Friday, February 26, 2021

The Matrix of Recreation

I've spent much of the past few months ruminating about how I can improve the ways I combine my research into the projects I create. It's all well and good to be able to make a thing because I have the skills and technical knowledge, but if I'm making things without genuinely good research, I find that later on down the road, I regret the item or I feel salty that I didn't do as much research legwork as I should have.

When we're talking about medieval recreation, there's an understanding that the picture we can paint is never going to be fully accurate or correct. All we can do is aim for our "best reasonable guess" based on credible research efforts. We have to do the best we can with what we have access to. Sometimes what we have access to is incomplete or hard to interpret. Sometimes we really don't know what we're looking at. Sometimes we're working off incorrect assumptions. This is all part of the hobby, and we must accept that we never really know for sure.

We can, however, follow very basic guidelines in our efforts to research and recreate with as much accuracy as possible. We can make sure we're looking at period sources, that those sources are relevant to the place and time we're interested in, and that we understand how to interpret the stylistic choices from that time. Once we have these research habits under our belt, we can get to the heart of why we research to begin with- finding what's likely correct in order to recreate it. Which is when we can use something like my Matrix of Recreation.

The four quadrants of the Matrix define the relative suitability of recreation. This vetting process allows us to determine if the item/process/technique we’re looking at is potentially worth the time, resources & effort to recreate and add to our portrayal.

The Matrix is based on relative ratios between how many sources there are in the period and place we're looking and how many instances we find of the thing we're looking for. For earlier periods, the numbers involved in "low" and "high" are lower as a whole than those of later periods. This could also be true when looking at specific topics. There are more instances of fashion than there are of herbology, for example. So the low and high scale adjusts to these. You chose the numbers you'll assign to them based on what you're researching.

The horizontal axis of the Matrix looks at the body of sources we’ve collected to look for the thing we’re researching, i.e. primary sources. These include visual, written, and extant items from the period and place, such as manuscript contents, structures, paintings, and archeological evidence. While in a perfect world, this would be ALL sources in existence, we know that’s impossible, especially for the layman hobbyist. So we scale this down to what’s most relevant, useful, AND accessible for our purposes. We don’t need to bend over backward to find 40 manuscripts in the rare books department of the local medieval library when 10 reasonably complete, high-res manuscript facsimiles available on the internet will probably do.

The vertical axis of the Matrix looks at the total number of instances we can find inside our collection of sources of what we’re looking for. Crucial to this is our ability to understand what we’re looking for and at, and to be able to interpret the literal and visual languages in use. An understanding of art history, basic manuscript studies, and some idea of how to see like an archeologist are bedrock skills we need to learn as historical recreators. Once we can be more certain that we’re seeing the evidence well, we can count up the instances we find.

Let's look at each quadrant in turn.

Likely: High # of Sources & High # of Instances

When we can collect a large body of sources and find high quantities of the item within those sources, then we're looking at those items that are most likely accurate and useful to recreate. These are the things that feel the most medieval to us because they are easily visible in the historical record. What we must keep an eye on, however, is how these items shift within the Matrix when we take a deeper look. For example, we know that the close-fitting garment we call a kirtle or cote is a likely item in use during the Late Middle Ages, but how it's created and what details it has must be vetted independently. Buttons on the forearms are likely, but embroidery around the neckline may fall elsewhere in the Matrix.

Exception: High # of Sources & Low # of Instances

When we only find a few examples of something within a large body of sources, we're looking at what can be considered either an exception to the rule or potentially a symbolic or fantastical item. We have to be careful that when we chose to recreate things in this category we're clear that they are exceptions. We also have to challenge ourselves not to get into the habit of justifying these exceptions and allow them to dominate our kits and portrayals. A recreation of the exceptions to the rules just compounds upon itself, taking that recreation further and further away from what might be more "normal" or accurate for our period and place. Remember that the typical medieval person across most of the period valued belonging and inclusion with their community over being cast out as different or unique. (For more on this, I recommend The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer.)

Caution: Low # of Sources & High # of Instances

When the pool of sources shrinks, but within that smaller pool we can find many examples of the item, we can consider these likely but with caution. Similar to a scientific research study, smaller numbers of data sets to review produce less reliable conclusions. There are a number of things that may be going on within this quadrant. The item/technique, etc. may be likely, or it may be a regional thing that only works for certain areas. It may be a stylistic thing or a side effect of the way medieval people kept or recorded the item. Bread, for example, is clearly an item that was used and prevalent in the medieval period but recorded bread recipes are hard to find. So we can make a judgment call here, and be willing to update our item if and when more sources become available to add to our research.

Anomaly: Low # of Sources & Low # of Instances

In the final quadrant, we come to those items that 9 times out of 10 we'll want to pass on recreating. These are items that show up rarely in a small pool of sources. In essence, there's little to go in here. For the most part, these things are novelties that may add flavor or interest to our knowledge set, but if our goal is to present as accurately as possible a typical portrayal, these things begin to muddy the water. We may be looking at a one-off choice made by an artist or craftsman due to any number of unknowable factors. We may be looking at someone's idea of a joke. We may be looking at something that we simply can't interpret correctly because we are out of time and context from the original intent. There are times when the anomalies can be the focus of our research to add to our knowledgebase (that 1 out of the 10 times), so the Matrix doesn't discount the usefulness of these items altogether. We simply must acknowledge that what we're looking at here is less likely to be widely accurate.

Sources should be Relevant, Useful & Available

For either end of the Sources scale, remember that we're dealing in relative terms based on the number of relevant, useful, and available sources, and it's up to us to determine the perimeters of that for any individual item we're vetting. We can decide that in order to understand how accurate one item is, we have to limit our sources a bit differently than we might with another item. The example I can give here is that when I went looking for data to write my essay on Early 15th Century Women's Clothing, instead of choosing all early 15th century manuscripts as sources, I outlined a set of specific criteria that limited the sources I would refer to down to what I felt was the most useful and relevant. Number one on the list, of course, was that in order to be considered a source, the manuscript had to contain depictions of women.

How you determine your sources is always going to be dependent on what you're researching and how specific you need to be. If you want to look for "furniture", you're going to look at a larger number of sources than if you were looking for "trestle tables". You're going to limit your sources down to only those that may be likely to show tables.

You have to be careful here, though. When you limit your sources too much, you begin skewing the matrix toward also limiting instances. We can discount viable instances simply because we've put too strict of a boundary around our sources. Therefore, the perimeters of what we use as a source should always seek to include all the relevant and useful instances for the specific thing we're looking for. It's a balancing act.

Anomaly, Exception, or Just Plain Wrong?

I think we also need to look a bit closer at the bottom portion of the Matrix- those areas where the number of instances are low. These are the areas where we're treading close to the line between what is and isn't accurate to portray, but also those areas when sources simply aren't available or useful. There are several portions of historical recreation where the data is lacking. If you study a culture that isn't well documented, you'll consistently encounter Anomalies and mostly nothing else when using the Matrix. In these cases, my suggestion is to ditch the Matrix and beware of dragons. You're in uncharted territory.

If, however, you're researching something that is inside the more studied areas of history, the Matrix is useful to help understand if you're starting to go a bit off course. Especially in later periods, when finding sources is less difficult, we might be inclined to believe that we're not encountering Anomalies in our research, but finding a bunch of Exceptions instead. If our source count is always relatively high, the answer is to adjust the focus to make sure that we're not looking at more sources than we need to. This brings the source count down, shifting the scale toward the lower end. So now, when we find an item in this new source pool that shows up one time only we can be fairly certain we're looking at an Anomaly.

The other item that exists down around here as well are those items that are just wrong. Wrong because they are not historical, or wrong because inside the boundaries of our source limitations, they just don't exist. These things don't fall on the Matrix of Recreation because they should not be recreated. I want to point out that this also applies to items that may exist under a different source pool or a different set of criteria, but that for what you're trying to accomplish they don't show up. Let's say you're looking to see if women wore an item worn by men. Your sources should include all sources likely to show that clothing item. The instances you'll look for will be women wearing that item. It doesn't matter how many sources you're using, if instances don't exist, the most likely conclusion is that women didn't wear that item.

Inherently Ahistorical Situations

Layered on top of any process we use to vet the potential accuracy of what we recreate is the nature, goals, and standards of the communities within which we're recreating. While living history groups generally hold authenticity and accurate portrayal as a cornerstone of their organization, there are other groups for whom that is less strict. The SCA, for example, has room for authentic recreation but does not hold it as a core principle. In these types of situations (and here I'll mainly speak through my SCA experience), we will encounter a whole separate layer that we'll call "Community Material Culture". These are the things that have developed in a historic recreation community that belong exclusively to that community and are an integral part of it. In the SCA, that includes the ways in which peers can be visually recognized, items with years of use and history passed from one person to another, and the deep and extensive use of personal heraldry. When we want to be a part of this group, we also must allow room for the group's material culture to enter and exist in our kits and portrayal.

In these situations, if authenticity and accuracy are our goals (which, I would hope is at least partially the case for the majority of people interesting in portraying medieval life), then before we turn to the Matrix of Recreation, we should identify if the item in question is one of these Community Material Culture items. If so, we then must ask a single question: Can I create this item in a manner consistent with my period and place?

If the answer is Yes, you can utilize the Matrix to find the most likely accurate method of creating the item, or to at least understand if it's more exceptional than likely.

If the answer is No, you have two options. You can skip the item altogether and explain to anyone who asks that it's not correct for your portrayal, and that authenticity is important to you. Or you can create the item anyway with the understanding and acknowledgment that it's not accurate for your portrayal but that its purpose in the community is important to you.

Caveat Emptor

The Matrix of Recreation isn't meant to be a strict guideline. There are simply too many variables, too many topics, and too many exceptions across the board for it to fit all circumstances of historical recreation. It will break down under certain perimeters, and since you must use your best judgment and set your own relative scales, you can always bend it a bit to your will and justify your choices no matter what if you really wanted to. I hope you don't, though. I think it works its best as a gut-check. A quick way to understand if you're on the right track and headed in the right direction.  

I'm a big proponent of self-evaluation, and since I developed this Matrix out of a sense that I, myself was veering off course, I feel like a great way to close this out is to offer examples from my own kit for each of the four quadrants. These are projects that I have created and/or designed that I'm now going to review in retrospect in terms of where they fall in the Matrix of Recreation.

Likely: Open Hoods

Long-time readers will not be shocked to see the open hood as my pick in the Likely category. We can find examples of open hoods throughout the entirety of the Late Middle Ages in the Franco-Flemish region. There's still a lot of nuances to their styles and usages through that period (a 1460 open hood is wildly different from a 1350 open hood), but there are many sources we can use and many instances within those sources, making the open hood a likely accurate item in my wardrobe. Of all the open hoods I've created over the years, I feel that my light pink hood, though perhaps a bit too pale in color, is the best, with the correct weight, shape, scale, and liripipe length.

Caution: Buckled Turnshoes

As a Late Medieval recreator, I find that the Caution category is quite rare (within the things I'm researching). There are so many useable and accessible sources that it's unusual I come across something that falls under the low source/high instance quadrant. One item of mine that does seem to fall here, however, is shoes.

Undoubtedly, women wore shoes, but the style of the shoe they wore is where caution comes into play. When we condense all the sources available for women's shoes specifically, we're not left with much, especially compared to the sources for men's shoes and for women's clothing. Women's footwear was often left out of depictions because it was concealed, and we have very few ways of determining what extant shoes or shoe pieces belonged to female feet.

That said, when the chance for a shoe to show up on a women's foot is present, there's a shoe to be seen. When I reviewed the shoes depicted in my collection of women's manuscript depictions, I discovered that black shoes that covered most of the forward top portion of the foot with a very slight point were those most often painted on the women in my class range. Beyond that, however, I had to turn to non-gendered shoe pieces in the extant record to determine anything more. I ultimately opted to design a shoe that covered the majority of my foot with a buckled strap to keep it tight. This is a best guess with a healthy dose of personal preference, that I feel is what we can call cautiously possible in terms of authenticity.

Exception: Woman's Belt Pouch

Recreators like bags and pouches because our hobby tends to make us mobile, and without pockets, bags are the next best thing. Which holds true for medieval people as well. Pouches themselves are not exceptions and there are hundreds of examples in my period (high number of sources). Filtering for women's use of pouches, however, the number dwindles to a low amount. I took the time to locate every instance of a belt pouch I could find in my manuscript depictions of women research, and there were a total of 14. So while it's not incorrect to have a belt pouch, and I made every attempt to create a pouch in line with the style of those I found, wearing that pouch is an exception to the rule, and should be done in moderation.

Anomaly: Square Hood (worn on a woman)

Anomalies can be hard to accept, especially after we've created the item. Most of my choices in recent years have steered me away from this quadrant, but that is not always the case. The square hood, or hunting hood, is a specific style of hood with straps under the arms, rather than the more traditionally-seen cowl draped over the shoulders. There aren't a great number of examples of the square hood to begin with. In my original research I primarily found depictions of the square hood on men, but there was one effigy of a woman with a hood that looked similar. This, along with my own (probably vain) desires to be cool and have one of these hoods led me to make one. I have used it quite often since, and it's a favorite piece of mine. However, I have to admit that with only one source pointing toward the possible use of this hood by a woman, it's an anomaly that creates a less accurate (even if cool) portrayal.

I hope the Matrix of Recreation helps you steer the course as you build your kit and persona. Remember that we're all learning as we go, so give yourself margin to have Anomalies and Exceptions, to navigate Cautions, and of course to celebrate your Likelies.

[Please feel free to share the Matrix, but be sure to include the link back to this post so the explanation can also be read!]

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Creating an Authentic Cotte, Part 7: Sleeves

When it came to creating the sleeve pattern for the cotte, I had the least amount of reliable period information to go on for how to achieve the pattern.

Set-in sleeves had been in widespread use for some 70 years by the 1410's, and appears to have been a somewhat standard method in use for cotte sleeves in Northwestern Europe.(1) Unlike tunic sleeves- where the straight line of the sleeve head was sewn to the straight line of the armhole- the set-in sleeve made possible the type of tight fit in the bicep that was in vogue and desired. A combination of a small armscye and a shallow S-curve at the top of the sleevehead would provide a slim fit and full rotational movement.(2)

The issue I had here, though, was not knowing how the medieval tailor measured and patterned for such a sleeve. This is the only step in the process in which I had nothing but the final look at my disposal for determining a process.

I decided to consider what measurements are the minimum necessary to be able to create a sleeve that fits. These are the length from the top of the shoulder to the wrist, around the bicep, around the wrist, and the length of the arm underneath from the wrist to the lower side of the armpit. I also needed the measurement around the armscye.

In general, knowing that these measurements are the basis for my more thorough patterning method, this method has a high success rate for me. This time, however, something was off. After attaching the sleeve to the cotte, the shoulder was being pulled significantly off. I was also getting much more bunching in the underarm than I would expect.

After several minutes standing in front of the mirror moving every which way to assess what was happening, I determined that the issue was that the upper crest of the sleeve head S-curve was too shallow.

When I looked at the other side of the dress (without a sleeve attached), I noticed that when I'd cut the armholes, they had been positioned much larger than I needed them. What this meant was that my measurements had been taken from the wrong places, since I'd simply measured at the points I typically do, believing the armhole to be where I meant it to be.

To determine what was actually needed, I measured from the armhole to my wrist on the other arm and added the difference as a gusset onto the sleeve to see if that was the only error that required correction. After sewing it back on, I realized I was still getting bunching in the underarm. After a few more minutes looking in the mirror, I realized that the sleeve needed to be rotated about 2" toward the back where the curve actually reached its peak. After rotating the sleeve to match, everything fit exactly as needed.

I used this sleeve to cut new sleeves at the correct size, thankful that I had enough wool left to do so.

From here, I had more period sources to fall back on.

Just as for the neckline and side opening, the openings for buttoned sleeves were faced, either with silk or with the same material of the sleeve.(3) Since I still had the tan silk, this is what I used to face the side of the opening where the buttonholes would be. The other side is a double folded hem, providing the necessary stability for the buttons.

There are several fabric buttons still attached to their garment remnants in the London finds which has allowed us to figure out a few different methods for creating them ourselves. Though Crowfoot does outline the method they were able to document from the finds, over the years, I've developed my own slightly different version that creates a nicely rounded button at a very quick pace. (I wrote about my method here.)

I used the same linen thread I had been using and the bone needle to create all the buttons. I needed 28 in total.

Since I was still attempting to create this garment has intuitively as possible without a lot of marking and pinning, I had to come up with a simple and reliable method of getting the buttons evening spaced. To do this, I sewed the first and last buttons into place, then folded the sleeve in half to find the middle point, where I sewed another button.

From there, I filled in each half by just stitching the buttons through once. If I needed to adjust the spacing, I simply pulled the button out and tried again.

Once I was happy with the positioning, I sewed the buttons into place for real. I used the same method on the other sleeve.

For the buttonholes, I lined the two sides up and used short lengths of thread to mark the locations for the holes, again adjusting as needed if something looked off.

I used my buttonhole chisel to create the openings for the holes. Buttonhole chisels are known to have been used after the medieval period, but I have been unable to locate any concrete information regarding their use during the 14th or 15th centuries. Since the chisel is a known tool from other crafts, (4) and they do create clean slits perfect for buttonholes, there is a great case to be made for them. A sharp pair of small scissors would work easily as well. I ultimately chose the chisel for this project because my sharpest small scissors are significantly more modern than this 18th-century-style chisel.

Just as there are buttons to review from the period, there are accompanying buttonholes. From the extant buttonholes, we can review (5), there are a few things that make the medieval holes distinct. First, there is no "bar tack" used at the ends of the holes. Second, the holes were finished with a simple stitch, either buttonhole stitch or a tightly spaced overcast stitch. Finally, they were finished most often with silk thread.(6) I used these exact "rules" for the buttonholes.

With the sleeves complete (after double-fold hemming the wrists), I attached the sleeves to the cotte using the same construction and seam finishing techniques I'd used for the rest of the garment. A double fold stitched down with running stitch completed the skirt hem, and the cotte was complete.

Overall, this project was an excellent way to not only push my skills but to also challenge my assumptions on what makes a medieval cotte more authentic. I learned several things that I either didn't know before or had simply not questioned how I knew them before. I also learned some hard lessons about making decisions too quickly or taking it for granted that I know what I'm doing. I love this cotte for the challenge it presented and the research and techniques it allows me to move forward to the next projects with.

Thank you for following along on this project with me. I know I stretched it out a lot, but I wanted to give each part its due!
1. See my tables in this post.
2. For a thorough and excellent explanation of the theory behind why set-in sleeves work the way they do, check out Ikat Bag's Subtleties in Draft Sleeves.
3. Crowfoot, Elizabeth, et al, "Textiles and Clothing c. 1150-c.1450," Museum of London: Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4 (London, HMSO, 1992).
4. Goodall, Ian, "Ironwork in Medieval Britain: An Archaeological Study" (New York, Routledge, 2017).
5. Crowfoot, Elizabeth, et al, "Textiles and Clothing c. 1150-c.1450," Museum of London: Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4 (London, HMSO, 1992).
6. There's a brief but informative write up about medieval buttonholes available from Master Bran Mac Fynin here.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Creating an Authentic Cotte, Part 6: Finishing the Neckline & Side Opening

The addition of a facing to an edge of a garment, either an opening for buttons or around a neckline- is well supported by the London finds. While the surviving examples utilize a tabby woven silk material, there were other types, including now missing linen, and self-facings created with a fold of the garment cloth itself. There is no clear consistency or standards to the width of applied facings, which implies that whatever was needed in the specific application was used. The extant silk facings appear to be cut from a larger cloth and are cut straight to the grain rather than on the bias. (1)

In one well-preserved example, lines of running stitch are top stitched over the facing. (2) Crowfoot indicates speculation on the functional purpose for this, but the extra stitches add stability to the neckline, preventing it from stretching, as well as, possibly, a decorative addition.

For the neckline facing, I used a tan, tabby woven lightweight silk that I created strips of by ripping along the grain. This frays the edges but ensures that they are straight. I quickly learned that the bone needle was too large to sew the fine silk, so I switched to a modern steel needle I had on hand. To conserve silk thread, I used linen thread for all the facing stitches, though the extant pieces use silk more prevalently.

After attaching the facing to the front side with a running stitch, I was confronted with a logistic issue. Since I wasn't using straight pins (except for two dress pins as needed), I realized that attempting to fold the facing inside and tucked under was tedious and difficult. I discovered instead that I could much more easily sew a line of running stitches near the top, locking the facing in place on the backside.

A second line of running stitch allowed me to snag the folded-under edges. Then a final line of hemstitch tacked the bottom edge of the facing down. In this manner, I discovered a plausible case for the running stitches found on faced necklines having a functional purpose in the construction of the neckline, rather than secondary additions applied over the attached facing.

I used a similar method on the facings for the laced opening and buttonhole area on the sleeves later in the process.

After completing the neckline, I began creating the laced opening on the side (see Part 3 for my reasoning for the side opening.) Most of what we understand about late medieval lace openings (those with eyelets) comes from just a few extant examples, one of which is described in detail by Crowfoot from the London finds. (3) It is understood that lacing was a necessary component of late 14th and 15th century fashions because we can see its use in the visual record, particularly tomb effigies like that of Katherine Mortimer (d. 1369), and from our own experiences in recreation, we know that the silhouette of both men’s and women’s styles are difficult (though not impossible) to create without an opening of some type to pass the wider areas of the body through narrow portions of the garment.

Crowfoot describes the extant London eyelet piece as a strip of silk with remnants of wool under the eyelet stitching. The eyelets are evening spaced with the finishing silk thread (worked in buttonhole stitch around each hole) passed under the silk to the next eyelet. The piece only has 6 eyelets and no corresponding piece for the other side of the opening was found.

To understand how the eyelets were arranged, we must rely on the visual evidence, which shows that lacing was typically arranged in a spiral or sometimes a ladder configuration, rather than crossed like a shoelace. (4) When secured into place on one end, a spiral lacing allows the lace to be pulled at the other end to close the gap. This is a useful and practical feature since it makes dressing faster and without the need for a helping hand.

BL MS Burney 257, Thebais and Achilles, circa 1405, fol. 81

Another feature of edge finishing that can be found on garment fragments is the use of a woven edging. Applied directly to the edge of the garment during the weaving process, this feature is perhaps intended to be both functional and decorative. While it does provide stability to the edge so that areas under tension like that of a laced or buttoned opening don’t stretch out of shape, it is also found on the buttoned openings of sleeves which would have been under considerably less stress.

Since I had never used this technique on a garment before, I decided to utilize this technique on the edges of the laced opening, since that area of the garment would be receiving the most stress and the opening warping out of shape would adversely affect the support and shape of my bust.

I began by re-opening the seam along the length I had determined- a few inches below the armscye and about to where the skirt began to flair. I added the silk facings, but only attached them at this point to the opening.

Using Crowfoot’s diagram (on page 161) as a guide, I set up a makeshift tablet weaving rig using my bed’s headboard and two tablet weaving cards made of bone. The silk warp (same gray silk I was using elsewhere) was attaching to the bed, and I pulled from the other end for tension.

I worked with the backside of the opening up, from the bottom of the opening to the top on one side, then from the top down on the other, since this configuration worked best with my right hand. More silk and my bone needle functioned as the weft and shuttle, and each pass through the weave included a pass through the fabric.

Once the edging was complete, I tucked the ends of the weave under the silk facing and used a hemstitch to secure the silk down, leaving room for the eyelets.

I began creating the eyelets with a bone awl, but after a few eyelets, I realized that it was too small, so I exchanged that for a large wooden awl or spike. (5)

I used a measuring rule to fix the distance between each eyelet one at a time. In the same manner as the extant piece from London, I passed the thread through the layers to the next eyelet. Knots and thread ends are all contained between the layers as well.

Since the lace itself would come at the end of the project, I used a temporary lace to try on the garment and test the completed lace opening, with enjoyable success.


1. 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. Ibid, pages 158-161
3. Ibid, pages 164-5
4. “Spiral Lacing - Why and how to do it on 14th century clothing”, La Cotte Simple,
5. While there isn’t much extant evidence for awls specific to garment or fabric applications in the late medieval period, bone awls were known from the Roman era. (See No. 85 and 86 here.) There is also evidence of awls in use for other crafts, such as leatherwork, and the shape and structure of extant holes indicate that they were pieced rather than cut. Awls of bone, wood or metal in use by garment makers of the late medieval period makes conjectural sense.

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.

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.


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).