Medieval Kirtle for Ren Fest

For my now nearly annual Ren Fest costume, I decided to go a bit more medieval.  I had learned a lot about historical costume making from draping a replica of Eleanor de Toledo’s burial dress a few years ago, mainly that we currently think of sewing two pieces of fabric together on a two-dimensional plane while people prior to the advent of the sewing machine in the 1800’s did not.  When I was able to finally grasp this concept (only on try #3 of the bodice), I was able to create something that fit like it was supposed to.

I wanted to expand upon that historically accurate context and methods – but go a bit more “High Medieval” with a replica 14th century shirt & kirtle.   I still used my sewing machine to put everything together, because there is no way I had time for hand sewing.  To make-up for all of that machine sewing, I still sewed all of the eyelets by hand, mostly with a glass of wine and a comfortable lawn chair in the garage while Drew worked on the car.

Based upon my trials & tribulations of past Ren Fest garb, I have some lessons learned that I employ to all my costumes.

  1. It’s Texas and hot – so pick fabrics accordingly.  I chose a lightweight green linen for the kirtle and cotton for the shirt.   Yes, cotton isn’t the leading choice for fabrics at the time – but medieval Europeans would probably have used something else if they lived in 90+ degree temperatures with outrageous humidity.
  2. EVERYTHING has to be well constructed (Ren Fest can get a bit ridiculous).  This means well finished seams, some additional backing for wear and tear on the bottom hems, and water resistant.  This is just added time to plan for in the construction process.
  3. It is Ren Fest, so you need some embellishments that are not historically accurate.   Previously accomplished with hoop skirts and fun fabric, this time I choose some not-so-historically-accurate trim and made my shirt have some dramatic sleeves with drawstrings that I could pull up easily (again – its hot).

Shirt

The shirt is a fairly basic rectangle construction with side gores and underarm gussets.  This is actually the 3rd such one that I have made – my last one was an 18th century chemise and I was amazed at how similar the construction was.  While I did not drape a pattern, the shift is custom to my size.  The width of the main body is based on your body width plus a few inches for ease and seam allowance.  The seams on the sleeves sit below the shoulder and the sleeve length is based on arm length, with the width again based on arm width plus a few inches for ease and seam allowance.  The gussets are 3.5″ square.   I did add the flare of the elongated sleeves.  On top of each sleeve I placed two drawstrings made of the same cotton.  This allowed me to pull the sleeves up and out of my way.

To finish all of my seams, I undercut one side and folded the opposite side over the raw edge and stitched.  This gave a finished look and also provided the strength needed for Ren Fest shenanigans.  I finished the neckline and hem with bias tape.

Kirtle

There are A LOT of resources online for designing and constructing an accurate kirtle.  Here are some of the very well put together blogs that I used:
1330 AD Cotehardie   •  The Medieval Tailor

And fellow costumers:
Fashion Throughout History – Medieval Pattern Drafting  •  Grey Kirtle Diary

However the resource that I used the most is The Medieval Tailors Assistant: Common Garments (1100 – 1480), 2nd Edition, by Sarah Thursfield.  This book had great instructions and context for constructing historically accurate garments from this time period.

Since I needed to drape the pattern for the fitted kirtle on myself and not on the dress form, Drew made a very good assistant.  It took me three tries to get the fit how I liked, so he had to do a lot of assisting.

I started with 3 scrap fabric rectangles, pinned together in the front as I wanted a front opening on the finished dress.  The only other tools needed are a fabric marker and pins.   We pinned me into the scrap fabric by pulling in the side and back seams – no darts or anything fancy, just 4 pieces of fabric fitted only to me – and then marked lines for the actual seams with a marker.  I transferred the cut lines to paper, then back to new pieces of scrap fabric to check fit.  After I was satisfied with the pattern that I had, I added a seam allowance and cut my green linen.

img_2547From the hips downward, I drew straight lines from my natural hip on the pattern onto the fabric to create a wider skirt.  I did not add any gores, but as my skirts ended up wider than the width of the fabric I needed to cut small triangles and piece together the skirt in order to complete my straight line from hip to floor.  I lined the bodice front with spare cotton for added support.

Sleeve patterns were a bit trickier.  I followed the instructions in the book and ended up with the right fit the first time.  One difference that made construction odd was that the medieval garments had the seam of the sleeve attach at the back of the shoulder, verses under the arm like modern clothes.

 

My 6 piece dress all sewn together:

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For finishing, I added trim to the insides of the hem, sleeves and neckline for support.

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I purchased some medieval inspired trim from Continental Stitchery Trims which matched the color perfectly.

And for a blog cross-over moment, my eyelet sewing in Drew’s workspace.

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After some accessorizing (belt, wooden mug, pouch made from deer hide, feathers), my costume was ready to go!  I liked the book so much that I even made Drew a costume.

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