Kirtles

Overview | Pattern | Lacing | Gores & Fitting | Sleeves | Final Fitting


Kirtles, kyrtels, kjyrtls. There are as many spellings of the word as there are pictorial examples and opinions on what a kirtle is and how it is constructed.

In my research I have come to some conclusions and have found some dead ends and, of course, I have more questions. That said, I do have a solid construction theory that I hope shows what I consider to be the evolution of patterning. I believe that the 14th century is most important in the evolution of clothing because it is a solid link between basic rectangular, or geometric, construction towards modern pattern form and technique.

Many people ask me how to make what they call a ‘self supporting bodice.’ What they mean when they say this is that the bodice will have the effect of something similar
to a push up bra. The breasts would be elevated and held firmly at the top of the rib cage. I feel somewhat confused by this terminology and this appearance. For the 14th century
in England and France I find what I consider to be bust squishing garments but no bodices and nothing supporting in the sense that you have your breasts high up on the torso. I do consider having your bust squished as if you’re wearing a sports bra to be self-supporting.

I do not use the method for pattern drafting known as “draping” or a “toile”. I do not drape fabric on the body or on a mannequin in order to determine my pattern. I use basic body measurements, begin with basic rectangles or geometric shapes, and then I do very minimal shaping. This shaping happens after the pattern is made, the fabric is cut, and much of the garment is constructed. This shaping is actually in the third phase, page 4, of creating a kirtle and you will see why as you continue reading.

One should have a solid basic understanding of Rectangular Construction (which is not solely rectangular but consists of many geometric shapes) before beginning to make a kirtle in the manner described here. I was apprenticed to someone I consider a master tailor for several years. We spent three years making exclusively rectangular clothing, everything from a Bocksten tunic, to Norse tunics and aprons, to very tight and very  supporting Middle Eastern and nomad vests. Thanks to her, The Renaissance Tailor, directing me to come at the 14th century from behind not from the 20th century I came to the conclusions I did.

From there I began making kirtles that were body hugging and that support the female bosom but in a manner that flattens the bust-line not raising it. (Although I did discover that you can certainly elevate the bust line with rectangular construction) I have had some successes and some near failures. I continued piecing the failures until they fit and were useful garments. I have discovered that my body is not symmetrical (neither is yours most likely), that my back is much wider than my front. I have almost no back armscye but a very deep front armscye. In my case, in order to have a trim waist but a broad back, I sometimes have to insert a triangular gusset in the center back seam to accomodate this.
You will no doubt discover some things about your body too.

This demo is for an unlined kirtle. While we do know from wardrobe accounts that some outer garments were lined, there is ample evidence that just as many were not. It depends on the garment and on the social status and finances of the wearer. You may choose to line your kirtle. I find that there is no need to line my kirtles as I don’t need the extra support with this cut and construction method and my chemise takes care of body oils. The chemise also works as a washable lining. That said, if my fabric were thin or revealing I would definitely consider lining it.

Materials needed:

  • Fabric: The best materials for kirtles are wool, linen, and silk. There are written references to all fibers being used for garments in period. So feel free to use
    any of these. If you are tempted to use blends, and it IS tempting, be aware that you take risks. The risks as I see them are that the fabric doesn’t breath and heat and overheating becomes a great health risk. Rayon or other fibers, man made or
    otherwise, can be torture on a warm, not to mention, hot day.
  • Thread: Wool, linen, and silk have been used in period for garment construction. All are also used to garment embellishment. If you decide to use a polyester thread or something similar this can tear your wool under certain circumstances. I prefer wool for basic constructions and waxed linen for details such as facings. Silk I use for eyelets, buttons, and buttonholes.
  • Embellishments: Silk for fingerwoven braid to trim your sleeves, hems, and neck.
  • Notions: Beeswax for waxing linen thread (strengthens thread), small scissors for cutting buttonholes and triming facing bits, and an eyelet awl.

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