Sunday, August 25, 2019

Creating an Authentic Cotte, Part 3: Pattern

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

Uppsala Gown pieces from Marc Carlson | Source

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

Table 1. Garment features of Extant Examples

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

Table 2. Seam features present in collected imagery

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


  1. Such an interesting post. I like the images that you have posted, particularly the first one.

  2. Have you ever tried to make a Herjolfsnes-based dress, Edyth? They achieve that even "flaring skirt" look precisely because of the many gores and clever joining of the straight edge with the bias one. And they are much more economical in terms of cloth consumption, which makes much more sense for a middle class outfit. If you expand the comparison to include extant men's clothing (from the Bocksten tunic, through the Herjolfsnes robe up to Jan Zhorelecky's houppelande), the prevalence of the panels + many gores (or just many gores) construction becomes obvious. So the construction of Golden Gown (Uppsala Gown) should rather be considered to be an exception than the norm in the period. Probably it was used for two reasons: 1) the extremely high status of both The woman and The fabric (conspicuous consumption); 2) minimalizing the cutting, fraying and sewing of the precious cloth of gold to preserve both the pattern and the components of the costly fabric (woven with real gold).
    However, Your post is a very pleasant read, as always :).

    1. I haven't made a Herjolfsnes dress because it's not correct for my period and location. They are also not fitted garments like what I was making for this cotte. I definitely agree that more gores is a great way to achieve flare while still being economical with the cloth. Not at all trying to discount that. :) But I do disagree that the four panel gown should be considered an exception, since the Herjolfsnes gowns exist in a silo, and the evidence in the mainland artistic record does seem to, at least marginally lean away from the presence of gores. Not a molehill I'm willing to die on, certainly, since none of the evidence is perfect, but I do feel like our more common technique these days of using four panels with 4 skirt gores is perhaps the least accurate method given the evidence, so that's more what I wanted to get away from with this dress. Also, I would have HAD to go a different route with the pattern and used gores if my cloth did not give me the option of experimenting. :)

  3. Continuing to love this series of posts.

    I would also concur that a Herjolfsnes-style cut with the side gores that reach the armscye do give the skirt drape shown in the images above (indeed, the pink dress looks pretty much exactly how this sort of skirt drapes). The drapery of the Herjolfsnes cuts is enhanced by the way the seams are felled, such that the gores always sit 'behind' the panels.

    As another aside, the Golden Gown of Queen Margarethe is not actually cut in one piece. It's a common misconception, propagated if not outright started by Marc Carlsson's 'Some Clothing of the Middle Ages' re-drawings. The gown fabric is actually 60cm wide and all of the four pieces in the drawing you reproduce above are actually made up by piecing panels and gores together to make the four quarters of the gown. The quarters are then sewn together. This is described in the original article but also here:

    1. Thank you for that better information. I'll give that article a look.