I wanted to share some thoughts with you today; things I have learned and things I find important when I design medieval clothing. Both for myself and for customers. Being new in any branch of historical reenacting or costuming can be overwhelming, and just like with all other things in life there’s no simple answers or an ultimate guide. “Just read this book, and then you will know everything”… I haven’t found it at least.
But don’t feel overwhelmed! It is such an interesting journey you have ahead, exploring and experiencing other times and new handcrafting. And there are lots of others that love to share their knowledge in this field as well. Here are some great things I have learned over the years, that I like to share whenever I can!
Choosing materials is clearly one of the more difficult things when starting with historical handcrafting, and often the simplest way to succeed in making a good outfit is to pay the price for good material and buy the same as everyone else. Seems boring at first, right? But instead of wanting to make that perfect deal on super-cheap wool in a really unique colour; think about what historical look you want to achieve with your outfit, and what qualities you would like the garment to have.
The places that sell fabrics especially for reenactors often produce high-quality fabrics, and their customers will come back to buy more if they like it. The chance will also be that they are knowledgeable in historical fabrics so you can find materials, colours and qualities that resemble the historical originals, whilst giving you a fabric that will last for a long time at an affordable price.
The quality of the fabric will differ with manufacturers, places of origin, type of material etc so make sure to read up a bit on what material would be good for your individual project. Look at what others say about the seller and the different fabrics they offer and learn some useful words: tabby and twill are weaving techniques, and twill is often more stretchy. Felted means the fabric has been fulled and is often less stretchy, but more weather resistant and smooth. Thin, medium and heavy are different weights in wool fabrics, whereas 120 grams etc are the weight of an m2 fabric.
Fabric shopping at The historical fabric store
It is always best to be able to see and feel the fabric yourself, and now when we stay at home, fabric samples are a good choice. If you have friends, a group of other people around you that are good at different fabrics, ask them for advice (or use a forum online) and always state what kind of garment you would like to make (a kirtle) for what period (14th century) and for what kind of use (reenactment event during winter etc). That way you may save both money and effort instead of buying the first fabric you find, and then get disappointed.
Preparation of fabric
Wool and Linen
I always prewash fabrics before sewing, even for my customers. I know that many in the field claim that you can’t wash wool fabrics in water, but that’s just bullsh*t. Of course you can wash fabrics, at least good ones. Bad ones? Might shrink uneven, get too much wear or completely change the look, feel and even the colour in contact with water. But you know what? That is not ok for garment fabrics. They should be made to endure everyday wear and wet weather, washing, food stains and so on. Those things totally existed in the medieval ages, it would be strange if your medieval outfit couldn’t endure the same right?
Furthermore, prewashing fabrics will release the weaving tension in the warp, making it shrink slightly and give you the fall it will have after ironing/washing/a rainstorm. You could get the same result by steaming the fabric with an iron before sewing, but that won’t remove the…
Chemicals and anti-mould treatments. Fabric today needs to last for longer times during shipping and warehousing, and look good when arriving on the shelf in the fabric store. To achieve this most fabrics (and ready-made garments) are treated with different kind of chemicals, which will wash out in the washing process. Or rub off on your body… Not a good thought, right? Always prewash your fabrics!
Linen: soak in water a while before washing, to get a smoother fabric. Not necessary, but worth it. Fold it loosely in the bathtub for example. Wash the wet fabric in 40- 60 degrees C (the temperature you would like to wash your linen shift/shirt in later) hang to dry and then iron on a high temperature.
Wool: wash by hand or use the wool setting in the washing machine. Use cold to lukewarm water and wool detergent. If you don’t have that, use a little shampoo, because wool is hair, and will not look its best after strong detergents. Also, hot water might felt it and make it look dull.
Silk and silk velvets are the only fabrics I don’t wash before use, but rather iron very gently and hang out to air before use.
This dress has been washed several times in water, and still looks like new.
That depends on what fabric you want to use, and what you want to make. But I prefer natural materials and “same for same”: silk for silk fabric, linen threads for linen, and wool for wool fabrics. Oh, or silk and linen for wool fabrics too, because that is a historical choice and very easy to work with. If you prefer to use a sewing machine, cotton thread for linen and silk for wool garments work nice. A polyester thread is a bit too “sharp” and might lead to breakage in the fabric rather than the seam if you happen to get stuck in something with your garment. But yeah, it will work on a sewing machine if that is what you have, I just don’t recommend it.
Where to start?
It is always good to start with underwear like a shirt, shift and breeches. They will make up the base, are often easier to make and linen is not as expensive as wool. Also, you’ll get to try out the fit, the seams and some techniques.
After that, it is more a question of what you need versus what you are inspired to start with. Remember, handcrafting should be fun and not only practical! I like to make a middle/base layer next, often in wool, to be worn on warm events or when I work. After this is done, I adjust and finish of necklines at under-garments so they are not visible (if that is not fashionable) and start with some accessories and another layer for warmth and weather protection. The medieval period (and others too) often have an outfit made up of several layers, and that is really practical when going to outdoor events!
Wearing a thin wool gown on a summer event. Photo taken by Catrine Lilja Kanon
Another good tip is to make a mock-up or toile, basically a try out on the garment you desire, made in a cheap/recycled cotton fabric. It might seem as you are doing the work twice, but this is really handy as you get to try out the pattern, fit and look on the garment without risking that really expensive fabric. And if the mock-up gets really good, you just pick apart the basted seams and use it as a pattern!
Basting is also a good investment; long-running stitches will hold together your fabric pieces enough for a final fit before sewing and will make it both faster and easier to sew all the seams by hand. I will confess, when I started sewing medieval clothing I NEVER basted anything and rarely pinned the seams, but after several surprises (Whot, how come I got this fit?) I learned it was both better and faster to check the fit, before sewing the final seams…
How to decide on social class and status?
Ohh, don’t ask me, I always change between working-class garments and fancy party outfits depending on the event, place and what I feel like… But generally, just go for whatever catches your fancy! Or pick clothing after your preferred activities; are you going to stroll around a market fair with friends? Visit a fancy banquet? Or do you prefer mud wrestling, archery, beer taverns or outdoor cooking? Not only will you look much better with the right kind of clothing, but you will also find that your activities will be much more fun with the right garments! A short dress and practical hood for the forest archery, or a thin and cool kirtle with hose for the indoor festivities.
A well of working-class doublet, perfect for active events…
And a silk brocade doublet for those fancy strolls in the garden
Garments you need
This is always a tricky question, as it depends on the weather, the type of event and the gender and social status you want to portray. I thought I did great at my first events wearing a linen tunic, shoes and a cloak, I neither froze too much nor died, but nowadays I confess to having higher standards… Like, I want to both look like I fit in the historical context, being comfy, not getting too many mosquito bites, and not freeze during chilly evenings. I also like to change my linen underwear every day to feel fresh, as well as having some change of outerwear/dresses just because I feel like it. (Oh, now I’m babbling again. You would never guess how much text I always have to delete because of babbling…)
Getting dressed in the morning; linen shift, wool hose and leather turn shoes
1. You generally need linen underwear and a change for longer events. Several changes, if you’re not going to wash the clothes during the event. We want to look medieval, not smell medieval…
2. A thin or medium warm wool layer for summer events, for working or for indoor events.
3. An outer layer for cold evenings, if you get wet or want to look well dressed. I recommend another layer of kirtle/dress/coat rather than a cloak to get more use out of your clothing.
4. Headwear like hats, veils, hoods etc. Both to complete the outfit esthetically, but also because it gives you cover from weather and bugs.
5. Shoes! Don’t forget shoes, make or buy a pair that is looking good and feels comfortable. Hose (long or short) with thin leather soles is also workable on warm events, paired with pattens.
6. Accessories, both fancy and practical: belt, garters, bags, purses, cloaks, headwear, gloves… You name it. These can really set the style and time period, so check out sources before you decide on what to add to complete your outfit!
A 15th c outfit in 3 layers; shift, middle kirtle and overdress complete with shoes, headwear and accessories.
Historical clothing should be worn, because it is awesome and comfy and looks great… You know that you’re allowed to wear it around the house right? Or take the great cloak for that chilly walk, or use the apron when doing gardening work. You shouldn’t need to be super careful with your garments, they will look even better when you have worn them a couple of times. My favourite shift is 6 years old and worn transparent thin over my shoulders and back after months of wearing, but I love it.
And make it last longer:
If you have long skirts, fold them up or pull them up into your belt when walking so you don’t step on the hem, or drag it through the mud. That will make the fabric last longer. Protect the handsewn leather turn shoes with pattens when walking through rain or mud, and always mend holes and rips as soon as you find them on your garments. At the end of the season, I always wash, mend, air and look through all my garments before putting them into the wardrobe. For this covid-year though, I recommend taking them out for airing a time or two to avoid dust and bugs.
Getting dressed in historical clothing is actually a bit different than getting dressed in your favourite comfy pants and T-shirt. If you are used to wearing stretchy clothing, you will need to be a bit more careful getting dressed and undressed with woven natural fibres. Imagine it more like a suit, pull it carefully over your head, always open lacing and buttons before removing the garment, and never “jump” into your medieval joined hose. Another tip to make your hose last longer is to always pull them up before kneeling or sitting and to wear garters under the knee to make them stay in place.
Early 14th c outfit with accessories
Yeah, I think I got the most parts down here, and it became quite the long blog post. Maybe I am tired of sitting at home, talking to the cats and love all the time? Who am I kidding? I am REALLY tired of sitting at home, I miss events, adventures and being able to go out and do fun stuff. But most of all, I miss you friends, readers and fellow history travelers! Stay safe and take care so we can meet each other soon!