first light blue kirtle
was beginning to show signs of wear, so I began to
fancy a new finer one to wear with fancy overdresses
such as the sideless surcote. I also found a beautiful
burgundy melton, but as usual got distracted by other
stuff for a long time. (I once estimated the average
time that fabrics mature in the stash to be about two
years). My next purchase were fancy tin buttons with
red glass center from Tippet.fi.
I wanted the same long fitted sleeves with mitten
cuffs as in my first kirtle, with a few extra buttons
added at the top.
I had made several gowns with the same trusted pattern, but now I wanted to try something new and try to achieve the ultra-tight fit of the late 14th century. At least on the idealised illuminations of the period the gowns have a quite revealing neckline combined with a very high bust, in modern terms a push up-fit. I was also planning to make a houppelande sometime in the future, and in the pictures they also have a raised, full bust, very likely created with a fitted kirtle worn underneath. Of course one should be wary of making assumptions entirely from illuminations, as they are always to some extent idealized, but on the other hand ladies have always sought to achieve the fashionable ideal look, with variable success. Also my general goal with my medieval garb is not to be as historically accurate as possible, but rather create something that evokes the look of period images with a lot of compromises to budget and practicality.
La Cotte Simple's
articles under "”Fitted
dresses in 14th century western Europe” were
very useful in figuring out the cut for the kirtle. On
the tutorials the example dresses are made by draping
the material on the body, but as I am a very paper
pattern obsessed person and I had a fairly good
pattern to begin with I decided to just try and alter
it. I chose the straight-front type of cut as it
seemed to really create the push-up effect I was
after, working like a pair of stays.
I began by some modest changes in my basic 4-panel kirtle pattern, such as taking in at the seams a bit for a tighter fit and raising the underarm with 1cm to get more support for the raised bust. Then I made a mock up with plenty of allowance on the front closing and tried it on, pinning the front.
|I usually wear a
modern bra under my medieval garb, both for comfort and
vanity. This kirtle would have a wide neckline, and bra
straps might peek out, and moreover I wanted to try to
get the supportive lift with just the kirtle fit without
the effect of bra straps. I tried the mock up with
sligthly padded bra with the straps removed. The bra
gave a nice tiny addition to my modest bust and made the
silhouette look a bit like the probably unrealistic but
pretty illumination figures. Without the straps the lift
came mostly from the kirtle, so I feel that this was
closer to a period solution for the bust lift.
pinned the front closing checking the fit with mirror,
and when I took it off I drew the pinned lines on the
fabric. Compared to the old basic pattern the front
was clearly straighter, curving out a bit at the top
rather like my 18th century patterns. It also came
higher. Next I made a mock up of the sleeve, following
the old pattern but cutting the wrist a bit tighter
and widening the gore in the mitten cuff. When I sewed
the sleeve on, I noticed that it pulled the bodice at
the front. I realized that the raised bust needed more
space, and changed the armhole curve accordingly. That
did the trick.
|Just to be extra
neurotic I made the other mock up sleeve too to check if
the pulled on the tight bodice and to ensure arm
movement. I still had to take in a bit at the side seams
under the bust and the back seam at the waist to get an
ultra-tight fit. As the bodice became even tighter a
horizontal wrinkle appeared on the back waistline, as
often happens. I shortened the back seam at the waist,
making a tuck in the pattern and changing its angle
slightly. My mock up was made of heavier stuff than the
usual old bedsheets, and I fitted it without a shift to
get a really tight fit, as the final wool dress would
inevitably stretch a bit in use.
When I was happy with the bodice fit I shaped the neckline. As the bust line had become higher the neckline was fairly deep enough, but needed widening instead. cut away about 2,5cm at the shoulder, leaving a tiny shoulder strap. The thought of a raglan sleeve did cross my mind, but as I didn't immediately remember any period evidence of this and the narrow shoulder seemed to work I decided to go with it. The neckline was, after all, planned to be just wide, not totally off-the shoulder.
began to cut I realized that I had been a bit
optimistic about the fabric length. I resorted to
cutting the narrow shoulder as a separate strip in the
18th century style, which shortened the pattern length
just enough to fit the fabric. Of course I can't name
any source to support this, but then again everything
that reduces cutting waste is always period correct in
the fabric length (about one dress length plus the
gore length) I didn't get very wide skirts either, but
as this would be essentially an under dress it would
be quite fitting. I had already noticed in my previous
medieval dresses that instead of evenly wide hem gores
a narrower front gore and a wider one at center back
looks so much nicer, at least on my figure. Especially
if you are short of fabric, it's better to get as much
width on the sides and back as possible.
decided to line the bodice from the waistline upwards
to make it stiffer. Waistline seemed like the natural
place to end the lining, and also in the period images
the dress seems super-tight from the waist up and then
much more voluminous at the belly and hip area. I'm
not saying that they reinforced the top bodice for
this effect, but it might certainly help to get the
right look. A wool layer alone will stretch in wear.
|For the lining I
chose a lightweight but very densely woven linen, it
would help a little to keep the bodice in shape but
would not make it too hot and stiff. I basted the linen
on the bodice pieces and sewed the bottom edge on the
melton at the waistline. On the narrow shoulder strip I
would just bag line the seams, but elsewhere I would
treat the linen and melton as one layer to get more
durable seams. I reinforced the front edges with a
sturdy linen band and began to work on the lacing holes.
For the extra tight kirtle I spaced the eyelets closer to each other that usually, with 1,5cm distance. Yes, at some point making them began to feel rather tedious, and I did wonder if I had been over-enthusiastic about their number.
|In my first kirtle I
had reinforced the sleeve buttonholes with a linen tape,
but as that had been a rather loosely woven one the
narrow buttonholes didn't catch all the threads. Now I
realized that under buttonholes the dense threadcount
might be more important that the heaviness of the
supportive material, so I faced the buttonhole edge with
the same linen I had used for the bodice. On the button
edge a narrow strip of cotton tape was enough. I also
lined the mitten cuff to the wrist, as it was a neat way
to finish the sleeve end and cover the gore seam
allowances. As usual, I marked the buttonholes with the
same 1,5cm spacing as in my first kirtle, machine sewed
around them to get a stitch line and then began slowly
to make the buttonholes.
|Most of the time with
this dress went into the lacing eyelets and the
buttonholes, but then again they were a nice
carry-with-you-sewing. Having finished them at last I
sewed the dress pieces together. On the lined bodice I
first pressed the seam allowances open and then hemmed
them down on the lining, on the unlined skirts and
sleeves I just sewed the raw edges down as the melton
does not really fray. At this point I still left the
side seam allowances unfinished, though, for further
shaping if needed after checking the fit. The shoulder
straps were bag lined and the armholes flat felled by
hand. On the neckline I turned both layers on the inside
of the dress and covered them with a tape that would
reinforce the neckline edge.
|And then I tried the
kirtle on. It was tight, almost too tight. I had great
trouble getting the lacing close at the bust. After
wearing it for an half an hour it did give in a bit, so
that I even had to take in a bit more at the side seams.
The front lacing also nearly closed now, though forcing
it close made the shoulder area so tight that my neck
and upper back cramped very soon. I ripped off the
neckline tape and let the neckline stretch to a more
comfortable fit. Usually you put the tape on the
neckline to prevent it from stretching, now the neckline
could obviously even stretch a bit to work. The mock up,
of course, had stretched freely at the neckline.
|Finally I pinned and
sewed down the neckline tape anew, and this time it
actually stretched the fabric rather that otherways. I
also noticed that the shoulder strap tended to move
inwards and upwards as the shoulder area was too tight,
so the neckline didn't become as wide as I had intended.
At this point, however, I thought that the bodice fit would do, and turned to finishing the one thing remaining, the hem. It was pretty much the right length already, as I had had so little fabric I hadn't cut the 5cm extra length as I often tend to do "just in case". I turned the raw edge narrowly with small blanket stitch.
to admit that the kirtle did not turn out exactly as I
had planned. First of all the silhouette is not nearly
as buxom as on the female figures of the
illuminations, but that is due to my rather modest
bust size. A full-breasted, slim young woman would no
doubt achieve a dress silhouette more reminiscent of
14th century illuminations with this dress cut, so
it's not really about the kirtle itself. But like I
mentioned above, the neckline kept creeping inwards at
the shoulder, so it could well have been a bit wider.
I also noticed that after wearing it for a few hours
the bodice almost expectedly stretched a fit further.
It was comfortable, of course, but with the effect of
the bust sinking inside the bodice, similar to what
happens with a pair of stays laced too loosely.
This of course had some further effect on the bust
silhouette. At this point the kirtle kind of ceased to
be really supportive, as most of the support now comes
from the bra worn underneath.
And of course having just finished the kirtle I ran into the second extended edition of Thursfield's "The Medieval Tailor's Assistant", which included a new garment called "Tight Cotehardie". It had a raglan-type sleeve with a separate shoulder strap that settled lower on the shoulder, and gave a beautiful wide neckline. It also had a back lacing. I had followed the theory that a mundane practical detail such as a laced front closure was not depicted on the tiny illuminations tough it might still be there. On the 15th century the hidden lacing with tiny metal rings sewed on the inside of the front edges were in use, but obviously there is no record of this closure type from the 14th century as far as I know. The back lacing is of course a tempting solution to the mysteries of dress closure.
|Anyway, had I been
aware of this dress type before, I might well have cut
mine in something of a similar fashion. Even now I
wondered whether to rip open the top part of the kirtle
and try to change it into something more like
Thursfield's pattern. But then I got lazy and decided
that the kirtle was okay as it was, even though it
wasn't quite what I had planned. Still, it was a largely
hand sewn, well made dress in a good material.
I wore the finished kirtle a few times, and on the second occasion the feast hall happened to be a very draughty one. What followed was an epic shoulder cramp that made me decide that something had to be done to the too tight shoulder area of the kirtle. I knew I had to act before the cramp would fade and I would happily forget it, so when I got home I at once attacked the dress armed with a seam ripper. I removed the shoulder straps entirely (now it was handy that they were cut separately) and tried the kirtle on without them, letting the sleeves take their shape. The sleevecap settled much lower, almost off-the-shoulder now that the shoulder strap was not there to pull it up.
|The resulting neckline fit was much closer to both my original vision and the mock up. I found the cutting waste and managed to get new, longer shoulder straps out of them. I pinned them on and compared to the original shoulder they became both longer and slightly differently shaped. I sewed them on and tried the kirtle on once more before sewing the sleeves back on. It's good that I did, now the straps were slightly too long, and the shoulder dropped too low. I shortened them by 1cm, and they become just perfect. This time I added no reinforcing tapes, as the sleeve cap seam would keep them in shape and I had learned the hard way that a bit of stretch on a lowered shoulder line is not a bad thing at all.|
| I realized only
afterwards that the problems with the shoulder area
could partly be traced back to cutting the shoulder
strap as a separate piece. The mock up shoulder that was
cut with the bodice was actually nearly in bias, while
the separate strap was cut in the straight. Add a stiff
lining and the final shoulder worked very different on
wear. The new shoulder construction is more simple,
which also means it will be easier to adjust again
should the shoulder strap stretch too much on wear. The
downside of the new shoulder fit is that as it settles
lower on the shoulder it creates a wrinkle in the
bodice, but I can live with that. Overall I'm really
happy I tackled the problem after all, as the kirtle is
now much more comfortable and also looks nicer.
|There is, however,
another imperfection on the dress, related to timing. I
had planned the kirtle to be worn both alone and mainly
with fancy overgarments. The extra long, buttoned
sleeves were a detail I never really questioned. Later,
looking more carefully at images of houppelande's and
other fancy overgarments I realized that by the early
15th century the buttoned sleeves were hopelessly
outdated. That meant that the kirtle would not be as
convenient as all-purpose underlayer, if one was to
stick to at least some resemblance of historical
accuracy. But I really like the blingy sleeves, and at
least they will be spot on with my sideless surcote.
The kirtle is also pretty worn alone, and I can tell I will be using it a lot. It's a fairly simple but well made garment, and of course the color is just lovely.
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