Late Medieval Fashion Redressed

Patterns, Padding, and Quilting – A Complicated Love Triangle

Padded and quilted garments were a huge thing in the 14th and 15th centuries. A question I’m often asked is: “How much extra fabric do I add to pattern pieces when I’m going to pad and quilt them?” This is an important question because the answer is critical to good fit. And yet, it’s a frustrating question because the answer is not simple. You know how Google has that “I’m feeling lucky” button? You could take that approach and eyeball the pattern, do some vague head-math and decide you’re stretching it out about 20–25% to accommodate the padding and quilting (or some other arbitrary percentage). Or, if you’re looking for accuracy, you could make a test swatch, apply a series of simple math equations, and get a clearer understanding of what truly determines the shape and size of your fabric pattern pieces when padding and quilting are involved.

Unless you are starting with a pattern size that already fits quite loosely, some adjustment must be made to pattern pieces when padding and quilting are in the works. Patterns designed to fit the average 40″ chest will create a garment much snugger than expected once padded and quilted — perhaps one better suited to a 38″ chest. The way to avoid that would be to expand your pattern pieces to a size that will result in the 40″ chest fitting well inside the padded and quilted garment. The degree to which this adjustment occurs depends on a number of factors:

  • Padding and quilting method
  • Height and density of padding
  • Thickness and stiffness of fabric
  • Quilting pattern

If you want to maintain the same fit that an unpadded and unquilted version of the pattern would give you, how much will you need to expand the size of the pattern? Let’s start by reviewing the basics — the factors listed above that affect the fit.

Padding and Quilting Methods

The Sandwich Method:

Sandwiching padding between fabric layers
Sandwiching padding between fabric layers

This method involves layering padding between layers of fabric and quilting through all the layers together.  Depending on the materials used and amount and density of padding, this method may provide some small amount of stretch due to the accordion effect shown in the drawing above. This can compensate a small amount for the extra size needed for the pattern, though not the extra fabric needed for the process.

The Stuffed Channels Method:

Stuffing channels
Stuffing channels

This method involves pre-quilting layers of fabric together and then stuffing padding into the quilt channels. Depending on the materials used and amount and density of padding, this method may provide some small amount of stretch due to the accordion effect shown in the drawing above. This can compensate a small amount for the extra size needed for the pattern, though not the extra fabric needed for the process.

The 3-D Shapes on a Flat Ground Method:

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Building 3-D Shapes on a Flat Base

This method involves placing padding on a taut, flat fabric base, where the pattern piece — including placement of quilt stitches — is stenciled as a guide. Fabric is then quilted over and around the padding in order to build complex variations in the height of the padding and in the distance between lines of quilting. The pattern piece is cut out at the end, rather than the beginning. There is zero stretch in this method, because the base fabric to which the padding and quilted fabric are attached is already as flat as it can be. If you’ve drafted the pattern correctly, it will already be the size it needs to be to work with padding and quilting on the body.

Height and Density of Padding

Height of the padding, as well as the density of the padding material used will determine how the pattern shapes will change when padded or quilted, and how much stretch you can get from them using either the Sandwich or the Stuffed Channels methods. The higher the padding is from the plane of the quilt stitches, the more fabric is needed to make the pattern shape, and the more possibility of stretch there is. But the denser the padding material is, the less possibility of stretch there is. You could have a garment with subtle padding made of springy and fluffy material that has the same small amount of stretch as a garment with more pronounced padding made of dense, stiff material.

Thickness and Stiffness of Fabric

The thickness and stiffness of the fabric you are using to encase the padding will also determine how the pattern shapes will change when padded and quilted, and how much stretch you can get from them when using the Sandwich or Stuffed Channels methods. You will need slightly more fabric when the fabric is thicker than you will need if the fabric is thinner to get the desired pattern shape when finished padding and quilting. Thicker, stiffer fabric will hinder the accordion effect described above, while thinner, more malleable fabric will assist it. On the other hand, thicker fabric may hide irregularities in the padding, as well as provide a more sturdy finished effect.

Quilting Pattern

The pattern you choose for quilting will also affect the amount of fabric it takes to pad and quilt your garment.

Parallel Lines

Quilting in straight, parallel lines is the easiest pattern to use and is a common pattern seen in clothing of the 14th century. If you quilt in uniformly-padded vertical lines, you will need more fabric in the width of each pattern piece. If you quilt in uniformly-padded horizontal lines, you will need more fabric in the height of each pattern piece.

Parallel line quilting pattern
Parallel line quilting pattern

Diamond Pattern

Quilting in a diamond pattern will require more fabric in all directions.

Diamond quilting pattern
Diamond quilting pattern

Varied Pattern

Quilting with variations in padding, quilting with variations in distance between quilt lines, and quilting with curves that do not remain parallel will result in more fabric needed in some parts of a pattern piece and less fabric needed in others. This sort of complexity calls for the 3-D Shapes Built on a Flat Ground method.

Varied padding and quilting pattern
Varied padding and quilting pattern

Making a Test Swatch

The single most useful thing you can do for yourself when setting out to pad and quilt pattern pieces to make a garment is to make a padded and quilted test swatch using the same exact materials and method you plan to use for your finished garment. I put that statement in bold face because it really is that useful.

A test swatch will be the source of critical data which you will use to:

  • observe how much stretch (or lack of stretch) you get when all the layers are attached to each other
  • extrapolate exactly how much extra fabric is needed to accommodate the padding and quilting and still make it fit right, and
  • redraw your pattern pieces to accommodate the extra fabric needed to end up with the right-sized pattern pieces after padding and quilting.
Test swatch measurements
Test swatch measurements

Let’s say that in the image above, the flat, unquilted materials are 10″ wide (the “X” measurement). When quilted using the sandwich method, they shrink to approximately 9″ in width parallel to the direction of the quilting stitches (the “Y” measurement). I will refer to this as “shrinkage” for the rest of this article. Note also that you can measure the height of the padding from top to bottom (the “Z” measurement). The adjustment needed for shrinkage and the height of the padding on your swatch will be used to determine the new shapes of the pattern pieces required for padding and quilting with a perfect fit in the final garment.

Be prepared to make a 10″ square padded, quilted swatch using the materials and methods you will use on your final garment.

Reduction of Space Inside the Garment Due to Padding and Quilting

In addition to needing extra fabric to account for shrinkage due to accommodation of the hills and valleys of padding and quilting, you will also need extra fabric to lift the garment off the body the same distance as the height of the padding. Most clothing patterns provide fit for the unpadded, unquilted circumference of the torso and limbs.

Simple cross-section of chest with 4-part padded and quilted pattern pieces
Simple cross-section of chest with 4-part padded and quilted pattern pieces

Circumference A: The circumference of the chest. Most pattern pieces are designed to fit Circumference A.

Circumference B: The circumference that the padded, quilted garment should actually have, measured from the quilt stitches in the middle of the garment’s thickness.

Length C for Length B: Length of fabric required to accommodate padding and quilting over the length of B.

As you can see from the diagram above which shows a simplified cross-section of the torso wearing a padded, quilted garment sewn in four parts, you need to get to Length C from Length A in order to have enough fabric to pad and quilt a garment that will not become too tight for easy movement and breathing.

Using Measurements from Your Test Swatch to Alter Your Pattern

Let’s say your 10″ square swatch has now become 9″x10″ as discussed above. I’m picking a 1″ shrinkage as an easy example, because I’m about to go all mathy on you.

The swatch shows that for every 10″ of fabric, there will be 1″ of shrinkage. To make this more universal for any length, you would determine the adjustment needed to account for this shrinkage. To find the shrinkage adjustment, divide length of original swatch before padding and quilting by length after padding and quilting. For example, if your 10″ swatch shrunk to 9″, the shrinkage adjustment would be 10/9 = 1.1. You will use this in the steps that follow.

To find the full length of the fabric you will need to make up for shrinkage and the larger circumference needed to accommodate the height  of the padding, we’re going to break out Pi (which is 3.14, rounded) and treat the entire pattern’s chest circumference like a circle. (Note: this can be done for sleeve circumferences too, but for the purpose of demonstration, let’s use a chest size.)

Measurements you will need before you start:

Measurements you will need
Measurements you will need
  1. circA = Pattern’s circumference of the chest or the arm as provided by pattern pieces as if sewn together
  2. LA = Length of the single pattern piece for A for which you are solving
  3. HoP = Height of Padding on 10″ swatch (in decimal form)
  4. SA = Shrinkage Adjustment (in decimal form) from your swatch

Measurements you will derive:

  1. Circumference of B = circB
  2. Length of B = LB
  3. Length of C for Length of B = LCLB = Holy Grail

To derive these measurements, let’s use the following set of sample numbers:

  1. circA = 40″
  2. LA = 10″
  3. HoP = 1″
  4. SA = 1.1

Find Circumference of B:

Multiply HoP by Π and add to circA to find circB:

1 x 3.14 + 40 = 43.14″ = circB

Find Length of B:

To scale LA up to LB, divide circA by LA to find the denominator:

40 / 10 = 4

Find LB by dividing circB by the denominator:

43.14 / 4 = 10.8″ = LB

Find Length of C for B:

Multiply LB by SA to find the length of extra fabric you will need to pad and quilt the 10.8″-wide pattern piece:

10.8 x 1.1 = 11.88 or 12″, rounded up = LCLB

How to Use the Length of C for B

Our original hypothetical 10″-wide pattern piece needs to widen by 2″ to account for shrinkage caused by fabric wrapping around padding AND a longer width or length to lift the garment off the body the distance of the height of the padding. In effect, 1″ of padding height requires about 20% additional fabric width in this example. The formula for finding the percentage of extra width or length you are required to add to your original pattern piece is:

((LCLB – LA) / LA) x 100

or, using the example numbers above, ((12 – 10) / 10 x 100 = 20%

If you were doing all the math above where the only differential was that the padding was 1/2″ high, you would need approximately 10% extra fabric. If you were using 1/2″ high padding on a garment whose original pattern circumference was 50″, the percentage would go down to approximately 9%.

A good rule of thumb is for every half inch of height in your padding, add at least 10% extra width into the your pattern pieces. It’s always easier to take extra fabric out than it is to add fabric. Keep in mind that using different materials, quilting patterns, and density of padding will result in different increases. This is why the swatch is so useful.

To apply this to a typical body panel pattern piece, split the difference between LA and LCLB and apply half to one side of the pattern piece, and half to the other.

Expanding your pattern piece
Expanding your pattern piece

This approach works best when you’re quilting straight, parallel lines. When quilting a diamond pattern, for instance, you have shrinkage in all directions, and you’ll need to apply this methodology in all directions of the pattern piece.

What to Do When There’s No Way to Predict

When distance between quilting lines vary, or the height of the padding varies throughout, the above method won’t account for all the ways the original pattern piece needs to distort to accommodate the variations in shrinkage.

This was, in fact, a common design feature in the later 14th century, as I discovered when examining the red coat armour at the Musée des beaux-arts in Chartres, France. The rare, surviving coat is typical of a style of coat armour worn by men at arms and knights in harness. The padding height varied throughout the garment’s body pieces, and the quilt lines curved in places, coming in close together near the waist, and traveling further apart over the chest and down towards the hem. I thought at the time that patterning the fabric pieces for that complex arrangement of padding and quilting would be next to impossible. But then I realized I was approaching the problem from the assumption that the pattern pieces were cut first and the padding and quilting were done second, which, as it turns out, is not the case.

Charles VI pourpoint/coat armour pattern, copyright Tasha Dandelion Kelly
Charles VI pourpoint/coat armour pattern, copyright Tasha Dandelion Kelly

The tailors of complexly padded and quilted garments in 14th century France had an ingenious way around this problem. They avoided figuring out such complexities altogether. They built their padding and quilting on a flat surface of fabric stretched on a frame. They used a pattern stencil, pre-sized for LB (Length of B — the width the pattern piece needs to be to prevent the padding from crowding the body) on the base fabric as their guide. The fabric pieces used for covering the padding were not pre-cut to the shape of the pattern. Instead, they used rectangles of fabric which were cut wide enough (LCLB — the length of C for length of B, plus some slack) so that the fabric could be quilted over the padding onto the base fabric and then the finished outline of the pattern piece could be cut out at the end. In the case of the red coat armour, this was done twice for each body piece — once for the fabric showing on the outside, and once for a lining layer. The two flat base fabric layers were placed together in the middle and the resulting shape of the garment is an impressive example of sturdy protection combined with aesthetically attractive padding and quilting.

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My reconstruction of the red coat armour at Chartres.

If you have a plan for a garment with complex padding and quilting, I suggest you experiment with this approach. Think of the pattern as a stencil that you transfer onto a stretched base fabric. It becomes your guide for placing the quilt lines, but the pattern piece itself does not emerge until you cut it out of the padded and quilted assembly of fabric. Using the math above, you would design your stencil for a circumference of B, rather than A. Then, you would use the math for finding C for B to figure out how much width your fabric rectangles will need to accommodate the padding and stitching across the width of the pattern piece.

The red coat armour, it should be noted, does not have complex tailoring. For all of the complexity of its padding and quilting, the final pattern pieces themselves are a simple 4-piece body with 1 piece sleeves as seen in the pattern diagram I provide above. For a garment like the pourpoint of Charles de Blois, another extant 14th century padded and quilted man’s garment, the patterning is in another league, due to the grande assiette tailoring method for creating the shape of the sleeves and upper body. Those pattern pieces do not lend themselves well to the method I described above as used for the red coat armour. The more common sandwiching method works best for the Blois pourpoint, whereby sets of pattern pieces are sewn together first, and then layered with padding and quilted as an assembly. Though the sleeves are multi-part, they are quilted as though each sleeve is one pattern piece with a super-large sleeve cap. To expand the pattern pieces to accommodate padding and quilting, determine which way the quilting lines are placed on each piece, and apply the expansion math above to each piece as explained above. If a piece is shrinking in height due to horizontal quilt lines, add in more height. If it’s shrinking in width due to vertical quilt lines, add in more width.

I hope this exploration of the complexities of padding and quilting clothing has been useful. If the swatch-making and math are too daunting, you could always just, like… add extra fabric… and see what happens. What could go wrong?






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