Building your own Armour
Part 1: Padding

Sir Michael DeLacy


SCA combat is a rough, full contact sport, but it need not be painful if you wear the right equipment. The first things you will need when putting together your first suit of armour is the padding and the "underwear". First, a box. These can be bought at any good sporting or martial arts store. Also, elbow and knee pads should be bought as well, although you can make armour that has these built in. For ladies, suitable protection for your tender bits can be found at good martial arts stores.

One of the first pieces of armour you will need to make for rattan fighting is a gambeson; a quilted padded tunic worn under your armour that protects you from bruising and chafing. The style you will want is dependent upon your personas' period; gambesons, known under a variety of names, have been in use since armour was invented. Gambesons were usually made of buff coloured cloth, such as canvas or heavy broadcloth stuffed with cloth, raw wool or other padding material, and were plain and functional, which makes them easy to make, although later period ones were often made of coloured fabric and worn on the outside, often over mail.

First, select a style that is appropriate to your historical persona. Some of the basic types commonly found in the middle ages are shown for you perusal. Most of them were of the plain buff cloth, but some, like no. 3 were sometimes worn over the armour, and were brightly coloured and occasionally decorated with applied heraldic decoration.

 

A basic pattern that will work for most gambesons is as follows:

Measurements: A: 1/2 upper chest (arm to arm), A': 1/2 upper back (armpit to armpit), B: 1/4 chest measurement, C: 1/4 waist measurement, D: 1/4 hips measurement + 1-2 inches, E: collarbone to waistline, F: waistline to bottom of skirt, G: back of neck to waistline, H: waistline to bottom of skirt (back). Note that the waistline in the late medieval period tended to be higher than todays', and was measured just under the ribs.

This will give you the basic torso, to which you then add the sleeves as appropriate. For earlier period gambesons, the measurement C should be about the same as measurement D, giving a tubular trunk. Later period gambesons tended to have a more pronounced waistline, following the whims of the fashion, in which case measurement C should be rather snug fit. For a flared skirt, like in no. 3, increase measurement D accordingly. Remember to keep the armholes large for ease of movement, and allow about 2-3 extra inches to the measurements to allow for the quilting.

Next cut out one set of panels, adding a few inches to take into account the padding, baste it together (long, easily removed stitches) and try it on. Go through your range of fighting motions and make sure that it does not pinch or bind, cutting and modifying the pieces to suit. Then remove the stitches and use the adjusted pieces as patterns to cut out the rest of the cloth.

You can make gambesons out or pre-quilted cloth, such as a moving blanket, or you can sew your own quilting, which is not really as hard as one might think. Simply cut two identical panels, one of the outer fabric and one of the inner, and machine stitch rows down them. For extra ventilation, sew buttonholes alongside these stitches, you will find this to be a great comfort in hot weather, and it is period. I have found that a heavy outer material like canvas is ideal for the outer layer, and a softer, more comfortable cloth such as a fine broadcloth or even satin is ideal for the inner layer. A description of an arming doublet of the mid 15th century in the Hastings manuscript is described as "a dowbelet of ffustean (a type of heavy wollen broadcloth) lyned with satene cutte full of hoolis."

After you have sewn the rows, stuff the slots with whatever you have at hand (make sure it is washable and will not shrink!). Scraps of mattress pad or pieces of cloth found at rummage sales are ideal for this. After the rows have been stuffed, sew the panels together and seal the edges with bias tape, handstitch the second direction of quilting if needed, and add the button or ties.

The arms are made in the same manner, and can be attached to the body either by hand stitching or by points and ties, which has the advantage of leaving the armpits open and ventilated.

When stuffing the gambeson, don't overdo it; remember you have to fight in this thing! Critical areas, such as elbows, points of the shoulders, kidneys, the spine and back of the neck and the collar, should be be fairly heavily padded, while the inside of the arms and chest will not need quite so much. Packing the stuffing in to tightly will make the gambeson stiff, and will not absorb the force of a blow as well as a softer, looser packing.

Some people reinforce their gambesons with strips of leather or plastic placed inside the quilted rows; this makes the gambesons heavy enough to use with only a plackart or heavy belt, which is ideal for those who want to put together a lightweight footsoliders' armour.

The gambeson can now be finished off with arming points, to which your arm and shoulder harness can be tied; this is usually much more comfortable that straps and buckles. Remember to reinforce the points where the strings will attach to the gambeson. Some period gambesons seem to have been reinforced with strips of leather or even mail down the outside of the sleeves, and in the 15th century, the armpits were protected by gussets of mail sewn to the gambeson.

A well made gambeson should give you a couple of years of good service, if you take proper care of it. Always air it out after use, or you will be discovering new and probably hostile life forms in the form of interesting molds and fungi. Handwashing every now and then will keep it docile, and a bit of deodorant spray does not go amiss. Care for your armour, and your armour will care for you. Happy fighting!

A. Dark Ages - 12th Century. Basic short sleeved Gambeson, tied down front.
B. 1250. From Maciejowski Bible illumination
C. 14th C. Jupon of Charles VI of France at Chartres Cathedral
D. 1340. Italian, form Fresco at Castle Sabbionara at Avio.
E & F. 1479. From Reliquary of St. Ursula by Hans Memling, Brugge.
G. 15th C. German From Passion painting, Royal Armouries Photo Library
H. 15th C. Arming Jack from 15th C. Manuscript illumination, Hastings Manuscript