Sunday, September 8, 2019

Creating an Authentic Cotte, Part 5: Seam Construction

Seam Construction Method

When looking through the relevant evidence regarding the joining of two pieces of cloth, it becomes apparent that seam techniques were inextricably related to the cloth type they were applied to. Wool, linen, and silk each had their own sets of seam techniques (with some overlap among them). Weave types, usually in regard to whether the material would fray or not, added additional differences. On top of all of these considerations, it's also evident that the garment or placement of the seam within the garment also bore some relevance to the seam techniques employed. (1)

In order to identify which seam techniques should be employed for the cotte, I needed to narrow down the options to techniques appropriate for a non-fulled woolen. The cut edges of the cloth do fray, and the lack of heavy fulling means that stitches under tension could pull through a single layer of the cloth if placed too near the cut edge.

Given these qualities, the best seam construction types for this project were those that adequately secured the cut edges of the cloth, and, particularly for the areas of the cotte under stress (everywhere but within the skirt), would not rely solely on a single line of running stitch (a relatively weak stitch) to keep the pieces together.

[I want to pause here to move forward in time to interject that while I do think I made the best choice below given what I knew at the time, it turned out that the weave of the gray wool was significantly looser than I had given it credit for. I'll discuss what happened after I wore the cotte for a day at the end of this post, but I wanted to be transparent now that in retrospect, I may have chosen the wrong seam technique for how fragile the weave actually was.]

I utilized the list of medieval stitch types collected by Heather Rose Jones in her online resource, Archeological Sewing, which is organized by cloth type, to identify four candidates. In order to more fully assess which of these three seam types would fulfill my needs, I created samples of each in linen.

#1: Running stitch + raw edges turned under toward each other and overcast together

Pros: Relatively strong seam with a clean finish. Only 2 passes required.

Cons: Turning in allowance edges is tricky. No finishing stitches visible on exterior.

#2: Overcast of (double-fold hem with hem stitch)

Pros: Symmetrical finishing is visible and produces a nice hand-sewn effect. Non-bulky seam finish.

Cons: Takes longer to complete (3 passes). Overcast stitch is weak if stitches are not small and tightly packed. Only the thread in overcast stitch holds pieces together. 

#3: Flat-fell with hem stitch

Pros: Neat technique that creates and finishes the seam at the same time. Only 2 passes.

Cons: May be trickier to execute on curved seams. A bit of a learning curve to interlock the edges together. Leaves a fold on the exterior as well as exposing the hem stitching.

#4: Running stitch, raw edges paired and hem stitched to one side

Pros: Strong flat seam that requires only 2 passes. Visible finishing stitches on the exterior.

Cons: Hem stitch must be tightly packed and deep enough to adequately secure cut edges of fraying material. 

Of note, the medieval type of "flat-fell" stitch is not the same as what is usually referred to as a flat-felled seam in the modern era. A modern flat-fell seam is more akin to the #4 running stitch seam type above, but rather than simply laying the seam allowances down to one side, one is trimmed and the other is folded around it before both are tacked down. Though this is commonly used in medieval recreation (by myself as well), I was not able to locate this technique in the Archeological Sewing database, "Textiles and Clothing", nor in the publications detailing the Herjolfsnes finds.

Weighing the pros and cons of each of the techniques above, along with my own preferences in terms of finished look, I decided to use a piece of the actual cloth to test the #4 seam type to determine if the cut edges would be suitably contained. For this test, I used a black linen thread for the running stitch and a yellow silk for the finishing to approximate the thread types I'd already determined I would use (see Seam Construction - Materials below).

Satisfied that the material handled this technique well with a suitable aesthetic finish, I decided to use this technique for the cotte seams.

I did also identify the use of a "filler" thread in the Herjolfsnes finds that uses a secondary thread to hold the cut edge down a bit more securely, and decided to test this technique in comparison to not using it. (2)

The use of the filler thread didn't significantly add enough functional differences to justify how much time it added to the sewing. I chose not to use it for the sake of time.

Seam Construction Tools & Materials

It is believed that several of the garment fragments recovered in London were stitched together using linen thread, which did not survive. Traces of a vegetable fiber can be found around vacant stitch holes in seams and on hems. (3) Silk threads are also present, often in top stitch applications, buttonholes, and hems. Crowfoot suggests in her commentary that the evidence points to the use of linen thread for the main seams, followed by silk for visible and decorative stitching. (4) This would have conserved the more expensive thread and applied it to where it would do the most visual good. Silk was available in a wide range of colors that could be matched to the fabric. With the lack of suitable linen thread remains, whether that was also colored is difficult to state.

I chose to use a natural gray linen thread (Londonderry 80/3) for the running stitch in each seam, and a gray filament silk thread for the finish stitching. (Both threads are machine-made and dyed as hand-spun and hand-dyed silk sewing thread was not easily available except when outside my budget.) Not only do I feel that the evidence supports these choices, I feel that they, again, fall into line with this garment being constructed with a practical balance of quality and frugality. At a certain point in the creation of the garment, I ended up using the linen for some finishing to conserve the silk for later finishing items where it was more important to have silk rather than linen (e.g. buttonholes.)

Sewing needles have proven to be few and far between in archeological recoveries. One suggested reason is that needles were also rare in period. For the most part, only one needle was needed at a time, and if properly treated, could last through a few generations before being discarded or damaged. It’s believed that steel needles were in use before the 14th century, imported from Moorish Spain, and would have been preferred over the cruder bronze, iron, and copper alloy needles that are found in greater quantities now. (5) Both iron and copper alloy needles have been recovered from the Thames River excavations. One 14th century copper alloy example is roughly 3” long with a triangular cross section and an eye that was first punched then drilled.

In addition to metal needles, which can be assumed to be the better material choice for a sewing needle in the early 15th century, bone needles may have still been used. A bone needle, described as 2 ¾” long with a square eye parallel in style to prehistoric bone needle finds, was recovered from the excavation of Breachacha Castle in Scotland, an early 15th century residence. (6) A bronze needle was recovered from the same site, indicating that both needles were in use around the same. It’s easy to speculate that bone needles may have remained in domestic production throughout the medieval period to make up for the relative scarcity or difficulty in obtaining the superior steel or bronze needles.

Given the dearth of appropriate reproduction metal sewing needles available for purchase (I was unable to source any needles structurally similar to the 14th century examples), one option is to use a modern stainless steel sewing needle, which is not that far away from the medieval examples. A cotton darner is a round needle with long punched eye, and can be found in lengths close or longer than 2”.

For this project, however, in an effort to use more authentic tools, I primarily used a bone sewing needle with a round drilled hole, based on the existence of a bone needle from the Scotland excavation mentioned above. My needle is 1.875” long with a vaguely ovoid cross-section and a round drilled hole.

During the course of sewing the cotte, I ended up further slimming the taper of the needle with a sanding block I had on hand. The chunkier nature of the bone needle is less refined than a metal needle formed with a wire, and requires more effort to use. Rather than slipping unimpeded through the cloth, the bone needle must be slightly tugged to move the thicker end through the weave. This turned out to be a somewhat important consideration during this project that I had not anticipated as it stresses the hand slightly more over the course of a long seam than a smaller gauge metal needle would. Ultimately, I feel the bone needle, unless quite refined and slim, was very likely not suitable as sewing implement for a higher production environment, such as a tailor's shop or royal clothier workhouse, and would have probably been used in a domestic setting as a last resort.

I also discovered that the bone needle was too large when it came to sewing later finishing details, and I switched to a modern needle for those items. (Which I'll discuss in the next post!)

Moving forward in time, after I wore the dress to its first event, a very hot Simple Day, I discovered that the seam finishing hand not held as well as I expected in the areas under the most stress. This included most of the back seam, the front seam just at the base of the bust support curve, and the side seams at the top bust area and at the tightest point on the waist. None of these areas completely blew out (there was no catastrophic seam failure, thankfully.)

Damage to cloth & seam finish after wearing
After reviewing the damage, I determined that the fault was more in the cloth than anything else. I had believed that the cloth was sturdier in the weave. Since I hadn't been able to put it under enough pressure in my tests to mimic what wearing it would do, unfortunately, I think I had to learn this the hard way. I do still stand by my seam choice as the best given the options had this fabric been stronger and/or fulled. If I had known what the cloth would do while making my choice, I would have likely opted for the #1 seam method above instead.

I do believe that the dress has stretched as much as it's likely to (assuming I don't gain weight), so to prevent further damage and to repair the parts of the seam that had pulled out of the finishing, I used a combination of running stitches and some overcast stitching to help mitigate the weave pulling out any further.

Seam with my repairs.
The take-away for me with this is to focus less on the aesthetics and more on the needs and weaknesses of the cloth. Having said that, though, I do also want to save a bit of face and say that this damage was not extensive. All the seams in the areas of the garment that were not under the greatest amount of stress are still intact.

1. One notable example of this type of seam specialization can be seen the differences in seam treatments used on the various parts of fitted hose. Crowfoot, Elizabeth, et al, "Textiles and Clothing c. 1150-c.1450," Museum of London: Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4 (London, HMSO, 1992).

2. Fransen, Lilli, et al, Medieval Garments Reconstructed: Norse Clothing Patterns, (Aarhus, Aarhus University Press, 2011), page 30.
3. Crowfoot, et al, 2001, p.151.
4. Crowfoot points out on page 152 a record in the Great Wardrobe accounts in 1333 a list of materials for a set of green garments for Queen Philippa in which both linen and silk thread were ordered for the project.
5. Findings, 2006, p. 47.
6. Breachacha Castle, Coll: Excavations and Field Survey, 1965-8 by D. J. Turner and J. G. Dunbar.


  1. Excellent post. Thank you for sharing the Breachacha Castle bone needle reference. Much appreciated.

    As for linen thread, it was historically available in natural, bleached or blue. The latter often came from Coventry (UK) or Cologne (Germany). You will find more references to it by searching for either of those two placenames.

    1. Yeah, that bone needle reference was a shout out loud eureka moment. Up to that point, I was getting concerned that I'd purchased a bone needle for no good early 15th century reason. :P

  2. Bone needles were in fact commonly used up until the 17th or 18th Centuries by people without means to purchase metal needles or for those who needed a quick fix, as the materials were readily available.