Sunday, November 3, 2019

Creating an Authentic Cotte, Part 7: Sleeves

When it came to creating the sleeve pattern for the cotte, I had the least amount of reliable period information to go on for how to achieve the pattern.

Set-in sleeves had been in widespread use for some 70 years by the 1410's, and appears to have been a somewhat standard method in use for cotte sleeves in Northwestern Europe.(1) Unlike tunic sleeves- where the straight line of the sleeve head was sewn to the straight line of the armhole- the set-in sleeve made possible the type of tight fit in the bicep that was in vogue and desired. A combination of a small armscye and a shallow S-curve at the top of the sleevehead would provide a slim fit and full rotational movement.(2)

The issue I had here, though, was not knowing how the medieval tailor measured and patterned for such a sleeve. This is the only step in the process in which I had nothing but the final look at my disposal for determining a process.

I decided to consider what measurements are the minimum necessary to be able to create a sleeve that fits. These are the length from the top of the shoulder to the wrist, around the bicep, around the wrist, and the length of the arm underneath from the wrist to the lower side of the armpit. I also needed the measurement around the armscye.

In general, knowing that these measurements are the basis for my more thorough patterning method, this method has a high success rate for me. This time, however, something was off. After attaching the sleeve to the cotte, the shoulder was being pulled significantly off. I was also getting much more bunching in the underarm than I would expect.

After several minutes standing in front of the mirror moving every which way to assess what was happening, I determined that the issue was that the upper crest of the sleeve head S-curve was too shallow.

When I looked at the other side of the dress (without a sleeve attached), I noticed that when I'd cut the armholes, they had been positioned much larger than I needed them. What this meant was that my measurements had been taken from the wrong places, since I'd simply measured at the points I typically do, believing the armhole to be where I meant it to be.

To determine what was actually needed, I measured from the armhole to my wrist on the other arm and added the difference as a gusset onto the sleeve to see if that was the only error that required correction. After sewing it back on, I realized I was still getting bunching in the underarm. After a few more minutes looking in the mirror, I realized that the sleeve needed to be rotated about 2" toward the back where the curve actually reached its peak. After rotating the sleeve to match, everything fit exactly as needed.

I used this sleeve to cut new sleeves at the correct size, thankful that I had enough wool left to do so.

From here, I had more period sources to fall back on.

Just as for the neckline and side opening, the openings for buttoned sleeves were faced, either with silk or with the same material of the sleeve.(3) Since I still had the tan silk, this is what I used to face the side of the opening where the buttonholes would be. The other side is a double folded hem, providing the necessary stability for the buttons.

There are several fabric buttons still attached to their garment remnants in the London finds which has allowed us to figure out a few different methods for creating them ourselves. Though Crowfoot does outline the method they were able to document from the finds, over the years, I've developed my own slightly different version that creates a nicely rounded button at a very quick pace. (I wrote about my method here.)

I used the same linen thread I had been using and the bone needle to create all the buttons. I needed 28 in total.

Since I was still attempting to create this garment has intuitively as possible without a lot of marking and pinning, I had to come up with a simple and reliable method of getting the buttons evening spaced. To do this, I sewed the first and last buttons into place, then folded the sleeve in half to find the middle point, where I sewed another button.

From there, I filled in each half by just stitching the buttons through once. If I needed to adjust the spacing, I simply pulled the button out and tried again.

Once I was happy with the positioning, I sewed the buttons into place for real. I used the same method on the other sleeve.

For the buttonholes, I lined the two sides up and used short lengths of thread to mark the locations for the holes, again adjusting as needed if something looked off.

I used my buttonhole chisel to create the openings for the holes. Buttonhole chisels are known to have been used after the medieval period, but I have been unable to locate any concrete information regarding their use during the 14th or 15th centuries. Since the chisel is a known tool from other crafts, (4) and they do create clean slits perfect for buttonholes, there is a great case to be made for them. A sharp pair of small scissors would work easily as well. I ultimately chose the chisel for this project because my sharpest small scissors are significantly more modern than this 18th-century-style chisel.

Just as there are buttons to review from the period, there are accompanying buttonholes. From the extant buttonholes, we can review (5), there are a few things that make the medieval holes distinct. First, there is no "bar tack" used at the ends of the holes. Second, the holes were finished with a simple stitch, either buttonhole stitch or a tightly spaced overcast stitch. Finally, they were finished most often with silk thread.(6) I used these exact "rules" for the buttonholes.

With the sleeves complete (after double-fold hemming the wrists), I attached the sleeves to the cotte using the same construction and seam finishing techniques I'd used for the rest of the garment. A double fold stitched down with running stitch completed the skirt hem, and the cotte was complete.

Overall, this project was an excellent way to not only push my skills but to also challenge my assumptions on what makes a medieval cotte more authentic. I learned several things that I either didn't know before or had simply not questioned how I knew them before. I also learned some hard lessons about making decisions too quickly or taking it for granted that I know what I'm doing. I love this cotte for the challenge it presented and the research and techniques it allows me to move forward to the next projects with.

Thank you for following along on this project with me. I know I stretched it out a lot, but I wanted to give each part its due!
1. See my tables in this post.
2. For a thorough and excellent explanation of the theory behind why set-in sleeves work the way they do, check out Ikat Bag's Subtleties in Draft Sleeves.
3. Crowfoot, Elizabeth, et al, "Textiles and Clothing c. 1150-c.1450," Museum of London: Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4 (London, HMSO, 1992).
4. Goodall, Ian, "Ironwork in Medieval Britain: An Archaeological Study" (New York, Routledge, 2017).
5. Crowfoot, Elizabeth, et al, "Textiles and Clothing c. 1150-c.1450," Museum of London: Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4 (London, HMSO, 1992).
6. There's a brief but informative write up about medieval buttonholes available from Master Bran Mac Fynin here.


  1. Thank you for taking me on such an interesting journey at your side. I've loved reading about your cotte adventures. Fran

  2. I have enjoyed this adventure very much, I love the way you work things out and keep on adjusting until things are right.

  3. Thank you for the link! The medieval buttonhole article is really the cliff notes version class handout for SCA period--the full one covers up through modern.

    I can't believe you used a bone needle to make the buttons--I can imagine what a pain that can be!

    1. Haha. It's a choice I probably won't make again. :P