Want to make a pretty and supportive kirtle for your reenactment needs? Look no further, I have what you need here!
(Actually, please do further, multiple sources for information is totally a thing.)
My first step for any project is to go look up what the original version looked like. In this instance, I wanted a close fitting, long sleeved gown, from somewhere in the 1300 to 1500 range. That is a huge span of time, so lets start narrowing it down by looking at pictures from those dates.
The pretty ladies in Belles Heures have a lovely fitted top leading down to a flowing voluminous skirt. I love it! These feature very wide, almost boat style necklines. The last image mostly shows the blue over gown, but it nicely shows both front and back of her neckline.
In the French manuscript above, many of the ladies have slightly less full skirts, and maybe slightly less wide necklines. There are many examples of headwear, and this is just the ones with long sleeves! There were many more dresses in this book, with all sorts of neat sleeve examples.
LOOK AT THE PATTERNS! I have now decided that I must have a patterned dress. I have some brocade that my husband bought for me a few years ago (he’s awesome!) and I kept saving it, waiting for the perfect project. Now is the time of its awakening! One problem though, my fabric’s pattern is much larger than the ones above, and very different looking. Hmmm, now wasn’t there that one artist….
Yay Rogier! A few of his paintings show women wearing a patterned skirt/dress beneath their overgowns. Nice big patterns, a big repeat, vague plant-like motifs: perfect for the fabric I have! The big downside to his work is that all of these women are religious figures, and therefore are not the most reliable for clothing information. He paints in minute details, down to the pins holding a sleeve on to the dress, to the very seams of many garments. Hopefully this means he was working from live models, and real, actual clothing from his lifetime, but perhaps the fancy fabric is a fanciful touch to make the people wearing them seem grand and important? Great pictures, but must be taken with a wee grain of salt.
The next few paintings here are not Rogier’s, but made by other painters in his style. Still religious, still not the best source material, but neat, right? I love the left one!
Hans Memling has some particularly lovely examples where the bodice and lacing are visible! Alas, we are getting very close to the 1500’s at this point, and the fashions worn by the religious figures are notably different from the contemporary fashions of the time. It’s really a shame, since these are about perfect.
Speaking of perfect…
I about lost my mind when I found this.
It’s absolutely perfect!
It’s….a 16th century depiction of a 14th century woman, DAMN IT! OMG, this was perfect until it wasn’t. Oh well.
Lest I get myself all down and sad, there are totally a bunch of depictions of bold patterned gowns throughout 1350-1450, just not any that are quite the style I am looking for. I feel like I am in the right zone, but there isn’t technically strong evidence for the exact thing I want to make. And that’s ok. I just won’t make this gown with the idea that I will be entering it into an Arts and Sciences competition some day.
Now that I have done my research, I have a clearer idea of what I want: a patterned kirtle/undergown based on the shapes of the early 1400’s, with long slim sleeves that button up to the elbow, and a spiral lace-up opening in the front. Time to start making!
If you can, start with a pattern that is close to what you need. If you already have a body block pattern, you can modify that to approximate kirtle shape, or if you have a friend that can help you by draping fabric on you and pinching out the extra til it fits! Great example of that on La Cotte Simple. I have made a few kirtles, but I keep losing the pattern, so I end up starting over a lot. This time, I have the pattern from the Blue Wool Gown, so I will start with that. The blue gown had a very full skirt, so I narrowed the skirt angle, but left it the same otherwise.
Fitting! The bodice is off to a good start, although it is not nearly tight enough to be supportive yet, and the sleeves (which I drafted up, since apparently I don’t have the right sort of sleeve pattern either!) are also a bit loose in the middle. I liked the sleeves enough to seam-rip them off of the mockup, and put them on paper. If you find that your first mockup is really off, start pinching in, or adding fabric where needed, and use those changes to make a new fabric mockup and try that on.
Now I have a sleeve pattern! Woo! After I traced the mockup sleeve, I took a bit out from the sides near the elbow and bicep.
Ok, mockup #2! Not bad, but I would like the neckline to be wider, more boaty. The sleeves are still loose around the elbow, and I am getting a bit of back-wrinkle at the waist. The shoulder seam is no where near the shoulder, how did that happen? I asked the Age of Cotehardie group what they thought of the fit, and I got the same suggestions, plus some saying that the skirt flare is still a bit too much. The style I am emulating is smooth all the way to the hip, so I need to remove a bit from my skirt angle again.
By the way, that is totally part of the tutorial! If you are trying to make something, ask friends or like minded groups on the internet what they think! If you are in the right group, you should get helpful responses and maybe learn a cool technique that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.
The shoulder seam is too far from my shoulder, and I need some room to widen the neckline anyways, so I cut the mockup on the shoulder where I wanted the new seam to be. I cut all my seam stitches open, ironed them flat, and traced them to make the new paper pattern.
I had to change the angle of the straps a lot to make that wider neckline happen, and that in turn meant I had to change the top of the sleeve to fit the new armscye. Unfortunately, these changes mean I cannot just alter the 2nd mockup (which I cut up anyways), I have to make a completely new one (out of the same fabric, since I have tons of it).
Ok! The neck is now wider, the hips slimmer, the sleeves are a bit better, and it is still nicely supportive. I still have some back wrinkles, but they are not too bad. The sleeves are almost slim enough, but I am getting a lot of extra fabric and bunching at the front of the sleeve.
I took a 2 cm sliver out of the sleeve head where that bunching was, and re-sewed the sleeves back on with the new change. This helped, and I could even take out a bit more here! This is probably about as good as it is going to get without going to a two piece seam. All around, I am satisfied with the pattern as it is, and ready to move onto the real fabric.
Mmmm, real fabric! I thought this was mostly poly, although a burn test resulted in nearly no beading like you would get with a plastic fabric, so perhaps a cotton/rayon blend?
Let me divert and talk about the skirts for a second: there are a couple of ways to go about sewing the skirt portion of a kirtle, each with their pros and cons.
You could use the fabulous modern convenience of 60 inch wide fabrics to cut your kirtle pieces with the skirts intact (method #2), and then you only have to sew the side seams. This is great because it’s fast and easy. It’s not so good because the skirt seams are on the bias and might stretch over time, giving you saggy, uneven hems that drag in the mud. This can mostly be avoided by letting the skirts hang in the closet for a few weeks to stretch before you hem the skirts.
Or you could use method #1 with gores starting at the hips. You cut the triangular gores so that one side is on the straight grain, and then sew it so that the bias of the gore is sewn to the straight grain of the body piece. This is great because the bias of the gore can’t stretch over time, or at least not as much as method #2. This is likely the more period method, given how many extant garments are made this way, and what we know of typical fabric widths. Some costumers feel that this method makes the skirt drape/hang better.
I switch between both methods depending on the project, but today, I am using method #1.
I measured from the bottom of the mockup to the floor, and used that to cut my kirtle to the right length. I don’t like making my paper patterns full length, I find it cumbersome to use and store. I would rather measure the length each time. I make the gores using the angle of the pattern hips, and extend it down to the right length.
Seam sewing! It is tempting to not pin, but if you don’t pin, you’ll get wiggly seams. You don’t want wiggly seams.
After every seam is sewn, I iron the seam open, and then turn down the edges and sew them. I want this to be a dress that I am not afraid to take camping, so the seams need to be strong enough to take a beating in the washer.
Even if I don’t line the whole dress, I like to line the torso, especially on lace-up garments like this that will be under a lot of strain. The lining will help take some of that pressure. For this dress, I am lining with light linen, sewn ever so slightly smaller than the red brocade.
Lining: now you see it, now you don’t! (As much.)
Eyelets are not my favorite, but for as much as everyone seems to dread them, they always surprise me with how fast the can be worked up. But then, I try to do the minimum needed stitches per eyelet, which makes them much faster than the extra neat and tightly packed eyelets.
I usually measure the eyelets one inch apart on one side of an opening, then lay the finished side next to the unfinished one and mark the middle of the space between eyelets.
Woooo! I am very excited with how it looks and feels. The dreaded back wrinkle is still there, and I have not decided if I want to fix it or not. I do wish the skirt had a tiny bit more volume, but it looks pretty good as it is, so again, I might not fix it. I am glad that I pretty much got the front and back to be symmetrical. I didn’t bother worrying about the gores, but the torso not matching would have bugged me. Sleeves next!
I like to cast pewter, and thought about making a button mold for this dress, but I think gold/bronze toned metal would match the dress better. I ordered the small buttons from Lorifactor, so wee and cute!
While I wait for those buttons to arrive, I sewed the sleeves into the armscye.
The seam allowances were opened and sewn flat with a herringbone stitch. The seams are a little short and bulky to fold twice like I did with the skirt, so herringbone it is. I may cover the raw edges with some straight tape if the stitches aren’t holding up.
I temporarily sewed the sleeve seams closed with a loose whip stitch and then tried on the dress to make sure that the sleeves were fitting nicely.
I think it’s looking rather nice! It’s a bit tight in the shoulders, I didn’t quite remember that lining adds to the bulk of a garment, and will make it a smidge smaller. I was in a hurry this time, but when I put it back on to mark the hem, I will wear it for a couple hours and see if it loosens up. I always recommend wearing a new garment around the house for a while to see how you feel about it an hour later. Kind of like new shoes: it might feel ok for 30 seconds when you try it on, but it might not feel quite so nice when you wear it for a whole day at an event.
Hemming time! The skirt is pretty much at the length I want, I just evened up the ragged bits and turned the edge up about an inch on the whole hem.
I tried it back on and it looked about right, so I folded the edge twice, pinned, and sewed it in place with a hem stitch.
I laid the dress on the floor while I pinned so I could make sure the curves were smooth and looking good. I thought it might be nice to straighten it out and get a picture of the whole thing while flat (helpful pup for scale).
Speaking of my pretty pup, I decided that he needed a cute matching coat after seeing these amazing images of period dogs dressed up!
The coat pattern is based off of the coats he already had, with a few adjustments to fit him better. I decided not to line it, since I can always put more layers on him if he is chilly at an event, but I can’t just de-line the coat if he is getting too warm. It was pretty simple, only one real seam, and a dart on the butt.
The coat fits fairly well, I just need to add a band across the belly to keep it from rotating off of his back.
Ok, now that my Jean-Luc has a cute matching coat, lets get back to my dress! Those sleeves are still sadly unbuttoned!
My wee little buttons finally came in the mail, and they are indeed very tiny!
I was a little worried that they would be too small, and not very functional, but I forged ahead anyways.
A few weeks ago, I made one buttonhole in my sleeve before realizing that was complete folly until I got the actually buttons in hand and could be sure that I was not making my holes too big or small. As you can see, the size of the second buttonhole shows that my first one was way too big for these tiny buttons!
I put 12 buttonholes on each arm, from wrist to elbow. Once I was done with that, I sewed the remaining sleeve closed with some whip stitches.
And with that little addition, my dress is all done!
I wore it to an event, and it did get much more comfortable after wearing it for a bit. I was worried that it might be too tight, but the fabric loosened and settled just fine after a bit of wear, much like a pair of tight jeans.
The buttons are a small part of the whole picture, especially with such a busy fabric, but I feel like they make the sleeves so much more elegant!
Next up is a overgown for this! I have been admiring the daggy goodness on some of these short dresses.