This is a dress I made several years ago, to have as a simple working kirtle. I never got around to take photos and write proper documentation about it, but now I got some feeling! In these photos, the dress has been used for a couple of years and it has seen wear, washing machines and mending. So here’s my first tutorial for the autumn, and thank you for visiting and reading! (Both old friends and newcomers!)
This is a very simple working kirtle or dress, made to be practical as well as historically possible. The fabric is a plain wool weave, dyed to look like walnut dyed fabric. The skirt is partly pleated, partly flat sewn to the waist, and the upper part of the dress is fitted for bust support, side laced and has short sleeves.
I wear it with loose sleeves, pinned to the short sleeves and a gollar for warmth, under another fancier dress, or as it is if I am going to do lots of work or if the weather is warm.
The dress is hand sewn with wool thread in the same colour as the fabric, and it was one of my first garments made with wool thread instead of linen thread. I really recommend it! At first, I was a bit unsure if it was going to be durable enough, but after several years of using it, washing it in the machine (yeah, because lazy and dirty…) and treating it rather rough, it stays together really well, with only some minor mending.
I used running stitches on all long seams and folded the seam allowances to one side before whip stitching them down. The waist seam and all edges were made with whip stitches, and the sleeves and upper body seams made with back stitches to be a bit more durable than the running stitch is. The running stitch is way more durable than many believe and common in extant finds, but for heavy support, I like whip stitch and backstitching better.
The fabric is a medium tabby weave and I used around 3 meters for a dress. If you are much longer than me (1,6 m) consider buying another half metre. I did a quick pattern outlay for you, since it is old I’m not sure if I drafted the pattern along the selvedge or across the fabric but you will get an idea of what pieces you need to make one for your self.
The dress was made using two front pieces (to have a supportive seam in the front was a good choice since I didn’t have any lining in the dress.) One back piece, two sleeves and the skirt panels. I drafted S-sleeves, but the dress is made with regular sleeves with the seam under the arm. That seems to be the most common in artwork from the time on short sleeves. Your choice!
Some thoughts on skirts:
Do you see that the skirt has way more fabric in the back, while the front is straight? This will give you a nice fall as well as enough width and volume, but if you bend forward to pick up things or work by the fire, this construction will make the skirts remain away from the flames closer to your body, rather than draping forward with your movement. Hard to explain, but try it! It gives you a very practical garment.
The front panels are marked C at the centre front. The back piece is “upside-down” to use as much of the fabric as possible. You could of course piece the skirt together with more panels if you like. On my dress, the front panels lie smoothly in the waist, with only a couple of pleats to allow room for hips and stomach, while the back part is pleated around the back.
Other ways of construction would be to make more panels/gores (see my green 15th c kirtle) or pleat the skirt fabric to the waist seam all the way around (like my 16th c trossfrau dress in purple and blue). Or just make a few decorative folds in the back, like on my blue Weyden kirtle. This is simply one possible way of interpreting contemporary art.
A tip on bust support:
This is (I think) my only wool garment so far that has bust support, but no lining whatsoever. This is possible only because of the plain weave since it is not very flexible across and along the threads in the fabric. A twill weave would not have worked without lining.
The drawing with the front piece has two arrows marking out small details in the fronts seams. At the centre front there is a small bend going in under the bust, and at the side seams there’s another, making the seam run in a bend, and then changing direction after the bust and running straighter over the stomach. This way of sewing will make the bust stay better in place, allowing for bust support without lots of sturdy layers. But the bust will have a rounder form and not as much steadiness as a garment with lining.
I did however put in a narrow strip of linen around the neck opening on the inside, to avoid it getting stretched. There is plenty of ways to make hems sturdier, such as a narrow strip of fabric, running or stab stitching or using another layer or quality of fabric on the inside, for example. You can find this in extant finds such as Herjolfnes and finds from 14th c London, as well as in paintings. It is an easy way to finish your garment, make it last longer while being historically made.
The side lacing is made with sewn holes and a lucet braid in plant-dyed wool thread. A wool thread will be a bit stretchy, and won’t run as smoothly as silk, which makes it a bit slower to lace, but the cord will stay in place. In this photo, you can see the lacing which starts at the sleeve and reaches to the waist seam, a gap where the shift is visible (did I have too much good food this winter?) and also some mending is done on the sleeve. After the waist seam, I tie the cord (I lace it from sleeve to waist) and the skirts are opened another 15 cm to allow for easy undressing. The skirt is not laced, it stays closed anyway, and by sewing some folds in the sides, the opening will not be very visible.
A note on fitting a dress like this:
I always make a fitting for every single item I make, and that is especially important if it is supposed to be tight fitting. I do have a basic pattern, drafted on my own body (a toile) but after I have basted the pieces together I need to try them on before sewing the garment. Every fabric you work with is slightly different, some more stretchy, some supportive and stiff, and by trying the pieces on you can adjust the garment to your taste.
The method for adjusting and fitting a dress like this is the same as I use while making a supportive upper body toile, and you achieve the support by taking in the upper body in the sides and front, sometimes also by stretching the shoulder seams upwards a bit.
A front laced kirtle is a bit easier to adjust to a bigger bust, but you can make it work with a side lacing as well, just remember to make the same adjustments to the laced side as the sewn together side, and maybe lacing it double one turn just below the bust for greater support.
For a complete outfit; linen shift, wool hose and leather shoes under the kirtle. A simple belt to hang the money purse from (change is very important for today’s trader) and a veil on the head. Here I have a simple cap under the Great Veil, to have a base to pin it on. The veil can then be worn in many different ways, depending on how you like to wrap or fold it. 2-3 brass pins secure the veil to the cap under it.
Whoho! Finally documented this dress a bit, so now I don’t have to feel “bad” about forgetting it all the time. As you have noticed, this is not a complete step-to-step tutorial but rather a post with guidance if you want to make a similar dress.
Many readers ask me to share more sources and such material on the blog, but according to copyright laws I am not free to post all the stuff that inspires me on the internet, and therefore you will often find links, reading tips and Pinterest notions where you can find artwork and resources of your own. Hope you understand my take on this!