Spiral Lacing—Why and how to do it on 14th century clothing

I was recently asked how I placed my eyelets for lacing my dresses shut. I lace the fronts and sides of my dresses using an off-set pattern of eyelets, finished with matched eyelets on each side at the top and the bottom of the opening. This arrangement facilitates a spiral lacing pattern which reliably holds my dresses shut. More on that below.

In the meantime, I should not assume that every reader will know what I mean by “spiral lacing”. This is a method for lacing a dress using a single lace which is threaded through eyelets in a spiral pattern, usually from bottom to top on front closures, and from top to bottom on side closures. (It is a matter of physical convenience. Try it out and you will see what I mean.) On one side of the opening, the lace pokes through the eyelets from the outside in, while on the other side the lace pokes through the eyelets from the inside out. This is the same principle at work when sewing a whip stitch.

In this first photo, I’ve sewn the edges of two pieces of fabric together using a whip stitch.

Whip stitch

Whip stitch

When opened out so that both pieces lay flat and their edges abut each other, a diagonal pattern appears.

Spiral stitching

Spiral stitching

When drawn tight so that the edges overlap, it becomes recognizable as the pattern seen in a myriad of period figural imagery for both women’s and men’s laced clothing dated to the 14th century in Europe.

Edges overlapped

Edges overlapped

Catherine Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick c.1370–1375

Catherine Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick c.1370–1375

Philippa of Hainault, c. 1367

Philippa of Hainault, c. 1367

Tacuinum Sanitatis, BNF Ms Nouvelle acq. lat. 1673, f.96r, c. 1390s

Tacuinum Sanitatis, BNF Ms Nouvelle acq. lat. 1673, f.96r, c. 1390s

 

Sir Nicholas de la Beche, England, c. 1348

Sir Nicholas de la Beche, England, c. 1348

 

Images of dresses with lacing clearly portrayed on them are far less common than dresses portrayed with no clear closure method, but there are enough such examples to put to rest any question about whether or not fitted dresses were laced closed in the 14th century. If a front-laced dress is good enough for Philippa of Hainault, the beloved wife of Edward III of England, a front-laced dress is good enough for us modern-day re-creators.

Some reasons for less copious representation of closure methods in art can be varied and have been covered in my paper, “How I stopped worrying and learned to love layers”. Particular to lacing, most figural imagery shows women wearing more than one dress at a time. Lacing is far more likely to appear on a foundation layer dress than on the outer dress which does not need to be quite so tight as the layer beneath it, and can therefore be more easily made a pull-over or a buttoned dress. Another roadblock is side-lacing—through the years I’ve found a number of 14th century examples of side-laced dresses (one being the side-laced over dress from the Tacuinum Sanitatis above) and it is all too obvious why this almost hidden location for lacing would be ignored by illuminators. It’s frequently tucked under arms where our view is occluded.

But I have digressed with a defense of lacing! Back to the patterns used.

If the stitches seen in the photo called “Edges overlapped” above were actually a lace drawn through eyelets, we would see that the eyelets are off-set, meaning that no two eyelets sit exactly across from each other. The finished effect, however, is one of maximal closure with the least possibility for gaps between the two edges.

There is another detail which bears further examination. At the top and bottom of Catherine’s dress, we see the first and last lines of lacing sit horizontally, unlike the rest of the lacing between them, which is diagonal and off-set.

Close up of lacing at top

Close up of lacing at top

Close up of lacing at bottom

Close up of lacing at bottom

This allows the edges to line up so that the ends of the opening will match up. In particular, this matched eyelet arrangement works best at the top of a front-laced dress, where an off-set neckline would be glaringly noticeable.

Jen Thompson’s Zen of Spiral Lacing is a great read on this topic. Students of 14th century clothing should read and internalize this concise web article and in particular the second diagram, which shows the arrangement I discuss above and corroborate with the Countess of Warwick’s effigy. Here’s an expanded view of the simple stitches I sewed to mimic this pattern:

Spiral stitching with horizontal stitches at top and bottom

Spiral stitching with horizontal stitches at top and bottom

To be clear, not every single example of lacing in figural imagery shows the exact arrangement seen on the countess’ effigy. There are variations, such as no clear example of a matched set of eyelets at the top or the bottom. (If you ignore this finishing touch, however,  your closure edges will have a harder time staying even with each other without upwards or downwards shift on one side.) Another variation is lacing that appears to run in horizontal rows, rather than off-set, diagonal rows as seen in the image below.

Froissart, Poems, BNF MS fr. 831, f.1, c. 1395

Froissart, Poems, BNF MS fr. 831, f.1, c. 1395

 

Whatever one’s preference for the placement of eyelets and the pattern of the lace’s path, here are some good takeaways:

1) Lacing was used on fitted dresses and men’s fitted garments in the 14th century.

2) Lacing was used on the front of garments and on the sides of garments. It is unclear whether or not it was used on the backs of garments. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, but within the context of currently known research, it is much less defensible than lacing on the front or sides.

3) A single-strand spiral lace was the most common lacing approach, given its prevalence in the art. This means that cross lacing—where there are two laces crossing over each other—was far less common. I’ve come across a couple of images of men’s martial surcoats laced this way, but that’s it so far. You can see those images in slide 15 of my presentation on 14th Century Martial Surcoats in England and France.

Go forth and lace up!