Introduction to Basic Medieval Patterns
Compiled and illustrated by THL Arnora Dunestan (AoA, OW, OC)
copyright July 1994,
Table of Contents
Making medieval clothes - whether as occasional costume pieces or for more frequent garb - does not have to be as intimidating a process as many would-be costumers believe.The trick for many is to actually get the basic shape of the garment down pat, before worrying about the level of detail work which goes into embellishing the outfit (be it beadwork, or embroidery, or trim, etc.). This booklet is designed to introduce newcomers to medieval fashion’s basic shapes, in silhouette pattern form. There are no set measurements for any of these patterns, and the pieces themselves have been kept as simple as possible, mostly to allow new costumers to “get a feel for the piece” before they have to worry about the authenticity of the detail work.When working with these patterns, there are a few things to keep in mind:
There is a philosophical gap between “costuming” and recreating historically authentic period dress styles, mostly having to do with the amount of research put into getting the details “just right”. Theatrical costumes are often created for ease and comfort, rather than authenticity, so while “theatre costume” books may give you the basics of how to put the garment together, as well as a general look at what a period outfit might look like, they are not the best place to go if you want authentic detail.
There are a number of books dealing with fashion history available, from such authors as Milia Davenport, Iris Brooke, and Janet Arnold. These books tend to go into some detail about authentic pieces, using a wide variety of sources. These books fall into the category of “secondary sources”, because they each interpret the original outfits, rather than simply showing the originals. When you go to fashion or costume history books, often you have to contend with the author’s prejudices and thoughts, and often the artist’s sketches as well. Beware of hand-drawn sketches, especially with the Victorian-era “coffee-table” books on anything medieval. The Victorians had a rather romantic and often distorted or not carefully-enough researched view of the Middle Ages, and as such, they got caught up in the grandeur of what they wanted to see, rather than what may actually have existed. Therefore, much of the costume research done then, and passed down to other authors in the last century, is often somewhat misguided, if not downright incorrect.
For those keen to recreate with authenticity, the best places to research are “primary sources”, those which come right down, relatively unscathed, from the hands of the medieval themselves. Manuscript illustrations, paintings both secular and religious, funeral effigies and tomb brasses, sketches done by period artists - these are all excellent sources of authentic detailing. There are problems inherent in the primary source approach, however, the same problems which threw off the Victorian “researchers” of medieval fashion: it can be difficult to tell where details like seamlines fall when all you have to go on is a margin sketch from some obscure manuscript. Even the great Renaissance portrait painters, who often went to great lengths to record fine detail, did not paint for audiences several hundred years in the future who might be more interested in straight seams than straight noses. For the most part, the modern creator of medieval dress is left to work on a conglomeration of period research and modern intuition.
“Clothes make the man”, but it has long been a proven addendum that accessories make the outfit. Throughout the Medieval time period, this was equally true, if not more so then than now, with the range of hats, jewelry, and other accoutrements which were a standard part of the noble’s daily outfits. Artwork from any time period, or written descriptions from period-contemporary chroniclers, often gives good insight into available accessories.
Archeological digs have shed much light in recent years on some of the so-called “Dark Ages”, such as the Celtic period in Britain and the rise of the Norse cultures. Grave finds have always been a great source of information, although much of it is still conjectural or speculative at best.
Jewelry is common to almost all medieval periods. Both the Celts and the Norse were fond of heavy gold, silver and bronze jewelry, twisted into torcs, bracelets and arm-rings. Wood, glass and ceramic beaded necklaces were also very common for both, though more so for the Norse. The Byzantines were partial to inlaid gem collars, and volumes of pearls and sewn-down precious or semi-precious cabochons. Filigree work first appears in the Norman period, and hit its height with the Italian Renaissance. Heavy jeweled belts are often paired with both the cotehardies and the houppelandes, and the latter are also seen often combined with heavy jeweled collars.
For most of the covered periods, women were required by Church custom to wear their hair covered once they reached a marriageable age or status. To this end, veils and some sort of filet or circlet is often required. Celts and Norse women can get away with braiding their hair. Hair extensions are popular for Norman women, and elaborate braiding styles are available for the Italian Renaissance. Paintings of the period will show a great variety of the fantastical head coverings available for both the cotehardie and houppelande periods, for both men and women.
Belts and pouches are almost a must for all outfits, as pockets are not known during these time periods. Belts can be anything from twisted rope or cord to leather to fabric with jewels and beadwork, and pouches are often made of fabric or leather. Shoes can be dealt with using simple pull-on slippers, such as Chinese slippers; Isotoner's fitted slipper works well, as do the light leather ballet slippers available from dance stores. Leather boots are always good for men and women alike. Try to avoid anything with a solid heel. Also, if you plan on spending any time outside in your costume, some sort of wool cloak or warm, waterproof wrap is recommended. Period styles range widely, and can either include or ignore a hood.
Some suggestions: study the dress of different countries within the same time period; look closely at regional variations for hints on fittings and decorations. Work on small projects which use period fabrics to get a feel for how different grades of velvet, silk, wool, brocade, linen, and so on, react under different sewing techniques - pleat it, gather it, dag it, line it, wash it, et cetera.
Creating an outfit must be a very hands on approach, and expect to make a few mistakes along the way. Especially if you are trying your hand at something new, give yourself lots of time; doing medieval fashion well often requires a great eye for detail, and it is not something I recommend if you are trying to “throw together” something in a hurry until you’ve done a couple of pieces.<
This list will help you keep track of what measurements are needed when creating costumes either for yourself or for other people. Not all measurements will be necessary for all garments, but a complete list of measurements allows you a great amount of flexibility in tailoring fitted pieces as well. Measure in inches or centimeters, whichever makes you feel comfortable.
Fabrics: wools, often woven in colourful plaids (NOT the modern tartans, but real plaids). Underclothes and layers worn next to the skin are commonly linen.
Colours: bright reds, blues, yellows (not saffron yellow); green is an expensive colour, as is “imperial” purple, although some shade of purple can be made mixing blue and red dyes. Undyed, rough “home-spun” fabrics for the commons
Substitutions: cotton and cotton-blend plaids work well for the outer layers, with plain cottons used for any under layers. Plain coloured broadcloth (poly-cotton blend) is also a cheap alternative to expensive modern linen, but hard to find in plaids. Poly-blend or viscose linen-look fabrics okay.
Fabrics: linens for under layers, silks, satin-like fabrics and early brocades for outer layers; printed fabrics in certain motifs also allowable (check with period sources for acceptable patterns), light wools for winter-wear, and heavier wools for square cloaks.
Colours: opulent jewel tones are good; purple again is an imperial colour only; saffron yellow is expensive but available.
Substitutes: several silk-like fabrics are available, including a poly or poly-cotton replica of the dupioni silk weave; “antique satin” is also an acceptable substitute. Again, cottons and cotton blends will also do well for those on a budget. Poly linen-look fabrics okay.
Fabrics: wools of varying weights for the outer layers, under layers are almost always linen. Some cotton and silk outer layers have been found, but both were extremely rare and expensive fabrics for the period. Plaid acceptable for earlier period Norse, but faded quickly as a fashion.
Colours: bright colours; green, purple, and black are rare and expensive dyes; saffron available but also expensive. Necklines, cuffs and hems sometimes in contrast colours to main body.
Substitutes: Cotton, poly-cottons, poly linen-look fabrics, inexpensive “suit-weight” woolens; some silk substitutes okay. NO VELVETS, NO BROCADES!
Fabrics: linen under clothes, light wool outer layers, occasionally silk; fabric should be light enough to bunch well, but heavy enough to drape in the skirt and very full, open sleeves.
Colours: rich warm colours seem to show this outfit best, with contrast in the under clothes and lining of outer layer sleeves.
Substitutes: cottons, poly-cottons, poly linen-look fabrics, suiting weight wools, loose-weave rayons.
Fabrics: linen, light weight wools, some velvets and brocades; combinations of these can be put together to “parti-colour” a cotehardie; simple single colours make good backgrounds for heraldic displays on the outfits themselves
Colours: again, pretty well anything goes, colour wise. Saffron and purple might still be expensive dies, but new trade routes make them more accessible.
Substitutes: cottons, poly cottons, poly linen-look fabrics, cotton or poly velvets; avoid overly shiny materials, except as linings for accessories.
Fabrics: Brocades, velvets, heavy fabrics which drape well; silk and satins make good linings for sleeves, as does faux fur (though this is hot!)
Colours: Deep rich colours - burgundy, midnight blue, deep forest green, etc. - show this piece to best advantage; [Jean, Duc de Berry’s BOOK OF HOURS shows a scene in which nobles and servants alike are dressed almost entirely on white].
Substitutes: Cotton velvets, heavy poly brocades; shinier fabrics for linings (acetates are good). Faux fur as a lining in the sleeves or as trim at the hem is good.
Fabrics: rich brocades in geometric, floral and animal patterns; velvets, silks of all grades; linen for underclothes; lots of colourful contrasts, and sleeve segments allow lots of room to play with different embellishment styles.
Colours: pretty well anything goes; a good rule of thumb is to leave the somber colours for scholars and other “poor nobility”.
Substitutes: cotton or poly velvets, poly linen-look fabrics, antique satins, cotton upholstery material. Tapestry and upholstery remnants can provide a lot of fabric for smaller projects, like doublets, plastrons, sleeve plackets. Plain cottons make inexpensive linings, but aren’t really luxurious enough for this period.
Costume and Medieval Fashions Books and Authors:
Some Period Sources:
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