Face-Framing Braids—Recreating a 14th-Century Hairstyle

I’ve long been fascinated with the braided hair styles seen on women in Western European figural art of the mid-to-late 14th century—particularly in French works. To my modern eyes, women did charming and oddball things with their hair. The undeniable outlandishness of these braids make them fun to recreate. I am especially enamored of the styles seen in the images below.

 

From the blessing in a nuptial mass. Turin-Milan Hours. Museo Civico, inv. no. 47, f87. Paris, 1380.

From the blessing in a nuptial mass. Turin-Milan Hours. Museo Civico, inv. no. 47, f.87. Paris, 1380.

 

From BNF MS Français 811, f.IV. Paris, 1398.

From BNF MS Français 811, f.IV. Paris, 1398.

 

From Le Remède de Fortune, Le Dit du Lion by Guillaume de Machaut. BNF MS Français 1586, f51. France, circa 1350.

From Le Remède de Fortune, Le Dit du Lion by Guillaume de Machaut. BNF MS Français 1586, f.51. France, circa 1350.

 

With this in mind, I invited a friend over recently to photograph the process of styling hanging braids that frame the face and wrap to the back of the head. Drea has thick, lustrous, long hair, and had expressed an interest in learning the process herself.

 

Drea, combing out her hair.

Drea, combing out her hair with a wide-toothed comb.

 

It was a perfect opportunity to both teach her and further my own learning. I’ve been braiding my hair in the style described for about sixteen years, but as I have thin hair that is rarely grown long enough to capture the proper appearance, I usually resort to wearing faux braids attached to a tablet-woven band. Originally, when all I had was my own hair to work with, it was my friend Charlotte Johnson who showed me how to do a simple face-framing braid arrangement.

 

Charlotte Johnson and me, posing as church donors memorialized in art. Photo from 2002.

Charlotte Johnson (left) and me, posing as church donors memorialized in art. Photo from 2002 (I think?). We were so young!

 

I started making the faux hair pieces in 2003, after seeing my dear friend Greta Nappa make one based on an extant fragment published in the Museum of London’s Dress Accessories book. I disguise my own hair by pinning it back into a low, flat bun worn under a veil. Even though I’ve long known how to arrange hair in this fashion, I’ve been lacking in the finer points of securing the braids with no use of modern bobby pins or hair ties, which I’ll go into further below.

 

Wearing synthetic braids sewn to a table-woven band with a linen veil. Picture taken in 2012.

I’m wearing braids I made from extensions and sewed to a silk, table-woven band woven by Charlotte, with a linen veil. Picture taken in 2012.

 

For this style, hair should be parted down the middle, all the way from the center of the forehead to the nape.  There are a number of different methods for arranging a set of 14th-century face-framing braids. For this day’s experiment, we aimed for a style that pulls all the hair on each side of the head to the temples and creates two long braids that then fold in half, get pinned to create the stiff, vertical shape, and then wrap around the back of the head.

We decided to try two versions of the same style—one with plain, clean hair, and one with hair product in it. As I began to braid her freshly-washed hair, we quickly noticed how unruly and slippery it was. Drea has typical hair for a woman of European descent. If we were having this problem now, it most certainly would have also been a problem with freshly-washed hair 630 or so years ago.

 

One braid complete. It's looking fly-away. We had no choice but to use a modern hair band to secure the bottom.

One braid complete. It was looking pretty fly-away. We had no choice but to use a modern hair band to secure the bottom.

 

Both braids complete. I had this overwhelming sense that the style we were emulating would never have been done this way. Something big was missing from our equation because the hair was far too uncontrollable.

Both braids complete. I had this overwhelming sense that the style we were emulating would never have been done this way—with freshly-washed, untreated hair. It’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that hair is harder to style when freshly-washed and without hair products put in it.

 

 

The finished 'do with fresh-washed, untreated hair. It felt and looked precarious.

A front view of the finished ‘do. Everything was secured with pins alone. It felt and looked precarious.

 

Back view of the hairstyle. Everything is secured with pins alone, and it was dicey at best. A stiff wind would have made it come tumbling down.

Back view of the hairstyle. A stiff wind would have made it come tumbling down.

 

Side view of the hairstyle. The general shape was correct, but I felt the underlying architecture was flimsy.

Side view of the hairstyle. The brass pins, at least, did a great job pinioning the braid to itself to create the vertical shape.

 

We had completed the first half of our experiment: braiding and arranging hair without any product in it. I experienced the challenges untreated hair brought to the process. As you can see in the photos above, it’s passably okay, but doesn’t really look as sleek and contained as imagery from the 14th century portrays it to be. I couldn’t imagine Drea going about an active day without the braids slipping free and falling apart.

I had given this some thought leading up to Drea’s visit, in fact. I pulled out The Compleat Anachronist issues #144 and 145, “Unveiling the Truth: Medieval Women’s Hairstyles” by Barbara Segal and read with interest her hypothesis that flax seed gel could have been used to optimize long hair’s texture when braiding during the 14th century.

 

The Compleat Anachronist, issues 144 and 145, by Barbara Segal. I recommend it to anyone interested in historical hairstyling.

The Compleat Anachronist, issues 144 and 145, by Barbara Segal. I recommend them to anyone interested in historical hairstyling.

 

Flax seed gel is incredibly easy and fast to make, and YouTube has a number of instructional videos. While the author did not provide evidence from before the 16th century to support the concept, it is certainly a rather common-sense and reasonable one, and I was willing to experiment. Before Drea arrived, I made some gel, enhancing it with essential lemon and lavender oils for scent. I have affectionately taken to calling it “vegan snot”.

 

Finished homemade flax seed gel, along with essential oils to give it a pleasant scent. This stuff is not going to win any beauty contests on appearance. Yuck!

Finished homemade flax seed gel, along with essential oils to give it a pleasant scent. This stuff is not going to win any beauty contests on appearance. Yuck! But it sure smelled wonderful.

 

 

Drea holding the flax seed gel (VEGAN SNOT!!).

Drea holding the flax seed gel (VEGAN SNOT!!). This delightfully unappetizing wonder-gel will store for a month or two in the refrigerator.

 

Now it was time to try the hairstyle with flax seed gel. Getting it into her hair took a while. Patience and a wide-toothed comb did the trick. When the hair felt slightly tacky to the touch and there were no more slippery or fly-away sections, I deemed it ready for braiding.

When you have all the hair gathered into your hand to begin the braid, I find it easiest to twist the hair so that the braid will be angled to face outward in the same plane as the face. We see this in the art of the time as well.

 

Hair has been gathered to the temples, twisted forward or counter-clockwise, and the braid has begun. Already, the difference in control is amazing.

Hair has been gathered to the temples, twisted forward—or counter-clockwise in this view—and I’ve begun the braid. Already, the difference in control was amazing, thanks to the gel.

 

I braided the hair as tightly as I could manage, which was considerably more tight than I could achieve with plain, untreated hair.

 

The gelled braid was infinitely sleeker and easier to control.

The gelled braid was infinitely sleeker and easier to control.

 

The hair gel was a complete success. Thanks to it, I did not need any hair bands or ties to hold her braids in place while fiddling with other things.

 

Both braids complete and holding together with nothing securing them aside from flax seed gel. Already this product was worth the effort of making it.

Both braids complete and holding together with nothing securing them aside from flax seed gel. Already this product was worth the effort of making it.

 

Next, I folded a braid in half, so that the bottom portion of the braid was bent toward the back of the head. I used a sturdy brass pin to  hold the folded pieces together, no gaps showing between them. The bent portion of the braid only proceeded about halfway up the length before veering off to the back of the head. Using more straight pins, I tucked the gelled ends under and secured the end of the braid on the far side of Drea’s head.

 

Drea assists with the folding of the braid. Some 14th-century braids bend exactly like this and do not get pinned together before proceeding to the back of the head. But that's not the style we went for that day.

Drea assists with the folding of the braid. Some 14th-century braids bend exactly like this and do not get pinned together before proceeding to the back of the head. For an example, see the Marie de France bust at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. But that’s not the style we were attempting.

 

 

See how the braid is a solid piece, no loops, no rounded "puppy dog ears"?

See how the braid is a solid piece, no rounded loops? I wiggled the pin between both folded portions to hold them firmly together.

 

The iconic silhouette of the 14th-century braids was coming together.

The iconic silhouette of 14th-century braids was coming together. The pin should be out of sight, nestled in the middle of both portions of folded braid.

 

With the gel, wrapping the hair and securing it on the back of the head with pins alone was an easy process.

With the gel, wrapping the hair and securing it on the back of the head with pins alone was an easy process.

 

I repeated these steps on the other side. I loved how manageable the hair became, once it contained gel. The slipperiness and fly-away concerns were solved. It was a dream to work with. I’m convinced that most women either hardly ever washed their hair in order to let the natural oils in the scalp develop and spread throughout the hair, or they used a hair gel, like the flax seed-based one I used. Perhaps they did a combination of both things.

 

The finished hairstyle, from the front. It looks worlds better than the un-gelled version does.

The finished hairstyle, from the front. It looks worlds better than the un-gelled version does.

 

Side view of the finished hairstyle.

Side view of the finished hairstyle. Note the ears are covered for the most part. You will see this in the figural art as well.

 

Back view of the finished hairstyle. With the gel providing some stickiness and stiffness, I have much more confidence that the pinned arrangement will not fall out over the course of a normal day's activity.

Back view of the finished hairstyle. With the gel providing some stickiness and stiffness, I have much more confidence that the pinned arrangement would not fall out over the course of a normal day’s activity.

 

Drea's chapel à bec, which she hand-felted and formed. This was the style she had in mind when she approached me for help with the braids. She was super-pleased with the finished look!

Drea’s chapel à bec, which she hand-felted and formed. This was the style she had in mind when she approached me for help with the braids. She was super-pleased with the finished look! (I couldn’t bring myself to crop down the mammoth pheasant feather in this photo. That thing was a rock star all on its own.)

 

 

The braids look lovely when framed with a simple silk veil.

The braids look lovely when framed with a simple silk veil. I put a Birgitta-style linen cap on her first, then pinned the veil to it.

 

I only had a few brass pins up to the task on the day of this experiment. Through the years I’d accumulated (and lost) lots of brass pins, but for the most part, they weren’t sturdy enough for holding thick braids in place.

 

My brass pin collection. Much used and abused through the years and yet still insufficient to the task at hand. I could only use the butch ones on the left for the braid pinning. I got away with using the thin ones when securing the braids to the back of her head, but it was iffy.

My brass pin collection. Much used and abused through the years in service to pinning my veil to my table-woven band. The thin ones were insufficient to the task at hand. I could only use the butch ones on the left for pinning the hanging braids. I got away with using the thin ones when securing the braids to the back of her head, but it was iffy because of their thin and sharp form. Most of these are better suited to pinning veils.

 

Later, I found a maker on Etsy who made me a bunch of custom-sized pins. I asked them to make the points a bit dull since this is for hair (which sits close to tender scalps), not fabric. I ordered them in 2-inch and 3-inch sizes.

 

Brass pins, custom-made to lengths of 2" and 3" by MinionMakers on Etsy.

Brass pins, custom-made to lengths of 2″ and 3″ by MinionMakers on Etsy.

 

If you want custom-made hair pins, please do get in touch with them. Let’s support the small businesses out there. If I order again, I will likely ask that they make the loops at the heads of the pins smaller to reduce their visual profile and come more in line with extant examples.

While my own hair may never make as full an appearance as Drea’s can, I am now armed with good brass pins and a bag of flax seeds, and can produce a solid 14th-century hairstyle upon command without using anything modern. This was a fun learning and teaching experience for both of us. I look forward to getting my hands on more heads of long, full hair for further experimentation.

The Medieval Buttonhole

To skip the talkity-talk below and go right to the tutorial, click here. But I recommend you read on anyway.

Buttonholes… the mere thought of them strikes cold fear into the hearts of European 14th century clothing enthusiasts. The 14th century was probably the most insanely over-buttoned century ever. We few, we committed few, will hand-sew upwards of fifty of them on one garment with grim determination. Our fingers grow sore, the tedium reduces us to hunched lumps on our sofas, staring at the fabric and thread before us, repeating a mantra in our minds that goes something like this: “Only 27 more to go… Only 26 more to go…. Just do two more and finish this side tonight…” You find yourself enjoying your masochism on a detached plane of awareness, noting that when it is all done, it will be your garment with the most badass buttons on it, and that will be reward enough for your suffering. And, if you are going to put yourself through all of that, shouldn’t your buttonholes look righteously medieval?

I am partial to what I call the “boxy buttonhole”, because it’s the most documented style of medieval buttonhole from my favorite time period. It is a simple design— a row of buttonhole stitches placed close together to create a long, thin rectangle of stitching on one side of the buttonhole’s opening, following by a mirrored row of stitches on the other side. The result is a neat, rectangular shape.

Buttonhole from lower center-front opening of the pourpoint at Chartres, France

Buttonhole from lower center-front opening of the pourpoint at Chartres, France

In France, this buttonhole style can be found today on the extant pourpoints attributed to Charles de Blois and to Charles VI. In England, fragments found in London are much the same. For more reading on the topic and to see English examples, check out the Museum of London’s Textiles and Clothing, 1150–1450.

To make a proper boxy buttonhole which will look just like the originals, correct material choices are important. In addition, you must understand how your fabric will behave when you slit it open and encase it with thread to make the buttonhole.

I recommend only ever using silk embroidery floss on buttonholes because silk is strong and documented as a preferred fiber for such tasks. A less-twisted option like Soie d’Alger or Soie Cristale will work, but a more tightly twisted floss such as Elegance or the thicker Grandeur works better.

Elegance and Grandeur, by Rainbow Gallery: excellent for hand-sewn buttonholes

Elegance and Grandeur, by Rainbow Gallery: excellent for hand-sewn buttonholes

There’s a brand of Japanese silk thread I rather like, called Fujix Tire, whose Buttonhole Silk #16 is gorgeous. It is what I used to recreate the buttonholes on my reproduction of the pourpoint attributed to Charles VI.

A buttonhole I sewed on my reproduction of the pourpoint at Chartres

A buttonhole I sewed on my reproduction of the pourpoint at Chartres

I would avoid super-slippery silks such as Trebizond, as well as thin sewing thread like Au Ver a Soie 100/3. Mind you, Trebizond is fun to fingerloop and Soie 100/3 is the only silk thread I use for regular sewing.

Au ver à soie and Trebizond silk flosses

Au ver à soie and Trebizond silk flosses: don’t use these for buttonholes!

You may be tempted to use the full set of strands in thicker-wound floss in order to cover ground faster, but don’t give in to this temptation, because your resulting buttonholes will bulge and buckle in an awkward manner and the opening may shrink too small from the thick thread crowding it. Instead, I recommend splitting thickly-wound floss in half (or close to half, if the number of strands is uneven).

 

Soie d'alger: slightly too thick to use without splitting the strands in half

Soie d’alger: slightly too thick to use without splitting the strands in half

Soie d'alger split into 3-strand and 4-strand lengths

Soie d’alger split into 3-strand and 4-strand lengths

Elegance floss is a good thickness to use whole, without unraveling the strands, as is the Fugix Tire Buttonhole #16. Elegance is my go-to workhorse floss for buttonholes and eyelets for this reason. Grandeur is what I use when I’m in a hurry and I am willing to cheat on the time involved. Admittedly, the buttonholes are slightly more bulky than I think they should be.

As for fabric, the biggest annoyance factor will be its tendency to fray where you have slit it open for the buttonhole. With this in mind, the easiest fabrics to put buttonholes on will be wools, especially fulled wools. Silk fabric runs the gamut from relatively easy to control fray-wise to nightmarishly hard to control, and linen will pretty much always be somewhat of a pain, but do-able. Many of us line our clothes in linen. Keep this in mind when lining an area where buttonholes will go — sometimes it’s better to self-line with the outside fabric (as long as it is not linen) to avoid the frustration of dealing with the frayed bits poking out visibly through the front of the buttonhole and between stitches.

For those familiar with modern machined buttonholes only, the approach taken for finishing a medieval buttonhole is quite different. With a machine, you sew tight zigzag stitches back and forth, sometimes in a thin teardrop shape, sometimes rectangular, with a strong, reinforcing bar tack at both ends, etc.. When finished sewing, you slit the inside open, making the actual hole appear.

 

Machine-sewn buttonhole with bar tacks. It is more visible on the left in this photo, but there is a small bar tack on each side

Machine-sewn buttonhole with bar tacks. It is more visible on the left in this photo, but there is a small bar tack on each side

For medieval buttons, you cut the opening first, and then you encase that opening with buttonhole stitches. The result is a much stronger, long-lasting buttonhole which, if you are neat and diligent, will not suffer from frayed threads even over time and use.

Judging from the limited 14th century extant buttonhole samples, they did not routinely come with bar tacks for reinforcing each edge. Instead, the stitches appear to abruptly end at each edge, often with a crisp, rectangular shape (hence my descriptor, “boxy”). So, how was each end of the slit reinforced to prevent tearing from tension and use?
I have a method for achieving a strong buttonhole without bar tacks which looks like the original extant examples. In wearing garments with buttonholes sewn in this style, I have found that bar tacks are not strictly necessary as long as the overall quality of the buttonhole is sturdy and tight. I’ve created a tutorial that walks you through the steps for creating a handsome medieval buttonhole in the boxy style.

I recommend you try this out in practice form before committing it to your good garment fabric. You will need fabric, embroidery floss, a needle with a big enough eye for the floss, and snips. If the snips are sharp-pointed, you can use them to cut the opening for the buttonhole by folding the fabric and cutting a slit into it. Otherwise you can use a straight edge tool (pressing down flat on the fabric, against a self-healing mat, for instance), or a seam ripper (be careful with this tool or you will find yourself mending an extra-long tear!).

Now, on to the tutorial!

New tutorial lite: Drafting a grande assiette-style upper sleeve from measurements

Another workshop I held during my California trip was on the topic of fitting a grande assiette sleeve in the style of the Charles de Blois pourpoint. I did a quick demo on draping the upper sleeve directly on the body, followed by instructions for drafting the upper sleeve, gores and all, with measurements. I developed a simplified way to take five measurements, derive four more, and then draft the three gore shapes and the upper sleeve itself.

I provided a worksheet with instructions for taking the initial measurements and deriving the additional ones from them. I also provided diagrams of the shapes and how the measurements now applied to those shapes. I had the attendees practice the method themselves, using wide paper, calculators, pencils (and string for make-shift compasses), and a yardstick. Everyone was able to run through all the steps with minimal input from me, which tells me it’s pretty easy to understand, provided you can do some very basic algebra.

The point of this exercise was to show how a complex pattern like the grande assiette upper sleeve can be broken down to basic geometric shapes defined by related measurements. With that in mind, I did simplify it in a number of ways, most notable being that the front gore and the underarm gore are the same length in my worksheet. In the original, the underarm gore is a bit shorter than the front gore. However, I think that once you try this method out, you will be able to make adjustments, either by changing the math slightly or by making adjustments on the body itself.

The link below opens the page I put up in the Tutorials section. At the bottom of that page is the link to the worksheet.

Try it out! See if you like it. Tell me what you think.

Drafting a grande assiette-style upper sleeve from measurements, or: Drafting with your new friend, Math!

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!