finished!!!):

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1. Change to a heavy duty needle and some serious business thread before you sew through layers of pleats and bodice and linings since it’s easy to have MANY layers of fabric in there. Machine quilting thread or upholstery thread isn’t a bad idea.

For example, where the line goes through this, there are 8 layers of pleat to go through, plus 2 for the bodice, which is ten. Only those raw edges have been serged at the edge and folded in to reduce satin’s notorious fraying. It’s a very, very thin fabric, so the machine will do it, but the actual count on layers at the thickest points is 26, including the ribbon that the skirt is anchored to. My pleats are positioned so that’s kept to a minimum (more like 20), but this is a sewing expedition your machine should be equipped for. This is an extreme number of layers, and my simple linen Italian working class dresses are maybe 8-10 layers.

2. Sew slowly and patiently so you don’t break a bunch of needles in the process or do a bad thing to the innards of your sewing machine. This is like driving up the mountain in second gear. It’s why after breaking a couple of the under-$100 machines doing mighty sewing, I saved up some and sought out a used machine with metal gears instead of plastic. And I learned to slow down and use the right thing for the job.

3. This is often a place where pins don’t really work for holding everything in place. There’s too much fabric, so they warp and bend and can easily cause problems with the seam laying right when you’re done. It’s easier to be patient and hold things where you want them with your fingers, bit by bit. When I was sewing these together, I needed a couple of pins to get it started, and even then had to be careful about them making everything lie awkwardly.

4. Absolutely take the time to turn under the raw edges at the bottom of your bodice and iron them towards the inside with a generous seam allowance before you start. That way you KNOW the waist will look nice and straight, and there’s a lot less effort when you’re actually sewing them skirt into it. You can just sew the skirt to the bodice without turning, but it creates a big, bulky ridge of skirt that is now pointing perpendicularly at your belly. You’ll wind up having to fix that with top stitching, which is quick. However, it never ever looks as good as it would have if you’d spent five minutes with an iron.

 

Dress Diary: Mardi Gras Italian Skirt

photo 2-fixedThe skirt was just going to be a simple knife pleated affair with the rest of the purple fabric. There’s a lot of this fabric, and it’s too tall to just run around with one selvage in the bodice and one as the hem. So once I cut it down and sewed the pieces together, I wound up with five yards of skirt. Clearly, I’m a very fancy lady of means. *hair toss*

THESE THINGS HAPPEN WHEN YOU’RE NATURALLY JUST FABULOUS, OK? Ok.

This is not my first pleating rodeo. I have learned hard, sad lessons. Measure a sturdy piece of 1″ grosgrain ribbon the same circumference as your bodice. Mark the halfway point on your ribbon and pin the halfway point of your skirt to this spot. Now you start pinning your pleats to the ribbon. It’s a stable method of attaching them and inserting them into the bodice. It also makes it really easy to adjust how big they are or how they’re spaced because you’ll know if there’s an issue before you get to the end of the skirt. It’s easy to hold up your ribbon and make sure you like how the pleats fall on your body, too. It usually takes me more than one try to get the pleats right, and this time, I got all five yards just perfect on the second try.

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See this fancy lady? Those dark stripes are called guards, and they’re usually velvet. Velvet is expensive and evil and requires handwork to look right. One day I will buy velvet, make strips and lovingly stitch them on with my hands. Today is not that day. I had intended to do satin ribbon stripes, but then I did all the pleating without thinking about that part. Italian skirts are rectangles, so adding these stripes is absurdly easy, IF you remember to do it BEFORE you pleat anything. I never remember. The guards are actually helpful in weighing the skirts down, giving nice drape, and in being some fabric reinforcement in the bodice over where you put your lacing rings. A big solid one at the bottom is an easy way to either fix where you didn’t have enough fabric to make the skirt full enough and long enough or to refresh old dresses whose hems have spent too much time on the ground.

I resigned myself to a plain skirt and a plan to tie on some existing gold sleeves to make the thing all Mardi Gras. But then I remembered some cream polysilk embroidered with gold fleurs-des-lys that I had in the stash. The drape is horrid, there’s only enough for half a skirt (or sleeves?), and ohmywordy’all – now it’s a split front Italian with a fancy underskirt with bands of gold satin ribbons carefully placed between the rows of fleurs. Woo! Maybe it’s wrong to put such a French motif on an Italian dress, but I don’t really care. It’s going to be pretty, and I’m finally using up a bunch of stash yardage.

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I’ve decided to run the gold ribbon up the split edges of the skirt and up the bodice. Here are a couple of paintings* from the first half of the 16th century showing two common treatments with a split bodice and a split skirt edged in contrasting fabric. Googling Renaissance portraits of Italian women will show you every variation on this you can think of. Anything I do is arguably “correct 16th c. Italian”. Whether the effect is worth the effort is the main question. And the fact of the matter is that I had planned to knock out a dress in maybe a maximum of three hours, but this plan is deteriorating rapidly (we’re well past the three hour mark) in the face of all the cool stuff I could do to make this the fanciest of all the dresses.

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Bottom line – I need to tie more green into the dress for it to be properly Mardi Gras. Adding green velveteen ribbon strips into the mix is an option, but I think too many ribbons will do unflattering things over the bodice. Or worse, I’ll wind up looking weirdly like 70’s supergraphics paint effects have taken possession of me. My guess is that it would all together wind up being a solid band of alternating gold and green vertical stripes 6″ wide across the whole bodice. I’m a big, curvy girl and can pull off some bold things, but that might be too much for anyone to pull off. I certainly don’t see any examples of a chest full of crazy ribbons in paintings.

I think keeping the vertical ribbons simple and working the green into the sleeves and maybe a necklace is probably the best and easiest way to manage my time and up the Mardi Gras factor.

*The lady in gold and red is Raffaelo Sanzi, c1505: Lady with a Unicorn. The lady in all green is an unknown Venetian from around 1520.Plus there’s the part where I’m lazy and don’t want to hand-sew on or carefully line up