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Detailed Billiment Construction

On my previous attempts at making French hoods, I had “faked” an upper billiment using pearls and metallic findings to give an overall look that was consistent with the portraits, but not with written accounts. For example, Catherine Howard’s wardrobe accounts list “upper habiliment of goldsmith’s work enameled and garnished with vij fair diamonds, vij fair rubies and vij fair pearls” 1.

 

CatherineHowardMiniature

Catherine Howard, a miniature attributed to Holbein c. 1540-1, Royal Collection, Windsor, England.

 LadyParker1

Portrait of The Lady Parker, a sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1540.

 

I felt that working with metal to create a single piece to adorn the upper edge of my hood was appropriate. However, there were a number of obstacles that I had to contend with. Firstly, I have never done any metalworking before. So these processes were all new to me. Secondly, gold is prohibitively expensive, so I’d need to use other metals and techniques to create the look of gold jewelry.

Gilding has been used for centuries to cover an item made of a base metal. An example is this ornate Tudor pin which was found by a metal detecting club in England. The Cheapside hoard – a collection of 16th and 17th century jewelry that had been hidden in a basement for centuries – contains a watch that is made of gilded brass. I felt that gilding would have been an appropriate technique to be used on the billiment for a hood worn by the woman in minor nobility. Her husband had not yet received his inheritance of the baroncy, and was instead a knight and a member of parliament.

 

GildedTudorPin2

16th century gilded Tudor pin, Colchester museum, England.

GildedTudorButton

Gilded Tudor button found metal-detecting 

GildedWatch

Gilded brass verge watch, ca. 1600, Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London.

So, having decided to using gilding to create my gold billiment, I then needed to decided upon a technique for creating the metal items. Most of the gilded items from this period are brass or bronze. However, bronze and brass’s high melting points of approximately 1900°F and 1700°F, respectively, make it rather difficult for a hobbyist to work with. They require a foundry in order to reach the high temperature required to melt them. Pewter, however, is easier to work with, since its melting point is around 450°F, and it can be melted in an electric melting pot 2. So, I chose pewter as my base metal and began to try out pewter casting.

My first attempt was to carve a mold out of soapstone. I made a fairly simple scrollwork design, first drawing it onto the soapstone and then creating the shape with carving tools. Since the pewter wouldn’t flow through all of the scrollwork directly, I had to carve out a rather solid back section. Although the result was pleasing, I didn’t feel it gave me the dimensionality that I was looking for in the billiment.

 

SoapstoneCarving

Soap stone mold, drawn and being carved

PewterPour

Filling mold with molten pewter

 

SoapstoneTest

Two-piece mold in process

SoapstoneIterations

Iterations of carved soapstone casting

 

At this point, I decided that my soapstone carving skills were not sufficient to create the look I wanted. Since my intention was not to be judged on the historical accuracy of the metalwork, but rather to use reasonable techniques to create a piece that would add significantly to the look of the hood, I chose to make use of some modern substitutes for period metalworking techniques.

In the 16th century, an ancient technique called Lost Wax Casting would have been used. In this method, an original design is carved in wax. A mold is then build up around that wax original using many layers of clay to capture the intricate designs and then create a solid foundation around it. The mold is then heated so that the wax drips out, leaving a mold that can be used for casting. 3

Since I had never used these techniques before, I was concerned that I was going to need to be able to modify my original piece and make multiple molds before achieving the look I wanted. So, I chose a modified, modern approach to this technique. I sculpted several original items out of oven-hardened clay (Sculpey) and baked them. I then built a wooden box for forming my mold, and placed the clay originals into the bottom. I filled with resin putty (Bondo) and allowed it to mostly harden before removing the clay originals. Once it was completely cured, I added height to the wooden box, placed the mold with the clay originals into the mold, and poured a second layer of resin. Once again, the molds were separated and the clay original removed, and now I had a two-part mold for my three-dimensional piece. After cutting a sprue to allow the pewter to be poured into the mold, I was able to pour my first test pieces.

ClayOriginalScupt

Sculpting a clay original

ClayOriginal

One of the clay originals

 

MoldBox1

Clay originals in mold box

MoldBox2

Clay originals in first half of resin mold, ready for second pour

 

BondoMold

Two-piece resin putty mold

PewterTestPieces

Pewter castings from resin putty mold

 

As expected, my design required modification. It was considerably too thick, and if I had made the billiment out of pieces this thick, it would have been too heavy to wear comfortably. I modified my clay original, removing material from the back side to make it much thinner. I repoured the back half of my resin mold to capture this thinner shape. To make it even thinner, I sanded down the back of the first half of the mold, making the two mold pieces fit even closer together. Some test pours now confirmed that I had gotten my piece to be considerably thinner than the original. I then proceeded to pour the 22 pieces I was going to need for my billiment. I wanted the billiment to be a single piece, rather than individual items that were sewn to the hood. Since the design element pieces were small, I needed to attach them together. Since I wanted some flexibility of the piece in order to make sure that it exactly followed the contour of the hood, I chose to attach the individual pieces to a wire. I cut and filed the pewter pieces to remove the sprue and to shape them so that they would fit together tightly in a curved manner. I used a soldering iron to heat the pewter pieces and the wire to a sufficiently high temperature that a third metal, solder, would flow onto and between them and fuse them. This technique would have been used in the 16th century (often called brazing, depending on the metals and temperatures used), although the heat source would have been a blow lamp with a narrow spout for the heat to be focused at a small point. 4

 

 Soldering

Soldering the pewter pieces to a wire

Soldered

Billiment after soldering 

The final step for my billiment was to gild it. As this was also my first attempt at gilding, I chose not to use pure gold, since I felt that I was likely to waste a fair amount. Therefore, I used imitation gold leaf, which is actually a copper and zinc alloy. The first step in gilding is to apply an adhesive to the piece and let it dry until tacky. Then, the micro-thin gold leaf is laid over the adhesive and pressed into the design. Excess leaf is brushed away, and this step is repeated until the entire piece is covered in gold. It doesn’t matter if some areas require small filler pieces of leaf, since the overall appearance will be the same. Then, the gilded piece is brushed with a sealer to protect the fragile leaf surface. The surface can then be painted over with an antiquing glaze, and wiped off of the high points of the design in order to give visual definition to the design. I tried this on a sample piece, and decided that I didn’t like the look of it. I felt that a 16th century goldsmith wouldn’t “antique” their work, but would prefer the brilliant gold to shine without being marred by an applied paint technique.

 

GoldLeafAdhesive

Applying gold leaf adhesive

GoldLeafSheet

Adding the gold leaf

GoldLeafSealer

Brushing on sealer

Billiment

Completed billiment

Footnotes

1 Inventory of Catherine Howard’s Jewels, Stowe 559, British Library.

2 Pewter and Bronze Casting for the Home Craftsman, www.webcomsknkwrks.com/castbook.htm

3 The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art, Gerald W. R. Ward, editor. Oxford University Press, 2008.

4 Encyclopedia Britannica.