|A 14th century dress based on finds from Herjolfsnes, Greenland.|
Years ago I tried 14th century tailoring and it did not go well. But as I've discussed before, those Herjolfsnes patterns are very easy to work with, so I decided to try again and this time the result is a success.
For this project I've explored some of the details of Herjolfsnes clothing construction. The wool is a fairly reasonable imitation of the kind of fabrics used in Greenland and medieval Scandinavia generally, where diamond or chevron twills with different coloured warp and weft threads seem to have been popular. It’s not vaðmal, which is what the Greenland clothes tended to be made of, but it’s really, really nice.
My dress is sewn with linen thread, which is plausible, but doesn’t seem to have been typical in Greenland. It may have been more common elsewhere; flax apparently did not grow in 14th century Greenland. The Greenland clothes were sewn with wool thread, which is not available today, meaning I would have had to spin it myself. No thank you.
Many of the seams on the Herjolfsnes garments were sewn from the outside. I can confirm this is the easiest way to sew some of these seams, especially the gores and just below the waist where the dress flares out towards the hem.
Because this dress was never going to be an exact copy of the Herjolfsnes finds I decided to make it a long, fitted, fashionable one of the kind illustrated in European manuscripts, but not typical of the Greenland finds. However, as far as possible, I tried to make it using the same construction techniques as the Greenland clothes.
|A pocket slit just below the waist of the dress, as found on some of the Herjolfsnes garments. In the 14th century, pocket slits allowed your purse to hang down inside your skirt, where it was harder for thieves to access.|
This method of tailoring is an interesting process. It requires very minimal equipment, and you can cut the whole gown using just scissors and a string to measure with if you need to. This has obvious advantages in the medieval context, especially in isolated communities like Greenland. I expected to be doing some math to get the pieces the right size, but no. You don’t even have to use Pythagoras’ theorem for the gores; they are just rectangles cut in half diagonally. Additionally, the gores’ width can be adjusted to make the best use of the amount of fabric you have available. The whole process is very practical, and surprisingly easy.
I now suspect the popularity of diamond and chevron twills was not just an aesthetic choice. Fabric with a striped pattern is very convenient when you're cutting it into rectangles along the grain.
|Front skirt gore. It's not so easy to see on the patterned fabric, but it has a cool little fish tail detail at the top.|
It’s easy to see how this method of tailoring progressed from earlier, loose fitting gowns to the figure hugging styles of the 14th century. Making these things fit snugly through the torso is not difficult, and doesn’t require any extra materials or equipment, though it’s probably helpful to have a friend who can assist. Most of the Herjolfsnes garments were loose tunics without a defined waist, but a couple show evidence of having been fitted by pinching in the fabric at the waist along the side gores and then sewing it. They were still loose enough to be pulled on over the head; none of the Herjolfsnes gowns are so tight they had to be laced up like some of the gowns worn on the mainland, but I found it is possible to get quite a tight fit without needing to add lacing. Wool has a little bit of stretch.
The challenge: Details. This dress has lots of fun little details, such as fishtail gores, pocket slits, and pieced sleeves.
Material: 3.5 meters of herringbone wool.
Pattern: I used the patterns found in Medieval Garments Reconstructed: Norse Clothing Patterns for reference, but this isn't a specific pattern. Instead, I used the cutting method the 14th century Greenlanders used, along with my measurements, to make the dress.
Year: Mid 14th century.
Notions: Linen thread.
How historically accurate is it? It's made in the same way as the Herjolfsnes finds, although the materials aren't exactly like those used in 14th century Greenland, and the cut is likely more typical of mainland European styles than what Greenlanders wore.
Hours to complete: Probably 30-ish.
First worn: Several times to get the sleeves sitting right. The trick here is to rotate the sleeve head relative to the armscye until it stops wrinkling around your biceps. Have patience and don't panic, you'll get there.
Total cost: $84. Not a cheap project, but I couldn't resist that wool.