Red wool burgundian kirtle.

The making of a kirtle

A dress diary – begun Sunday 18th January, 2004

The time has come to replace my two early attempts at a kirtle. The first was made nearly ten years ago from an old brown bed valance and the second a year or so later from red linen. They are both still wearable, although the brown one is quite tight, but have numerous elements with which I am not happy. This is to be a working kirtle rather than a wearing under a gown kirtle so I will be dispensing with the rich skirt border.

My goals for this new kirtle are:

  • period construction – it will be entirely hand sewn
  • period materials – wool lined with linen, brass rings and handmade cord
  • period design – I believe that I have a much better idea now what a kirtle should look like:
    • It will lace up the front through brass rings, top to bottom, the lacing continuing into the skirt
    • It will have a rounded neckline that squares off at the front and no yoke
    • It will have a separate bodice and skirt
    • The skirt will be gored with several flat pleats at the back and none at the front
    • The sleeves will be short and fitted to better fit under a gown

Sunday 18th January

Kirtle fabric
Kirtle fabric – red linen, red wool

I had bought the fabric several months ago. The lining is a medium-light-weight red linen – quite a bricky red. The outer fabric is more of a deep wine red tabby woven light-weight wool. It is quite light and smooth and should remain cool even in summer.

As a first step I took my old kirtle pattern and cut it out of scrap cloth with a bit of added seam allowance to make up for my added girth over the last decade. The back was just about right still, maybe add 1cm to that but I was going to need quite a bit more across the bust. My original pattern was cut with straight lines down the front, sides and back but Weyden’s kirtles all show quite a bit of shape in the front and I have decided to use Robin Netherton‘s method of fitting to cut the bodice – this results in a front edge that is quite shaped as seen in the image below right. (This fitting method involves lying down and pulling the pieces tight across the ribcage, thus forcing the breasts upwards, and then pinning those firmly – as a result the breast is well supported and the whole bodice firmly fitted. I did this in the lining fabric). At this point I made paper patterns of the current lining and used the lining to cut out the wool bodice pieces.

Kirtle bodice lining
Kirtle bodice lining

Next I sewed up the lining and tried it on – it seems to fit well – once I pull my breasts up they are firmly in place which means that they will be well supported and shouldn’t drift down. To finish the lining I have flat-felled all the seams. Flat-felling will help strengthen the seams.

Thursday 22nd January

Well I’ve been sewing away and have the bodice mostly done, with the sleeves stitched on and all the main seams flat felled and tidy. I am going to leave the front seam until the skirt is on as the gap will continue down into the skirt and I want the join to be smooth. There is no inter-lining in the bodice so I will be interested to see how the light wool and linen hold up to the strain.

 These photos were taken on Thursday. As you can see the fit is still not quite right. Things to fix in the next iteration of the pattern are:

  • front armscye gapes at bust. I had thought that I could get away without it but it might be necessary to have a small dart here
  • back is too long. I will remove some of this length when I add the skirt

Friday 23rd January

OK, I’m ready to cut out the skirt. I know a couple of things: the skirt needs to be fuller at the back than at the front and at the foot than at the waist. That means that there will be some pleats at the back and that the skirts will be gored – but the question is how much? Also I need to decide whether to put in the horizontal pleat that you see in some of the illuminations.

Decision time: There are four panels to the skirt which will be gored and pleated at the back – the skirt will be made longer than usual to allow for the horizontal pleat.

Sunday 1st February

Kirtle hanging
Kirtle hanging

My OOS in my right wrist has been playing up because of all the hand-sewing so I am doing some of the seam finishing by machine. It won’t be visible as its just the long seams in the skirt and as the skirt is fully lined they will all be hidden on the inside.

I have sewn the skirt to the bodice and finished it off so there is just the hem and brass rings to go. Instead of pleating the skirt at the back it is gathered which is used on one of the Weyden kirtles. The gathering looks a bit better I think – and removes the need to get the pleats even so its a bit easier. I back-stitched the skirt to the bodice for strength. I also raised the waistline at the back as it was too long.

I haven’t interlined the bodice. Part of this experiment was to see if I can get away with a simple lined bodice and whether a bodice cut on the straight will create as smooth a line as a bias-cut one might. At this point I can see that the outer fabric which is wool is really very elastic without being bias-cut, whereas the lining which is linen is much more stable. I am theorising that this combination will offer support (the linen) while staying smooth on the outside due to the elasticity of the wool. My concern is that once the rings are sewn on and the bodice pulled tight the strain on the ring points will be too much without some additional support around the front edges of the bodice. If this proves correct I will open out the bodice again and insert some stiffening. I don’t have enough rings to finish today so I will go and get more tomorrow. Once I can lace it up I can see about the hem – at this rate I may well end up doing that at Canterbury Faire this weekend.

Tuesday 3rd February

Well I got more rings – 100 more to be exact and then it occurred to me that the butted rings that I had used for my houppelande might not be able to handle the extra strain of a fitted bodice without opening. In the past the only closed rings that I have been able to find have been curtain rings which are too big for this project. So I asked the Lochac Tailor’s Guild email list if they had any ideas and was very pleased to get a quick response: many get rings from fishing supply shops. However we leave for Canterbury Faire tomorrow evening and I don’t have time so my wonderful partner (yes the same one who made me 120 turks head knots for my loose gown) sat down and soldered all my rings for me (although I had actually sewn on all the bodice ones). So if any of the butted ones split on me I have lots of soldered ones to replace them with.

Thursday 5th February

Well we made it to Canterbury Faire and I found some spare time to work on the kirtle. First up I need to put in the horizontal pleat in the skirt. It was a bit tricky because the skirt isn’t straight – its got gores so if I made the pleat too deep it would be difficult to get a smooth line so I made it about 10cm total. I sewed it by hand and tried to take small stitches on the top and larger ones underneath so that the exposed stitching would be even. It worked just fine and I set the pleat with an saucepan full of hot water heated over the gas (later I discovered a laundry on site – oh well – kiwi ingenuity will have its way).

Friday 6th February

My other 10 year old kirtle is getting stinky – this is it I have to finish it today or go naked tomorrow!!!

So the last step is the hemming – this was easily accomplished with the assistance of Baroness Sinech who pinned it for me at ground level. I’ve taken it up a fair bit as its a working kirtle.

Saturday 7th February

Red wool burgundian kirtle.
Red wool burgundian kirtle.

Its D-Day. OK so I tried it on and its surprisingly roomy – fits just right around the waist but I could take it in a bit around the bust (although its not loose – no risk of spillage). The sleeves are just right which is a relief as I had been suspicious that they were too tight at the bottom. It all looks pretty good, but I still would like to take a dart to get a better fit over the bust – but on the other hand maybe just making it a bit firmer would help.

My big concern about the butted rings is not sustained – they have held up fine (I still have to sew some on beneath the waistline). I have put a hook and eye in at the waist to control the sudden loss of tension at the join of the skirt and that works really well.

Postscript – Sunday 8th

OK here’s the kicker – we’re packing up in a hurry because its trying to rain on us again and we don’t want to be packing up wet tents so I haven’t had time to change into street wear and I’m putting something in the trailer and I hear a ripping sound – yep the skirt’s caught and I have a 2 cm rip up the warp and weft. So now I know that its a working kirtle!