Here at Sew HQ, we’re still mourning the end of BBC 4’s brilliant six-part series A Stitch In Time. Every week, we tuned in to see fashion historian Amber Butchart select a classic masterpiece featuring a particular outfit, which was then painstakingly recreated by historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila and her dedicated team. Using authentic techniques and materials, these expert tailors brought six costumes to life inspired by artwork such as Charles II, The Arnolfini Portrait, The Hedge Cutter, Dido Belle, the Black Prince and Marie Antoinette – much to the delight of Amber and the viewers!
“I love having the opportunity to work entirely by hand as I did for A Stitch in Time – I find it very relaxing and rewarding,” Ninya tells Sew. “It’s also much more sociable when working with others. I don’t find it hard, it is just time-consuming. People often comment that I must have a lot of patience to work like that, but I say that you don’t need patience when you are doing something you love!”
Ninya is no stranger to taking her time on projects – for the last 23 years her business has been devoted to high quality recreations and replicas of historic dress. It all began when her mother, a talented sewist herself, helped Ninya make a set of doll’s clothes as a present for her sister, sparking her passion for dressmaking. Later, when she was 13, her mother also generated her interest in historical costume making by taking her daughters to a re-enactment event in Suffolk. “We took on Tudor roles and made our own clothes for it,” Ninya recalls. “Making and wearing the clothes was one of the most enjoyable aspects for me and I carried on taking part in the events for many years.”
After being encouraged by a relative, Ninya took a foundation course in fashion and textiles, then went on to the London College of Fashion where she gained a Higher National Diploma in Theatre Studies: Costume Interpretation. After graduating in June 1994, she set up her own business making historically accurate costumes for museums and heritage sites around the UK, becoming the principal maker for the team of costumed guides at Hampton Court Palace.
“That team was run by Jane Malcolm-Davies, and in 2006 we published a book on reconstructing sixteenth century dress called The Tudor Tailor,” Ninya explains. “Since it was published I’ve had an increasing number of private clients, especially in the US where the book was particularly successful. Now my work is probably split 50/50 between making costumes, and researching, writing and pattern drafting for the books that Jane and I publish. I’m currently working on our next title, The Typical Tudor, which focuses on working and everyday dress, and is based on the extensive research we’ve been doing together over the last twelve years since The Tudor Tailor was published.”
Typically, one garment such as a woman’s gown or man’s doublet will take Ninya and her team one to two weeks to complete. “It always begins with research – I look for as much information on the correct fabrics, cut and construction of the period as possible,” she explains. “I’ll draft patterns, either flat on paper if I have an example garment to work from, or by draping fabric on the stand. I then create a calico mock up to make alterations before cutting the fabric. With period garments this usually means at least a top fabric and a lining, but often there are interlinings, stiffenings and padding to include as well.”
Out of all the garments made for A Stitch in Time, Ninya’s favourite was the brown broadcloth suit based on one worn by Charles II. “The material was so lovely and I really enjoyed sewing all the buttonholes!” she enthuses. The show’s greatest challenge was recreating the jupon (a sleeveless padded garment worn over a suit of armour), that appears on the golden effigy on The Black Prince’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. “We had to work out exactly how it would have been constructed including the quilting and then joined all of the pieces together,” Ninya continues. “What I loved most about that one was that it was a real team effort between myself and my colleagues Harriet (Waterhouse) and Hannah (Marples). We worked on a lot of the processes together, such as quilting and sewing on the embroidery, all delighting in the emergence of an extraordinary object before our eyes!”
Portrait of a lady
If time and money were no object, Ninya’s dream project would be based on a painting of Mary Denton by George Gower (1573). “I’ve always loved that portrait but it would be incredibly expensive to recreate now,” Ninya explains. “In the sixteenth century you could literally buy a house with the amount of money she must have paid at the time.” Featuring silk and velvet embellished with silver and gold embroidery, jewels and chains, this beautiful costume would be a massive undertaking – but one that we would love to see Ninya bring to life!
At the time of writing, the BBC had yet to confirm a second series of A Stitch in Time, although Ninya is very hopeful. “Amber, myself and Harriet have loads of ideas for what we would do if it is confirmed!” she says. Still, we can get our fix elsewhere… The six outfits made for the first series are currently being exhibited at Ham House in Richmond-upon-Thames, which is also where the portrait featuring the Charles II outfit is displayed – allowing visitors to compare the two.
It’s little wonder that Ninya enjoys her career so much as sewing runs through several generations of her family – her grandmother also made winter coats for all her children, while her great-grandmother was a tailor and her great great grandfather owned a tailoring business in Glasgow. “Even though they weren’t able to teach me in person, there was an unspoken expectation that sewing and making things was something that we could do,” Ninya explains. “Now I am older I really value that heritage and feel that sewing must have been passed down to me.”
A Stitch in Time exhibition at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames runs until 29th April – visit nationaltrust.org.uk/ham-house-and-garden
See more of Ninya Mikhaila’s costumes at ninyamikhaila.com
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