Members of Cardiff Castle Garrison set up and attended a sewing workshop by Christine Carnie, aka ‘The Sempster’, one of the UK’s leading experts in making historical clothing using period techniques. The workshop was both fun and extremely valuable, with everyone who attended coming away with a great deal of
Unfortunately, there are few surviving seams in the extant garments that we have, due to several factors, including decay and in some cases bad treatment from archaeologists. There are, however, some details that have been deduced from what exists:
- It was likely that seams were often stitched in linen thread, due to the fact that wool usually survives where linen does not and seams are not present where the wool garments are preserved. There is, however, also evidence for seams sewn with woollen and silk thread.
- Stitches are usually tiny, to the point that they are hard or impossible to see, with stitch lengths of around 2 mm each, placed 2 mm apart. This is a good stitch length to aim form when sewing medieval garments, even if it does take some practice to achieve.
- When hand-sewing, it is common for re-enactors to sew most of their seams using backstitch, and then flat-fell the seam allowance afterwards. While this can be effective, backstitched seams are not as common in the medieval period, and there are many different examples of seam-sewing methods which vary depending on the fabric used.
Christine was kind enough to show us a wide variety of examples based on historical finds which are appropriate for a variety of fabric types. Two very useful types are featured here:
A Seam For Wool
A simple and authentic seam used for attaching two pieces of woollen fabric: a running-stitched seam with both seam allowances then whip-stitched to the underlying fabric.
Christine pointed out that in her experience most 14th Century garments will hold very nicely using this technique, and that using backstitch to join the stitches often holds the seam too tightly which can lead to the fabric tearing when it’s placed under strain, rather than the stitching. Using running stitch is also more time and thread efficient.
Note: If you are using wool pulled from the fabric as thread, remember that this works perfectly on wool that has been woven with a higher-twist thread, but most soft wools nowadays are woven with a very fluffy thread, which will break easily, and a felted wool will make it very difficult to pull out a thread. If you have a non-fulled fabric, it should work very well.
A Linen Seam
Authentic seam suitable for joining two pieces of linen: a seam sewn with running stitch, then the seam allowances folded together and whip stitched down.
This seam is particularly helpful for making underwear as in the fourteenth century there is usually little strain on underwear seams, and it binds the fraying-prone linen fabric edges in nicely.
Buttons and buttonholes
Buttons were all the rage in the fourteenth century, and Christine showed us a helpful method for producing both buttons and buttonholes. Check out her video here to see the construction technique…
Christine’s workshop was an extremely valuable experience for those who attended it, and Christine and her work come thoroughly recommended by the Garrison.
Christine Carnie – The Sempster
Christine is available for talks and courses on historical clothing and dressmaking, and also accepts commissions for historical clothing. Her Facebook page has some wonderful pictures and videos of the techniques featured in this article, along with many more examples from across history.
She focusses on the mid-13th to early 17th century clothing of common people, and makes all of her garments herself.