Patterning and Making a 14th Century Kirtle
After around 1350 women's dresses became tightly fitted to support the breast. The shape is pleasing with a tight bodice secured by spiral lacing, tight sleeves, and a full skirt. I bought 6m of real woven wool from the TORM market in Coventry UK and 'The Medieval Tailor's Assistant' book by Sarah Thursfield and jumped right in. It is an excellent book and I followed it throughout, but as a beginner I also needed to follow other sources to get some more detail.
I have a dressform which is very handy for patterning the bodice, but the dressform doesn't have any arms so I had to try to pattern arms on myself without help.
In modern patterning it is unusual to use the center front and back seams for shaping, but princess seams hadn't been invented in 1350 so a lot of shaping has to be done in the center seams. The whole bodice needs to be patterned in one - you pin the front and the back together and work to smooth the folds out. The book provides a good description of the process.
I'm patterning on my dressform which is a fairly accurate representation of my form. Removing all the folds and wrinkles seems impossible without princess seams so there must be some craft in hiding them. I suspect they are hidden in the arm holes. On my first attempt I pinned the material too tightly and also my attempts to remove wrinkles resulted in a dart at the bust. This can be removed by altering the pattern later on but that does result in folds at the arm holes.. On my second attempt I patterned to avoid the dart in the bust and made my own compromise between wrinkles around the bust and the folds at the arms.
The other mistake I made in the first pattern was guessing the arm hole shape in the bodice based on drawings in the book. The sleeve attaches inboard on the shoulder seam so the shoulder joint is inside the sleeve. I made the arm hole wide at the front of the bodice and this pulled material at the side of the chest forward from the front of the arm which was a bad look. In the new pattern I put the outside of the shoulder strap where I wanted it and created a shallow curve to the arm pit.
I made up some sleeves to the pattern in the book. The sleeves pulled the shoulder straps outwards and caused bunching below the arm. I tried having a friend pin the sleeves on me which added 2 inches to the height of the 'S curve', but that was still not enough.
It was at this stage that I re patterned the block. I also patterned new sleeves measuring my arm circumference at 2 inch spacings down the arm. That helped a lot as previously the top of the arm was too wide.
The sleeves were still tight at the top of the arms and this was pulling the shoulder strap outwards and creating wrinkles at the upper front and back body. I unpicked the sleeve seams from 1/3 of the way up, tried the pattern on, then used strong tape to join the sleeves to the body in a way that felt comfortable. Marking that back on the patterns I found I had increased the armhole height in the sleeve by another 2 inches. I found I could remove some of the excess material above the bust by pulling it into the sleeve and it sort of worked.
Then I realised the arm seams were now in the wrong position.
Patterning sleeves from scratch by myself
In the end I found a tight fitting non-stretchy dress with tight arm holes roughly where I wanted them, made up some new sleeves with a lot of excess material at the top, and pinned the lower part of the rear sleeve inside the dress. Then I put the dress on and pushed the sleeve into the arm all the way around, then moved my arm around a bit so the material fell into a natural position. Drawing onto the sleeve around the arm hole gave me the new sleeve pattern. I repeated the process putting on the dress over the block pattern and marking the sleeve positions on the block. Hey presto - sleeves and a block that matched.
I remade the block and both sleeves and tried it on. It was a good fit all of a sudden. Best of all it had started to look slimming. The front had raised by about 1 inch for some reason but I should be able to correct that by removing the temporary zip in the block and re-pinning, and by adjusting the shoulder seam. The block was still tight at the top of the arms on the shoulder curve and it turns out this would be fixed later by the extra stretch of wool compared to the cotton patterning material.
Now was the time to cut the neckline. I suspected the neckline would pull a bit as the material was cut away so had started with a slightly higher neckline to adjust later.
By now I was fed up with patterning but I wasn't happy to go straight into the final kirtle - if I messed it up I would have to wait until the next TORM market in 2 months time so I could buy more material from the Italian guy. I had the bright idea of buying a bit more wool to check the pattern using the correct material. The block I had been working with was fitted down to the hips and I also needed to work out where to start flaring the skirt
I bought 1.5m of woolblend which turned out to be enough for a skirt length at mid thigh if I was very efficient with the material. I tried it on without sleeves to start with and it felt very loose. Then I pinned on the sleeves and it tightened up nicely, went back to the right shape and felt very comfortable. Took a weekend to make and only needs a bit of fettling to make it into a designer dress. It's useful to wear for a while and check out how it feels before finishing off the really time consuming proper version. See the winter dress page.
It was the first time I had added the flare for the skirt and I think I got it wrong. A proper medieval skirt would follow the bodice and hips and then flare. I've got no hips so started the flare about 2 inches below the waist. Turns out that's the worst place to start a skirt flare and it looks wrong at the back. For the final build I'll start the flare at the waist and curve it in to the pattern a bit more gently. This might not be medieval accurate as they seemed to start the flare lower rather than higher, but I don't think it is noticeable in the finished dress and the shape makes it look as though I have hips.
Cutting out the final build
I wasn't completely happy with the trial build. I modified the pattern by raising the start of the skirt flare to waist line (which for me I define as 1 inch below the bottom of the rib cage). For an accurate medieval dress the flare might have started closer to the hips, but my belly is bigger than my hips so I'm going just for a fantasy medieval style silhouette within those constraints. Later on I would reduce the flare at the rear and extend the natural body cure of the front and rear into the flare. When I post patterns at the end I'll mark the body shape and the flare on the patterns so you'll see what I mean.
I photographed the patterns and used photo software to move the patterns around to work out how to make best use of the material. By positioning the front pattern upside-down on the fabric I found I could increase the skirt width. The hem is 3.8m around and I used 4m of fabric at 1.5m wide.
I've gone for 1 inch of seam allowance everywhere so I have some chance to make small modifications should things not work out. Hopefully that will be enough for the eyelets and buttonholes pending any actual reading about how they are formed.
The sections were large so I cut the material on a wooden floor rather than on my cardboard cutting table.
Making the kirtle
Finally! It's quick enough to machine sew the main seams together, but I want to check fit on the way. The process was not quick because I wanted to get it right, lacked confidence, and needed thinking time.
I sewed the side, rear and shoulder seams and then pinned an arm into place. The arms were difficult to pin as there was an extra 1.5 inches of material in the arms than the bodice and the material was less forgiving than in the prototypes. I tried reducing the arms by 1 inch, pinned the arms on and that seemed to work OK. So I modified the arms and throwing caution into the wind I sewed them in place.
Then I had a try on and the sleeves seemed good. But the medieval ideal body shape was tall and thin, and I looked like I was wearing a tent! I know the wool is much more stretchy than the cotton I had patterned with (especially on the bias), but the size had increased by at least 2 dress sizes. The dress went back onto the dressform for re-pinning.
The side seams didn't need to be modified, the front was close and will need only a little adjustment to compensate for the stretch of the wool, but I removed about an inch from the curve of the back. I think some of the reason might have been that the sleeves fitted better with the extra stretch in the real wool fabric. Also wool stretches so doesn't need the ease I had added to the cotton pattern block.
At the same time I lowered the back gore and let the seam continue the line of the back as it extended over the bottom. You'll see the difference comparing the cutting pattern above with the final pattern that will eventually appear below. I keep moving that seam up and down and at some stage I'll look at a medieval picture to figure out where it should be.
The back in the photo still needs some adjustment higher up as my body doesn't match the dressform (and that's a good thing - since dressform adjustments I've been working on computer screen positions to sort out a sore neck and I realise I don't need the upper back adjustment any more).
At this stage I started felling the seams. There are more than 15 meters of seam to fell and my rate is about 1.5 meters per hour. Also I find it quite boring but it needs concentration. Doing a couple of hours a day around other things seems tolerable. The neatness of my felling improved after watching Bernadette's hand stitching tutorial.
I started with the arm holes. I was a bit worried this would add bulk as the seam allowance is folded and then folded again which results in 3 ayres of a reasonably thick wool. Fortunately the extra thickness doesn't seem to be a problem on the finished dress.
The seams were whip stitched taking just a couple of threads from the outer layer. On the outside this is visible, but from close up it looks similar to the seam finish found in a wooly jumper so isn't out of place, and the hand stitching results in a hand made look.
In the photo I haven't felled the arm seam yet.
I decided to line the bodice to help take the strain of the front lacing. I removed the sleeves from the original pattern block and the body felt about right - it was looser than the kirtle but it needs to be as there is no stretch in the cotton. I did try adjusting the back in the same way as the wool kirtle. The block still fitted but was way too tight.
The lining was made from a thin linen bought from the TORM market in Coventry. I found linen very difficult to work with as it didn't keep it's shape under the pattern template even after adding lots of pins. I found it frayed very badly so quickly felled all the edges using a machine to save time. The arm hole seam allowance was folded twice to enclose the edge and sewed. For the vertical seams I cut the seam allowance on one side of the seam short, then folded the other over and over again and sewed through the garment. It's not all that neat but is a lining and won't be seen.
I added the lining in the same way you would put a bag lining in a modern dress. I sewed it on, then added an understitch between the lining and the seam allowance of the wool just to hold the lining in position. After that the edges of the wool were 'serged' on the sewing machine, the whole thing turned inside out and the edge of the seam ironed into position.
This method made the lacing eyes much easier as I was working within the 1 inch seam allowance in the wool and didn't have to worry about thickness changes due to felling. The lacing holes are 25mm apart and inset from the edge by 10mm. I got better at them as I went along - of course the one that ended up in the wrong place made it into the photo. The holes were made with a screwdriver with the end cut off and the shaft sharpened to a point. It wasn't quite wide enough so I enlarged the hole with a pencil.
On the first side the hole positions were marked with a tape measure, then once that side was finished the two sides were put together and the second side marked with a pencil through the hole positions. Pins transferred the position to the other side where the holes were marked halfway between the pins. With luck this will allow the spiral lacing to line up.
The wool material is quite thick and I couldn't think of a good way of making the slit in the sleeves without ending up with the bulk of 4 layres of material, so I ended up adding lining for the sleeves. In the photo one sleeve is finished and ready for buttons, and the other sleeve is being marked out to remove the allowance that would have allowed the sleeve to slide over my hand should I have decided not to add the buttons.
It took me ages to figure out how to get the right side of the lining to the right side of the sleeve when everything else was mostly sewn together. The answer was to reach between the bottom of the lining and the dress, then pull the sleeve and lining inside out from there.
I'm starting to run out of time. I want to wear the dress to an historic market in 2 weeks time, but have only 1 day spare before that to finish everything off and make the shift and the headwear. The week after that I have planned the photoshoot.
Hemming was a nightmare. I decided not to go to a Sunday afternoon event so I could get the hem done, but after 6 hours of fighting stretchy wool I ended up going to the event so I could get someone else to pin the hem for me. I marked the fold of the hem and unpinned it to check the line, removed a couple of obvious bumps, tried doing something clever which didn't work, so ironed the hem to the original markings and sewed it in by hand.
I wanted floor length but have gone for about an inch from the ground. The hem brushes the floor mid-step so I'll still need to hitch when walking outside in muddy medieval fields.
The shape isn't something I would have worked out myself - it didn't work out simple like a half circle skirt but it reflects how the skirt hangs and the way the bias stretches differently when hanging and when laid flat, or the dificulty in getting long lengths of stretchy materials to sit the same way twice. I checked it out with a camera mounted low on a tripod and it seems good. I've also left 2 inches spare material in the hem to be on the safe side.
The historic market is now 1 week away and I still don't have buttons, a shift or a headdress.
I've been practicing buttons - Kacy Burchfield has a good tutorial for medieval buttons. Mine were made from wool cut in a 30mm circle and ended up about 10mm across. They ended up tigher and rounder than I had expected. I sewed the buttonholes first then added the buttons to line up with them.
I used approximately 13mm slits for the button holes and referenced Bernadette Banner's button hole tutorial for hand sewing around the holes.. I didn't follow the button hole tutorial closely enough and mine ended up scruffy, or handmade as I prefer to see them.
The button holes are in the outer side of the sleeve and the buttons on the inner side which makes it easy to push the button in place with a thumb while supporting the fabric either side of the hole with two fingers.
I've linked a printable pattern below. You'll need to make a mockup and adjust it to fit you. Expand the flare of the skirt to preference and to fit your fabric width. My hem is around 3m total circumference.
It is based on male dimensions wearing C-cupbreast forms of 42 inch bust, 38 inch underbust, 37 inches belly (measured at the widest point). That's female UK size 16-18. There is no seam allowance in the pattern.
You are welcome to print out the pattern and use it in your own work. The pdf pattern can be printed, then the pages taped together to allow the pattern to be cut out.
It won't print from the internet. After clicking the pattern link save the page from your browser then open it in Adobe Acrobat viewer (free). Press print, then under paper size select poster and 100% scale. It's worth printing a single page first to make sure the grid marks around the edges are 1 inch apart.
Download the pattern here: Kirtle-pattern.pdf. For copyright please try to throw me a link if you reproduce the pattern, otherwise use it as you like.
The dress used 4m of 100% woven wool 60 inch width, about 130m of red cotton thread, and 60m of top stitching thread
With that the dress is complete.
The process was long. I started on 4th January and finished on 8th March. Patterning probably took 50 hours and I'm sure the dress took over 100 hours to complete, some of that due to altering the pattern again to compensate for the stretch of the wool. But hand sewing isn't quick and I wanted to learn some techniques so the seams inside the dress are hand felled and all the eylets, buttons and button holes are hand sewn.