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!

Comments

  1. The horizontal-lines version of lacing is achievable in two ways: a) doing spiral lacing with offset eyelets, but “inside out”; or b) doing spiral lacing with non-offset eyelets. The latter can be observed in some 15th Century portraits.

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      If the eyelets are offset, you cannot get horizontal lines, but I agree with your second suggestion! You can also get horizontal lines with ladder lacing through matched eyelets.

      • You are right. My brain was asleep yesterday, evidently!

        I’ve never tried ladder lacing. Do you know if it fares better or worse in the “keeping everything nice and closed” front than spiral lacing? Somehow my brain always categorises it under “decorative but not necessarily useful”.

        • Tasha Kelly says:

          As far as I can tell, ladder lacing would not do nearly so good a job of holding everything shut, because large sections of the closure would have no lace crossing over it to hold it shut. I imagine gaping would happen. I think that it makes sense decoratively when applied across a purposefully open area (as seen in 15thc fashions), but that’s about it — just as you state. I was just brainstorming ways to get a horizontal effect with you. :^)

  2. Hi Tasha, can you say what these medieval laces were made of in the 14th century?

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      Here are some options: thin textile strips (silk or wool most likely) that were woven in some manner — tablet-woven flat or tubular, tabby-woven; plaited braid; fingerlooped braid. I got these directly from the Museum of London’s Textiles and Clothing book, which catalogs extant examples of all of these in one use or another. I have no idea if lucet would have been used; I haven’t researched it and I understand there is ongoing controversy over its use in this time period. If you are going to make your own textile laces, I recommend Grandeur or Elegance twisted silk floss. (No affiliation with the company that produces them; I just love the product.) You’ll need brass aglets too. They can be hand-made from hobby store brass sheet (thin, malleable gauge like 0.10). Not sure which online vendor sells good ones these days; I know that Historic Enterprises sold them at Pennsic War in years past, but I couldn’t find them on their site when I searched a few months ago.

  3. Love it! Have you conducted any research on pregnancy and maternity wear? I generally do an earlier time period where looser clothing was common but the lacing was still used. I have some very interesting conversations about breast feeding and gestation.

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      I have not focused on pregnancy or breastfeeding with regards to this dress style, but I’ve heard of varying degrees of success with attempts to fit into it while pregnant or nursing. There is some imagery (mostly 15thc, I believe) showing this sort of dress in a semi-unlaced state for the purpose of feeding the baby Jesus, but I don’t know how convenient that would be in a modern-day setting. As for pregnancy, I’ve heard of women cutting their dresses far more generously in the belly and it working well to accommodate their growing bellies. If bust support is still a priority, it would only require an inch or so of a mostly-tight band of fabric beneath the breasts to achieve it. For me, however? I would not have been able to tolerate even that when I was in my last trimester. I was already dealing with heartburn, and a tight band at the level of my stomach would have been a nightmare. I wore loose clothing in my final stages. Other women might be more willing to try it. :^)

  4. Nancy Blass says:

    This may seem incredibly stupid, but I’m going to ask anyway. I’ve always done the horizontal lacing, tying off on the inside of the bottom pair of holes. But doing a spiral has me stumped on how to tie off. The loose ends always appear at the top and bottom. Please discribe the start and finish of the lacing when doing the off-set style.

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      Take a look at the picture called “Spiral stitching with horizontal stitches at top and bottom” for reference on the following instructions.
      Start with your lace on the inside, at the bottom left.
      Poke it through so that it comes out of the front of the bottom-left eyelet.
      Then insert it through the front of the bottom-right eyelet so that it is back on the inside of the dress.
      Now cross over to the left side and bring it out of the front of the next eyelet on that side.
      Cross over to the right and poke it through the next eyelet there, bringing it back to the inside.
      Repeat until you are finished.
      When finished, the last insertion of the lace will place your lace on the inside of your dress, where you can tie it off and tuck it out of sight.
      I hope this is clear!

    • I use the end to make a slip knot around the last diagonal “stich” on the inside. I.e. I poke the end under that stitch to make a loop, then take the end and poke a loop of it through that loop. Tighten the first loop around the second and you have a slip knot. Enlarge the second loop until it is not in danger of accidentally slipping free, then bung it and the remaining end in the gap between your cleavage.

      No fuss, easy to undo and doesn’t show.

  5. Nancy Blass says:

    The image of Queen Phillippa above certainly appears to be of her pregnant, which she had to be most of the time with 15 pregnancies!

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      My understanding is that the effigy was commissioned a year or two before her death at the age of 55, so it’s unlikely she was pregnant at the time, but given the number of pregnancies she completed, her figure certainly does look like like that of a woman who’s had a lot of kids! The effigy was something of a new approach at the time, because it purportedly portrayed her realistically at her current age and shape, not idealized.

  6. Nancy Blass says:

    I found an easy way to get the ladder effect, yet hold it all together snuggly. Start at the top (this works well for back lacing), go down into the two top holes on left and right creating the top rung of the ladder. Cross underneath, and with just one side of the lacing, skip a set of holes, come up on the opposite side (creating one half of the cross underneath), and go down in the hole across from it, and repeat until you get to the bottom, skipping a set of holes every time. Then pick up the other half of the lacing and do the same into the remaining sets of holes. This overlapping cross-over underneath seems to hold the fabric together better. I’ve used this form of lacing for the past 2 medieval fairs without any gapping, even during strenuous activities like dancing and tying down tents!

  7. Side lacing is great for getting that flat-front look; but it can be so so painful and frustrating if you lack flexibility. On a bad shoulder day (and with the camping… every day is a bad shoulder day) there are often tears; it is a bad way to start the day. (yes, I know, most people have shoulders that work and can manage just fine; some very enviable friends can make do with just loosening it off and not actually pulling the lace out – easier if you have a lot of squish to the rib area).

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      Consider either making or buying cord/lace which is around 5 feet long. Lace it from the top down and leave it as loose as it needs to be to get your head and shoulder through the torso area. Then, tighten from the top down. This can save quite a bit of frustration and discomfort, as long as the lace is truly long enough to a) widen the opening as much as needed and b) keep all the eyelets laced. Even with my non-injured shoulders, I do find side-lacing unbelievably tiring. It would be impossible if I didn’t already have a 5-foot lace to use the way I describe here.

      • Also, having a more slippery(i.e. silk or very smooth linen) lace helps, as you don’t necessarily have to get all the way into your own armpit to tighten the top; as long as you can reach some few (5-6) rows from the top, the lacing will still slide the entire length. If the opening isn’t too long, you can often just pull right from the bottom of the spiral. I’m explaining badly, but it’s what works for my side/back laced gowns (different time period) as well. You just have to make very sure of your final securing knot.

  8. Marina Andersen says:

    Hi Tasha, what do you make the actual eyelets with? are they just modern brass ones or are the holes hand stitched like button holes? thanks :)

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      Hi Marina, I hand-stitch them using buttonhole stitch (with the knot to the inside (like a star burst), not the outside (like a wagon wheel)). I use a twisted silk floss for that, like Elegance, made by Rainbow Gallery.

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