You Think You Have It Ruff

"" When I first joined my 17th century group, I asked our Kapten if there was anything I could make for him.   His reply was "a soft ruff".   I was new to the period and hadn't heard of such a thing.   I'd seen the stiff ruffs of the early part of the century, and the falling collars of later.   But soft ruff eluded me.   And being the way I am, I waited for documentary evidence before I undertook the project. Almost five years later, I purchased a coffee table book of Dutch art that contained a picture of a soft ruff.  Luckily, this book also contained a description of the ruff. The ruff is made from twelve 13cm wide strips of the finest linen cambric of varying lengths which total 19½ meters.   These are sewn to a double neckband 38cm long.   This ruff is so exquisite that the inside of the neckband is even decorated with backstitiching and french knots and the initials CY in red silk. If you manage to get to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, look it up.   It's called "Ruff, fraise á la confusion", dated circa 1615-1635, and has inventory number BK-NM-13112.   It is on loan since 1923 from the collections of Jonkvrouw C.J.A. Warin, Nederhorst den Berg (1902), and of Miss H. Rahusen. The ruff in the collection at the Rijksmuseum gave more work to the seamstress, as more material was used, but it was easier for the laundress to set and the pleats did not have to be pinned into position. It measures 17 m 5o cm round the outer edge. It is made of beautifully woven cambric, a very fine linen. There are 48 threads per 1 cm in the warp and 50 per 1cm in the weft. The ruff is made of ten strips of linen 120 mm wide X 1 m 52 cm long, one of 1 m 27 cm and another of 99 cm. The selvedge runs parallel to the outer edge of the ruff so that there are fewer joins than there would he with narrower strips cut with the selvedge running from the neckband outwards. However the ruff does not hang quite as well as the one in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. The length is gathered into over 700 tiny cartridge pleats, each one stitched individually to the band. The stitches are packed closely, together, making a pronounced ridge of stitching. The neckband is made of a heavier weight of linen, 33 threads per 1cm in the warp and 37 per 1 cm in the weft. All the raw edges are concealed inside the neckband, which is very bulky with all the turnings. These are held down with a 6 mm wide band of two rows of back stitching, a row of sets of three little French knots and another two rows of back stitching. On the underside there are three rows of back stitching to hold the turnings. When the band is viewed sideways on it is a good 6 mm thick at the neck edge. There are single worked eyelet holes for band strings at the front on both sides. At the centre back on the underside of the neckband the initials CC (or CY) are embroidered in deep pink. Also on the underside of the neckband is a double twist linen thread, which was probably used for attaching the ruff to the tabs at the top of the doublet collar. There are thirteen loops 34 mm apart, just above the three rows of back stitching. The neck band measures 374 mm and the ruff would have looked very much like the one worn by an unknown gentleman in the painting by Rembrandt which dates from c. 1632-4. It is a good example of the style of ruff with the mass of material simply pressed and carefully arranged but not set in rigid pleats by the laundress. It is held up by the sheer quantity of material and does not need a supportasse. Ruffs of a similar type, but with much less material, are seen in other portraits in the 1590s and early 1600s. It seems, from the evidence of portraits, as if the English ruff styles never required quite the amount of linen used in this specimen. They developed into the falling band which was not so stiffly starched and although carefully arranged, the mass of linen hung down from the top of the doublet collar.


The first step in making a soft ruff was deciding what fabric to use.   The original was made with linen cambric which you can see from the picture above was so fine as to be transparent.   This quality of linen simply isn't available in the modern world, not even from Irish and Belgian source who still produce the finest linen in the world.   So a viable substitute became necessary.   I chose to use 8mm silk organza for my ruff.   Organza is a plain weave like cambric and has an inherent stiffness similar to linen.   Best of all, organza is a natural fibre and was known to the Dutch, so it is quite possible it was used for ruffs as well as linen cambric. I began by cutting 13cm (~5") wide strips of organza.   I cut these strips from the sides of the fabric so that I could presevre the selvedge and use that side to attach to the neckband.   When I had cut 11 yards, I decided that was enough for my purposes.   I carefully rolled the hem, whip-stitching it with a single ply of the finest silk thread I could find. I made the neckband out of 5oz white linen.   This weight linen is rather coarse, but it is study and will provide a good base for the ruff pleats.   I cut the band 4" wide by 17½" long.   This is longer than the original but conforms to my husband's neck size (16½). Next, I determined a pleating scheme.   I thought ruffs were always cartridge-pleated but my dear friend, Abigail Weiner, told me differently.   The information on Drea Leed's Elizabethan Costuming website also confirm this.   The pleating sheme I used is the one entitled "Making an Authentic Elizabthan Ruff" which is accessible from the link in the previous sentence.   I aligned the selvedge of the organza with the top of the ruff band.   I stacked five ½" wide knife pleats on top of each other and held them in place with my left thumb.
I whipstitched the pleats in place, inserting the needle from the back of the neckband about 1/8" from the edge and wrapping the linen thread over the top and around the back to start again, as you can see in the picture to the left. Since the organza was coming off the top pleat to the right, I started to the right of the sewn-down pleats and made five ½" wide knife pleats beneath each other and repeated the process.   By the time I was at the end of the neckband, I had stacks of pleats alternating between bottom to top and top to bottom.   One could easily see that this was the correct pleating scheme for the ruff in question.   It was making "sinewave" pleats which, when continued in multiple, tightly-packed rows, would give the effect of the original.

The ruff after one row of pleating

I turned the corner at the end of the neckband and started a second row of pleats about ½" below the first row.   As you can see in the picture at the right, these pleats were sewn through the neckband and not at the edge.   I believe that this, along with the knots at the end of the sewing thread, accounts for the "backstitches and french knots" described in the book mentioned above.   The pleats on the original are much tinier than mine.   And on a ruff with pleats that tiny, the securing knots and stitches would have been more abundant and very regularly spaced.   This is why I think that the assertion that "the inside of the neckband is decorated with back stitches and french knots" is kind of a misunderstanding.   Even though my pleats are not nearly as small as those on the original, I could see a pattern emerging on the inside of the neckband.   This is what I think the "backstitches and french knots" really are.  

Inside the ruff

I made a small mistake, however. The ruff was too pouffy, so I pressed it. When Bob wore it, it was too flat and the pleats had sharp edges because of the ironing. I'm going to steam it back into shape. You'll see what I mean in the pictures. It looks too "angular", but it is something that can be easily remedied, I think.

Buy authentic patterns for 17th century Neckwear here.


  1. Jan Piet Filedt Kok et al. Netherlandish Art in the Rijksmuseum 1600-1700. 2001: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
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© 2003 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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