I’ve mentioned here before that I do medieval re-enacting. While I plan to one day have a dress from every major century, my favorite century is, by far and away, the 14th century.
When I started re-enacting 10 years ago, I made my cotehardies from a Simplicity (or was it McCalls?) pattern. I think I made five dresses from two similar patterns.
Once I got the hang of that, I wanted to make a more authentic-looking cotehardie, so I switched to Period Patterns. I made two dresses from that pattern, then gave it up as a bad job; I had to do major alterations to the pattern and the dresses still fit less well than the ones I made from the Simplicity pattern.
But, the experiment did teach me one thing: how to alter a pattern and a dress to make it fit. So, having gotten some confidence (and experience), I bought a copy of The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant (which I highly recommend for anyone who wants to make 13th-15th century English/French clothing) and drafted my own pattern.
I made several dresses from the first pattern–including one that was entirely hand-sewn. Then I altered the pattern (*ahem* when I gained some weight) and made some more dresses.
Last year, I had a friend help me alter it a third time using instructions by Robin Netherton to fit the dress properly at the bust (I’m not wearing a bra under the dress in the picture and if I wasn’t slouching so badly, you’d clearly see I don’t need one).
(Robin’s website is down–and has been for a while–but Charlotte Johnson has similar instructions if you’re interested in the process of fitting a cotehardie.)
When my husband and I were in England in 2008, we went to the The Original Re-Enactor’s Market in Coventry. I was really inspired by the people I saw in garb there. (Most English and European re-enactment societies have higher costuming standards than the SCA.) While some people’s clothes were clearly hand-stitched, the most noticeable thing was how their clothing fit. I could clearly see that everything was lined and it made a huge difference in the fit; everything laid smoother and tighter across the body. I vowed then to start lining our clothing. (Although the English re-enactors have an advantage that we don’t have: we live in Tennessee and have been to re-enactments when it’s been 100+ degrees outside. So our hottest-weather clothing will have to remain unlined, just to keep us from roasting alive.
I also vowed that I was going to start making all of our clothes by hand because I want to a) be more authentic, and b) having conquered pattern-drafting, I need a new challenge.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I put everything together– new pattern, entirely hand-sewn dress, and lining–and made myself a pale-yellow cotehardie with white buttons.
What was surprising was how fast this dress went together. When I made my first hand-sewn dress, I back-stitched every single seam, then did a double flat-fell seam (instead of lapping one seam allowance over the other and stitching once, I rolled each seam allowance back under itself and stitch both individually; this makes it easier to go around weirdly-shaped objects, like gussets and gores, but it also means twice as much sewing).
However, before I started my new dress, I read Textiles and Clothing by the Museum of London, and they said that most medieval clothing seemed to be sewn with nothing more than a running stitch. I was a bit leery of doing just that on my cotehardie, knowing it would fit tightly and the shoulder seams and sleeves, especially, would be under stress, but I also had to admit that it made a lot more sense to do a simple running stitch down the skirt, where there is no stress.
I ended up doing a double-running stitch in the dress at the shoulders, and down both sides and the back to the hips. I did a back-stitch around both armholes (thinking they would have the most strain on them), but I did a plain running stitch below the hips.
It was amazing how much more quickly this dress went together than the previous one! In fact, had I not gotten sick and had other life-things happen, I would have had the entire thing done in 7-8 days, working about 5 hours a day on it. That is actually in keeping with the rate of production by a medieval seamstress (although she would have probably worked on a dress with gores and a fuller skirt, but would have worked 7-8 hours a day and finished in the same amount of time).
I was able to make smaller stitches in the muslin lining (it was much finer and easier to work with then the linen), so I didn’t bother double-running any of the seams; they’re all plain running stitch.
Because this is a hot-weather dress, I chose not to line the sleeves, and the lining only comes down to the hips (it’s quite possible–even probable–that many medieval dress were made the same way to reduce material cost). I turned in all the raw edges of the lining and dress, pinned them together, and whip-stitched the lining in around all the openings. At the bottom of the lining, I hemmed it with some quick whip stitches and tacked it down at the seams and a couple of other places to keep it from wrinkling or bunching up when I put it on.
The front seam (below the buttons) is actually overlapped and sewn with nearly-invisible whip stitches on the front. I do my button-up dresses this way to prevent a pucker at the bottom of the front opening where the buttonhole side overlaps the button side.
One of the things that’s nice about ditching the sewing machine is that I can sew anywhere. When Stuart and I were on our way to an event, I sewed in the car. The weekend was really rainy and the event was small, so I didn’t have much to do other than sew, so I put in the lining and did all the button holes. Being able to work on it any time and anywhere (I just need a small basket to put my supplies in) means I can fit it into my schedule, rather than working my schedule around it.