Cotes and 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 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 bust supporting Middle Eastern and nomad vests. Thanks to her directing me to come at the 14th century from the previous centuries and 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. That said, depending on how you do your final fitting you can achieve a fairly high busy profile. I did discover that you can certainly elevate the bust line firmly and high with rectangular construction, this style is more 15th century than 14th century’s no more southern Europe than England.

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 one case, in order to have a trim waist but a broad back, I had 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.

12 thoughts on “Cotes and Kirtles

  1. I am always reading about Elizabeth (Belphoebe). Now as Crone with Mother and Maiden, we go to Faires and make garb. Where are you? Do you know our Mutton and Mead faire? Thanks !

    • Hi Violet. It really depends on your size. I recommend that you make one in a cheap muslin. It won’t stretch like a nice wool but you’ll see how much you need. Depending on your body shape, size, and height you could need anywhere between 3.5 and 6 yards.

  2. Hello!
    I’m just wondering if there is any issues sewing a kirtle out of cotton other than it not being used in the period. I feel that it could be both sturdy and light but perhaps there are other concerns due to construction or something?
    Thank you for such detailed information and a great web site.

    • Hi Genevieve!

      You could use any kind of fabric you like, period or otherwise for this gown. That said, you have a couple of choices to make. While for me, period materials are always preferred and I wouldn’t even use cotton for the lining, this might not be as important for you as it is me.

      If your desire to use cotton is a financial choice, cotton in most weights is cheaper than period fabrics generally, then I believe cotton is a great choice because real life comes before play. Milk is more important, that kind of thing, and anyone who says boo to you about is to be avoided.

      If your desire to use cotton is because you think you will be cooler in hot weather, I’d like to encourage you to consider linen. Get your linen either at Joann’s with a 40-50% off coupon or at the link below where their prices are incredible and their service excellent. The colors aren’t always exactly what you think since monitors aren’t uniform in color presentation but it’s a great source. 100% Linen is much cooler than cotton or any other period fabric for summer. I recommend a medium weight in a color that won’t show details underneath.

      This is page of theirs is for a great weight for all seasons attire as you can layer wool over it. They carry a wide range of colors.

      Linen is cooler than cotton. Not sure exactly why but at every class I taught, I would have someone close their eyes and hold their bare arms out. I then laid a cut of cotton on one arm and there’s no reaction in their face and then I laid a cut of linen on the other arm and their eyes usually fly open because the obvious coolness of the fabric is so significant compared to that of cotton.

      In the end it’s your decision, I hope this has been helpful. If the color of linen is light you may want to line it with a lighter weight linen in a similar color for modesty. And never go swimming or bathing any white or pale fabrics or you’ll show everyone your body.

      If you do camping during a hot summer in medieval clothing it is rarely comfortable, you’re going to be hot no matter what. But linen is the coolest fabric and it wicks moisture better and it feels better than anything else next to the skin. In my opinion of course. So make sure whatever is next to your skin it’s linen.

      All the best, fun is the goal, enjoy!!


  3. Wonderful info. Just purchased 2nd ed Medieval Tailor’s Assistant.
    I will make 2 chemises of linen, then practice my Kirtle construction in some 18th C cottons, for wearing at home. Then, with more confidence, I hope, I’ll purchase the linen for 2 kirtles.
    As I never wear trousers, it will not be wasteful to have the cotton dresses. :-). Additionally, I believe this shape will be easier on my back than skirts are.
    I’m so excited. Can hardly wait to begin.

  4. Hi! What type of wool should I use for the kirtle? I keep seeing “wool twill suiting” and other types, but am unsure which is appropriate for the kirtle. I assume a lightweight wool twill is good.

    • Hi Maggie,

      Great question. Absolutely a lightweight wool twill is great! Honestly with the exception of heavier coat woolens, it really depends on what time of year you are wearing the kirtle. Most woolens are available in a range, most of which are appropriate for reenactment. I’ve used the heavier coat woolens for surcotes. I’ve made kirtles in thicker wools (twill or tabby woven), lightweight summer suit wool, even linen. If you’re wearing it outdoors in all seasons, I myself would have a winter weight wool for fall through spring and linen for summer. Hope that helps. Just make sure you really love it. Honest.

  5. Thank you for your article. I was wondering of linen would be acceptable. We do a renaissance faire that starts out very hot (high 80’s to low 90’s) and ends up very cold (sometimes snowing and 30’s). Now that I know Linen is acceptable, I will make a kirtle of each, linen and wool! I am a shop owner (three shops now) and have several workers. Would I still wear a kirtle?

    • Hi Kate!

      A shopkeeper would definitely wear a kirtle over a shift. She might also wear a surcote over all that if it’s cold. The main difference due to her status would be the quality of the materials used and the accessories she wears.

      That said, no matter what they may or may not have worn, if wearing wool is detrimental to your own health due to heat or allergy, wear linen. No reenactment is worth health issues. And heat stroke is a real issue. The climate was somewhat different then. Always take care of yourself first to play another day.

      Have a blast!

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