This is my walk-through on how I made my green 15th c kirtle/dress in wool. It is not a complete tutorial with all details, so if you have never sewn before I recommend starting with a shift or other straight garment. If you want more good sewing tip, you will find many problems addressed in my other tutorials.
This is a common late 15th c middle dress for women, it is quite easy to make, practical and is shown in many different pictures from the period. Your choice of colour, neckline, clasps and other details will make it different, and if you choose a thicker wool fabric it will work as an overdress too. The artwork I have used is from 1470-1485.
You will need about 3-4 meters of thin wool fabric, I bought mine from Handelsgillet, they have a thin twill fabric that is easy to work with and quite historically accurate for the period. I fell in love with the perfect green colour… And you can see some examples of green kirtles at the bottom of this blog post and in other artworks from the period. The shade can be achieved with plant dying but is more expensive than a madder red or yellow, and I think it makes a good option for my outfit; a well of burgher from a city.
I lined my dress with prewashed, unbleached linen, but you only need to line the upper body for some stability, and that will need a maximum of 1 meter. I sew my dress by hand, with waxed linen thread. Running stitches for the main seams, back stitches in armholes and sides, and whip stitches for the seam allowances and hems, are all you need. The dress closes with hooks and eyes, be sure to have lots of them!
This is what the model looks like, it is really simple, and if you have a personal toile/mock-up for your upper body you can use that with some small modifications. The front opening should have a slightly curved seam to follow your body, and the closure makes the front pieces lay edge to edge.
Comparing to a supportive kirtle, you need a bit more room now for your bust area, it should be quite loose and lay over your breast, to get the shape of the period. Make a new mock-up in fabric and make the front pieces a bit wider, and try it out.
The sleeves are regular S-sleeves or a sleeve with a curved upper edge and seam under your arm. You can see both from the period, though the S-sleeve seems to be more common. The skirt is made up of 4 pieces in my dress. Here are the pieces I used together with my measures (around 36-38/small European size)
The dotted line on one of the skirt panel indicates a gore to save some fabric, but I wrote out the wrong number of pieces; the left panel is the front and you only need one of them. But this is just one way to create the skirt; you can use more pieces, gores, or just 2 wider parts.
The upper body back piece is whole, you can shape the back in the sides and with the help of the waist seam.
I lost my sketch of the outlay but made another one just to show you. Since I am a rather petite person, I can use the width of the fabric for most outlays, but if you are longer than I am (around 160 cm) you may want to lay the skirt panels out the other way. In this picture the panels are a bit wider in the back than that above, so you only need two. The front is straight or almost straight. Note also that I apparently drafted regular sleeves instead of S-sleeves, but you will get the idea…
After I cut out all the pieces, I basted the dress together to try it out. When happy with the fit and measures, I started to sew all the seams by hand. If you keep the correct basting stitches while sewing, you don’t need to pin and can easily work on the sofa, super cosy!
Make the dress in the following order:
Sew the upper body together, front and back pieces, and then sew the sleeves before you insert them in the body.
Sew the skirt panels together, but leave around 20 cm at the top centre front, to be able to put the dress on (the slit shown on the first sketch). I hemmed the body and the skirts upper circle separately, and then attached them to one another with whip stitches. This seam will get a lot of wear, so it is nice to make it twice or use a sturdy thread, like the buttonhole silks or a thicker linen thread, like 35/2.
When the whole dress was assembled together, I put it on my doll to hang out for some days, before I cut and hemmed the skirt and sleeves. If you have a doll, it is really good to leave the dress hanging for a couple of days before hemming, this will make the fabric in the skirt stretch out, and you can cut away excess fabric to make the hem even.
The front with its lining is sewn from the right side, first with basting and then with a seam. To make the front opening and the neckline more durable I added a second row of stitches around.
The hooks and eyes are fastened last. This is what it looks like on the inside, note that I have sewn the hooks and eyes not only in the loops but also at the stems/higher up. This will make your opening lay flat and give that characteristic look at the closure you can see on 15th c paintings.
And finally, some of my favourite artworks that I used during my research. As you can see, they are all green kirtles, of the same models, but with some different cuts, necklines, closures and headwear.
Historically accurate? My main aim with making this outfit was practicality, durability and a dress I would feel comfortable in, based on period clothing. With this said, I aimed to make the dress (and outfit) as historically believable as possible from my means.
The fabric is machine woven and dyed to cut on costs, but the pattern construction, sewing techniques, material and look aims to be close to the dresses from the period. Another modern take is the hooks and eyes, which are machine-made instead of handmade.
I rarely work with metal due to some problem with my joints, but I tried to make a couple of hooks and eyes by hand. It is not hard work, they got quite pretty, but I didn’t make enough of them for a dress.
One thing I did give a lot of thought was the lining. My experience is that lining a skirt with a different material that is sewn down in a slim hemline rarely gives a good result. But I was curious and gave it a try with the method of letting the skirt and skirt lining hang down before cutting and hemming. It worked quite well but gave me a lot more work than leaving the skirt unlined. In artwork, you can often see a lining inside the dresses, and this was a try to make one without adding warmth with another wool layer.