Once you have a finalized bodice pattern for your front pieces and back pieces, you’ll need to decide on dress style. There are many subtleties that can go into such a decision, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll assume you’re going to lace this dress up the front and have long, close-fitting sleeves, with or without buttons. These instructions contain a mix of modern techniques and historical ones with the idea in mind that you are not making this dress for an authenticity competition, but for practical wear. To make a more documentable dress, you will need to do your own research into the figural art and sewing techniques gleaned from extant fragments and garments.
For the main dress pieces, I recommend you use linen, wool, or silk fabric. You’ll need to cut 4 panels reaching just past your final hem length – two for the front and two for the back. I recommend you also cut a lining out of linen, which would end just past your hips. You could make a hem-length lining, but then you are also dealing with different drapes and stretch in the fabrics, which can result in unsightly bagging at the bottom of the dress. You could always sew your lining seams and hem separate from your fashion fabric skirt’s seams and hem, if you really want a full-length lining. Robin Netherton provides a variety of practical reasons to include a lining. I have made dresses without any lining at all, too—a true cotte simple!
To complete the skirt, you will need four gores, one each placed at the front seam, back seam, and both side seams. It is up to you to decide how wide to cut your gores. As a general rule, try not to make them narrower than 2 feet (61 cm) at the hem, or you may find the resulting skirt is less generous than you would wish. Make sure you account for ½” or 1 cm of seam allowance along all edges.
There are two basic sleeve shapes to consider: the underarm seam sleeve and the back-of-arm seam sleeve. The underarm seam sleeve’s cap is shaped like a gentle bell curve. The back-of-arm seam sleeve’s cap is shaped like an “S” turned on its side. The underarm seam sleeve is easier and faster to draft and sew, and is great for short sleeves or long sleeves without buttons. The back-of-arm seam sleeve is slightly more challenging but works best for long sleeves with buttons on the forearm. This is because the buttoned opening will fall along the side of your arm, which is far more comfortable and visible than under your arm. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, place your forearms on a table, palm down. With an underarm seam, the buttons will press directly into the flesh resting on the table. Worse yet, if your buttons go as far as your elbow or above, they will press directly into the bone of your elbow. Ouch. With a back-of-arm seam, you won’t feel the buttons pressing into your arm because they will be rotated to the outside of your forearm, elbow, and upper arm (if they extend that far).
Both sleeve styles can be drafted with a few measurements:
- Biceps: the measurement around your upper arm at armpit level
- Armhole: the measurement of your front and back panel’s armhole (Take out 2 inches to account for seam allowance if measured before the dress is sewn together)
- Full Length: the measurement from the point of your shoulder to your wrist
- Wrist: the measurement around your wrist (if buttoning); the measurement around your hand across the knuckles (if not buttoning)
- Elbow Length (optional for s-curve style): the measurement from the point of your shoulder to the point of your elbow when bent.
Variations in styling are yours to decide. You may want to add a bit of flare past the wrist, covering a part of the hand, for instance. If Measurement 2 is so much larger than Measurement 1 that the curve extends more than 2.5 inches above or below the line that represents Measurement 1 in the diagram above, you may want to create a triangular gore to insert at the top of the long seam. This will allow you to spread Measurement 2 out and make the curve less severe. The benefit of a milder curve is that your arm will have more range of motion in the sleeve.
Don’t forget to add ½” seam allowance to your drafted sleeve pattern!
Sewing It All Together
You can sew the dress pieces together in a variety of orders. I prefer to sew all the long body pieces together first, leaving the center front opening and skirt unsewn. Next I sew the gores in. The sleeves go last. Depending on the method of lining, the details of the individual steps vary.
If including a lining (recommended in most cases, though single-layer linen dresses work well for some women), there are two popular ways to proceed — the flat lining technique and the bag lining technique. Decide which one you are using before you start.
|Seams are stronger than with a bag lining.||Seam allowances are rougher and require finishing.|
|Unfinished seams are hidden wherever the lining covers.||Seams are weaker than with a flat lining.|
For bag lining, sew the lining together first and set it aside. Next, sew the outer pieces of the dress together. Insert the lining into the dress with good sides facing each other, and join them along the neckline and center-front opening. You then turn the dress right-side-out and tuck the lining inside. The neckline and front opening will need to be pressed flat. I recommend you sew a small running stitch close to the edge, 1/8 to ¼ inch in. This will prevent the edge from bagging and rolling around so that the lining begins to show. You may also want to attach the lining and dress together at the armholes and the side seams by “stitching in the ditch”. This means stitching along the outside pieces’ existing seams, to hide your attachment stitches.
If flat lining, lay each lining piece on top of its matching dress piece, good sides facing out. Treat these layered pieces as one piece when you sew them to the other layered pieces. Each seam should contain 4 seam allowances, once sewn. I turn the center front edges and neckline edges in towards each other and either attach them close to the edge with a running stitch, or I bind the edges together with a small whip stitch.
Some popular ways to finish seams:
- French seams
- Flat felled seams
- Turned out seams, or “butterflied” seams
While finishing your inside seams is not strictly necessary, it will preserve your dress longer and make a neater appearance. Finishing of exposed seams was a common enough period practice too.
Your hem should be sewn after all seams are finished and the dress is, for the most part, finished. A simple rolled hem will suffice, and in the case of wool, it’s not necessary to roll it twice – one fold inward will do. This is documentable (see Archaeological Sewing). If lining to the hem, you may want to sew your lining’s hem separately from your dress hem, to ensure a smooth drape. If the lining and dress are made from different fabrics, one might sag or stretch more than the other over time, and the hem is where that difference will become evident in an unattractive way.
Eyelets and Lacing
I recommend hand-sewing eyelets along you center-front opening in the pattern seen in the second picture on this page: Zen of Spiral Lacing. They should be placed about ½ inch in from the edge. Hand-sewn eyelets can be worked in whip stitch, buttonhole stitch, or a combination of both. Do not space your eyelets more than 1 inch apart from each other. Wider spacing could lead to gapping and/or bunching of the closure edges. When you lace yourself in, start from the bottom. Follow the pattern shown in the second picture (“lacing closed edges”) on the site mentioned above.
The lace itself should be about twice as long as the row of eyelets. You can make it shorter, but you run the risk of it not being long enough, or just barely fitting through all the eyelets but having no slack left over to tie it off. I recommend you make your lace from silk rather than cotton, wool, or linen, as it has the best tensile strength without stretching and will stand up well to the friction of tight lacing. While lucet remains controversial for use in 14th century lacing, it is an easy way to make a cord of any length. Fingerlooping, a well-documented technique in use in the 14th century, is a bit more involved and comes with its own limitations, like length. To make a cord on your own (without a helper), you are limited by the width you can stretch both of your arms out, or by how well you can use your own toe to beat down the braid.
Your lace will need a hard pointy bit on one end, which will assist greatly in getting the lace through the eyelets. The period solution is an aglet, a narrow cone of sheet brass. Some merchants sell these now, or you can make your own from brass sheeting bought from a hobby store. I recommend gluing the end of your lace inside the aglet, and also sewing it to the aglet through a pin-point hole in the brass . The other end of your lace can be finished with a big knot, which should be larger than the holes in your bottom-most eyelets. When lacing up, start from the bottom and work up (unless you place your lacing on a side seam—then do the opposite, and make your lace extremely long so that the top half of your laced seam can remain loosely laced, which will make getting laced up a lot easier).
If you’re planning to place buttons on your sleeves, make sure you sew them to the very edge of the bottom opening. Place your buttonholes on the top opening’s edge. This will ensure the overlap faces downward, or to the back of the body, which looks better and is well documented from 14th century imagery and an extant garment – the pourpoint of Charles de Blois. Buttonholes should be sewn no further in from the edge than ¼”. Your buttonholes should be boxy in shape. This means that the terminating ends should be a straight line, perpendicular to the buttonhole’s opening. Always use buttons with shanks, as opposed to the style with holes cut through them for sewing them down to the fabric. Ball-shaped buttons were popular. Buttons made from the same fabric as the dress were also popular. There are a number of online tutorials for making stuffed fabric buttons. Try placing your buttons close together. Medieval sensibilities ran to the crowded and excessive when it came to buttons. Take a look around online at 14th century images of buttoned sleeves – you’ll see what I mean.
This is a bird-eye view of the work involved in making a solid bust-supportive dress which laces up the front. There are many more details to consider, so if you have questions as you progress, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
You can also check out my friend Charlotte’s extensive directions for sewing one of these dresses together. If I haven’t touched on something you need to know, chances are good that her instructions do.