Sunday, May 6, 2012

Project Complete: Charcoal Gray Wool 15th Century Fitted Dress

[10/31/15: Photos from this post often show up in Google image results and in Pinterest. When I made this, I still had a TON of learning to do about this dress style and how to make it work for my body type. At the time, I was happy with my results, and I never want to discount that, so deleting this post is not an option. But if you're coming to this blog for the first time because you found this image, I urge you to time travel forward to my most recent posts, and see what I'm doing now. -Edyth]

I'd previously referred to this as the dark colored wool dress. After working with the wool, I'm fairly confident in calling it a charcoal gray. That's the color it appears to be in most lighting situations, though there is also often a slight greenish tinge.

Several months ago, I'd decided to start logging my major projects in a consistent format. I hadn't had much of an opportunity to use it before this dress, so I'd like to debut it for you now. The "log" is broken down into three sections: 1) What it is; 2) How I made it; and 3) What I think about it.

Project: Charcoal Gray Wool Fitted Dress
**NOTE: as of the writing of this, the dress is not yet complete- I still need to sew the eyelets for the lacing, and create the buttons and button holes for the sleeves.**

What it is:
This supportive, fitted dress is a rather basic and versatile version of a typical kirtle. Kirtles were worn by women of all levels of 15th century society, but its specific usage depended on whether the wearer was able to wear other gowns (more fashionable overdresses) over top of it. This particular dress is intended to be a multi-use item for use as an underdress as well as wearing it on its own for "working" situations, typical of the lower classes in Flanders and France. In terms of placement in the period, the styling of this dress is appropriate to the first half of the 15th century, with long sleeves, visible center front lacing, no waist seam, and a rounded neckline.

That's my 15th century apron, BTW.  It didn't photograph well, though, so I took it off for the other photos!
How I made it:
I used the body block patterning method developed by Robin Netherton and adapted by both Tasha Kelly and Mathilde Bourrette (mka Charlotte Johnson).  Mathilde's method was the greater inspiration for this particular dress pattern.  This type of patterning may also be referred to as the "draping method". The pattern for the dress is created through a process of direct fitting to the body, starting from scratch with rectangular pieces of fabric draped over the body and systematically pinned, then later basted into place to create a tight bodice (shoulder to hip) that not only conforms to the shape of the wearer's body, but works to shape it as well.  In my case, as with most buxom women, the shaping that occurs through the bust area is a crucial factor of the success of a dress made in this fashion.

To create my pattern, I used scrap corduroy cloth for its sturdy qualities, though a heavy material like corduroy (or canvas, bottom weight or even denim) is not necessary for the fitting process.  It was suggested by Mathilde, in her instructions for fitting yourself for a dress, that a heavier material would make the patterning process easier, particularly for the well-endowed.  Though the stiffer material can sometimes be difficult to work with, it is helpful for getting larger breasts into place with a minimal amount of effort.  After the corduroy pattern was complete, I transferred it to muslin to make notations and for easier storage.

Throughout the patterning process, I had the assistance of my mother.  She did the pinning and marking for me.  Though it's not impossible for a plus size woman to fit herself from scratch, it can be quite difficult and time consuming.  We need to be honest with ourselves that we are not as nimble as we'd like to be, and cannot accurately fit our bodies if we cannot maneuver ourselves well enough to actually see where we're trying to fit!  Help is not a requirement, but it definitely makes the procedure smoother.

During the patterning process, I used lacing strips to assist in getting the pattern on and off easier than sewing myself into it each time.  These reusable strips were very well worth the time to make- they are now an essential tool in my dress-making kit.

Once the pattern was complete, I transferred it to my lining material.  I used a lightweight green linen (purchased from, and cut the lining as a bodice, extending only to just below my hips.  Dress linings are difficult to accurately document in period because of the scant and ambiguous evidence we have for them.  There are some reference to linen linings, but there is also evidence that fur and silk were also used.  To what extend and of what quality is largely a matter of contextual guesswork, based on the class, time period and regional location of the wearer.  In terms of functionality, however, the second layer created by a lining works to prevent the outer fabric from getting all the wear, particularly stretching.  A lining also protects more costly outer cloths (usually wool) from body dirt and oil (though the smock, worn under the dress, does most of that work).  I used linen because it was easy to obtain and makes sense in the context of this dress.

After cutting the lining out, I basted it together, attached the lacing strips and wore it around the house for an hour.  Linen, like all natural fibers, stretch and "ease" as they warm up and are worked in.  The laundered linen, having never been softened through a wearing process before, was actually smaller in weave than it naturally wanted to be.  By wearing it, allowing it to stretch and loosen, I was able to force the linen into a looser weave.  The major benefit of this wearing in process at this point in the dress construction is that it allowed me the chance to re-fit the lining based on this looser weave.  Now, though it might expand slightly more when it is worn for a full day, the linen is basically pre-stretched, and should now not stretch so much during wear that the dresses fitted properties are compromised.

The re-fit lining became the pattern for the wool, cut to full length panels.  The wool is a worsted, twill woven cloth.  It's lightweight, but it is not thin.  It would be perfect for spring, if spring wasn't unseasonably hot.  Through my research into 15th century women's clothing, I discovered that wool was the better and more appropriate cloth for dresses and gowns befitting my persona.  Though this might ultimately be unfortunate in terms of modern climate, I'd rather have more wool garments in my wardrobe than purely linen ones for the authenticity they inject into my persona portrayal.  This dress is the first of many new wool dresses planned.

The dress is comprised of four main panels that encompass the bodice, four sets of gores (each full gore being made up of two halves), and the sleeves.  The seams are placed in the centers of the front, back and two sides, meaning that there are no seams that run directly over the bust, and there are no darts.  This is in keeping with the evidence available for the kirtle style.  I used the straight front method, in which the center front seam is a straight line for the corseting quality this achieves and well as the ease of cutting and assembling that particular seam, especially for the lacing area.  I have created curved front dresses in the past (my recent blue linen test dress is an example) but the straight front does a better overall job of supporting and shaping my bust.  For me, curved fronts typically work in tandem with gravity, and the fit is not as tight.

The primary seams (the ones that hold the dress together) were sewn with a machine using black silk thread.  The sleeves were hand sewn onto the dress with black linen thread using a backstitch.  The seams were then all finished by hand with black linen thread.  I did, however, cheat on the hem- that is also machine sewn.  The remaining finishing work (eyelets and button holes) will be completed with size 8 black pearl cotton.  The lacing is a 4-strand fingerloop braid made with black cotton embroidery floss with beeswaxed ends.  You can learn more about that here.

What I think about it:
While I am overall pleased with the fit and look of the dress, there are some elements I wish to either alter on it or be sure to change for the next dress.  The dress is very flattering on me, and shapes my torso very precisely.  It is comfortable and I believe it to be a very good stepping stone on my path to better, more authentic garb.  Unlike my previous attempts at the quintessential 15th century kirtle, I believe this dress fits the bill and will get many years of wear.

The major item I am not fond of on this dress is that the skirt does not drape as fully as I'd hoped or envisioned.  Though there is plenty of fullness, created by the gores, it hangs limp.  I believe this is due to three main things. First (and I can change this), I think I need to shorten it to allow it to hang unobstructed from my hips, rather than getting caught on the ground. Second, I need to wear a smock underneath.  I won't wear one for the time being because I need to be able to easily access my breasts for breastfeeding, and the only smock I currently have will not facilitate that.  I could wear a slip-style skirt, but I do not have one, and it would need to be particularly tailored at the waist to not be visible were the dress is still tightly fitted. Third, I really needed to line the entire dress.  The drape makes the skirt look thin.  When I walk, the skirt gets captured between my legs.  While I cannot easily correct this, I'll certainly keep that in mind on the next light-weight wool dress.

The set in sleeves are not quite placed correctly, nor did I cut them properly to correctly place the buttons.  I struggled for a full day to get the sleeve head correct (and ultimately had to get help from mom), which set me back.  In my efforts to make up time, I skipped the step in which you adjust the seam placement to bring the buttons away from your elbow and under your wrist.  The process by which you do this is described by Mathilde here.  Since I'm not sure that the sleeves will actually work this way, I have not taken the time to create the button holes and buttons to finish them.  I also did not finish the seams at the top of the sleeves (my hand-sewn seams that attach the sleeves to the dress) in case I decide to remove the sleeves altogether and create new ones.  If I do that, they will be unlined, as I used the last of the green linen to line the current sleeves.  I am fine with rolling them up for now, as this isn't too different from mid-15th century practice.  For an example of rolled up sleeves, check out this image from Le Decameron, and look at the woman in the green dress.

The kirtle in use at Coronation, May 5, 2012.
Though I can't check it off the list yet with these minor adjustments still to do, I am putting it down as a success.  Now let's just hope the weather stays mild enough through the rest of spring for me to get to wear it often!

To view more of this dress, check out the Flickr set!


  1. It looks SO FREAKIN FABULOUS! I love it so much! You did an inspirational and amazing job, as always and you look amazing in it as well. I love the photo of you with the apron - gorgeous shot. That is a great tip about pre stretching the linen. I wish I had done that with mine, as it does stretch enough to make some unattractive wrinkles when I wear my gowns. :( Next time though! I find my wool dress gets caught between my legs when I wear it, too. Wearing the smock underneath does help, but I wish I had lined mine fully as well. Again, notes for next time. Thanks for being such an inspirational seamstress!

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah! I totally feel like a rockstar when I'm wearing it, even with its issues. When I wore it this weekend, I ended up wearing a pair of loose shorts underneath, and they seemed to do a bit to keep the skirt in line.

  2. A bit of unsolicited advice on the skirt drape problem - I believe that if you start your gores a few - perhaps 2 or even 3 - inches higher you'll get better drape over the hips and thus more free motion in the skirt. The full lining will also help. Minor quibble that I wouldn't have said anything if you hadn't brought it up, as it's lovely.

    1. My gore length measurements got a little wonky, so I wouldn't be at all surprised if they ended up a bit too low. I'm also shaped kinda funny around the waist, which make gore placement a little difficult- it's hard to tell where the best place to start them is. I think you've got a good point. Something else to note for next time! Thanks!

    2. I agree with this. IMO the gores should be quite a lot higher - probably around in line with the point of your elbow. (E.g. on photo no. 9 there is a horizontal crease along the back on your left which is in line with your left elbow tip - I would put the tip of the gores as high as that).

      I've fitted a few dresses for a very short-waisted friend and she has a similar problem with the skirts unless the gores are higher than you might expect (in her case, nearly to the bra-band line, making her dresses almost Empire-line in shape).

      Having said that, the dress looks very nice. I think there's a lot to be said for using wool. Also, the sleeves look pretty good to me. I'm currently fighting with sleeves - they do seem to be terribly difficult, especially when you have to instruct a non-sewer or inexperienced sewer how to fit yourself.