Why Researching Garb Can Be Difficult

Ever been puzzled why garb doesn’t turn out as medieval looking as other’s? Have you spent hours trying to find a pattern for a certain type of garb only to find “costume” patterns that aren’t quite right?

I feel your pain! Only in the last few years have I been fortunate to learn and build skills in creating different types of garb using methods that result in a more authentic looking fit, drape and finished product. I hope to discuss some pitfalls in researching and making garb so that hopefully you can stop struggling and start loving your garb!

Allow yourself time!

This is so important especially for the first time you are making something. In reading further you will begin to see that creating a garment using more period techniques makes for a great finished product, but each step takes much more time than tracing off of a modern pattern like you would for any basic costume.

You need time to: drape a pattern, find appropriate fabric (or save money for it), make a mock-up first (always a good idea), adjust fitting and hem lengths, figure out the neckline (can be tricky), cut out a lining, and utilize hand sewing and seam finishes.

That’s when you’re ready to make the garment-don’t forget the time needed spent researching first! I worked on one garment on and off for about a year, but it turned out great! I continued to re-examine images again and again, finding new details that helped me make the garment. After I made that one, other garments that were the same were much faster.

Researching in the Right Places

I feel like an old-timer remembering trying to research medieval clothing as a teenager with very little internet content and the same few “Medieval Costuming” books my library had. I would get stuck very quickly and then turn back to the sewing store costume patterns once again. Now there is so much available to look at! Museum galleries online that you can zoom in on, blog posts by re-creationist folks, access to scanned documents and books-we are spoiled for info nowadays.

So why is it still difficult to find a quick pattern? I think it comes down to that the modern why we do things is different enough from medieval times that we don’t know what to look for. Our modern experience says “find a pattern”or “there should be a certain way to make this garment”. For medieval times, there usually isn’t “one pattern for all”, instead it is about tailoring techniques that we don’t really think about using anymore because the modern pattern takes care of that for us. Few of us have experience drafting patterns or more advanced tailoring practices, so it can be difficult to figure out patterning for something on our own. To further complicate things, many modern tailoring techniques are not used in medieval garments.

There are some existing garments and fabric but not for all time periods

Boy are there some great extant pieces out there! I find more all the time, especially fabric pieces that are simply amazing to look at. Make sure you check out museum galleries online. That said, there is not always an existing piece for the type of garment you’re trying to make. It’s not simply early period garments like you would think being the oldest. There are actually great finds for very early periods, but then practically nothing for Italian renaissance for example. It’s really hit and miss unfortunately. Another issue can be that the item saved is more of a reliquary and may not represent normal clothing. Here is my extant garment pinterest board, but there are even better ones out there:

Images can have issues

For most time periods, if there are not extant garments, there can be medieval paintings, frescoes, or illuminated manuscripts that show both common and extravagant garb. These are some of my favorite references but they do have some problems. Sometimes they are not detailed enough to show seam lines or pleats, so some inference is needed. Others might be allegorical or may not be medieval at all but from a later time period artist-these may not represent actual garments of the time, so be careful.

More extravagant clothing is easier to find than working class clothing

In general, extant pieces that are saved or pieces of artwork that stand the test of time are of higher class, more extravagant garb. This makes sense due to if something is of high quality it is more likely preserved, passed on, and protected if it is an item. It also makes sense that high class folks had income to commission works and would wear their best attire for any portraits for example. So you may have to dig further to find examples of working class garb. Illuminated manuscripts or works such as the Tacuinum Sanitatis can show more everyday people in simpler garments.Starting with a working class/simple version of a garment is more likely to turn out successful.

Few books are helpful as far as construction of the garment goes

If you’d like to know about fabric availability, dyes used, or sumptuary laws governing what folks should wear, you should be able to find many resources discussing this and referencing medieval documents or inventories. Unfortunately that is only so helpful in figure out cut and fit of a garment. What about assembly order of the pieces or which pleat to use or which stitch to use? The reason most of this information is left out of book and academic papers is because unless they are examining an extant garment, there is little to no information on how this was done and they will be focusing on what can be verified.

Tailors guilds and assumed knowledge 

Why wasn’t more of the tailoring information written down or passed long some how? Tailoring guilds are partly to blame-if you have the best way to make something, you want to keep that a trade secret! Other activities were so common that it was assumed everyone grew up knowing and doing them. Think of growing up doing such “mundane” tasks such as sewing, spinning, weaving, etc. A fun example is there are so few bread recipes because it is so basic that it usually doesn’t appear in medieval recipe books. The same can be said for basic sewing techniques or what layers people wore with their garments.

Medieval tailoring and sewing techniques

Today we don’t need to worry much about conserving fabric. We also can work with fabric that behaves differently than natural fabrics. Cutting out fabric was done differently in order to not waste it. This creates more seams usually. Most pieces for garments were rectangles or triangles. Things like darts were not used in medieval times. Most costuming books or patterns do not use Rectangular Construction. If you have not come across it, it is not something you may think to use in making a garment, since it seems like more work. When used however, it can make a big difference in the finished look and fit.

There were no sewing machines at this time. Everything was done by hand. There are some extant garments that show stitches and seam finishes. Many typical costuming books do not address sewing garments by hand.

Undergarments can be tricky to figure out

This is one of my favorite things to research, it’s like a mystery to be solved! There are some images of people in undergarments as well as some few extant pieces. Many times it is likely there are undergarment layers but they may not show in the image for the garment you want to make. Besides the extant pieces, using the images to recreate the undergarments takes some interpretation for women’s clothing especially. Different sizes and fit preferences yield many different interpretations that are out there. I think reflects that likely there were many individual undergarment styles at the time too!

A bit of experimental archaeology may be required

If there are no extant garments and only medieval drawings or broaches with bits of fabric underneath to go on, this is where experimenting may be helpful. However, it can take a good deal of skill and much more in the way of knowledge to piece together how something might have been made or accomplished. One of my favorite examples is of the discovery of Roman hairstyles that are sewn to hold their shape: “On Pins and Needles: Stylist Turns Ancient Hairdo Debate on Its Head”. If we all had unlimited time and money for materials this wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

Tips I’ve Found That Help:

  1. Use images that can be traced to a particular artist or building for Frescoes. This way it is easier to determine the date and region of the art work. Plus the artist usually will have more works showing similar garments!
  2. Be careful about allegories but don’t avoid them completely. For example in many Italian pieces members of court or families were placed in allegorical scenes in contemporary clothing
  3. Browse museum galleries online for extant pieces or art works. Some good ones are the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the British Museum, and The Met.
  4. Use pinterest as a starting point for searches-I get better results than using google usually. Once you’ve looked at hundreds of similar images from a certain region and time period, you can train your eye to spot certain styles or authentic pieces. Most of the time you can verify the image is from an actual painting, etc. Sometimes the pin doesn’t have enough information to verify it, but you can find similar images easily that you can verify. There are some serious pinners out there who have extensive collections by date, region, or style. It can give you a launching point finding which museums, artists, or historic locations you can expand your searches to!
  5. Don’t forget about extant written works. Inventories, letters, sumptuary laws, can give some clues to fabric types and different accessories or styles that were of the time. Some times they are translated too! I use google translate quite a bit.
  6. Pay attention to details in images. Can you see any seam lines? Does the garment compress or support in a certain way? Where is the opening, does it have lacing or something else? Can you tell what type of pleating it is? Is there tugging or pulling in a certain direction that would indicate how something is being held together?
  7. Try to narrow it down to a specific place and time if you’re asking someone for help. There can be great variation within the same regions within a few years, so someone who is more knowledgeable will be wanting to know specifics. If you ask general questions like “I want to make a gamurra”, you will end up getting varied answers which may make things more confusing. Or you may get responses that are for a more generic costume instead of a specific historical item of clothing.
  8. From my experience starting with early period garb and working up to later period garb has helped tremendously and here’s why: Starting with early period garb allows you to begin building skills of taking your own measurements, using rectangular construction, learning period stitches and seam finishes that can be later applied and modified for later period garb. 
    1. We know more clearly the techniques used for these garments because there are extant pieces from bog finds! Having an extant reference is much easier than trying to decipher construction from an image alone.
    2. Even if you do not like early garb, think of it this way-say you want to learn to bake without using a recipe but instead using knowledge of proportions of ingredients and what ingredients affect leavening or sweetness, etc. Would you start with complex souffle or start with simple bread?
    3. Once you understand the basics, then you can modify them to add pleats, use more tailored construction or on the bias for different fit, add lacing, etc.
  9. In line with the previous tip, make you garments from scratch and not using commercial patterns. Sound scary? That’s why you start with early garb and rectangular construction! If you are not using a commercial pattern, you are forced to do more research and work out how the garment is constructed.
  10. Start with one aspect at at time. What I mean by this is for your first garment, start with rectangular construction. Next use appropriate fabric, next add hand sewn seam finishes, next add embellishments, etc. That way you are narrowing your research so you are not overwhelmed. Plus you are focusing on one aspect at a time and can revise it for the next time.

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