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).


  1. How fun. This is how my group cuts/patterns all our clothes. I find it works well, especially for unlined garments, as mock-up fabric never drapes or stretches the way wool does.

    1. I really liked this method, and I plan to use it again. It just feels more streamlined.

  2. You are intrepid when it comes to cutting fabric! I applaud you.

  3. Does your shift look like the one from the Lemberg castle? Or does the fabric of the core keep the girls up? Just wondering as I've made stuff from scratch for busty gals before.

    1. My chemise/shift is created with a similar tightness to the cote. It does not have the same type of structuring seams as the Lengberg items A great tutorial on the style of chemise I use was created by Neulakko here: