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. Not everything is in the book so I'm also following other sources.

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.


Patterning

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 results in folds at the arms. 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 based on drawings in the book. The arm attaches inboard on the shoulder seam so the shoulder joint is inside the arm. I made the arm hole wide further down too 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 think the arm holes are used to absorb the excess material above the bust.


Sleeves

I made up some sleeves to the pattern in the book. The sleeves were tight on the curve of the shoulder which 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.

Then I realised the arm seams were 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 marling 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 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 improved 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 started with a slightly higher neckline to adjust later.

I found some useful tutorials on Youtube - Elin Abrahamsson's kirtle and Morgan Donner's kirtle patterning tutorial.


Trial build

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 in the correct material. The block I had been working with was fitted down to the hips and I also needed to check 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 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 think it will look nicer on my body type on the proper dress.


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 rib cage). An an accurate medieval dress the flare would 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 actual reading about how they are formed.

The sections were large so I cut 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.

 


Pattern Adjustments

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).


Felling Seams

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.


Lining

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.


Lacing Eyes

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.

 

 

This is still work in progress February 2020. More soon.