Thursday, November 25, 2010

Finished Pictures - Wool Medieval Kirtle

Despite temperatures hovering in the 20's this afternoon, David was still obliging and took some photos of my finished dress so I can share them with my dear readers and fellow costume enthusiasts. A layer of linen and a layer of wool may not seem very warm, but I was actually far more comfortable being outside than I had anticipated. I still need a big heavy cloak though. :)

So this is my first kirtle. I was inspired by many costuming sites and will list the ones I found most helpful at the end of this post. I would like to encourage anyone who is thinking about making a dress in this style to just do it! I was intimidated at first because I have heard it is not possible to fit this kind of dress on oneself. I do not have a sewing buddy and my husband is rather . . .well. . .less than helpful with pins and fitting. ;) The fit is not perfect and the bustline is not as high as I may have been able to achieve with the help of a fitting buddy, but for a working class, active impression I think it will work nicely.

The fit is not all that different than fitting for a corset. The support of the bust is gained purely from the cut of the bodice and the natural stretch and molding abilities of the wool outer layer and linen (for the bodice) inner layer. The critical areas to fit are the neckline, shoulders and underbust. The bust is supported by the tight fit of the underbust and the bosom is pushed as high as it can go and held in place by the cut of the armscye, neckline and shoulders. To accomodate the resulting mounds of flesh, the neckline is cut away so as not to compress or flatten the shape. This may seem immodest, but after experimenting with several mock ups, it was the only way I found to get this shape and as this dress is meant to be, for full dress occasions, worn beneath an outer gown or kirtle, it is not really so bad. Since the bust is lifted as high or almost as high as it can possibly go, there is no danger of "falling" out of your bodice. I find the fit very comfortable and supportive and secure, similar to a sports-bra.

The kirtle is made from four pieces cut as rectangle, shaped above the hips to fit the torso/bust. Four gores were inserted at the sides and the front and back to add fullness to the hem. Since this is technically an under-dress it does not need to be as full as an outer gown. The hem on this one measures about 140". The Medieval Tailors Assistant calls for a kirtle hem of about 103" so mine is fuller than that - just because to me, that amount seemed so skimpy. The length is ankle length, for active wear. Fashionable ladies would have had longer, trailing hems. I plan to cook over a fire and chase children in this, so ankle length is the most practical for me.

I used a combination of machine and hand stitching. All the main seams are done on the machine but all the finishing work and any stitch visible from the outside is done by hand. The lacing cord I braided from four strands of brown wool yarn. It laces the fifty-three eyelets up from neckline to hip. I use a bobby pin to lace the cord up and have to almost fully unlace the dress when putting it on or taking it off. So far, it takes me about fifteen minutes to get this dress on and laced and everything arranged properly.

The sleeves are narrow but not tight. They are slit for about six inches up from the hem and close with six handmade ball buttons and buttonholes. A more fashionable lady may have many more buttons on her sleeves than these. The buttonholes are worked close to the edge of the sleeve and the buttons sewn directly on the edge, so there is very little overlap.

I made a simple and quick kerchief to wear based on instructions in The Medieval Tailors Assistant. It is basically a 32" square of white cotton (I had no linen light enough and TMTA recommended sheer cotton or semi sheer cotton to use in place of linen for headdresses) knotted at the neck and with the ends brought up and pinned around the face. It was very easy to make and it easy and comfortable to wear. Even in blustery winds, it did not come off my head. :)

My next accessory will be an apron. I definitely need an apron if I want to do work of any sort in this dress! Then I will be making a dark gray surcote to go over this dress, hopefully to be finished before January 8th. A hood would be nice too, for winter wear.

Here are some of the links I found very helpful:

Dame Helens Site
Jessamyn's Closet
Historical Life



  1. Lovely work, and so look beautiful, as usual. Thank you for posting links to the sites that helped you. If I even decide to try this era, I know where to go now.

  2. You look lovely! No surprice, but it's still nice to see :)

  3. You look beautiful! I love the lines and the shape. Just lovely.

  4. THat's a great color on you! I like the overall look very much :)

  5. You look wonderful Sarah! I just love this style :-)

  6. Just beautiful! Its impressive to me that you did such an exquisite job with no one helping you to fit it! You look very elegant and I agree the color is just perfect for you! Thank you for the inspiration.

  7. I'm not a historical seamstress, but I do sew quite a bit, and love reading your blog for the construction details.

    I notice that it seems to be pulling across the front and back in the waist area. Is this a fitting/construction issue or is this how the garment is supposed to fit? Knowing nothing of what a "proper" kirtle looks like, I'm curious!

    (And please forgive me if I'm rude for asking. I'm afraid I'm coming off as snarky, and that's not my intent at all.)

  8. Amanda, that is a good question!

    There are usually two reasons why a garment has pulls like that. One is excess length (the excess length rolls up as wrinkles like these to fit the shorter area it is on) or it is too tight, resulting in stress pulls.

    Which is the case here? I really don't know, but am tempted to say its a combination of both things. I really think the back wrinkles are caused by excess length as it does not fit that tight across the back. From the underbust down, actually, it is really not tight or pulling at all, just lightly fitted. The underbust is tightly fitted. So the wrinkles there may be stress pulls.

    I think this is a case where having a sewing buddy may have been helpful. I really did not know the back had wrinkles that like til the dress was done. It is hard to tell when you are fitting yourself and trying to peer over your shoulder into a mirror. :P

    However, having said that I have seen resconstructed kirtles made by other people who HAVE been fitted expertly and yes, there are still wrinkles on those dresses too. It seems the more bosom there is to support, the more wrinkles there may be beneath the bust. As I wore this dress for an afternoon and it warmed up and stretched a little, the wrinkles under the bust were worse. I may have to take it in a little to prevent that in the future.

    Since making this, I have thought of ways to improve the next one. I am glad this one will be mainly hidden beneath the surcote when I get that finished. :) I think I need to take out some extra length in the back, and possibly the front, move the side seams to where they are more foward at the hips (the current kirtle has the gores started more towards the back of the hip, which makes a more angular shape from the front, which is not that appealing to me) and working more on the fit of the underbust area. The problem is I am waiting for my milk supply to dry up. Malachi has not nursed for a while but I'm still producing milk, thus causing fluctation daily in the size of the bosom, and in fitted garments like this, that can cause some fitting issues since the size is not really stable right now.

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  10. Thanks for the answer! (And for not being offfended!) Now that I look again, I can see both possibilities.

  11. No offense taken at all!!! I appreciate discussion of problem areas like you mentioned; it really helps me think things through and find out exactly what went wrong! Comments like "that looks nice" are nice, but, well, kind of a let-down. ;) I love discussion! It's awesome to talk about stuff like this with people who understand and are interested!

    Thanks for the questions!

  12. I'm an oddball, things like this are modified for my everyday wear! I've found that hot flashes can be managed by different fabric slips/petticoats. I also found linen makes the best nightgowns :)

    My husband has been trying to describe his ideal dress for me and i think that your work here fits the description. Only difference is he likes tea length and 3/4 length sleeves. It looks like a real work of love. has had some sales that have come in handy!

    I'm determined to single-handedly bring back some older fashions!


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!