Sunday, August 26, 2012

Let's Talk About Sleeves

It's no secret that I hate set-in sleeves. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I *despise* them. They are irritatingly difficult to get right, especially for a frame like mine. My very narrow shoulders, large chest and fleshy upper arms have been a trifecta of evil in the world of sleeve fitting.

I've come to discover recently, however, that my issues with set-in sleeves are probably because I was under the impression, somehow, that creating a set-in sleeve was 2 parts magic and 1 part loosy-goosy laws of nature. There was no way to be precise about it. But after enough frustration, you get to a point when you start to wonder if maybe you've been settling on horrible sleeve construction because you don't know any better.

So I've been taking some time to educate myself.

It started when I used some muslin to create an early 14th century supertunic toile to begin experimenting with a few things. My initial test was pretty basic- I simply wanted to know what a straight-seam, non-fitted gown might look like on me to determine how "early" I would care to take my garb. In the process, it also afforded me an opportunity to try out a different sleeve. Before doing the sleeves on the toile, I leafed through The Medieval Tailor's Assistant and Thursfield's "transitional" sleeve (page 83, figure 9a) caught my eye. Given my hatred of the set-in sleeve, I kind of wondered why I hadn't really noticed it before.

Essentially, the transitional sleeve (as Thursfield presents it) utilizes a curved sleeve head, similar to a set-in sleeve, where the curve is shallow and basically just a formality. (You need a bit of curve in order to match it to a round armscye effectively.) The sleeve is as wide as your bicep, and the shallow S-curve simply caps it. The likelihood that this curved line matches the length of the armscye, however, is pretty low. The length (or rather width of the sleeve head), therefore, is made up with either the addition of a triangular gusset on one side of the sleeve head (a), or a bit of flaring at the top of the sleeve on one side (b). These combinations do not exactly mimic the behavior of the more streamlined set-in sleeve, and they don't give you the same control over the fit, since you're un-scientifically adding width without regard for how that width fits on the arm, but you can still achieve a good fit on the lower bicep, elbow and forearm.

Thursfield doesn't provide a year range for the transitional sleeve (just a "from 1300" notation), but there is evidence of the use of the sleeve gusset on several of the Herjolfsnes gowns, such as Herjolfsnes 38. Since the Greenland finds are typically understood as belonging to a separate and perhaps belated fashion group from those of the mainland, their dating to the mid-14th century probably indicates that transitional gusset sleeves may have still been in use up to circa 1350 or so on the mainland. This also indicates that using a gusset for a psuedo-set-in sleeve would have been considered quite out-dated by the 15th century (especially given the vast amount of fashion upheaval in the late 1300's.)

My personal conclusion is that the transitional sleeve is a nice option for 14th century-specific dresses, but not those to be considered "high fashion". It is a good alternative when the precise look and fit of a set-in sleeve is not critical to the style of the dress.

An alternative method to this that actually does create a set-in sleeve can also be found in The Medieval Tailor's Assistant. Thursfield actually figured out a mathematical method of creating a set-in sleeve, leaving very little to the magical tweaking I had previously relied on. So I decided that since I needed to redo the sleeves on my charcoal gray dress anyway, I would give this method a test.

After removing the old sleeve, I measured the armscye of the gray dress. I used inches and did cm conversions throughout to keep up with Thursfield's metric instructions, but in retrospect, I probably would have been better off using cm all along.

After following Thursfield's instructions (which you can find on pages 34-38, and for the sake of her copyright I'm not really at liberty to lay out for you here), I had a completely new sleeve pattern. Just for the sake of comparison, I laid my old sleeve on the new pattern just to see the difference, and I was astounded by the huge discrepancy between the two.

After stitching the new sleeve toile into place, I put the dress on to see how it fit, and the Thursfield method worked (nearly) perfectly! For comparison, I left the other sleeve on the dress, so I had my husband snap a picture. It may be difficult to tell how poorly the gray sleeve fits in comparison, but if you look at the way the neckline pulls into that side (vs. the toile side), you see that something is clearly wrong. That side of the torso is under a lot of stress, since the sleeve is pulling the fabric unnecessarily into the sleeve seam.

Doesn't this photo kind of remind you of the old Batman villain scenes?
You can also see that there's some extra fabric in the front shoulder area of the toile side of the dress, but fixing that should just entail pulling the excess fabric into the sleeve. For this dress, however, I'm not worried about that. I did have to remove a bit of excess from my sleeve head to fit the armscye properly, but that was an easy adjustment to make (you can see the original adjustment lines in blue along the top of the seam lines below- I basically removed the projected extra I'd put in as a bulge for the bicep.)

The next thing to do was to adjust the seam so that it shifted to the side of the arm for better button placement. To determine that, I marked where my arm side is, and marked the depression on my extended elbow. After removing the sleeve and flattening it back out, I drew a connecting line between the top seam starting point, the elbow mark, and the wrist side line (inner blue markings above).

Then I cut along that line and placed the piece I removed on the other side. The top of the two pieces don't line up without puckering, so it was a bit of work to get the seam lines aligned properly and for the sleeve to still be mostly flat. Then I transferred it to a new toile.

Something went a bit screwy after this step, and I had to adjust the sleeve to be tighter along it's entire length. I also, again, had to remove some from the sleeve head to allow it to fit the armscye. Not a problem to fix, though- I just took it in until it fit again.

The end result is a set-in sleeve that fits (though I still need to make a few very minor adjustments to the precise tightness.)  It did take a bit of time and a couple of large sheets of paper and muslin, but the effort was definitely worth the eye-opener.

So what have I learned here? For starters, I've learned that dismissing Thursfield's mathematical method for as long as I did was probably a stupid move. Though I have serious doubts that a medieval dressmaker would have been as scientifically anal, there's certainly a method here that could have easily be intuitively developed by an individual seamstress over time. I've learned that there's no reason to be stuck with a poorly-fitted set-in sleeve. And I've learned that, while there are some loosy-goosy rules involved, sleeve fitting requires absolutely no magic abilities.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Making a Decision

After I completed my charcoal gray fitted dress, it was time to begin work on the pieces of my Garb Quest, but something was holding me back.  It took me several weeks, but eventually I realized that my delay in beginning the first dress of the quest, my pink wool cote, was primarily caused by a doubt that the from-scratch fitting technique I'd just used on the charcoal gray dress was appropriate for my middle class, early 15th-century persona. I questioned if the time and labor intensive process of creating a kirtle from 4 panels directly fitted on the body was truly a method available to my class.

Through this doubt, I then began to question the Garb Quest itself. I've stated it before- I do not consider myself a seamstress. I sew my own garb out of necessity, not because I'm particularly good at sewing. My primary interest is the research portion of creating my garb and developing my persona. Originally, my garb quest was designed to facilitate better craftsmanship and to help me to be a better seamstress. At the time, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable goal, and if you've read along with me for a while, you probably remember that I went through an incredibly frustrating period when I realized that my sewing skills and craftsmanship didn't match the visual I imagined through my research.  It seemed perfectly reasonable to force the issue with a quest that focused on the skills I lacked.

There is nothing wrong, however, with lacking skills that are not necessary for understanding and enjoying what I prefer to do.  I don't need to even own a sewing needle to do research and study 15th century women's clothing and headdress (though I will concede that it does indeed help.)

I think I just got myself into an inspirational death-spiral.  Many of the blogs I read on a regular basis by other costumers (not all medieval) create the most gorgeous items with absolute impeccability.  Pleating is perfectly even, buttonhole stitches are precise and clean, fabric buttons are tiny, cute and perfectly round balls.  And it's easy, among that sort of company, to look at my own work under the wrong light.  There's a quote that I think applies:

"Comparison is the thief of joy."
Theodore Roosevelt

My Garb Quest shouldn't really be about making myself a better seamstress.  Though I would love to be, and that remains a general life goal I maintain, I don't usually get a high on being able to sew.  I get a high on figuring something out, on drawing a connection, on making speculations and proving them right or wrong (and I do actually like being proven wrong when it comes to medieval costuming research!). I like experimenting, and goofing off with ideas, and imagining a reality that could have been!

So, and I promise this is the last time, my Garb Quest is changing once again.  I have separated the two elements of the original quest into a research paper and a complete outfit.

The paper will be submitted for A&S judging in January.  For the moment, the topic is a bit overwhelming, but it will somehow focus on the wardrobe of a bourgeois housewife of the early 15th century and will also look at the influence of bourgeois women on the display of fashion in contemporary artwork.

The outfit will no longer be entered into A&S for reasons beyond that listed above.  I have put a huge amount of time an effort into researching what's appropriate for the outfit, and if I complete it for judging, I'd put a large amount of time and effort into its construction.  First, I don't have that sort of time on my hands. Second, I'm not really interested in having my craftsmanship possibly overshadow the hard work I'd put into the outfit's research. The A&S Faire system is fine for some people on this type of scale, but I don't think I'm one of them. And I'm not ashamed to admit it.

The outfit will still be completed, but I will use the sewing machine for the primary construction on the dresses, then finish them by hand. The smaller items that I have not yet started, will still be entirely hand sewn.

And I will complete it purely for the opportunity the wear it- no A&S strings attached. And I can't tell you how honestly relieved I am to make that decision!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


I've been massively busy lately with a huge amount of various projects, including getting ready for my 3 oldest kids' birthdays starting this coming Sunday. Thus, I haven't had much of a free opportunity to post here. I am, however, working on creating my pink wool supportive dress, and I will have a great deal to share with you about it, as well as some of the lessons I learned doing an experiment before starting the dress.  I just wanted to check in right now, though, to let you know that I haven't dropped off the face of the earth- I just seem to have misplaced all the extra time I have. *snort*

I've been doing some thought-sharing over at my other blog, Growing Up Medieval, so if you really miss me, I encourage you to check that out!