I’ve been re-enacting since 2002, and have made cotes, shifts, veils, hoods and surcotes. I have had a go at making almost every piece of standard feminine soft kit except hose! I had always been a little intimidated by footed hose. Every time I had looked into making some I saw tutorials which required so many measurements – 26 in one version – or required a complex pattern which I wasn’t happy scaling up to my big feet.
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 information on authentic stitching techniques, and how and when to use them. Take a look at our day and some of the things we learned…
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.
Sometimes an idea seems to spread; you can’t be sure if you thought it up yourself or if you are just catching it from your community. This has just happened to me with the Herjolfsnes Challenge!
Herjolfsnes is a site in Greenland where the dead were buried wrapped in clothes. Those clothes were preserved by the cold and now represent a wonderful collection of ordinary garments which are believed to have been made between 1100 and 1400. As Greenland was a colony of Iceland and Iceland had close links with Scandinavia these clothes seem to follow European fashions. As the clothing of ordinary people is so rarely preserved it is difficult to tell how much these garments differ from those worn towards the core of Europe as we have so little to compare them to. Nevertheless this is a fantastic resource for all re-enactors seeking to get closer to an authentic impression of the Middle Ages.
As my plans involved plenty of things I hadn’t done before I decided to start with something fairly small to learn some of the new techniques: a hood for Displays Officer Sam. As I have no experience with patterns I chose the one that best matched Sam’s measurements without modification which was D10597 (Norland number 66 from the original excavation reports).
The patterns in “Medieval Garments Reconstructed” are at 1:5 scale so a couple of hours’ work with a pencil and ruler on squared paper got me my pattern.
My cloth was a little small for the pattern so I had to move it around until it fit. This means I have had to ignore the twill pattern, though the original makers of these garments were very careful to keep the twill pattern continuous around the whole garment.
Cutting was easy as this cloth is so well fullered that fraying just doesn’t happen, this also means pinning was virtually impossible so I used heavy stuff to hold the pattern in place instead. The nearest heavy thing? “Woven into the Earth”!
As the pattern is so straightforward I didn’t bother with muslins or tacking. I started off pinning my seams but that was even worse than when I tried pinning the pattern down!
According to the book the seams used a running stitch from the outside with the allowances whipped down on the inside. I started doing this but quickly found the thickness of my wool made running stitch impossible, I tried a hem stitch but found a stab stitch worked very close to the edge was more effective for a smooth finish. I also found working the whip stitch first on the back made it far easier to manage the seam.
I started sewing with my bronze needle; it is my favourite sewing tool and I have never found one quite like it but have since switched to a modern one as I didn’t want this heavy sewing to damage my precious.
The Herjolfsnes garments were sewn with an unplied wool thread, probably specially spun to be suitable for the job. Having tried sewing with a commercially produced crewel wool before I thought I would try spinning my own. The bought wool was too thick and rough to sew easily with on wool cloth and if I split it into singles it was too weak. I had some white Cotswold fibre on my spindle so I have been unwinding a couple of feet of thread at a time from the spindle, overspinning it and using that to sew with.
The liripipe pieces were whipped on as I couldn’t find how the originals were done and I wanted to keep the bulk down to avoid any odd kinks when it is worn. As you may be able to see, I have yet to sew the top and front seams or add the centre front gore.
So there should be another post soon as I get this finished, then another when the long planned D10581 gets started!
If you are working on your own Herjolfsnes reconstruction I would love to see it, so please comment!
Facings are something that can initially seem quite tricky to sew, particularly if you are a beginner. However, they can add a lot to your garment, both aesthetically and structurally. So, here’s a tutorial that’ll show you how to sew perfect facings every time.
We have been sharing basic kit guides and authenticity guidelines recently so I thought you might like to see an example of a working re-enactment kit. There are lots of possible additions and variations but this is the kit I wear at shows to cook to spin and anything else that needs doing!
From the skin out we have socks (these are cheap woolly sheep-coloured ones from a high street shop) I always bring more socks than I need. If my boots rub I can layer them if i get wet I can change them and I always forget which pair falls down/is full of holes. Footed hose are on my to do list to complete my outfit, the evidence suggests they were more common than knitted socks.
Shift (s!). one of my favourite luxuries is a clean fresh shift every day. If the show is hot or wet the last thing I want to do is put yesterday’s worn shift on so I take one for each day of the event. The white shift I made in (far too sheer) linen in 2004 the grey one is a construction that gives me some bust support in a herringbone woven linen made in 2011(it was going to be a lining for something else hence the anachronistic shaping) and the cream linen one is the simplest and therefore the least full of holes made in 2005. The moral is: repair re-use and recycle. You can never have too much underwear.
Veils and wimples two sets for when I get baked beans/chocolate/ raspberry juice down the first set a cap after the Saint Birgitta’s style and my fillet so I can choose from different hairstyles. Brass hair pins based on a find from London to pin my hair up fashionably and a horn comb to dress my hair with. Three silver veil pins to fasten my veils in place. The hood goes over the top of everything if the weather is bad.
My blue woollen dress. It made its debut in 2005 and took about a week to make with machine sewn seams and hand sewn hems like all my re-enactment clothes. I hand dyed this after I’d sewn it as I couldn’t decide on a colour when I bought the wool I was very lucky this didn’t shrink it but it does mean the dye has faded in a very authentic way that is unusual with modern chemical dyes. This dress is a very simple style with no fastenings suitable for women of most classes and particularly appropriate for the faded and patched common woman’s dress it is now.
I wear this dress with a long leather belt and if I am doing anything remotely messy a coarse linen apron. Washing plant dyed wool using medieval methods was difficult and as I only have one dress it pays to take care of it. The belt was one of my first purchases back in 2002 and the apron was a gift from a friend.
Boots in a sturdy unisex style. The brilliant thing about re enacting is the wonderful friends you make who will lend you their boots when the ones you bought 12 years ago finally fall apart after rain turns a show into a mudbath!
So this is the basic kit of a re-enactor who has been doing it for a while. It didn’t happen overnight and it is still a work in progress but it has worked well for me. I hope this gives you a few ideas about what you would like your kit to be like and what you need to make or buy.
In order for our members to take part in shows they need to have period accurate clothing and footwear. We have therefore compiled a list of trusted traders who will be able to supply you with all the essentials you will need to be able to participate.
New members need a minimum of authentic undergarments and shoes to participate in Garrison shows. For more information on this, please see our clothing page, and contact our Living History Officer, who will be able to tell you what types of fabric you need to order and how much you will need. You can contact them by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bernie the Bolt
Bernie is an excellent fabric trader who has a wide range of cloth in stock, his cloth is reasonably priced and has relatively high authenticity standards. Unfortunately Bernie doesn’t have a website which you can order fabric directly from, although he is happy to post samples. He is also available at a number of shows through out the year. His prices range from £6-8 per meter of linen and £7-£15 per meter for wool, he often has a bargain pile which is approximately £2 per meter although these are only sometimes suitable for our period.
Herts is a well-respected supplier of cloth to historical houses, museums and film productions. They have a wide variety of period authentic linen (£7-15 per meter), wool (£7-20 per meter) and silk (£10+ per meter). They also have a small selection of notions like woven braids and silk or linen thread. Their UK postage costs are £10 for up to 25kg of fabric.
Please note: If you are intending to order from Herts Fabric but are put off by the postage costs, it is often worth asking around in the group. Someone else may well wish to order fabric with you, thus bringing down the postage costs.
There are several types of shoes and boots which are suitable for the mid-14th Century, and in this guide we will focus on the two main styles. The first is a buckled or tied style similar to modern ‘Mary Janes’, and the second are ankle boots which are laced with leather cord. All of the following traders have been used by the group previously. You can either view their products online or find them at various markets, shows and events through out the year.
Fox Blade Trading
These are the most reasonably priced option and come in standard sizes between 4-13 (although children’s sizes can be ordered). Although not quite as robust as more expensive options, they hold up well to regular use and are very good value for money. We recommend buying one of the following styles:
Kevin Garlick’s shoes are generally highly thought of within our group, with many of us having purchased a pair of shoes from him at some point. Though they are more expensive than some re-enactment shoe traders, they are of a very high quality and many of our members have had pairs last for over a decade. They have the added advantage of being made to measure your feet. This allows for greater customisation of the shoes and they can be made to suit various orthopaedic needs. Understandably, this means that shoes ordered from Kevin Garlick take several months to arrive. However, occasionally he has some shoes in standard sizes. We recommend buying one of the following styles:
Several of our members have previously bought shoes from this trader. For those of us living in South Wales, he is quite handy, being just up the road from us in Bridgend. We recommend buying one of the following styles:
NP Historical Shoes
NP make excellent shoes. Unlike many other suppliers, NP’s styles are not ‘generic late medieval’ but instead are inspired directly from individual archaeological finds. Additionally, they are hand-sewn as well as being available made-to-measure. Understandably, this makes them more expensive than the other options on this list. However, their quality and research is more than worth it. We recommend buying one of the following styles, a selection of which are shown below: 14/2, 14/3, 14/4, 14/6, 14/7, 14/8, 14/8B, 14/11A, 14/11B, 14/18, 15/1A or 15/1B. They also make suitable pattens (wooden overshoes): we recommend styles P14/2, P14/3, P144 and P14/7.
Please Note:All clothing and equipment needs to be ok’d by our Living History Officer before they may be used at Garrison shows. We therefore strongly recommend members contact them before they buy, to avoid disappointment. If there are any problems, we will be happy to assist you in finding alternative items.