Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Science of Sleeves.

There are no shortcuts to making a great fitting sleeve.

When I first started out creating set in sleeves, I began with a very basic, loosely explained method. We'll call this your standard "magical" method. You've come across this method every time the physical act of drawing the correct sleeve head curve is sort of glossed over in the instructions with something along the lines of "until it looks about right".

After drawing out the rest of the sleeve's shape according to the measurements of your arm, and having the armscye measurement in hand, you're supposed to create an S-curve of the armscye length. You're given no real guidelines to work with (except maybe a "don't go higher than this" line), and there's absolutely no information about a sleeve head not actually being symmetrical. So after drawing the totally made up curve, I don't know what. Offer chocolate to the celestial sleeve gods, burn some sandalwood incense, and recite Hamlet's soliloquy backwards, I guess? Hope and pray.

That method is a relatively common starting point for many of us because it doesn't challenge us to understand anything. It's also sometimes touted as a "period method", so we automatically gravitate to it. It produces a sleeve that fits your armscye. Forget the rest.

Until you raise your arm, or try to hug a friend, or just stand there doing nothing, for that matter. The chances that you actually found the right sleeve head curve first try with the worst instructions ever are so slim, they might-as-well not exist. So a sleeve made with this method is not going to be your best attempt at a sleeve.

After getting frustrated with hoping and praying that my sleeves would work, I was really excited to find a method that mostly worked, most of the time. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of believing that that sleeve drafting method, presented in "The Medieval Tailor's Assistant" by Sarah Thursfield, was better because it used math. I figured that a few mostly successful sleeves made from that method (that were much more comfortable than my previous "magical" attempts) meant that Thursfield's drafting system could be relied upon for a great sleeve, every time.

Eventually, however, I began to see that Thursfield presents the formula for drafting a sleeve in such a mathematically precise way that errors in the fit just can't be troubleshot. When half your drafting method requires 5ths and 10ths of your body's measurements, it's pretty dang hard to keep up with exactly which portion of your shoulder joint those relate to.

In essence, applying such mathematical strictures on the process turns the draft into nothing better than an off the rack pattern. Everything is based on proportions that you probably don't really have. Is my arm depth truly 1/5th of my arm length? I'm not a Grecian statue, with perfect proportional relationships between my various body parts. So maybe my arm depth is really 7/32nds the length of my arm. Translate that minor difference across the whole drafting process and the result is an ill-fitting sleeve. And there's no way to correct without a whole other set of adjustments with no relationship to your original draft. [This is not to say that "The Medieval Tailor's Assistant" isn't worth owning- it's a great resource.]

Sleeve drafting is a science, not a shortcut. It can't be made up based on loose or nonexistent limits, nor can it be entirely broken down into formulas and equations. But your crappy fitting sleeve is doing x because of y. Cause and effect. Method and result. SCIENCE!

All good scientific study comes from first understanding the subject on a basic level. When it comes to sleeves, the primary thing to understand before looking further is that just because a measurement is right doesn't mean the shape you create from it is.

The length of a sleeve head and the measurement around the corresponding armscye should be equal, right? In a very technical sense that also means that I could create a flat sleeve head, and it would still fit the armscye as long as the measurements match. That's not to say that a sleeve created and attached in such a manner would be particularly good (or period accurate), just that in a purely mathematical and physical sense, it would work.

So if a flat sleeve head is just as functional as a curved one (for the sake of argument), then that also means that any curve to a sleeve head, as long as the measurements match, is just as technically good as any other curve.

Except that it's not just as good on every other level that matters (aesthetics, comfort, movement, etc.) Even if you can technically make a functioning seam between the armscye and the sleeve head, that doesn't mean that the resulting seam, or the nature of the sleeve beyond that seam, are ideal. If a sleeve head curve of the correct measurement can look however it wants and still fit the armscye, every different version of that curve creates a completely unique sleeve. And, more importantly, only a tiny fraction of those unique versions actually work for your unique body and the fit you are trying to achieve. One might even go as far as saying that, for every single garment armscye, there's only one perfect curve for you, and all the rest are crap. And while that sucks, it also means that if you're still having an issue with your sleeve, something is still not right. Because sleeves are science. You can't just close your eyes, knock your heels together, and stand back as any issues resolve themselves.

The only way to find the right sleeve head shape for your garment, your body, and your fit needs is trial and error. I can send you to at least five sleeve drafting tutorials that will get you technically functional sleeves. You can make a sleeve from any one of them that will fit your armscye. While it may be perfectly passable, though, it will likely not be great. The armpit will probably be too sort, or the top curve too high, or the bicep too tight. Or something.

But since science can be learned, it's not impossible to troubleshoot those issues. You may need to do it one issue at a time. You might even need to revisit an issue after fixing others. You will probably get frustrated and a bit tired from the process. The point, however, is that you don't settle for the shortcut.

I'm putting the blog on winter break while I prepare for and celebrate Christmas with my family. I'll return on January 4th. Season's Greetings to you and yours!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

In-Progress: Celtic-Inspired Embroidered Tunic

I'll just start this one off by saying that this project is intimidating.

As I've gotten more comfortable with making garb for my husband, and we've both honed in on what he likes, I've been steadily increasing the effort that I put into it. And as that's happened, I've introduced decorative details, in addition to now almost exclusively hand-sewing his tunics.

Last year, when we did a fabric re-stash, we procured an amazing piece of linen. I don't know the exact weight, but I'd have to guess that is close to 4oz, which puts it in the "light-weight" category. It uses blue threads for the warp, and red threads for the weft, and the result is what we've lovingly called "3D". From a distance, it has a purple quality, but the blue and red are visible enough that, as soon as it moves, you have to question what it is you're really seeing. It's beautiful and unique, and perfect for something special.

As we discussed what to do with the linen, and what the final tunic might possibly look like, I suggested that an embroidered collar was probably in order. I've wanted to do fancier embroidery on his items, but I'd been holding back for some unknown reason. Probably fear of screwing it up. But as soon as that idea was on the table, there was no going back.

The tunic itself was fairly straightforward, and nothing different from what I've been doing. It's hand-sewn with black linen thread. It's the neckline, however, that's the kicker, since this is what I decided to embroider onto it:

Yeah. It's a little more than 9 inches across.

From my past embroidery thread experiments, I knew I wanted to use either a wool or a silk thread, but one that was lightweight, since the linen is so delicate. At a local embroidery supply shop, I discussed my project with the owner, and eventually I ended up at a rack of Caron Impressions 50/50 wool and silk blend thread. I'd used that thread in my experiment, so I knew that is was a lovely and airy choice. So I picked up white, pale blue and pink. (After checking several times with my husband that he was okay with pink.)

I also have a plan to include some gold details, but I'm not sure if I'll use metallic thread or find a gold I like in the Impressions line.

In order to get the design on the tunic, I decided (after some trial and error with other methods) to use modern transfer paper. While the pick and pounce method is most commonly thought to be the period method, the complexity of the design and the wobbly nature of the linen made that process ludicrous. I went out to the craft store and found some yellow-line transfer paper to use instead. After some trial and error, I decided to place the tunic on a (gigantic) embroidery hoop inside out so that the area of the design was stretched, but could also be laid flat against the table.

Then I placed my design using the marks I'd already made for centering as a guide. I taped just the two far edges into place.

I slid the transfer paper into place between the design and the tunic (color side down), and when the whole thing was just right, I taped the heck out if it to secure everything down.

Using a ballpoint pen, I traced over the entire design. When done, I removed both sheets, and voila! My design was in place.

Even though the transfer paper is not supposed to rub off, after a few stitches, I realized that my pattern was disappearing. So, very carefully and slowly, I used an ink pen to trace the lines again. They won't rub off, and the embroidery will cover them when all is said and done.

I'm starting off with split stitch. I've got in in my head that I will also use some Beaux stitch, stem stitch and satin stitch on other areas of the design. It'll be a labor of love, that's for sure.

This one has been on my in-progress pile for quite some time (it's kind of overwhelming), but my husband and I agreed that it should be done for him to wear for an event in July this year. Since we've got a month off from events right now, and nothing else really pressing at the moment, I've decided to move this one up on the priority list. Time to chew what I bit off.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Baltic-Style Pick-Up Inkle Weaving, Cont.

At RUM last weekend, I had the opportunity to learn a bit more about Baltic-Style Inkle Weaving from Lady Kateline Eliot. I think it's always a great idea to take classes offered by others that cover topics or crafts that I've learned on my own, to give myself the chance to find out more or see the topic from a different perspective. I'm really glad I did in this case.

For the most part, Kateline reinforced what I'd learned. (It's a great feeling knowing you're not on a page all by yourself!) She also mentioned three things about the Baltic Style that I either did not previously know, didn't really cover in my own tutorials, or were different than how I'd understood the technique.

I had the chance to speak with Kateline before leaving to get a bit more clarification from her on the item that was really different from my experience, and I walked away incredibly inspired to start up a new weave and address my three notes for myself.

Please consider these three observations to be additions to my Baltic-Style Pick-Up Inkle Weaving tutorial.

1. Pattern threads are arranged in such a way that they come in paired sets (each set contains a heddled and unheddled pattern thread), PLUS a final single pattern thread (instead of a full pair) at the end. That final, single thread allows for the range of patterns that are possible with the technique. If you didn't have that final pattern thread, you wouldn't be able to create a symmetrical circle, for instance. This also means that the total number of pattern threads will always be an odd number in the Baltic-Style method.

2. Technically speaking, it doesn't really matter whether it's your heddled or unheddled pattern threads that are in the up position when you start your pattern manipulation. You're going to be manipulating the pattern threads anyway, so there's no real difference between the sheds when you get right down to it. It DOES matter, however, if you'd prefer to save the work and trouble of always needing to manipulate on every weft pass.

Because your total number of pattern threads is an odd number, when they are warped, there will be an even number of pattern threads on one shed and an odd number on the other. This exactly coincides with the way grid patterns are arranged.

Pink squares represent pattern threads. Either the even or the odd row could be the heddled row.

If you are creating your own pattern and you have a design in mind, establish the color changes on the chart first. Then, look at the pattern and determine which rows are arranged to take advantage of the odd row and which take advantage of the even row. (It may or may not be immediately clear.)

In this pattern, I created an arch design. The pale pink squares represent the threads I would need to pick up, and the gray squares represent the dropped threads. The dark pink squares show where threads are not manipulated out of their natural positions.

If you're not trying to create a particular pattern, and are starting from scratch without a clear goal in mind, you can set up your chart with the odd and even rows marked (place dots on the squares of any threads that would be naturally up on that row), and build your pattern around that.

The circles represent threads that are currently up on that row.

There may be areas of your pattern that simply do not conform to the odd/even pattern, and that's okay- you just want to establish which shed is the best to start with for the least amount of manipulation throughout the majority of the pattern.

3. In my (albeit limited) experience with the Baltic-style method, I have yet to experience an issue where the background threads interfere with areas of pattern that are meant to look like solid pieces. This was not the case for Kateline, however, so I was prompted to talk this over with her and to look into this when I got home.

Generally speaking, the thicker pattern threads should fill out over the patterned threads, concealing them. (This is the primary reason you need thicker pattern threads.) It may be the case, however, that the difference in thread thickness between background and pattern is not significant enough and/or the contrast between your colors is so strong that the background colors "poke through", disrupting the look of the design. If you're looking at your piece and seeing your background in areas that should be solid pattern, you might want to experiment with dropping those background threads. This only makes sense within the solid areas, so don't drop all the backgrounds- just the ones that are interfering. Remember that it's the background threads that are forming the foundational weave. You don't want to manipulate those willy-nilly, or your finished band won't hold together as well as it should. If you're not seeing any background color in your solid pattern areas, don't manipulate the background threads at all.

I'm excited to have had the chance to look into Baltic-Style Pick-up inkle weaving again to learn more and further understand why the technique works the way it does. I started a narrow band using white and dark pink (crochet cotton) really just to help me wrap my mind around these concepts. I'm thinking of using it specifically for part of the kokoshnik portion of a new early Slavic veil I'm assembling to add to my headdress arsenal for teaching. Or my daughter could claim it, as she does with anything I make containing pink.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

On My Work Table

First off, I'm excited to let you know that I'll be teaching something at this fall's Royal University of the Midrealm (RUM) that's pretty dear to my heart. The class is titled "Blogging for SCAdians", and just as the name suggests, I'll be talking about starting up, maintaining, and keeping up with a blog geared specifically to a historical re-creationist audience. As you can imagine, I've got a lot to say on the subject. If you've been looking for that last bit of inspiration to start your own blog, need some insight into why your existing blog may not be going as well as you hoped, or just want the inside scoop on the back end of blogging, then I'd love to have you join me.

I'll also be teaching a class with a friend of mine on 15th Century upper class fashion. He's a lover of all things 15th Century, but he never really looked at women's clothing. I haven't studied men's clothing. So we're pooling our knowledge for a decade-by-decade look at the evolution of high class fashion for both sexes in the 15th Century. It is our hope that this class will open up our own research to broader avenues, and provide us with a better understanding of the larger picture surrounding our specific interests. And those who attend get to benefit as well! It's gonna be epic.

As far as projects go, I've had a bit of a motivational slump these past two weeks. (I say that, but I've actually been quite productive with non-SCA projects, like scrap booking and knitting.) I think I'm back on the upswing now, though. I want to have my ginger linen dress ready for RUM, but I'm worried that I held off on it a bit too long. I'm determined to sew it completely by hand, which takes time and patience. So we'll see. So far, I've sewn on the backing for the eyelets (the linen is pretty weak, so I really needed extra reinforcement there), and completed the finishing on the front and back center seams. I hope to have the side seams finished by the time I go to bed today. I haven't started the sleeves yet, and those tend to be my make-it-or-break-it component.

I also decided that I wanted to make something green for Christmas Tourney in December to go with their Midrealm colors theme (green, red and white). I decided on a new caplet to wear with my rose red dress. I've got a 7oz green linen for that. I may line it with some white faux fur I've got, or see about getting some white wool instead. Green is not a color I wear too often (I have a piece of gorgeous blue-green linen waiting to be made into a dress), but it's a good color to have in the wardrobe.

What else? I haven't made any new progress on my new silk embroidery, but after talking over some of the issues I was having on my linen alms purse with my Laurel, I've given that a slight reboot.

The first problem I had was that I didn't care for how the zig-zag background was coming out. I ripped it out, but then didn't know what to do. I was having tension issues, so the first thing that needed to happen was to take it off the frame I had it on, put it on a larger frame, then tension the other two edges.

The next thing to do is to begin creating a couched background using the zig-zag pattern I already drew out. I haven't gotten back to that yet. My plan is to use the gray linen for the field and couch it with either white or black linen sewing thread. I'll need to do a test to see which I like better.

For the back side, I had opted for a brick stitch pattern. As I started to work on it, I realized that I didn't care for the way the colors interacted with each other. The white was too glaring and the green and pink were not complimentary to each other. Here's how it looked:

I ripped out the pink and white, and swapped them:

Much better.

The last thing that's in the current queue is a much different type of project. I'll be covering this one over on Growing Up Medieval once I get it started. While browsing around Michael's a few weeks ago, I spent some time looking around in their wood crafts section and found a neat fold and carry castle.

It's perfect to take along to events. While I like the plain wood, I would rather paint it. I loved doll houses as a kid, and always really liked the details that were included on the walls, separate from the furniture and dolls I could move around. So I'll be painting both the outside and the inside. The outside will have details like knotted bedsheets hanging out of a window, bushes and flowers to indicate a garden, and maybe a cat or two. The inside will have a great hall, throne room, kitchen, king's chambers, queen's chambers, and as many interesting details as I can comfortably paint in (since I can't take it apart). I'll then be keeping my eyes open for the right scale of blank peg dolls to paint up to go with it.

But first, I gotta get that ginger linen dress done.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Tying a Turk's Head Knot

Each month I'm presenting a new tutorial on a medieval skill from various types of textile-related crafts. The purpose is two-fold. First, it will allow me to locate, study, and try a variety of new techniques I might otherwise overlook, and second, it's an easy way to get information out there about skills that other people might be looking for or find helpful. This month, I present Turk's Head Knots.

In planning out my latest bag project, I made a note that I wanted to use turk's head knots on the tassels hanging at the base of the bag. This meant, of course, that I needed to learn how to create turk's head knots. And since you know I don't think anything is worth learning if I can't find a way to explain it to you all as well, here we go!

Turk's head knots are really just braids worked in a circle. There are several varieties of turk's heads, distinguished from each other by the number of times the knot works around the core, and the number of outside edge scallops that are produced.

In order to better understand how these knots are formed, there are a few knotting terms you should know. They are lead, bight and pass.

Leads (sorry for the blurry photo!)

Lead: Unlike braiding, where each strand in the braid has its own end, there's technically only 1 strand in a Turk's head knot (with a starting end and a working end.) So to distinguish the parts of a knot that the laymen might identify as strands from actual, honest strands, the term "lead" (with a long e) is used instead. Just like in a braid, the more leads in the knot, the more weaving is involved. The number of leads help classify the specific turk's head knot you are forming.

Bight: In general knot making terms, each u-shaped bend in the rope is called a "bight" (pronounced "bite"). In turk's head knots, these bends manifest themselves as scallops along the outside edge of the knot. This means that you can also classify the type of turk's head by the number of bights formed when it's complete. Even though bights are formed on both sides of the knot, they are only counted on one.

Pass: Since most turk's head knots are formed around a cylindrical core (such as a tassel), there's a point across the knot that marks when you've finished one portion of the knot and started the next. Visually, it's marked by where the starting end comes into the knot. Each time around the cylinder is called a pass, each pass forms a new lead, and each lead takes a unique path, creating a bight in the process. Pass = Lead = Path = Bight. The exception is the first lead, which is often created in the same pass as the second.

The other thing to know is that the turk's head knot is formed once all passes have been performed, and is then typically filled in by repeating the knot 1 or two more times. All of that repetition comes after the knot is actually formed, and has no bearing on the leads, bights and passes.

When you look out on the internet for "turk's head knot", you're likely going to first run into a 3 lead version, like this one (which is a 3 lead, 7 bight knot, BTW.) The problem with learning how to do turk's heads with a smaller number of leads is that you have to swap the leads manually in order to get the woven pattern correct. This isn't really a beginner-friendly thing. Once you understand the mechanics of the turk's head, however, it makes sense and is much easier to perform.

For this tutorial, I'm going to walk you through a 5 lead, 4 bight turk's head. This means that the knot will be completed (minus any repeats) once 5 leads are in place and the edge of the knot has 4 scalloped bends (the bights). This produces what's known as a square turk's head, and really highlights that the knot is woven together.

And speaking of weaving, here's a thought that might help you going in: turk's head knots aren't just "knotted". They are formed by an over-under working pattern. As you create the knot, you are weaving the strand with itself.

You don't have to start with a tassel. You'll need some type of sturdy string or cord, a tapestry needle, and a small diameter cylinder to work around. The size of cylinder you need is directly connected to the thickness of your string. If you're using a heavy crochet cotton, the diameter of a AA battery is nearly perfect. Your finger would also work, but I'd save that for when you've got a few successful knots under your belt.

Ready? Let's do this thing:

So here are some of the take-aways:

Remember that all woven things require strands worked in (at least) two different directions. The first pass of the knot creates the first two leads and sets up the two directions- that first X. This also establishes your over/under pattern, since lead 1 goes under lead 2. The remainder of the knotting pattern is based off this.

The knot is formed from the outside in. More specifically, the two edges are formed, then the additional leads work their way between them back to the start. This is different from traditional weaving, which starts on one end and works across the piece to the other end. When you place a new lead, you can use the first lead as a guide for what you need to do when you cross the third, fourth and fifth leads. Simply count out the over/under pattern for the leads that aren't there yet up to the one you're working.

Every pass is creating a bight. The bight appears before the lead's pass crosses through the knot on its way back to the left. So you go all the way to the right, then turn back (creating the bight), and go all the way to the left. Turk's heads with more bights may require additional trips back across- it depends on the lead to bight ratio.

Remember when you get to the tightening point to BE PATIENT. Take it a section at a time, and don't worry if it feels like you're just going around in circles not accomplishing anything. You are making an impact, and the knot will look much better for the effort.

I hope that this all makes sense and helps you see the mechanics of how turk's heads are formed, and why they are worked in the manner they are. I've tried my best here to break it down so you can see the mechanics and not simply the method. This doesn't mean that your first attempt not watching the video will be an automatic success, just that I hope you'll be better equipped to remember the method by being able to think through it. Good luck!

I'd love to see your knots- you can share them with me over on Facebook!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

In Progress: Silk Brick Stitch Bag

So my newest favorite thing is creating counted thread embroidery patterns. I have an Excel spreadsheet set up for satin and brick stitch as well as long-arm cross stitch. When I'm bored or not busy (which is, admittedly, rare these days), I'll fire up that file and start seeing what I can come up with. Pre-established patterns, like the ones on, are great for learning, but I've found that I understand and appreciate the period motifs and patterns better by playing around with what's possible. I also feel, as an artist, there's really only so long you can copy other people's work, even if that work is several hundred years old and therefore not copyrighted.

After finishing up the embroidered purse (which was another original pattern derived from a fragment at the V&A), I decided that I wanted the challenge of coming up with an entirely new pattern. I also wanted something that looked more French. That's not to say that the German counted thread techniques were used in France- just that I wanted something that might better, visually, suit my persona. I also didn't want to go overboard. I wanted the challenge to be the uniqueness of the piece- not the scope of the work.

Before even opening up my file, I knew I wanted to see if brick stitch could produce a fleur-de-lys motif, and allow it to still actually look like fleur-de-lys. I also knew that I wanted to create a flower motif that was not necessarily rote-copied from another pattern. Here's what I came up with:

The lozenge layout happened pretty organically. Brick stitch lends itself very well to a field of diamonds. Inspired by this piece, I'd been wanting to create a pattern that used simple, graphic elements, so on this one I included stripes and chevrons to create the neutral base for the gold and white lozenges. I was originally going to include red in the pattern, but when I set that up in Excel I hated it. The inclusion of a lighter blue came about instead.

The next challenge I decided to set forth for myself was to complete this project with silk. I have had very little experience with embroidering large pieces with silk. Brick stitch is such a good "beginner" method that I don't have to worry about battling the silk learning curve while trying a more complex technique.

Materials and colors picked out, I jotted down some ideas for how the whole bag might go together:

Then I chose a size of 10"x7.5". I'll be working these as two separate panels, rather than a continuous piece, so that I have a seam at the bottom to muck around with tassels in.

I went to my local embroidery shop and picked up cards of Splendor silk from Rainbow Gallery. You can also get that online (from Nordic Needle, for example). This is a 12-strand thread that is divisible. I'm using 4 strands for the 32-count linen ground.

Before starting the work, I made sure to finish the edges of my linen to keep it from disintegrating on me as I work. You could also use masking tape or even secure bias tape to accomplish this same thing.

Then I measured out my two panels and used a running stitch in maroon thread to outline the panels so that I didn't have to worry about where my edges were when I got going.

I also made sure to find my center point to begin the embroidery so that, unlike my previous embroidery, the pattern sits symmetrically on the panel. Unfortunately, I forgot to move down the panel a bit to leave room for the eventual drawstring area. Luckily, though, the embroidery I had done before I realized that could be flipped upside down and still work. So I'm working bottom up now.

I got started and snapped this picture to share with my friends on Facebook:

As I looked at it, it started to bother me that the blue lozenges weren't as sharp looking as I envisioned when reduced down to actual stitch size. As I stared at it, I realized that the borders I'd included around those were probably unnecessary, and were making the stripes and chevrons look crowded. I also realized that the top and bottom shapes of the flowers weren't really appealing to me and could really just use an extra stitch. So I revised the pattern:

I decided that I wasn't going to rip out what I had already done. It would have wasted the silk, for starters, but there's also precedent in medieval patterned embroideries for changes in the design that really look like someone changed their mind more than just made a mistake. They often occur on the edges of the patterns, just like in my case. Since the overall structure of the lozenge pattern hasn't changed, these few that I've already completed aren't getting in the way of the altered pattern.

I haven't gotten to work on it too much since making that change, but here's what the piece looks like now:

Thank you for making it to the end of this post. Because you stuck it out, I'm making my Excel file available to you to download! You will need Excel 2010 or later. Instructions are on the first sheet, then there are sheets for the three techniques. The template is provided as is. I will not be performing troubleshooting or lessons on how to use it beyond the instructions provided within. You can download it here. Have fun with it. Be fearless with your experiments! If you ruin it, just came back and download it again! (If you use the template and publish the patterns you create with it on your own blog, I would appreciate it if you would mention that I created the template, and provide a link to this post. Thanks!)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Project Complete: Late Medieval Double Apron


A German "double", or midwife's, apron, from the late 15th century.


In various places throughout late medieval German art, such as in The Birth of Saint Roche (c. 1475-1485, St. Lorenz, Nuremburg) below, we can see a distinctive type of "double apron" in use. For the most part, the aprons appear to be used by midwives, giving them the monicker "midwife's apron" among some researchers. Karen Larsdatter includes a handful of them in her apron listing.

When I first found this apron style, I was intrigued by it, but since I wasn't doing late medieval German, it never made it much past the "hmm, that's interesting" phase. Then, some time back, I'd pinned an image of Lady Malina wearing a double apron. I really liked it, and decided that it should at least go on my "possible projects" list. When I decided that I wanted to include an apron in the new set of garb I was making for my daughter, I got poking around Pinterest, and re-found that apron. So, of course, now it was front and center on my radar, and I decided that I wanted to go ahead and make one.


I reached out to Facebook for some guidance. My friends Baroness Genoveva Von Lübeck (you may know her from her vastly popular and amazing blog, Honor Before Victory) and Sarah W. (author of A Most Peculiar Mademoiselle and Som När Det Begav Sig) gave me some pointers and helped me decipher the imagery. With their nudge, here's what I came up with.

I started with two panels of 57" wide 5.3oz linen, cut to 57" long each (giving me squares).
On a piece of 1" wide painters tape, I made tick marks every 1/4" along both edges.

Then, I attached the tape to the top edge of a panel, about .75" down (though it should have been less than that, in retrospect.) The trickiest part here was to keep it as on-grain as possible.

Using two needles to do the top and bottom at the same time (though, technically, I mean one, then the other as a group), I used white silk thread to weave a basting stitch in and out according to the ticks.

Instead of going all the way to the end, I left both needles in the fabric at the end at matching points. Then I removed the tape.

Using the needles as guides, I reset the tape along the next stretch. Wash, rinse, repeat.
At some point, I started to gather the fabric already stitched to have enough length to get to the end. Once I was all the way through, I pushed the fabric together into the initial gathered pleats.

They still needed some help, though, to look correct. Pleat-by-pleat, I corrected the fold as needed to get the final, neater row of pleats. This panel is about 7" wide.

Then I repeated the whole process (including the tape because the tackiness of the first piece had worn off), to get the second panel. In fact, almost everything is done twice in this entire process. It is a "double" apron for a reason!

I am going to pause here to briefly note that the period images suggest a longer pleated panel than what I've done. To do that, you just add additional stitch lines down to your desired panel length. I chose not to do that because I really like the look of this example, but also because I was concerned that a longer panel might accentuate the width of my bust in an unflattering manner. That may be entirely unfounded, but I wasn't going to worry about it more than that.

To create the strap, I took a 3" strip off the remaining fabric I had. This was also 57" wide.

I stitched the ends together to create a loop. Then, just by hand, I folded it in half, then turned the raw edges in.

Using the seam as one of the shoulder points, I folded it in half and then in half again to locate the center front and back points.

Meanwhile, back on the panels, I hemmed the sides using hem stitch.

Once the panels were finished (everything but the hem), I lined the strap center point to the panel center point and used the strap to bind the top. In this picture, it's pinned on both sides, then on the ends.

After securing the strap at one end, I stitched the binding to the pleats. I did this by picking up a bit of (almost) every pleat, the picking up the folded edge of the binding. This allowed me to further adjust and refine the positioning of the pleats.

When I finished one side, I turned it over and worked in the other direction across the back.

Then I did the same thing with the other panel. When I got to the end of that one, I just continued along the strap with and overcast stitch to secure it closed.

Same thing on the other strap. So, at that point, the apron was done on the top, and I was able to slip it over my head to determine where I wanted it to connect on the sides. The easiest way to do that was to stand in front of a mirror, pick a point I liked (lower that the hip, in keeping with the imagery), and place a pin on the front panel at that point.

After taking it off, I folded that panel in half to place a pin in the same spot on the other side.

I then lined the front and back panels up (right sides together) from the top, so that the opening is the same length on both front and back edges, and pinned them together down from my initial pin.

At this point, I switched from the thinner silk thread to a slightly thicker hand spun linen, and used the Elizabethan seam technique of using overcast stitches to secure the two finished edges together, creating a seam.

A simple hem stitch took care of the final raw edge.

Since it wasn't long before the original thread used to create the pleats snapped, I used the linen thread and secured the pleats on the back side with a back stitch to finish the apron.


I was concerned during the making process that this style of apron wouldn't be a good fit for me, but once I finished it and tossed in on at this weekend's event, I was pretty satisfied with it. There is, however one thing I would do differently.

Even though it made sense to create the apron as a symmetrical piece, the reality is that I'm far from symmetrical front-back. The apron hangs lower in the back, sort of accentuating my rear a bit more than it needs.

There are two solutions. I could detach the panels and reconnect them with the back better positioned (which would also involved re-hemming). But another issue I had wearing it was stepping on it when I stepped backwards. So the back could certainly use a bit of shortening up anyway. Which means the other, easier, solution would be to simply shorten the straps, bringing the back panel up.

Having a seam on both shoulders would then help me keep it properly placed.


I'm really satisfied with how this turned out, and having now worn it once, I have a better idea of how it will serve me in the future. It'll really help protect my gowns when the kids are in tow, and will of course work for any labor I might be doing. I was also really happy to have it at a particularly cold event as an extra layer.

This whole thing, by the way, came together pretty easily. I did the pleats on the two panels over two evenings, then spent Friday doing the hand sewing. The hem was done in the car on the way to the event, and I did the back stitching at the event after lunch.

As always, you can see the full set of photos in the Flickr set or on Facebook.