Sunday, 6 January 2019

Modern medieval

Happy New Year!   I hope you had a wonderful break over the holidays.

One of the things I did on my holidays was to take a look at medieval tailoring using the garments from Herjolfsnes described in Medieval Garments Reconstructed: Norse Clothing Patterns, and finds such as the Moselund tunic.  The main purpose of this exercise was to explore how medieval sleeves were constructed.  And then I tested the fit of my sleeve pattern by making a modern shirt, because why not?

I love how it's possible to make such a modern-looking garment with an 800 year old pattern.

Overall, I really like Medieval Garments Reconstructed, and I think it works well as an introduction to medieval tailoring.  It has patterns for a number of different garments and a detailed discussion of how they were constructed.  The patterns are easy to use and a great way to get a feel for medieval clothing construction.

By the end of the 11th century (probably earlier, considering some of the 10th century finds from Hedeby) the basic principles of medieval European tailoring were already well established.  Construction was based around rectangular lengths of fabric, with triangular gores for skirt shaping.  Sleeve heads had shallower curves and followed the shape of the arm more accurately than is usual in modern sewing patterns.

Where pattern pieces were cut on the bias, such as for skirt gores, they were usually sewn to a piece cut on the grain.  Even shoulder seams were made this way.  The back piece was cut straight across, parallel to the fabric weft, while the front piece sloped down towards the arm like a modern shoulder seam.  This may have been done to create stronger seams which were less likely to stretch out of shape.

The yellow lines in this photo show the seams on my shirt.  The red line shows where a sleeve gusset would go if my pattern had one.  Many, but not all, of the Herjolfsnes garments had sleeve gussets, which meant the sleeve could be cut from a narrower piece of fabric.

Unlike modern patterns, where the sleeve seam is usually placed underneath the arm, the seam on a medieval sleeve was located at the back of the arm.  This allowed medieval tailors to make sleeves which closely followed the shape of the arm without constricting the wearer's movement.

Despite all these differences between medieval and modern patterns, my experimentation resulted in a very modern-looking T-shirt, and all it really took to achieve this result was to use an obviously modern fabric.  Even if I had made it up as a dress with a long, gored skirt like the Herjolfsnes examples, it still wouldn't look obviously medieval.  I think the lesson here is that in some ways the fashion aesthetic of the Middle Ages was similar to our current 21st century aesthetic.


  1. Interesting project! I think this shirt will look fabulous too, over a camisole (either in black or a bright color) or a t-shirt.

    1. Thank you! I was thinking of a bright colour, but you're right: black would also work well.

    2. More interesting still would be a short-sleeved or sleeveless shirt in a metallic fabric (gold, silver, copper).

    3. That's a great idea, I must look into that.