This article was previously published on Your Wardrobe Unlock’d site – but now I am able to make it available here. it is not the newest piece I have written, but some basics remain the same, so hopefully it can be of some help:-)
In this article I shall discuss the cut of a late medieval kirtle and a very popular V neck gown – often simply referred to as the Burgundian gown.
Let us start with the kirtle.
All women of the late medieval ages would wear very similar layers: a linen chemise and a woollen kirtle underneath their overkirtle or a gown.
The difference in status was shown by the fabric and colour choice. Less affluent woman would most likely be wearing a simple woollen garments, in the more common colours of brown, russet, pale blues and greens. A richer lady would go not only for more vibrant and deeper colours, but the quality of the cloth would be different. The most fortunate ones would be able to afford silks and brocades for their gowns, with silk, cloth or gold or fur lining and trim.
Despite the differences in fabric and colour, the basic cut would be more or less the same.
Kirtles of that period sported tight bodices, laced in front, back or at the sides, with the skirts flaring out from the waist. Sleeves could be long, short – or, coming towards the end of 15th century, nonexistent – though even the kirtles with short sleeves or without sleeves could have sleeves made of nicer fabric pinned to the kirtle
As far as construction is concerned, there are a few of possibilities. Most of the kirtles till about mid 15 cent seem to be cut in one length, without the waist seam. However, later on there is evidence for new tailoring techniques: kirtles with a waist seem or kirtles with a more advanced fit on the bodice – probably a development of the panelled kirtle/gown construction evident from the findings in Greenland. I have found one example of the bodice with an advanced cut – Agnes Sorel seems to be sporting one!( pic.5)
The kirtle we are working on here is a rather typical example of a late 15th century one: with a waist seam and without sleeves.
They could be laced in front, sides and back, and it is up to an individual which option is chosen. For this kirtle, I have decided on a front lacing.
Red wool – 4 metres
Linen for lining the bodice – 0.5m,
Prepare the toile of the bodice and try it on. If it fits, use it to cut the bodice in fabric and lining.
If you want your kirtle to have sleeves, cut the sleeves and sew them to the bodice now. Secure the inside seams , then fold down the edges – front opening, neck, armhole or sleeves, and stitch it using small stitches.
The skirt. The skirt of a kirtle could be either attached to the bodice flatly, gently flaring out of the waistline or they could be gathered up or pleated.
As far as construction is concerned, they could be made out of 3 or more big gores, or simply a large rectangular piece ( or pieces) of fabric. I chose the latter as it saves you time stitching the pieces together and it is easier to work on the hem. Whichever you will choose cut the parts first, then sew them together , leaving top 10 cm open on one seam – it will be the front , matching the opening of the bodice.
If you are gathering or pleating the skirts, measure up the waist of the bodice and start pinning pleats in the skirt – they could be distributed evenly around the waist or grouped in front or back. I simply gathered my fabric using the ruffle attachment and then stitched it to the bodice.
Once the skirts are attached, put the kirtle on a dummy or a model and check the length. Mark the hem and pin it carefully, making sure it is even all around. Take the kirtle off and hem the skirts.
Next step is lining the bodice. Sew the pieces of the lining together , just as it was done with the top fabric, insert it into the bodice and pin it carefully.
If you want you can add a piece of stiffer linen at the front, where the eyelets will be – it will make them more difficult to work with, but they will be sturdier. Stitch it with small stitches – the bottom of the linen should overlap and encase the gathered /pleated fabric at the waist.
All that has to be done now is the eyelets– use an owl to separate the threads of the fabric, push them aside and secure with a linen thread.
The lacing can be either ordinary, for crisscross (rare) or ladder lacing, or the eyelets can be offset a bit to allow for spiral lacing They can be placed only on the bodice part, or extend onto the skirts part -particularly when the kirtle is cut as a whole, without waist seam.
Alternatively, you can use small metal rings – sew them to the front opening, and thread the lace through them using a narrow linen tape, plait or a braid.
The kirtle is now ready!
Often referred to as a A-line, or V-neck, or simply burgundian gown, the gown worn by the middle and higher strata of the society was a relatively simple affair, construction wise – but sported an incredibly wide array of interesting detail that made the gowns distinctive. The general construction could have been shared by all of them – but contrary to the popular belief, there was an astonishing variety in the layout of the pleats, depth and shapes of cuffs, collars and hems . lots of examples on my inspiration board here
The one I am going to describe here is a pretty standard version with a v neck collar both front and back. The thing that distinguishes it though, is the fabric – with a silk brocade that sumptuous, I wanted to keep the rest of the details simple.
8m of Silk and linen damask (from Quartermasterie). Since the fabric is patterned, I needed much more fabric for the gown . When using plain wool or silk velvet, 5-6 metres is usually enough, depending on how big you want the train to be! The bigger the pattern, the more fabric you will need to match it nicely… you will also need more fabric if your material has a nap – like velvet as then you can only cut it in one direction. if your fabric is plain, you can make up for it in the width – with plain solids you can end up with a more voluminous garments as you don’t need to keep the front and back seams straight to match the pattern:-)
6-7 m of lining (here silk taffeta)
0.5 metre of silk velvet for cuffs and collar (optional: if you have a nice lining, you can just turn it over as it is, saving yourself quite a lot of work!)
Silk and linen threads
Pattern – the construction is relatively easy, the pattern in medieval Tailor Assistant works fairly well (pic. 20 -page 158-161), though I tend to use one length of fabric for a quarter of a gown, not a half – it makes the skirts much wider and flowing. Even if you are economizing on fabric, make sure you do not skimp on the hem width – especially if you aim to portray the weathier strata of the society.
Cut the body of the dress in top fabric and lining out. If your fabric has a pattern, make sure the front centre and front back matches.
Cut the sleeves in the top fabric and then in lining- if you plan to have cuffs in different fabric, the lining of the sleeves can be shorter than the top layer – then cut a piece of velvet for the cuffs. The lining with the cuff should match the top layer of the sleeve- but leave plenty of seam allowance
If you intend to have the collar in velvet, it is best to take care of it now.
Place 1 front piece of lining on the top fabric and fold the section of the lining that will be made into the collar. Mark it carefully and cut the out . Repeat on the back piece (if your gown is to have a V neck at the back as well)
Now you have 2 narrow strips of fabric that would serve as a template for your fancy collar. Place them on the velvet and cut out two of each, leaving at least an inch for seam allowance.
Pin a piece to the lining and stitch carefully
. Repeat for the other 3 pieces of the lining.
You can now sew all the parts of the top fabric together – pin or baste the centre seams in front, matching the pattern, then sew. Repeat on the central back seam. Put the two parts right sides in together, and sew the side and shoulder seams together.
Put the velvet cuff right side on the top fabric of the sleeve. Pin it and sew it on
Unfold and iron the seams flat. Fold the sleeve lengthways, pin and sew carefully – if your cuff is in a much darker or lighter fabric, make sure you use different colours of thread for sewing the cuff part and the main sleeve part. Once finished, turn it inside out Repeat on the other sleeve.
Pin the sleeves into the armholes and try to gown on. Adjust if necessary, making sure that the armhole is not too neither tight nor too wide. Once you are satisfied, set the sleeves in.
The top part is now ready. Turn it all outside out, iron all the seams flat and couch them down to make sure they stay flat and to preserve fraying. Fold the hem and stitch it carefully, making sure the hem is even and that it curves gently into the train.
Repeat the same steps for the lining. For the body of the lining, you do not need to worry about matching the pattern – but if you have a collar in a different fabric, make sure the edges of the collar match.
Set in the sleeves, iron out and secure the seams.
Inset the lining into the gown. Stitch the edges of the collar to the top fabric – either on a machine, or by hand.
Once the two layers are collected at the collar, turn the whole thing inside out – you should now have the lining on top. You will instantly see that the sleeves of the lining are shorter. Pin then carefully to the top fabric, and then fold the cuff back over – it should reach the lining without straining the top layer. Fold the edge in, pin it and carefully stitch it to the lining (or, you can fold the lining’s edge in and stitch it to the cuff – both ways work). Repeat on the other sleeve.
The sleeves are now ready, and you can turn the gown outside out again. It is time to work on the hem. Hang the gown securely on a hanger and hang the hanger high, so that the whole gown is in the air. If you have time, leave the gown hanging for a few hours or overnight – it is important especially if your gown in wool lined with linen, as they tend to stretch.
Place pins at the bottom of each seam, pinning the two layers together. Place more pins around the hem, at about an inch from the hem. Sit next to the hanging gown and start folding the lining and pinning it to the top layer. Do not stretch either fabric, let it hang smoothly naturally. Pin all the lining in, and leave it pinned for a few hours again. After that check if the lining hasn’t stretched even more – if yes, re-pin. Once the fabric of the gown hangs in smooth fold, without the top layer puckering or the lining hanging lower than the top layer, secure the lining to the top making small even stitches.
Alternatively you can guard your gown with a band of different fabric- my own is bound with a narrow band of the same velvet I used for cuffs and collar (pic.35).
Your gown is almost ready now. All that remains to be done is making sure the collar is lying neatly and flatly. Put the gown on a dummy, secure it with a belt and fold the collar back out, showing of the lining (or the velvety/ satin bits). If you wish, you can secure the folded collar with a few stitches, on the top of the shoulder.
The gown is now ready
All you need now is a belt, appropriate headgear , hose and shoes and you are ready to go out and attend a tournament, cheering your knight on as he smashes lance after lance at the tilt!
Other examples of gowns made with this technique:
frocks, needless to say, by Prior Attire
Boucher, François. A History of Costume in the West, Thames & Hudson; Enlarged edition (23 Sep 1996)
The secrets of Burgundian costuming, Marie Chantal Cadieux, http://cadieux.mediumaevum.com/frontlaced-kirtles.html [Accessed 27/12/10]
Maria Gutkowska Rychlewska “Historia ubiorów”, Ossolineum, Wrocław 1968
Sarah Thursfield, The medieval Tailor Assisstant, Ruth Bean Publishers, 2001