Sunday, September 8, 2019

Creating an Authentic Cotte, Part 5: Seam Construction

Seam Construction Method

When looking through the relevant evidence regarding the joining of two pieces of cloth, it becomes apparent that seam techniques were inextricably related to the cloth type they were applied to. Wool, linen, and silk each had their own sets of seam techniques (with some overlap among them). Weave types, usually in regard to whether the material would fray or not, added additional differences. On top of all of these considerations, it's also evident that the garment or placement of the seam within the garment also bore some relevance to the seam techniques employed. (1)

In order to identify which seam techniques should be employed for the cotte, I needed to narrow down the options to techniques appropriate for a non-fulled woolen. The cut edges of the cloth do fray, and the lack of heavy fulling means that stitches under tension could pull through a single layer of the cloth if placed too near the cut edge.

Given these qualities, the best seam construction types for this project were those that adequately secured the cut edges of the cloth, and, particularly for the areas of the cotte under stress (everywhere but within the skirt), would not rely solely on a single line of running stitch (a relatively weak stitch) to keep the pieces together.

[I want to pause here to move forward in time to interject that while I do think I made the best choice below given what I knew at the time, it turned out that the weave of the gray wool was significantly looser than I had given it credit for. I'll discuss what happened after I wore the cotte for a day at the end of this post, but I wanted to be transparent now that in retrospect, I may have chosen the wrong seam technique for how fragile the weave actually was.]

I utilized the list of medieval stitch types collected by Heather Rose Jones in her online resource, Archeological Sewing, which is organized by cloth type, to identify four candidates. In order to more fully assess which of these three seam types would fulfill my needs, I created samples of each in linen.

#1: Running stitch + raw edges turned under toward each other and overcast together


Pros: Relatively strong seam with a clean finish. Only 2 passes required.

Cons: Turning in allowance edges is tricky. No finishing stitches visible on exterior.

#2: Overcast of (double-fold hem with hem stitch)


Pros: Symmetrical finishing is visible and produces a nice hand-sewn effect. Non-bulky seam finish.

Cons: Takes longer to complete (3 passes). Overcast stitch is weak if stitches are not small and tightly packed. Only the thread in overcast stitch holds pieces together. 

#3: Flat-fell with hem stitch


Pros: Neat technique that creates and finishes the seam at the same time. Only 2 passes.

Cons: May be trickier to execute on curved seams. A bit of a learning curve to interlock the edges together. Leaves a fold on the exterior as well as exposing the hem stitching.

#4: Running stitch, raw edges paired and hem stitched to one side


Pros: Strong flat seam that requires only 2 passes. Visible finishing stitches on the exterior.

Cons: Hem stitch must be tightly packed and deep enough to adequately secure cut edges of fraying material. 

Of note, the medieval type of "flat-fell" stitch is not the same as what is usually referred to as a flat-felled seam in the modern era. A modern flat-fell seam is more akin to the #4 running stitch seam type above, but rather than simply laying the seam allowances down to one side, one is trimmed and the other is folded around it before both are tacked down. Though this is commonly used in medieval recreation (by myself as well), I was not able to locate this technique in the Archeological Sewing database, "Textiles and Clothing", nor in the publications detailing the Herjolfsnes finds.

Weighing the pros and cons of each of the techniques above, along with my own preferences in terms of finished look, I decided to use a piece of the actual cloth to test the #4 seam type to determine if the cut edges would be suitably contained. For this test, I used a black linen thread for the running stitch and a yellow silk for the finishing to approximate the thread types I'd already determined I would use (see Seam Construction - Materials below).



Satisfied that the material handled this technique well with a suitable aesthetic finish, I decided to use this technique for the cotte seams.

I did also identify the use of a "filler" thread in the Herjolfsnes finds that uses a secondary thread to hold the cut edge down a bit more securely, and decided to test this technique in comparison to not using it. (2)



The use of the filler thread didn't significantly add enough functional differences to justify how much time it added to the sewing. I chose not to use it for the sake of time.

Seam Construction Tools & Materials

It is believed that several of the garment fragments recovered in London were stitched together using linen thread, which did not survive. Traces of a vegetable fiber can be found around vacant stitch holes in seams and on hems. (3) Silk threads are also present, often in top stitch applications, buttonholes, and hems. Crowfoot suggests in her commentary that the evidence points to the use of linen thread for the main seams, followed by silk for visible and decorative stitching. (4) This would have conserved the more expensive thread and applied it to where it would do the most visual good. Silk was available in a wide range of colors that could be matched to the fabric. With the lack of suitable linen thread remains, whether that was also colored is difficult to state.


I chose to use a natural gray linen thread (Londonderry 80/3) for the running stitch in each seam, and a gray filament silk thread for the finish stitching. (Both threads are machine-made and dyed as hand-spun and hand-dyed silk sewing thread was not easily available except when outside my budget.) Not only do I feel that the evidence supports these choices, I feel that they, again, fall into line with this garment being constructed with a practical balance of quality and frugality. At a certain point in the creation of the garment, I ended up using the linen for some finishing to conserve the silk for later finishing items where it was more important to have silk rather than linen (e.g. buttonholes.)


Sewing needles have proven to be few and far between in archeological recoveries. One suggested reason is that needles were also rare in period. For the most part, only one needle was needed at a time, and if properly treated, could last through a few generations before being discarded or damaged. It’s believed that steel needles were in use before the 14th century, imported from Moorish Spain, and would have been preferred over the cruder bronze, iron, and copper alloy needles that are found in greater quantities now. (5) Both iron and copper alloy needles have been recovered from the Thames River excavations. One 14th century copper alloy example is roughly 3” long with a triangular cross section and an eye that was first punched then drilled.

In addition to metal needles, which can be assumed to be the better material choice for a sewing needle in the early 15th century, bone needles may have still been used. A bone needle, described as 2 ¾” long with a square eye parallel in style to prehistoric bone needle finds, was recovered from the excavation of Breachacha Castle in Scotland, an early 15th century residence. (6) A bronze needle was recovered from the same site, indicating that both needles were in use around the same. It’s easy to speculate that bone needles may have remained in domestic production throughout the medieval period to make up for the relative scarcity or difficulty in obtaining the superior steel or bronze needles.


Given the dearth of appropriate reproduction metal sewing needles available for purchase (I was unable to source any needles structurally similar to the 14th century examples), one option is to use a modern stainless steel sewing needle, which is not that far away from the medieval examples. A cotton darner is a round needle with long punched eye, and can be found in lengths close or longer than 2”.

For this project, however, in an effort to use more authentic tools, I primarily used a bone sewing needle with a round drilled hole, based on the existence of a bone needle from the Scotland excavation mentioned above. My needle is 1.875” long with a vaguely ovoid cross-section and a round drilled hole.


During the course of sewing the cotte, I ended up further slimming the taper of the needle with a sanding block I had on hand. The chunkier nature of the bone needle is less refined than a metal needle formed with a wire, and requires more effort to use. Rather than slipping unimpeded through the cloth, the bone needle must be slightly tugged to move the thicker end through the weave. This turned out to be a somewhat important consideration during this project that I had not anticipated as it stresses the hand slightly more over the course of a long seam than a smaller gauge metal needle would. Ultimately, I feel the bone needle, unless quite refined and slim, was very likely not suitable as sewing implement for a higher production environment, such as a tailor's shop or royal clothier workhouse, and would have probably been used in a domestic setting as a last resort.

I also discovered that the bone needle was too large when it came to sewing later finishing details, and I switched to a modern needle for those items. (Which I'll discuss in the next post!)


Moving forward in time, after I wore the dress to its first event, a very hot Simple Day, I discovered that the seam finishing hand not held as well as I expected in the areas under the most stress. This included most of the back seam, the front seam just at the base of the bust support curve, and the side seams at the top bust area and at the tightest point on the waist. None of these areas completely blew out (there was no catastrophic seam failure, thankfully.)

Damage to cloth & seam finish after wearing
After reviewing the damage, I determined that the fault was more in the cloth than anything else. I had believed that the cloth was sturdier in the weave. Since I hadn't been able to put it under enough pressure in my tests to mimic what wearing it would do, unfortunately, I think I had to learn this the hard way. I do still stand by my seam choice as the best given the options had this fabric been stronger and/or fulled. If I had known what the cloth would do while making my choice, I would have likely opted for the #1 seam method above instead.

I do believe that the dress has stretched as much as it's likely to (assuming I don't gain weight), so to prevent further damage and to repair the parts of the seam that had pulled out of the finishing, I used a combination of running stitches and some overcast stitching to help mitigate the weave pulling out any further.

Seam with my repairs.
The take-away for me with this is to focus less on the aesthetics and more on the needs and weaknesses of the cloth. Having said that, though, I do also want to save a bit of face and say that this damage was not extensive. All the seams in the areas of the garment that were not under the greatest amount of stress are still intact.

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NOTES
1. One notable example of this type of seam specialization can be seen the differences in seam treatments used on the various parts of fitted hose. Crowfoot, Elizabeth, et al, "Textiles and Clothing c. 1150-c.1450," Museum of London: Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4 (London, HMSO, 1992).

2. Fransen, Lilli, et al, Medieval Garments Reconstructed: Norse Clothing Patterns, (Aarhus, Aarhus University Press, 2011), page 30.
3. Crowfoot, et al, 2001, p.151.
4. Crowfoot points out on page 152 a record in the Great Wardrobe accounts in 1333 a list of materials for a set of green garments for Queen Philippa in which both linen and silk thread were ordered for the project.
5. Findings, 2006, p. 47.
6. Breachacha Castle, Coll: Excavations and Field Survey, 1965-8 by D. J. Turner and J. G. Dunbar.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Creating an Authentic Cotte, Part 4: Layout & Fitting

Lest I start taking myself too seriously.
In terms of how the pieces of a garment were created from the cloth in period - whether a pattern or measurements were used -  we have no concrete evidence to date. Images of tailors at work appear to show them cutting directly into the cloth with no marked or applied pattern lines. The only indication we get that any type of plan may be in use is the occasional presence on the worktable of a measuring stick, called an ell stick, which we have today in the form of a yardstick. Regional- or municipal-wide standard units of measurement had been established and used throughout Europe by the 14th century (1), so it is possible that a measuring tape of some format was used to capture the wearer’s basic form, then the ell stick was used to transcribe those measurements to the cloth. Chalk was used in other crafts and could have been utilized by the tailor to mark these measured lines(2)

In our experiments in the modern era, there’s been a movement toward the use of drape fitting to get a custom fit, often using a material such as muslin or linen that is then used as a pattern for the garment. (I've shared that method a bunch on this blog in the past.) This method tends to produce results that are closer in look to the medieval style than those produced with measurements alone, but also does not have a concrete basis in terms of medieval evidence.

It may be possible that a fitted dress was created using a combination of measuring and on-the-body fitting, utilizing the final cloth or the cloth that would have then been used as a lining. After a tentative assembly of the basic panels (perhaps using low-quality thread in long basting stitches and perhaps some dress pins as needed), it could have been worn and more accurately fit to achieve the desired look. The new seam lines would be marked, then after removal, the allowances trimmed down and the dress re-assembled properly for final finishing. While this is entirely conjectural, I do feel that it has a basis at least for experimentation, and since I had never used a method like this before, I decided this was an ideal opportunity.

To apply this method to the cotte, I began by measuring the length I would like for the cotte from my shoulder to the floor over my bust, plus some for allowances (62"). I also measured the widest part of my hips, divided by 4, rounded up, plus 2” to determine the maximum width my pattern will require (17”). I also measured my length from my shoulder to my waist to know approximately where the flare of the skirt would need to start (20”). With these measurements, after looking at my options, I ultimately determined that I would need to cut my panels out across the grain. This layout was ideal in order to get a sufficiently full skirt without having to rely on gores and only worked for me because the cloth width was exactly 62”. As I mentioned in my previous post, cloths of sufficient width were available in period, and piecing could have also occurred to make up for any lack of length or width.



To create the panels, I laid the entire length out and used a yard stick, measuring tape and chalk to mark out 4 panels according to my measurements, with a length of 40” at the base of every skirt panel. (After getting everything cut out, I realized I could have gone with a wider skirt base. I had enough length for 50", which would have been better. The skirt is not too narrow, however, so this is more for personal preference.)


I used the measuring, marking and cutting tools I had on hand rather than any more authentic tools because the purpose and usefulness of these tools is the same in the modern era, and the expense and delay in obtaining authentic tools seemed unnecessary for this step.


Note: I held off on patterning the sleeves for a later stage, since at this point in the process, I wasn't sure how to pattern the sleeves.

Before proceeding with the fitting, I put my linen chemise on. I use this garment to lift and shape my bust, and since the cotte would be worn over it anyway, it saved me from having to fit the cotte entirely from scratch. If this were an entirely new garment to be worn over a non-fitted chemise, then a lining and a longer fitting process would have been required to get the cottel to do all the lifting and shaping.

An initial fitting of rectangular panels is nearly impossible to do alone (#askmehowknow). In most medieval communities, a woman in need of a new cotte would have had access either to a tailor who would complete the fitting work, or a female community member to do it (3). In order to complete the initial fitting, I requested assistance from my mother.


Using straight pins (which, again, are functionally the same modernly as they were in period(4)) she matched the curves of my body in the chemise on the four dress seams and shoulders. The key to this step was to ensure that each panel remained centered within its quadrant on my body (a light dashed chalk line on each panel helped up see the centerline.) If the centerline shifted, then the panels would become off-grain and add a twist to the cotte as well as skew the skirt panels.

Once these initial seam lines were roughly established, they were marked with chalk on all four panels, then the pins were removed.


I used waste thread to baste the panels back together along these chalk lines, and placed the cotte back on to further refine the fit. After the second fitting, I trimmed the seam allowances down to an inch wide to better see the fit and not have too much excess cloth in the way.



After the third and final fitting, I trimmed the seam allowance down further and re-cut the skirt flares for a seamless transition from torso to skirt.


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NOTES:
1. Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. Simon & Schuster, 2011.
2. James, Carlo, et al, Old Master Prints and Drawings: A Guide to Preservation and Conservation, (Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 1997), page 69.
3. The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England discusses the need for communities to form close-knit family-like ties, particularly in gendered cliches, for both safety and social inclusion. It seems reasonable that this would include women helping their fellows as needed to maintain the fashionable ideals of their community.
4. Beaudry, M.C., Findings: the Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing, (London, Yale University, 2006).

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Creating an Authentic Cotte, Part 3: Pattern


It is difficult for us to know with any certainty how many pieces were generally used to create a fitted cotte, and in what configurations those pieces were arranged. There are, however, some extant garments that we can review to come to some tentative conclusions of plausible patterning arrangements. These include a collection of garments from the Herjolfsnes settlement in Greenland dated to the 14th Century, a gown made of cloth of gold in Uppsala, Sweden presumed to be from around 1400, a dress recovered from the Moy Bog in Ireland, conjecturally dated to the 14th or 15th centuries, and even, to some extent, the pourpoint of Charles VI, from France circa 1383.

Uppsala Gown pieces from Marc Carlson | Source

Additionally, certain artworks from the period may provide some clues to the construction of the fitted cotte via the appearance of lines or details that could be interpreted as seam lines. These appear most often in the semi-realistic manuscript illuminations produced by Franco-Flemish painters in the first half of the 15th century and their slightly later oil painting successors up to the middle of the century.

Table 1. Garment features of Extant Examples

Unfortunately, nothing conclusive can be derived from a look at the features present on the five relevant extant garments alone. There are, however, some trends that can be further supported by a look at those images that show seamlines.

Table 2. Seam features present in collected imagery


Combining these two forms of evidence, two items stand out. First, the combination of a small armscye and a single line through the back of the sleeve show up with a bit more consistency than other sleeve types. Second, there is a noticeable lack of gores in the mainland garments and in the imagery. This is not to suggest that this greater amount of evidence is in any way a more accurate one. It does however back up the creation of a fitted cotte with these elements a bit more certainly than with different features.

Detail, "St. John the Baptist Altarpiece", Rogier van der Weyden, circa 1455. Note the long side seam on the nurse's blue cotte and the way she's rolled her outer sleeve up to reveal the buttoned sleeve of the green cotte below. 
One concern for the use of dress panels that flare rather than using gores is that fabric widths may not have routinely supported the ability to cut the panels out in single pieces. This is based on an assumption that looms of the later Middle Ages were narrow. While that is the case for certain types of looms, such as the horizontal and warp-weighted looms, larger looms, like the broadloom could produce woolens at 2 to 3 meters wide so that after their finishing process they were in the range of 58" to 60" wide (1). Even a warp-weighted loom could be operated with two weavers to produce these wider widths of cloth. For an average-sized woman, a cloth with sufficient width would have been available, particularly from drapers within urban markets. My wool was 63" wide at a length of 5 yards.

Two examples from "Le Decameron" (Arsenal MS 5070, reserve, Giovanni Boccaccio, 1432) showing the relative fullness and drape of fitted cottes typically depicted in manuscripts of the period.
Another consideration that I feel is often overlooked in the creation of cottes is the drape of the skirt. An overwhelming majority of the images show a garment with a full skirt that drapes evenly from the hips all the way around. This is an effect that is achievable by allowing the bias to drape naturally in the skirt, and can be seen to full effect on full circle skirts in the modern era. When gores are added to straight panels, the effect is not as uniform. Instead, the gore will tend to hang in folds while the panels will remain primarily flat. This is a function of the panel, with straight sides, not having any reason to fold. A dress skirt with four flared panels, each with a bias cut edge on each side can mimic the continuous drape of a full circle skirt, the only disruption being the change in grain direction at each seam line. 

Cotte with side lacing from BL MS Burney 257, "Thebais and Achilles", by Publius Papinius Statius, circa 1405.
When looking for evidence of lacing in the early 15th Century, one striking reality is that the presence of front or back lacing is mostly lacking when looking at women in typical daily situations (2). When lacing is depicted, it is shown as a detail on the side of the dress, such as in the above image (some of the best examples I've been able to locate). Extending from the armscye to the waist, a side opening provides the same roominess as a front opening for the purposes of getting the cotte on. The side position is still accessible by the wearer for tightening (though it does take some patient coordination).

All these items taken together lead me to arrange my cotte pattern similar to that of the Uppsala Gown, with four full-length panels (left front, right front, left back, right back), each cut with a flared skirt portion and without the use of additional gores. The sleeves are set-in style, utilizing a small armscye, no gusset, and including a line of buttons to the elbow, which are ideal for the ability to roll the sleeves up when needed, a practice seen used among middle class women in the available imagery. I also decided to follow the suggestion of the pictorial evidence that shows lacing by including a spiral laced opening on the side seam on my right.

In the next post, I'll share the process I used to cut out and fit the cotte based on this pattern choice.

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NOTES:

  1. Munro, 2000. “Wool and Wool-Based Textiles in the West European Economy, c.800 - 1500: Innovations and Traditions in Textile Products, Technology, and Industrial Organisation”
  2. One exception that many folks point to for evidence of front lacing in the early 15th century is the June page from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. However, we can't overlook that the woman shown in a front laced cotte is working in a field in June heat, and is otherwise in a much more obvious state of undress than would be acceptable. While this does indicate that front-lacing may have still been in use, it is not enough evidence for front lacing in use by women of higher classes not working in a field in this period.


Sunday, August 11, 2019

Creating an Authentic Cotte, Part 2: Cloth Type & Color

[This is Part 2 of my documentation of an authentically created Late Medieval cotte. You can read Part 1 here for context if you haven't already.]


For the purposes of medieval recreation in North America in an era when spring temperatures routinely hit the upper 80’s, it is necessary to accept that the more desirable varieties of wool cloth, which we now refer to as broadcloth and flannel, are a large investment that can only be used for 1/3rd of the year. It has become necessary to find fabric that is both suitable to the purpose of authentic recreation, but that is also a practical choice in terms of investment with year-round usefulness.

I located the cloth used for this project at a merchant at an SCA event (96 District Fabrics). It is a woolen tabby using pairs of 1-ply Z-twisted yarn (the pairs are untwisted) for both the warp and weft at 16 threads per inch (evenweave). It appears to be an undyed natural gray to white mixed wool which produces a heather effect that at a distance reads as a medium-tone cool gray. There is no or very little processing or fulling. The cloth is slightly hairy and threads are easily separated from the piece.

Cloth Type

Based on many pieces of evidence left behind across the written and material record, wool was the preferred fiber for cloth in the Middle Ages (1). Over the course of the medieval period, the production of wool staple into a useable cloth for garments developed into an industry that fueled much of the interconnected economic stability of Western Europe, primarily between England (who had the sheep) and Flanders (who had the looms). By the 1410s, the majority of cloth production had turned into something more like a modern manufacturing process than the do-it-yourself home crafter could produce (2). There were two general categories of wool cloth being made, in addition to variations between them. Worsted cloth used long fibers, producing a lighter, smoother cloth. Woolens were created with shorter fibers that produced a more substantial thread with more elasticity and a hairier quality. In addition to being worsted or woolen, the fabric could be woven as tabby (plain), or one of several varieties of twill. 

Of these two basic varieties of wool, worsted cloth was considered the lower-quality and less expensive option. Woolens, by contrast, were created using a several step process that increased the cloth’s thickness, quality, texture, and cost. There was, therefore, a group of wool fabrics that were produced to help bridge the gap between these two types. Bay cloth, for example, used the long worsted yarns in the warp, and the short, fluffier woolen threads in the weft. Other types of cloth were produced that skipped steps in the overall process in an attempt to create a usable cloth at a lower price point. Serge, which is hard to define precisely as there doesn’t seem to be consensus, is listed in the Great Wardrobe records alongside woolens (3). Based on how they were priced and sold, serge may have been a lighter-weight woolen cloth that was produced in a way that heavy finishing was either not used or not heavily executed (4). If this is the case, a wool cloth of the variety I have used for this project would have easily fit into this category, but I am willing to admit the conjectural leap there.

Assuming, however, that fabrics like this did exist in the period for garments, regardless of what they may have been called, it would most certainly fall into one of these middle categories of quality and price. This suggests a locally available cloth purchased not as a luxury or for the purpose of fashion, but rather for basic affordability and practicality.

Gray can be seen in use for both the woman's cotte and the man's chausses in the lower right. | Source

Cloth Color

Clothing in 1410’s came in a range of colors. Dyestuff was found in a variety of natural materials, including plants and lichens, but also in natural chemicals and other materials. For example, a brown dye could be created by scraping the rust off an iron pot and tossing the shavings into a dye bath with some mordants (5).

Examining the colors that appear on clothing in a collection of early 15th Century manuscripts, it becomes quickly apparent that the primary colors of blue, red and green were heavily favored in the art, in addition to shades of pink. While these colors dominate the manuscripts, other colors do appear, including black, lavender, maroon, teal, orange, brown, and gray (6). This is by no means a definitive range of colors achievable in this time, as the dyestuffs available during the medieval period produced a range of colors well beyond these basic shades (7).

While gray cloth like that used in this project could have been created using dye baths with very little coloring remaining, it would be more likely achieved with undyed, natural gray wool. In either of these manners, yarn colored before weaving (either naturally or via dying) would produce a heathered or motley/medley cloth (8). While the manuscript imagery doesn’t support these kinds of variegated cloths in use, they do appear in the written (9) and extant record (10). Though not as desirable as piece-dyed cloth with even, solid coloring, these yarn dyed or naturally-colored fabrics would have been available as a less costly alternative for those in the lower classes of early 15th-century society (11).


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NOTES:
1. Crowfoot, E., et al, “Textiles and Clothing c. 1150-c.1450,” Museum of London: Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4 (London, HMSO), 1992, p15.
2. Munro, J.,“Wool and Wool-Based Textiles in the West European Economy, c.800 - 1500: Innovations and Traditions in Textile Products, Technology, and Industrial Organisation”, 2000.
3. Oldland, E., 2019. The English Woollen Industry, c.1200-c.1560.
4. Ibid
5. From the Innsbruck Manuscript, circa 1330. (Ms. 355, Parchment University Library, Innsbruck)
6. Hurst, Janis, The Early 15th Century French Woman's Style Book, ebook, 2019.
8. Crowfoot, et al, 2001, p15.
10. Crowfoot, et al, 2001. See color plate 4 which shows a textile piece with color variations created with a mixture of natural gray and brown wool.
11. Hodges, L.. "Chaucer and Costume: The Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue", (Cambridge, 2000. “....the best quality of motley might be fashionable..but it would not speak loudly of great wealth...it speaks discretely of economic moderation."

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Creating an Authentic Cotte, Part 1


While I was attending the Middle Kingdom 50-Year Celebration this past May, I purchased a soft, light wool cloth to make a new cotte. As I admired the fabric at home, still sitting bundled on my desk, I began to consider that I had an opportunity to do something I'd never done completely before- create a fully-handsewn AND fully-documentable dress. Sure, I've dabbled in these two categories many times before, and most of my more recent cottes can be suitably documented and have an acceptable level of handwork for most Living History group standards, but I'd never gone through the effort of packing the full amount of considered authenticity into one piece.

So that's what I did.

Today, I want to share with you some photos of the final result and a bit about the garment style. Over the course of my next posts, I'll go into detail regarding the research and experiments I conducted, the techniques and tools I used, and of course the lessons I learned.


This garment, like most of my dresses you'll find on this blog, is based on a pervasive style of dress found in later 14th and early 15th century depictions of women, known as a cotte (1). It can be classified as a dress with a full skirt with no waist seam, a skirt length to or beyond the ankles, long sleeves fit to the arm along their full length, and a large round neckline. It is also, most distinctively, tailored to fit snug to the body through the trunk, and is fitted in a manner that adjusts the form, particularly the bust, to an ideal silhouette. These particular features distinguish the cotte from other female dress styles used within the European Medieval era, and can be considered, in this combination, generally distinct to the period between circa 1350 to circa 1460 (2).

The style of cotte changed throughout the period of its use, meaning that a cotte from 1360 will look different in shape from a cotte used in 1440, though they will both be functionally the same and still both fit the description above. This evolution is partly tied to the gradually increased popularity of the style, but may have also been due to a changing understanding of how to fit a garment more expertly. These changes can primarily be seen in the way the torso is shaped and the bust supported, but there are also differences that occur to the shape of the neckline and additional decorative elements.


The cotte was initially used by noblewomen, possibly influenced by the corresponding male cotte that originated out of Italy sometime in the 1340’s which has a similar torso and sleeve fit (3). Before this point, women’s clothing was created with a reliance on straight or triangular components which made good use of the cloth with very little waste. The introduction of these fitted dresses, which rely on curved seams, created the ability to waste cloth in the production of the garment, which could have been used as a status symbol. By its very nature, therefore, a fitted cotte was an exclusively upper-class garment for at least the first decade after it appeared in Northwestern Europe.

Perhaps motivated by the drive of conspicuous consumption, decoration of the cotte came into favor in the 1370’s. These types of decorations include the use of fur trims, streaming sleeve additions called tippets, and added embellishments like appliqué, pearls, embroidery or metal spangles known as bezants. By the 1390’s, however, whether through a shift in wealth distribution, economic restructuring or simply just that more people knew how to create the style, the cotte had widespread use outside the boundaries the upper class.


With the style's greater popularity, the focus moved away from expensive and frivolous embellishments and moved toward a simplified style that highlighted the fit and cloth itself. This lead to the cotte being created in vivid and diverse colors of high-quality wool without the addition of decoration by the dawn of the 15th Century. This newfound popularity also lead to a move away from the cotte being used as a fashionable garment among noblewomen, who began to layer more expensive gowns overtop of it, such as the houppelande or versions of the cotte that used different sleeve types and included fur linings (4). The plain fitted cotte, therefore, became the visible fashion staple of the middle and lower classes.

The cotte of a non-noble housewife in the 1410’s was a straightforward wool garment that was suitable for daily wear in a variety of situations. It was fitted in the torso, lifting the bust to reveal a narrow waist. It may or may not have included a long opening that was laced together, with a side placement for this being the most evidenced. The skirt was full to heighten the appearance of a round, healthy abdomen and hips. The neckline was open, revealing her collarbones and decolletage, but did not extend so far that her bust was too openly revealed, and it was not meant to slip off her shoulders. The sleeves were tightly fitted through the bicep and forearm. The forearm could have been sewn closed or it may have been closed with buttons- an invention still in use from the second quarter of the 14th century. The cotte could have been layered with other cottes (either as the foundational layer or the outer layer) but would have also been suitable as a single layer over a linen chemise when in her comfort.


In the next post, I will go into detail regarding my research and conclusions surrounding the cloth type and color of the wool I used.

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Sources & Notes:
1. In more modern times, the term “Gothic Fitted Dress” has been coined by researcher Robin Netherton to bring the various terms of this general style under one category. Other terms it may be known by include kirtle and cotehardie, or cotte simple.
2. For a great look at how this style evolved into, through, and out of this period, see Scott, Margaret, A Visual History of Costume: The Fourteenth & Fifteenth Centuries, (London, B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1986).
3. Scott, Margaret, Medieval Dress & Fashion, (London, The British Library, 2007).
4. Hurst, Janis, The Early 15th Century French Woman's Style Book, ebook, 2019.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Additional Tips for Set-In Sleeves


To say that I've spent a lot of time on this blog talking about set-in sleeves in the context of late medieval costuming would be an understatement. As I worked on the sleeves for a new chemise, however, it occurred to me that there are a few items about sleeves after patterning that might be helpful tips for those who are still new to or having trouble with their sleeves. The easiest way for me to do this was via photo examples.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Celebrating My Current Favorites


It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about the things we would like to have, or the things we want to make. It’s kind of a status symbol these days in historical recreation when we can brag about a huge project list, and we like to compare wishlists with others. I’ve certainly done my fair share of that. It seems like we’re constantly asking the question: What’s the next thing that I’m going to spend my time, energy and money on?