Charles VI Coat Armour Repro, Part 4: Sewing It All Together

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts describing the process I undertook to recreate the child-sized coat armour on display at the Musée des beaux arts in Chartres, France. This installment covers the sewing techniques used in attaching all the pieces and finishing all the edges. You can find the earlier installments here:

  1. Dyeing an Imperfect Lampas
  2. Recreating the Pattern
  3. Padding and Quilting on a Frame

Once I had all the pieces quilted and cut to shape, it was time to stitch everything together, make the buttons and buttonholes, and finish all the edges. I used the techniques I observed during my examination of the original. If you want to compare what I’ve done against the original, you should take a look at the photos in my article <link>, which the curator took at my request and which are not published elsewhere.

I acquired red silk quilting thread from Superior Threads and undyed linen sewing thread from Wm. Booth, Draper.

I started by connecting the lining pieces along the long seams, using a sturdy, undyed linen thread and a tight running stitch.

The lining assemblies sewn together into one complete assembly along side and back seams.

The lining assemblies sewn together into one complete assembly along side and back seams.

 

I then did the same for the outer assemblies.

The outer assemblies sewn together along the side and back seams to make one complete assembly.

The outer assemblies sewn together along the side and back seams to make one complete assembly.

 

Sleeve assembly came next. The original coat did not have any exposed seams, including inside the sleeves. This meant that I had to fold the sleeves in half length-wise and first sew the silk edge together, good sides facing each other.

The red stitches are where I sewed first, to finish the outside seam.

The red stitches are where I sewed first, to finish the outside portion of the sleeve’s long seam.

 

I then folded over the edges on the linen and sewed them together using an invisible running stitch that ran between the folds, out of sight. This would have been a stronger join if I’d used a proper ladder stitch, which is this situation’s equivalent to using stab stitch instead of running stitch.

Using an invisible stitch to finish the lining-side seam on the sleeve's long seam.

Using an invisible stitch to finish the lining-side seam on the sleeve’s long seam.

 

A sewn-up sleeve, inside out.

A sewn-up sleeve, inside out. The curved long seam is running down the middle.

 

Very carefully, I turned the sleeves right-side-out when finished.

The right sleeve, laid flat so that it folds along the curved long seam.

The right sleeve, laid flat so that it folds along the curved long seam.

 

A matching set of sleeves. Left sleeve on the left, right sleeve on the right.

A matching set of sleeves. Left sleeve on the left, right sleeve on the right.

 

I was beginning to see the shape of this tiny coat armour coming together.

 

The shoulder seams have not yet been sewn together, and the lining assembly has not been inserted yet, but already it was starting to resemble the real thing.

The shoulder seams have not yet been sewn together, and the lining assembly has not been inserted yet, but already it was starting to resemble the real thing.

 

Next, I put the lining inside the shell assembly, with the flatter, base sides facing each other. I stitched along the back seam on the inside, connecting the shell with the lining with a large overcast stitch. I had to be careful not to poke the needle all the way through to prevent the light gray thread from appearing on the crimson outside fabric. The original maker used undyed linen thread, so I used the same.

The overcast stitching on the original was as crude and obvious as that seen here. This was a brute-force stitch whose purpose was entirely practical rather than for style.

The overcast stitching on the original was as crude and obvious as that seen here. This was a brute-force stitch whose purpose was entirely practical rather than for style.

 

I then attached the lining’s shoulder seams and the shell’s shoulder seams.

A view of the back, shoulder seams attached.

A view of the back, shoulder seams attached.

 

Remember when I mentioned making a mistake in the last blog post? I said that using the undyed linen for outer assembly’s base layer caused a problem. On the original coat, the buttonhole flap was created solely from the outer assembly while the placket behind it was created from the lining assembly. The backside of the buttonholes were going to be visible, of course, and that linen needed to be the good stuff. Instead, the backside of my outer assembly—the base layer of linen that had been stretched on the frame—was the undyed linen that I had intended to hide. To fix this discrepancy, I basted a strip of good cream linen to the backside of the area where the buttonholes would go.

 

I folded the lining assembly back out of the way, and laid down a strip of the finer linen along the opening edge on the inside of the shell or outer assembly.

I folded the lining assembly back out of the way, and laid down a strip of the finer linen along the opening edge on the inside of the shell or outer assembly.

 

 

Before sewing any buttonholes, I had to make some buttons and practice buttonholes to confirm their width against the originals on the coat.

Practice buttons and a swatch for practicing buttonholes. Always warm up your buttonholes on a practice scrap before doing them on the good stuff!

Practice buttons and a swatch for practicing buttonholes. Always warm up your buttonholes on a practice scrap before working them on the good stuff!

 

Next I sewed the buttonholes, starting at the bottom. Tip: Always start your buttonholes or your lacing holes from the least-visible end of the area you will be covering. For front openings, this is the bottom. For sleeves, this is the area furthest from the wrist, unless your buttons extend all the way up your arm. In that case, the elbow area is the best place to start, working your way out from the center. You’ll get better as you go, and your earlier, less-wonderful ones will not be the first ones scrutinized by onlookers.

I left a sparse amount of cotton padding between the fabric layers under the buttonholes; just enough to give it body, but not enough to hinder the sewing process.

 

Some of my buttonholes were noticeably longer than others. Oops. Fortunately, this is barely noticeable on the front. Note the quilting stitches on the body piece are crimson. This is the backside of the shell or outer assembly, which was quilted with crimson silk thread.

Some of my buttonholes were noticeably longer than others. Oops. Fortunately, this is barely noticeable on the front. Note the quilting stitches on the body piece are crimson. This is the backside of the shell or outer assembly, which was quilted with crimson silk thread.

 

 

I then started the placket, or underlap. I laid down a strip of crimson silk lampas over the undyed linen of the lining assembly’s left front opening. This red strip would lay directly behind the buttonholes when finished. I did not attach it on both long sides of the strip; only on the inside long side initially. I took care to attach it at a deep enough distance from the opening to eventually hide the basting stitches between the layers. Also, I had to stitch only as far as the first layer of linen, to prevent the thread from showing on the outside of the lining.

 

I attached the silk placket piece with crimson thread along its inside edge. The outer edge stayed open to accommodate the addition of padding later. Note the quilting stitches on the body piece blend in with the linen fabric. This is the backside of the lining assembly—the undyed base linen—quilted with undyed linen thread.)

I attached the silk placket piece with crimson thread along its inside edge. The outer edge stayed open to accommodate the addition of padding later. Note the quilting stitches on the body piece blend in with the linen fabric. This is the backside of the lining assembly—the undyed base linen—quilted with undyed linen thread.)

 

At this point I had not yet finished any edges.

 

You can see the unfinished neckline, front openings (including buttonhole edge and placket underneath), and hem.

You can see the unfinished neckline, front openings (including buttonhole edge and placket underneath), and hem.

 

Everyone’s favorite part of sewing is sleeve attachment (ha ha). Just as with a normal sleeve insertion, I put the right-side-out sleeves into the inside-out armholes from the inside of the garment. I sewed the silk sleeve edges to the silk armhole edges.

 

The silk outer edges have been sewn to each other. You can see some of the red silk stitching on the part of the armhole closest to the top of photo.

The silk outer edges have been sewn to each other. You can see some of the red silk stitching on the part of the armhole closest to the top of photo.

 

 

To finish the lining edges, I turned them inwards and whip-stitched them to each other with a tight, tiny stitch length for extra strength, as the original had.

 

The finishing on the inside of the armhole.

The finishing on the inside of the armhole.

 

With an s-curve sleeve cap like this coat has, the long seam of the sleeve runs down the back of the arm.

 

The sleeve seam sits in the middle of the back of the sleeve. This combined with the S-curve of the sleeve cap angles the sleeve downward.

The sleeve seam sits in the middle of the back of the sleeve. This combined with the S-curve of the sleeve cap angles the sleeve downward.

 

Once the sleeves were on, I returned my attention to finishing the buttonhole edge and placket. The original placket was padded, separated by a line of quilting down its center. I added raw cotton between the silk strip and the lining assembly and quilted the central line. Then I finished the buttonhole flap’s edge, using an invisible running stitch.

 

Here you can see the inner channel of the placket is completed, and the buttonhole edge is in progress.

Here you can see the inner channel of the placket is completed, and the buttonhole edge is in progress.

 

 

With the buttonholes finally squared away, I turned to completing the placket. I placed more cotton against the inner channel and then whip-stitched the placket closed, cutting it to the abbreviated, angled length seen on the original.

 

 

The original maker was not terribly concerned about which thread was used to close hems. Finishing was frequently done with undyed linen thread.

The original maker was not terribly concerned about which thread was used to close hems. Finishing was frequently done with undyed linen thread.

 

I then went back to the buttonhole edge and sewed small stab stitches parallel to the opening, about 1/4″ in from the edge to reinforce it, as I realized the original had this, and I’d almost skipped over it.

 

The placket does not extend the length of the front opening, but instead angles inward at the top and bottom, leaving one buttonhole at the top and 3 at the bottom with no reinforcement behind them. I misjudged something somewhere, because the original's placket leaves 2 buttonholes unprotected at the bottom, not 3, like mine.

The placket does not extend the length of the front opening, but instead angles inward at the top and bottom, leaving a few buttonholes with no reinforcement behind them. Here you can see the left front upper assembly folded back out of the way. The crimson lampas lies on the inner-facing side of the left front lining assembly.

 

But then, a small disaster presented itself. I realized I’d accidentally sewn an extra buttonhole! The original had 27 buttonholes, and I’d managed to sew 28. I decided to patch over the bottom-most buttonhole. To disguise the patch, I lined up its top edge against the bottom edge of the buttonhole above it and re-stitched the bottom half of that buttonhole to hold the patch in place. Then I folded over the patch’s edge on its right side, and attached it with tiny stitches. Later, when I finished the left edge and the hem, it would blend completely.

 

You can't see the top edge of the patch at all, because it's hidden under the bottom row of buttonhole stitches. On the inside, there's also a patch of cream linen.

You can’t see the top edge of the patch at all, because it’s hidden under the bottom row of buttonhole stitches. On the inside, there’s also a patch of cream linen.

 

 

With the buttonhole hullabaloo finally behind me, I connected the two assemblies to each other next. I sewed the lining (with placket) and shell/outer (with buttonholes) together with an invisible running stitch, just past the buttonholes.

 

An invisible running stitch connects the inner and outer assemblies to each other. This also hides the original basting stitch holding down the strip of lampas.

An invisible running stitch connects the inner and outer assemblies to each other. This also hides the original basting stitches holding down the strip of lampas on the placket and the strip of good linen behind the buttonholes respectively.

 

 

The neckline isn't finished yet, but you can see the ingenious method by which the placket was originally designed. The maker used the lining assembly edge to create the placket, while the shell or outer assembly was used to create the buttonhole flap.

The neckline isn’t finished yet, but you can see the ingenious method by which the placket was originally designed. The maker used the lining assembly edge to create the placket, while the shell or outer assembly was used to create the buttonhole flap.

 

 

You can see the patch covering the inside of Rogue Twenty Eight, the useless extra buttonhole, in this photo.

You can see the patch covering the inside of Rogue Twenty Eight, the useless extra buttonhole, in this photo.

 

Next came the button-side opening. I finished it by turning the rough edges of the outer assembly in to face the turned-in rough edges of the lining assembly. I whip-stitched them together using the undyed linen thread, as had been done with the original.

 

stuffed some cotton in the open edges of the two assemblies before attaching them to each other.

stuffed some cotton in the open edges of the two assemblies before attaching them to each other.

 

Finishing the neckline was the next logical step. The original coat does not have a collar. Instead, the neckline is bound with an on-grain strip of crimson lampas. I laid the binding strip good-side-down, against the good side of the neckline edge and stitched it with running stitches.

 

I started with a rather wide strip, to make sure I had enough. I could always cut it down if needed.

I started with a rather wide strip, to make sure I had enough. I could always cut it down if needed.

 

 

Then, I folded the strip over the rough edges and ratcheted it down tightly before overcast stitching the tucked-under binding to the lining.

 

The finished neckline. At this point, the buttons still need to be sewn on, and the cuffs and hem need to be finished.

The finished neckline. At this point, the buttons still need to be sewn on, and the cuffs and hem need to be finished.

 

The finished neckline, placket, and buttonhole flap.

The finished neckline, placket, and buttonhole flap.

 

Next came the buttons. The original coat had 11 spherical buttons and 16 flat-faced buttons, both covered in the silk lampas. The flat-faced buttons were stitched through in concentric circles. For the spherical ones, I was hard-pressed to come up with the right material for the stuffing. They were clearly not made from wood or metal, as they had some amount of give. It was also clear that self-stuffing them with the lampas would not achieve the desired firmness or smoothness. I know I’m going to get teased for this admission, but I ended up using lint from my clothes dryer’s lint trap. What can I say; it worked perfectly!

I made the flat buttons from a thick sheet of industrial, 100% wool felt from McMaster-Carr. I cut out disks and shaved off some wool at an angle on the underside to sharpen the edges and create the mild conical shape seen on the originals. Then I covered them with silk and stitched through in 3 concentric circles of stitches.

 

The buttons sit ready to be sewn to the front opening with a thread shank.

The buttons sit ready to be sewn to the front opening with a thread shank.

 

I sewed the buttons to the right front edge using a silk crimson buttonhole twist thread. To form a sturdy shank, I looped the thread between the backside of the button and through the edge 3–4 times before winding the thread around the loops as tightly as possible. I then poked the needle back through the edge of the front opening and tied a knot on the inside, between the outer and lining assemblies. Since the hem had not yet been sewn, I could easily reach up between the two assemblies and tie hidden knots.

 

The top button is flat, followed by the 11 spherical buttons, and then the remaining 16 flat-faced buttons.

The top button is flat, followed by the 11 spherical buttons, and then the remaining 16 flat-faced buttons.

 

 

Buttons in this time period were not off-set from the edge; they were placed directly on the edge and typically had shanks, rather than being the kind with holes cut in them for stitching them down flat on the surface of the garment.

Buttons in this time period were not off-set from the edge; they were placed directly on the edge and typically had shanks, rather than being the kind with holes cut in them for stitching them down flat on the surface of the garment.

 

 

Close-up of the flatfaced buttons attached.

Close-up of the flat-faced buttons attached.

 

On the original, the maker had done a running stitch about 1/4 inch in from the finished edge, presumably to keep the padding from bunching against it and reducing its sharpness. I did not take this step, but in retrospect I should have.

On to the sleeve hems. They were something of a mystery on the original. The original bottom edges had been worn away, so there is no way to know whether the current conserved finishing is accurate to the original. There may have been a binding like the neckline, or perhaps even a full separate cuff.

I chose the most straightforward course and folded in the rough edges, whip-stitching the hems closed using the red silk thread.

 

Maybe this is how the original coat's sleeve hems were done. It's plausible and in keeping with the techniques applied elsewhere on the garment.

Maybe this is how the original coat’s sleeve hems were done. It’s plausible and in keeping with the techniques applied elsewhere on the garment.

 

The skirt hem, with its shallow, wavy scallops, was the only remaining piece I had to finish. And man, it was the hardest part of all. This is because the deep fullness of the stuffed channels results in a superfluity of fabric at the hem. There’s no easy way to smooth out the rough edges before finishing them in the wavy shape seen on the original. Indeed, the hem on the coat armour is slightly gathered all around in order to make it lay flat rather than buckle.

Complicating matters further, the original assemblies had each been prick-stitched about 1/2 inch in from the hem edge, presumably to hold the padding up so it would not pool at the hem. The lining assembly had been stitched with linen, while the outer assembly was stitched with red silk. The short, widely-spaced stitches show on the front (i.e. on the lining and on the outside of the coat), while long floats must exist on the inside, out of sight. This means the maker had to finish the prick stitching first, and then attach the two assembly edges together last.

I was running out of time, as I was working on this last task in England, on my way to the International Medieval Congress at Leeds in July 2012. I was presenting my paper and planned to show the reproduction as a visual aid. As a result, after completing the prick-stitching on the lining assembly, I gave up on prick-stitching the outer assembly. I proceeded directly to hemming the two assemblies together with an overcast stitch. It was a challenge to wrangle the extra fabric to create smooth wave shapes. Later, I should have gone back, picked it out, and done the prick-stitching first to hold back the padding. Now, 5 years later, some padding has migrated south and is plumping up the hem too much. It’s on my to-do list.

 

View of the lining hem. Could be better. At the time, I had not differentiated between running and prick stitch, and so the stitches you see here are running.

View of the lining hem. Could be better. At the time, I had not differentiated between running and prick stitch, and so the stitches in linen you see here are running stitches.

 

View of the outer hem. Not quite right, but close.

View of the outer hem. Not quite right, but close.

 

At last, I was done (more or less). It turned out remarkably close to the original and I’m proud of the project. I finally understand how makers coaxed such sleek, structured silhouettes from puffy, quilted panels of fabric. With densely packed cotton built to varying and curving heights and widths with the help of a quilting frame, the body can be transformed into a new shape.

 

The final reproduction, back view.

The final reproduction, back view.

 

 

The final reproduction, back view.

The final reproduction, back view.

 

 

The final reproduction, inside view.

The final reproduction, inside view.

 

The inner and outer assemblies are only attached in a few places: the center back seam (the rough overcast stitching mentioned above), the armholes, and all the edges (front opening, neckline, and skirt hem). The original had a line of light stitching that ran horizontally around the waist on the lining side, but does not show through, obviously, to the outer fabric. This could have been an anchoring stitch at the time it was added, but felt as though it were disconnected by the time I examined it. I omitted it from my reproduction, unsure of its necessity or purpose.

 

Displaying my project in August 2012 at the Arts & Sciences Exhibit at Pennsic War, an event sponsored by the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Displaying my project in August 2012 at the Arts & Sciences Exhibit at Pennsic War, an event sponsored by the Society for Creative Anachronism.

 

I estimate that the time it took to create this garment once I had the materials in place was approximately 200 hours. Surely a more experienced maker could move considerably faster through the quilting and sewing. Even so, if the time were cut in half, that is still a significant resource sink. It’s clearer than ever that such garments could not have been cheap to purchase. In fact, they likely existed solely at the pleasure of the most monied classes. These were not cheaper substitutes for other forms of armour, but armour in their own right. Men-at-arms wore them in a complementary manner with other armour pieces, such as mail and possibly plate.

I hope you enjoyed this series and learned a few new things. I certainly learned a lot from the process, and as always, my mistakes taught me the most.

Pourpoint of Charles VI of France article now available in digital format!

My detailed paper on the tailoring and construction methods used to create the beautiful coat armour on display at the Musée des beaux arts in Chartres, France was published in Waffen- und Kostümkunde in July, 2013. Now, over two years later, I am comfortable providing this publication in PDF format for educational purposes to the world at large, rather than requiring that it be bought directly from the journal publishers. At this point, anyone who really REALLY wanted the article has already bought it, and I would like the rest of the people interested in recreating medieval quilting technology to have access to this information.

I am providing it for view/download here, as well as on on my existing page for this paper. You can also find a higher-resolution version on Academia.edu. Note: if you don’t already have an academia.edu profile, you will be required to go through a multi-step process by the site first.

PLEASE READ: If you want others to see this article, please provide the link to my site or the academia.edu site and do not upload the article or any excerpts or images from the article anywhere on the web. Please play nice so we all can share our knowledge in good faith.

Direct link (copy and paste to share): http://cottesimple.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Charles-VI-pourpoint-article-Tasha-D-Kelly-reduced-size.pdf

Sample pages:

p. 159

p. 159

 

p. 171

p. 171

 

New tutorial lite: Making a dress from your bust-supportive bodice pattern

For my recent workshops in California, I produced a couple of hand-outs for attendees. Tonight I webbed one of them, a sort of fast-and-rough guide to making a dress from a bust-supportive bodice pattern. While far from comprehensive, it does contain a fair bit of useful information, especially for the advanced beginner who is comfortable making her own historical dresses, but may still be working from others’ patterns. Drafting sleeves, for instance, is not always for the faint of heart, and even seasoned experts can find themselves stymied when a particularly interesting arm and shoulder present for consideration.

Making a dress from your bust-supportive bodice pattern

It is my hope that my diagrams will illuminate the basic patterning steps. This webbed version of the hand-out also contains a bunch of useful links to tutorials and further instructions, which should give you more than enough to learn, if you are not already familiar with the techniques described. Happy dress-making!

The cotehardie that ate my brain!

My sweetheart’s birthday is in early November. He gently suggested I might make him something historically-themed and  fine to wear. I thought this was a capital idea, given my experience and interests. I decided to make him a cotehardie in the style of Charles de Blois. I have my own pattern for easy fitting, after all, and I even had enough of the fine lampas I used for the Charles VI recreation left over to use. I was off to the races.

Greg hanging out with a circa 1400 harness

Greg hanging out with a circa 1400 harness

I took measurements and then altered the sleeves on my commercial pattern for a size 42 chest. Greg has really long arms, so I knew better than to go with the pre-sized sleeves. I lengthened them by a good three inches, adding room to the upper arm piece, the forearm piece, and the cuff. Next, I ran the pattern up using a bubblegum-pink linen I had in my stash but knew I’d never have the heart to use for a finished garment. I don’t usually waste linen on a mock-up, but this color was hopeless with respect to my tastes, so it might as well be put to use.

Because Greg lives some distance from me, I mailed him this atrocity and had him try it on while we were Skyping. I took notes for alterations and he mailed it back to me. I reworked it slightly and mailed it to him again. This time the fit was correct. I proceeded to cut out the good stuff.

This is where most people quail. The fabric cost me $58 a yard (a bargain really; it originally retailed for about $300 a yard). But I’m weird and unafraid of cutting expensive fabric. I’m sure this s a fault, not a positive, but so far so good. Ironically, as gorgeous and complex as this silk lampas is, the pattern on it is not medieval. At best, it’s 18th century.

I sewed up the fashion layer and the lining, which incidentally is made from a gorgeous natural herringbone linen which I scored for $2 a yard in a private sale from a retired seamstress. This was the super-easy part. Next came hand-finishing, making all the buttons, and the dreaded buttonholes. By now, Greg’s birthday had come and gone and I was only getting started.

Somewhere around mid-November I began making buttons. And making them. And making them some more. All together, this cote ended up with 67 hand-made buttons. Which meant 67 buttonholes. *gulp*

A surfeit of buttons

A surfeit of buttons

I do believe the buttonholes drove me slightly mad. I had no time for anything else aside from making dinner, attending to my son’s homework and bedtime routine, and going to my day job. When I finally finished, it was the night before Greg was to wear it, this past weekend, at a Yule celebration held by friends of ours in Connecticut. But it got finished! And, it looked pretty spiff, if I say so myself. Greg was happy with it, which is what counts.

Tasha and Greg before the Christmas tree

Tasha and Greg before the Christmas tree

Placing your 14th century buttons just so

The 14th century in Europe is notorious for many things, but one of my favorite (and less grim) legacies is the button. Mind you, buttons existed before the 14th century, but it was during this time that the fashionable integration of buttons gave us a true embarrassment of riches. Indeed, it is the 14th century’s copious application of buttons on clothing that draws many a historical clothier to the period. It certainly drew me. We modern people don’t wallow in buttons like they did, and I believe that the wearing of so many is novel to us.

The challenge, as with any effort in reproducing a realistic historical outfit, is to incorporate the subtle details that differentiate a costume from clothing. In the case of 14th century buttons, this requires a critical look at their placement on different clothing layers, as well as their size and position relative to each other. Attention to such details will absolutely make the difference between a generic costume and a realistic portrayal that stands a chance of passing the time-travel test. (You know what I mean… Imagine if you traveled to the actual time period. Would your appearance cause people to stop and stare and ask you where you’re from? Or, would you fit in reasonably well?)

As I have already detailed how buttons are used on long sleeves of foundation-layer clothing and on center-front openings for top-layer clothing in my paper “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Layers”, I won’t revisit that here. Instead, I will briefly examine button size and distance between buttons in various locations on garments.

Buttons on sleeves in the 14th century ranged from a few placed near the wrist to a bunch placed from wrist to above the elbow. They also had a surprisingly large range of size. Depending on the particular fashion, sleeve buttons could have a diameter as tiny as a quarter-inch wide and as large as almost an inch wide.

Here we have an example of a lady’s sleeves from 1315, Marguerite de Dampierre, whose tomb is in the Louvre:

Marguerite de Dampierre, after 1315

Marguerite de Dampierre, after 1315

The tomb sculpture is life-sized and the buttons are about a quarter-inch each, or perhaps as tiny as 5mm. Note how close together they are. This is a signature style point of 14th century sleeves. Buttons are frequently crowded together, sometimes almost touching each other. Sleeve buttons in particular are often quite small. Here are some English ladies demonstrating this style:

Isabel Cloville, 1361

Isabel Cloville, 1361

Ismayne de Wynston, 1372

Ismayne de Wynston, 1372

For contrast, take a look at the famous sleeves of the pourpoint of Charles de Blois:

Buttons on the pourpoint of Charles de Blois

Buttons on the pourpoint of Charles de Blois

These buttons are prominent and large, but like the images above, they are also placed close together.

To give you an idea of the variety and similarities among 14thc sleeve button arrangements, here is a random sampling from 14thc art depicting buttoned long sleeves in various geographical locations in Europe. Click a thumbnail to see the larger size of an image (and click your browser’s Back button to return to this page):

Percy Tomb, English, 1340

Percy Tomb, English, 1340

Bankers from British Museum's Additional MS 27695, f.8, Northern Italy, late 14thc.

Bankers from British Museum’s Additional MS 27695, f.8, Northern Italy, late 14thc.

Life of St. Ursula by Tomaso de Modena, 1352

Life of St. Ursula by Tomaso de Modena, 1352

Lancelot du Lac, MS Français 343, 1375

Lancelot du Lac, MS Français 343, 1375

Puits de Moïse, Champmol, 1398

Puits de Moïse, Champmol, 1398

As you can see, the number of buttons varies, but as a general rule, they are not placed too far apart from each other.

Buttons used for a center-front closure are somewhat different. They are usually slightly larger than those seen on sleeves, and are sometimes placed with a greater distance between each button.

Two famous extant male garments dated to the second half of the 14th century in France, the pourpoints of Charles de Blois and Charles VI, respectively, have their center-front closure buttons placed relatively close together. The former is shown above, and the latter can be seen here:

Pourpoint attributed to Charles VI of France

Pourpoint attributed to Charles VI of France

I believe the crowding of buttons on such garments is more likely to occur when the garment is relatively snug to the body and the opening extends through most or all of the torso. The more buttons there are, the more strength there is to the join of the two front pieces. When the garment is loose, the chance of the front opening springing apart unexpectedly is smaller. If the opening only extends a small way down the chest, an unexpected parting is less likely to result in an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction. Hence, lots of buttons close together on a center-front opening of a tight garment that opens the length of the torso makes sense.

In the imagery of close-fitting women’s gowns which are clearly intended to be worn over a foundation dress, or kirtle, or cotte (really, just pick your favorite term), the art of the period sometimes shows larger buttons spaced somewhat apart from each other, relative to the crowded placement seen on sleeves:

The stakes are not terribly high, should this style of dress pop open. There is another dress underneath, providing modesty. The buttons and their spacing also indicate that the top layer is not so tight as to create “negative ease”, wherein the garment squeezes the body and places a great deal of tension against the buttons. Using buttons to hold edges together under strain is never really a great idea.

Another subtle touch you can use to separate your interpretation of a 14th century buttoned garment from the loads of iffy costumes out there is to sew your buttons to the edge of the garment, rather than in from the edge, as is done with modern button placement. We have a number of extant examples of buttons sewn to the edge, namely fragments from the Museum of London finds and the pourpoint of Charles VI. The Malatesta farsetto is another great example, though it’s dated to the early 15th century.

I’ve found from my own experience that buttons sewn to the edge of the garment do not cause it to gape open, provided the button shanks (the stems or stalks of the buttons) are not longer than the distance from the edge of the garment to each buttonhole. If your shanks are longer than that distance, they are either too long or you have placed the buttonholes too close to the edge. Placing the buttonholes about a quarter-inch in from the edge is a good standard of distance to keep. If you are making your own buttons, make sure the shank is shorter than a quarter inch. If using pre-made buttons with shanks built in, measure the shank length and place your buttonholes slightly further in from the edge.

Unlike modern people, medieval folks did not expect their openings to overlap excessively when joined by buttons. A minimal overlap was sufficient in most cases, because there was usually another layer worn beneath. At the very least, one’s shirt or chemise would cover the area.

In situations where a large overlap made sense, such as with martial garments, medieval tailors created a placket or underlap, which can be seen in the extant pourpoint of Edward, the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral and the pourpoint of Charles VI. This was a strip of padded material that sat behind the buttons and buttonholes and provided an extra barrier against gaps.

If you’re relatively new to 14th century clothing, I hope this brief analysis has provided insight you can use when you make your next buttoned garment. It’s always best to remain aware of geographical and time-based differences and to try not to copy what you see other 14th century enthusiasts doing. Instead, I recommend going to the sources, confirming any assertions you read (including mine), and then going forth and creating something you can be confident is more “clothing” than “costume”.