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Fontevrault Abbey, Loire valley, France

Hello Everyone,

What a week that was! Having put the decision off for quite a while, we finally decided to replace the old carpet in my studio and, at the same time, replace the stairwell and landing carpet too. This required the wholesale removal of everything in the studio and that forced me to re-evaluate what I needed and what I really didn't. It all turned into a marathon exercise – moving dolls, work in progress, machinery, fabric, books etc. and sorting through long forgotten files. It left me feeling exhausted for a couple of days!

Of course, it meant that all progress on my dolls had to stop and it is only now that I'm able to get back to work again.

One of the major tasks that I have undertaken since my last newsletter was sourcing fabric for my porcelain Marie Antoinette doll. I received an order from Jannie, one of my collectors in Holland, but as I was about to get her ready for shipment, I really felt that I needed to replace the fabric that I had used to create the original doll several years ago. You see, although in sunlight it looked brilliant, otherwise it seemed to have lost some of its lustre and I couldn’t have anything leave the studio less than 100%. This is a snapshot of the dress and as you can see, the fabric, while still in great condition, just doesn’t 'sparkle' any more....………

There then followed some weeks of communication with Jannie and a lot of time and effort trying to find suitable material. It was important that the fabric was substantial enough to hold its shape but not too heavy so that it looked out of scale on the model. It was also important that any pattern was of appropriate scale. And, of course, it had to reflect the character of Marie Antoinette as well. The final step was to get Jannie to sign off on the final selection.

We narrowed the choice down to two, one with a pink hue and the other, acqua.

Here they are.

(note: while the acqua fabric photo is a good representation, the pink fabric in real life looks somehow more subtle, perhaps more sophisticated than I was able to capture with my camera).

After much discussion, we felt that the pink fabric met the specification best and now I have to get to work on a new dress.

Another project under way.

I have also completed 3 dolls for Anne, a collector in the USA; Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation gown and Kate and Charlotte in their gowns worn at the coronation of Charles III (a first for me as until now I have only worked on historic characters, but Kate and Charlotte were just too delicious to pass over!) I will take another week or so with the finishing touches before they are ready.

So, what next? As I mentioned a couple of newsletters ago, I was thinking about creating a medieval fabric doll. I think the headgear of the time was brilliant and it captures the imagination but there’s also a sense of magic surrounding the age of chivalry. I thought I'd give you an idea of the sort of things I research for my historic dolls, so here goes.

Of all the characters of the medieval age, Eleanor of Aquitaine comes to mind as one of the most interesting in her own right. She was, of course the mother of King Richard the Lionheart and his younger brother, King John I and lived in an age of the crusades and the fabled Robin Hood.

Contemporary sources remark on Eleanor's beauty. When she was young, she was described as perpulchra—more than beautiful. When she was around 30 Bernard de Ventadour, a noted troubadour, called her "gracious, lovely, the embodiment of charm", and noted her "lovely eyes and noble countenance". He wrote that she was "one meet to crown the state of any king". Another, William of Newburgh, praised her charms and even in her old age Richard of Devizes described her as beautiful, while Mathew Paris, writing in the 13th century, remembered her "admirable beauty". The effigy on her tomb shows a tall and large-boned woman and her seal from 1152 shows her with a slender figure, although the accuracy of such a relic is questionable.

However, there are no contemporary records yet discovered that give me a detailed description and I don’t know the colour of her hair and eyes so I’ll just have to make a guess based on familial records, I suppose. In my research so far I have come across this reconstruction by Panagiotis Constantinou of the effigy on Eleanor's tomb, which is interesting although, of course it relies upon the accuracy of the effigy itself (

She was probably born in 1122, the elder daughter of William, tenth Duke of Aquitaine and she was raised in one of Europe's most cultured courts. Unusually for most women then, she also received an excellent education (which immediately makes me think of the heroic efforts of the women and girls in Afghanistan today refusing to bow down to the Taliban who are actively studying, hidden away in secret rooms. Brave people.)

But back to Eleanor: Besides learning household management, embroidery, needlepoint, sewing, spinning, weaving, dancing and games such as backgammon, draughts and chess, she was taught arithmetic, astronomy and history and could read and speak Latin. She also played the harp and sang and was a sponsor of the arts later in life. Enjoying riding, hawking, and hunting, she was a lively, intelligent, and strong-willed woman.

In 1137, her father died and with the earlier death of her only brother, Eleanor succeeded to a fortune. At the tender age of 15, she was now the most eligible heiress in Europe and that very year she married Louis, the Dauphin who within weeks assumed the French throne as Louis VII.

She had given birth to a daughter but no sons (always a problem when a male heir was so important to maintain political stability) and, with their relationship very strained, at the age of 25, she accompanied her husband on the Second Crusade, travelling to Constantinople and Jerusalem. However, the Crusade was a failure and eventually, in 1152, the marriage was annulled on grounds of consanguinity within the fourth degree (Eleanor was Louis' third cousin once removed).

Two months later, at the age of 29 or 30, Eleanor married Henry of Anjou, who became Henry II of England. It was a fruitful marriage, the couple producing five sons and three daughters including Richard Coeur de Lion and his younger brother, John - the supporter of the Sheriff of Nottingham and enemy of Robin Hood in folklore.

This painting of Eleanor was created by Jean Baptiste Mauzaiss in 1840

Over the next twenty years or so Eleanor was intimately and actively involved in helping run Henry's extensive kingdom, travelling regularly between England and France.

Then, disaster. In 1173, Henry imprisoned her for supporting two of their sons in a plot against the king. She remained confined for 16 years until, in 1189, after Henry’s death, her son, now King Richard I, ordered his mother's release.

Despite her age, she took a keen interest in the government of the kingdom – acting as regent in England when Richard went to join the Third Crusade - and she was also involved in negotiations for his release after he had been taken prisoner in Germany on his way home. In 1199, Richard died to be succeeded by John. Eleanor's role in English affairs were now at an end, although she continued to be closely involved in the governance of Aquitaine, where she spent her final years.

Eleanor was Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right and became queen-consort of France and later queen of England. With her connections and holdings and her beauty and character, she was perhaps the most powerful woman of the Middle Ages.

This most remarkable of women died on 31st March 1204. She was buried in the abbey church at Fontevrault, next to Henry II.

In designing her costume, I have begun to look at various references from amongst my library of costume books.

The most dramatic event of the age in western Europe was the Norman conquest of England in 1066. But, although it would be reasonable to expect a change in costume as a result, this was not the case as French and English costume had been virtually indistinguishable for a century or more. We do, however, see change taking place by the beginning of the 12th century as the choice of material broadened with furs and silk in particular becoming more available.

Women’s gowns were becoming more complex and sophisticated. The bodice was slit down either side from arm to hip and it was fitted with ribbons which could be adjusted to stretch the material tightly across the upper part of the body.

The flared skirt was long and fell to the wearer's feet. The most noticeable development however was in the sleeves which were tight from shoulder to elbow then flared out into enormous cuffs (see illustration).

Sometimes these were so wide that they trailed along the ground. To prevent this, there was a fashion for tying knots in the sleeves.

By the middle of the 12th century, when Eleanor would have been in her prime, there were further developments to the gown. The skirt was even fuller with dozens of knife edged pleats and the tightness of the bodice was accentuated with a body belt worn over the gown. This resembled a deep cummerbund which stretched from just below the bust to the hips and was fastened behind with ribbons. The sleeves of this gown were as wide if not wider than the previous version and, like the skirt section, had knife edge pleats.

The materials for women's gowns were fine linen and silk decorated with embroidery, again reflecting the contact with the East made by the Norman colonies in southern Europe and by the Crusaders, who brought back rich fabrics from the East.

My research continues and will now move onto headgear and shoes. I do so love making both!

Stay safe, keep well.


Lady Finavon


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