HANDCRAFTED HISTORY


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Working kirtle for the 15th century woman

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 a proper documentation about it, but now I got some feeling! In these photos the dress have 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 was 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 back stitching better.

The fabric is from Medeltidsmode, and I used around 3 meter 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 selvage 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 center 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 lies smooth 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 waistseam 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 front piece has two arrows marking out small details in the fronts seams. At the center 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 straither 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 steadyness 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 stiching 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 of your garment, make it last longer while being historically made.

The side lacing is made with sewn holes and a lucet braid in plantdyed wool thread. A wool thread will be a bit stretchy, and wont run as smoothly as silk, which makes it a bit slower to lace, but the cord will stay in place. On this photo you can see the lacing which starts by the sleeve and reaches to the waist seam, a gap were the shift is visible (did I have to much good food this winter?) and also some mending 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 todays 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 guidiance 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!

 


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Tutorial; the simple medieval & viking dress

This is my tutorial with a very detailed step-to-step instruction, and I will base other tutorials on this one and simply state “do as in the simple dress tutorial but…” so this is a go-to for many different garments. I call it the simple dress since it is so versatile, the base for so many other garments! The translation was done in 2018, and the original tutorial is from 2015/16. Some things differ, and the changes I made is for a beginner to be able to make the dress as easy as possible. If you feel more secure; feel free to experiment!

It is also suitable to make mens kirtle, tunics and coats, just adjust measures and fitting to a male body. Most garments are more difficult to make for women’s bodies since the measures differs more, and therefore you will find more tutorials on my page for women’s clothing.

This is the dress we are going to make. Note that a regular S-sleeve does not have two seams, only one at the back. The reason my dress have two seams in the sleeves are 1. you will learn have to make that for doublet, jackets and 2. I saved fabric

Good tips:

If sewing on a sewing machine, pin from right to left, over the seam to make it easy to remove the pins while sewing. If sewing by hand, pin the seams along the seamline so as not to get the pins in your hand, or baste the seams.

When pinning; always lay your pieces on a flat surface and work on that while pinning. Pick a table or the floor, not some furniture with a fabric surface. If you work on a somewhat slippery surface the pieces will lay better and wont stretch in uneven ways.

Basting seams are an easy way to try the fit, size, movement and drape of skirts while sewing. basting the armhole before sewing make that seam easier to finish nicely. When you pin/baste together long seams, such as a diagonal cut gore with a straight panel, put the gore (the diagonally cut stretchy part) under the other one, when sewing on a machine the gore will not stretch and the seam will be nicer.

Dont be afraid to cut out your armhole according to your body. The sleeve should cover your arm, the arm joint, but fit snugly under your arm. To shallow an armhole will make your sleeve hang, but to wide will make movement hard. Experiment on scrap fabric first.

How many gores? Two are enough for undergarments and kneelong kirtles, four or more will give you more width, a smoother and more even fall of fabric and more movement when walking.Regular seam allowance is now 1,5 cm. For hems 2 cm. You can pick whatever measure you want between 1 cm-3 cm, just remember what you chose. Seam allowance is mentioned as s.a in this post.

Wash and iron your fabric before sewing. The fabric is prepped with heavy amounts of chemicals to avoid mold or bugs during shipping and selling process, and could be stretched uneven after the weaving. It will also most likely shrink a little, so this makes you able to wash your clothes after using them.

Start with your measures:

  • Around your upper body widest part (over the bust).
  • Length of garment; from shoulder to hem.
  • Length of arm; from shoulder-elbow while bent 90 degrees-to wrist.
  • Around your wrist (for tight buttoned sleeves) or around your hand to be able to take on and off the garment)
  • Around your armhole (if you find this hard; try to measure around a loose shirt or blouse. The armhole should be a bit loose without hanging).
  • length from shoulder to natural waist (for women) to hip (for men). This is where I attach the gores.

Draft the pieces you need on a bit of paper. Calculate the measures you need:

Around your upper body widest part: Divide in 2. Add seam allowance: 3 cm/piece. Add some extra for movement: around 6%. Example: around bust: 100 cm. Divide in 2= 50 cm. Add s.a = 53 cm/piece. Add movement = 53 + 6% = around 56 cm. Each piece is now 56 cm wide.

Length of garment; from shoulder to hem. Add seam allowance: 2 cm = hem + 1,5 cm for shoulders. Example: dress should be 140 cm when finished. Length of piece: 143,5 cm.

Length of arm; from shoulder-elbow while bent 90 degrees-to wrist: Example: 64 cm. This is a good measure for your sleeve, including s.a but not hem. So sleeve pieces should be 64 + 2 cm= 66 cm. Try on before hemming to adjust the length to your taste.

Around your wrist (for tight buttoned sleeves) or around your hand to be able to take on and off the garment): The narrow part of the sleeve. Check so you can put it on/off. Shape the sleeve to your taste so it fits comfortable around your arm while sewing the sleeve. This is just the starting measure.

Around your armhole (if you find this hard; try to measure around a loose shirt or blouse. The armhole should be a bit loose without hanging). The measure you got is divided in 2, for measure of armholes on front and back piece. Example: around my armhole I have 56 cm. 56/2=28 cm. Each armhole on the pieces should be no more than 28 cm measured (yes, measure the curve). The sleeve should be 2-4 cm longer than the complete armhole. 56 cm + 2-4 cm= 58-60 cm (measure around the S curve of the arm)

Length from shoulder to natural waist (for women) to hip (for men). This is where I attach the gores. Example: my measure is 38 cm. From the shoulder I measure 38 cm and make a line, here is where the gores should be attached on front and back pieces. For gores in the back and front, cut a straight line to 1 cm below this measure (39 cm from shoulder).

Length of gores: length of dress – length from shoulder – waist/hip + 3,5 cm s.a. Example: 143,5 cm -38 cm = 105,5 cm + 3,5 cm = 109 cm. Width depends on what kind of dress you would like to do, your over all size and how much fabric you have. I recommend a measure between 50-80 cm for each gore.

When calculating all these measures, draft them out on your pattern pieces.

Then, draft all the pieces on your fabric with a fabric marker and ruler. Control that you made all the pieces with the right measurements and that all fitted on your fabric. Mark them with front/back/sleeve/gore and so on.

Cut them out. If I work with linen, silk or brocade that will fray, I will now zigzag around all the pieces.

Sew the pieces together in this order:

  • Sleeves (to make tubes)
  • Gores to dress front, back, sides
  • Front and back shoulder seams
  • Front to back side seams/side gores
  • Sleeves in armholes
  • Hemming

Some notes: This work order goes for both sewing machine and handsewing. When I make a seam I finish it of before starting the next one. That means;

  1. pinning/basting
  2. sewing the pieces together front to front
  3. pressing down the seam allowance on the wrong side (the inside)
  4. cut down the seam allowance on one side
  5. press again, the wider over the cut one
  6. whip stitch the seam allowance down (can also be done when the dress is ready if you want to try the fit during sewing)

The reason to press the seams before sewing another one is that you will have flat and nice looking seams, and it will be easier to make the next on crossing the first. I really advise to at least press the seam allowance once, it makes such a difference!

A detailed step-to-step for sewing the dress.

Sleeves:

Pin the seam on the S-sleeve (the back seams if you have a sleeve in two pieces.

Sew the seam with running stitches or sewing machine. Remember to fasten/lock all seams at start and finish. Here 1 cm s.a is shown. I prefer 1,5 cm to easy fell the seam and whip stitch it down.

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Press the seams with an iron. If you use a fine wool or silk, a damp pressing cloth (cotton cloth) can be used between iron and garment pieces to avoid pressing marks. On the photos below you can see the difference between a pressed and a new seam. Totally worth the effort!

When pressing: press the s.a to both sides. Let it cool. Cut down one of the sides to half the width. Press the other s.a over the cut one, pin down if necessary. This will create a sturdy seam if sewn down, saves you time and looks neat on the right side.

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Pin and sew the other sleeve seam (if any). Press it the same way as the first seam. This is easiest with a sleeve ironing board, but if you don’t have any; press the seam with the sleeve laying flat on the bord. Try to avoid the folds in the sleeve with the iron.

 

 

These photos show the technique with and without a sleeve ironing board

Gores:

This dress use 4 gores, one at the middle front, one back, and one in each side seam. The gores give you movement and a good drape to the skirt. On female garments I want the gores to start by the natural waist (were you are slimmest) to accentuate the curve of hip and belly. On men along with the hips to give movement but no feminine curves.

Oh, right! I always forget to mention this; when drafting your gores, do not make them into straight triangles, but make them slightly curved at the base. Like in this example: the gore should be 100 cm long, and as you can see the rectangle is just that, so the gore will be exact 100 cm at the middle, but at the sides you need to measure from the top and down, 100 cm, and that will be a bit shorter than to the line.

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Why? To get the right measures, and a good shape at the bottom hem, as described in this picture:
klänning (2)

The gores are cut at a diagonal/bias on the fabric. This means they tend to stretch more than the front and back pieces when pinning and sewing. To avoid this, work on a smooth surface and pin + sew the seams with the gore under the front/back piece. This is mainly a problem on a sewing machine with too much pressure on the presser, but also a good tip for hand sewing.121sykil

One gore has a seam in the middle to save fabric. Pin, sew and press this seam first. I like to place this gore in the back so it wont show, and to create symmetry in the dress. Then, cut the front and back center to be able to attach gores there. Make the cut line about two cm shorter than the gores; like this:

Start with the side gores, pinning them to the front. Sew them in place, and press both seams the same way you did with the sleeves.

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Pin the front and back gores to the front/back pieces, right side to right side, one seam at a time. Sew it but leave the last 6-8 cm at the top. Repeat with the other seam, so you will have two gores with the tip loose. I prefer to make the tip by hand, from the right side of the garment.

3 different ways to insert gores:

Press the seams you made, and press the s.a on the front and back to either side of the slit, like if it was already done, from the wrong side. When reaching the end of the slit, the s.a will become narrower, and then disappear. Turn the piece and work from the right side. Pin the gore in the slit, so it lays flatly under the already pressed s.a of the front/back. Then sew it in place with a small whip stitch. With this method you can check the gore to be sure it fits nicely, and it does not matter if it turns out a little bit to big; it will look perfect!

Another method is to sew the whole gore with this technic, if you sew your garment by hand. This is also historically accurate. Start with pressing down the s.a on the front and back slits, and then pin the gore along each side, and sew it from the right side using whip stitches. Press the s.a on the wrong side, and sew this down with whip stitches on the wrong side to, like when felling the seams in the sleeves.

If you only want to use the sewing machine, work from the wrong side of the garment, and continue with your sewing machine seam to the top of the gore, making the s.a narrower as you go along the last 4-6 cm. If it is hard to see, fasten the seam, turn the gore up and sew it from this side (still on the wrong side, you just flip the garment from front/back to gore side). This might take a few tries before you get it right, just go slow and be prepared to rip the seam and try again if not satisfied.

When the gores in front and back are finished, sew the side seams; the side gores to the back piece and then the side seams (leave a hole for your arms for now. When all the gores are finished, remember to press all the seams!

Neckline:

I like to draft the neckline by hand for each garment, to be able to adjust it to each look I want. The secret is to try it on often, and just cut away a little at a time. You can choose between pinning, basting or sewing the shoulder seams before this. Make them the same way you did the other seams, but don’t press them yet.

Start with drafting neckline, and arm holes. Put the front and back on top of each other, mark the middle and draft a small neckhole. Mine is 18 cm across, 9 on each side of the middle. Make it shallow, about 4 cm, just in order to try it on. You can then draft the shape and size of your neckline directly on your body in the shape you want (just put the dress on, wrong side out and draft in front of a mirror. Copy the side you liked best to the other side, left or right. The neck will probably just be cut down with some cm, depending on your size, while the front will be deeper. Remember to leave 1-1,5 cm s.a; when you hem the neckline it will be a bit bigger than before.

Arm holes:

Making arm holes is much easier if you already got a toile/mock up to copy, but you can try this to. Put the dress on, wrong side out, and draft the arm holes where your shoulder joint start, follow the curve at the front. Mark where the holes should meet at the side, as tight under the arm as possible. Magically do this at the back/ask a friend/ take the dress of and draft on a flat surface.

Now you should have a drafted line at front and back. Measure these ones, and compare with the measure you took for your arm hole in the beginning. Redo if necessary, the armhole should be a bit narrower than the sleeves (about 2-4 cm) in order to make a good fitted sleeve. The front curve is deeper, and the back more shallow, but they should start and finish at the same place on the shoulder seam and side seam. It does not matter if one line is a bit longer (front/back) than the other, as long as the circumference is correct.

This is the difference on the front and back sides on my dress. Note that I also cut down the shoulder seams to become a bit sloping. This is optional for you, if you have very sloping shoulders it will help you with the fit. If needed, to this before the shoulder seams are finished. Then sew the shoulder seams and press them.

Attaching the sleeves

The next step is to attach the sleeves, and I will be honest with you; it can be a bit tricky at first, so don’t give up if you have to rip the seam a couple of times before you get satisfied. The most important thing is to take the time to pin/baste the sleeve to the body and check it out. Don’t hurry!

You will have two sleeves, sewn together to tubes. Baste the sleeve cap (top curve of the sleeve) with loose running stitches.

If you want to check out how the over all fit is, put on the dress and (make a friend) baste the sleeves around the armholes so they fit you nicely. Not the dress/armhole; but you. Move around, stretch. Then check if they seem to be by the s.a of the armhole. If they are= pro work! If not, just adjust them, maybe the armhole can be adjusted to fit you. Do not bother if the sleeve get a little creased or has small folds, that will be possible to fit inside the armhole, that is what the basting is mainly for. When you think you have something:

Mark out the top of the sleeve (towards shoulder seam) and the bottom (armhole towards side seam) with a marker or pin. Maybe there will be more sleeve on the back of your body, but that is just fine, you use it when reaching in front of you.

Take apart the sleeve and body, take of the dress (if you tried them out) and turn the dress inside out. Turn the sleeves to the right side. Put the sleeves inside the dress, and fit them into the armhole. They should lay right to right side now.

Pin the sleeve marked shoulder – shoulder seam and marked armpit – side seam. Continue to pin the armpit, the part under the arm. Lay the fabrics smooth against each other, no folds.

The sleeve is a bit wider than the hole, so it should make small waves, like in these pictures. This will be solved with the basting thread you sew on the sleeves. Gently pull them to gather the fabric of the sleeve a bit, in order to fit it inside the armhole. As the sleeve follow the arm hole curve better, pin it in place. The fabric should not make folds, but only gentle crinkles or waves. Adjust if you need. The basted and pulled together fabric should only be pinned to the upper half of the sleeve, never in the armpit.

When you have worked your way around the hole with pins and like the result, baste it in place with big running stitches. Make the other sleeve up in the same way, or try to make it the same… When satisfied; flip the dress to the right side, and try it on. Check the fit of the sleeves and your movement. A bit bulkiness around the armhole is ok, but there should not be folds or stretched fabric sections.

If it looks good, turn the dress back inside out, and sew the sleeves following the basting. Then remove all the basting stitches.

To finish of the seams, press them on a sleeve ironing board, or roll a bath towel firmly and put inside the arm if you don’t have one. Press the s.a down on each direction, then finish the seams like the ones before. I press them towards the body and whip stitch them down.

Wow, good job! Almost finished. Try the dress on again to adjust length, hemline, sleeve hems and neckline if needed. The sleeves should be a little to long when the arm is hanging, to fit nicely when you use your arms and bend the elbow. Check, mark any change you want to make, and do the same to the neckline. Ask a friend to check the hemline of the dress so it looks even, pin a new hemline if needed. Remember to check the length with the correct shoes/belt since these can make a different to how long the dress look.When satisfied, cut away any excessive fabric and hem the dress. I prefer to fold the edge twice, and whip stitch it down by hand. Remember that our s.a for hemming was 2 cm. Thick wools only need a single fold before sewing.

Thats it! Now you have made your very own garment! And you can use this tutorial, or parts of it to make other garments as well.