A 16th century loose kirtle

  
Pictures from Janet Arnold:Patterns of fashion. The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c. 1560-1620. London and New York 1985.  Buy it, it's indispensable!


2003-11-24   Loose, that is not form fitting, kirtles were used as informal wear in the 16th century. My guess is that one of their main functions was as maternity wear, since women were pregnant quite a big part of their lives. Since I'm pregnant I though this was the perfect time to try to make the woman's kirtle from Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg, that Janet Arnold describes in Patterns of Fashion on page 109. I use the word "make" and not "recreate", since I'm not going to use the same materials as the original. The cut will however be the same, changed to fit my size of course. For now, I will not make the accompanying loose gown, but use the green gown I already have.
   If you look at the drawings above, you can see that the front is cut totally straight, while the back is slightly curved after the shape of the spine. The kirtle is also laced all the way down to below the hips, while some kind of neck closure is needed because the kirtle is cut so close to the neck, lacing it so far down is not necessary to get into the garment. These two thing makes me think that this kirtle was once used as a maternity dress. The shape of the dress corresponds well to the shape of a pregnant woman, with absolutely no shaping at the (then non-existent) waist. The lacing makes it possible to wear the dress throughout your pregnancy. Since the kirtle can not be worn on it's own and indeed was worn with a loose gown (see PoF), you can loosen the lacing in the back to accomodate your growing belly and nobody will notice, since they're not able to se the back of the kirtle.
   The original dress is made of silk and lined with linen. The undecorated sides and back are plain ivory silk, lined with coarse linen, while the decorated front is made of ivory silk with silver thread in the weft and embroidered with black silk and blueish metal spangles. It is lined the same linen and interlined with fine pink linen. the sleeves are of the same embroidered silk, lined with pale pink linen. There are lacing holes on the sleeve and kirtle to lace them together.
   My plan is to make the kirtle out of linen and a (probably) rayon brocade that I got from my aunt. Since the brocade isn't silk, I'm not going to spend a large sum of money to make the not visible parts of the dress from silk, but use linen for that too. I will however follow the general construction of the dress, with a inner layer of coarse linen and an interlining of fine pink linen behind the brocade. The kirtle also has two bands of decoration, made of black and white bobbin net with applied motifs in silk edged with silk braid. My plan is to make this kind of decoration too, if I have the energy when it finally comes to that. Here you can see the brocade I'm going to use. The darker parts are actually a little raised and made of longer, floating, extra warp threads. Since the brocade is yellowish I'm going to use yellow fine linen for the rest of the dress. There is also some green in the colour so i might look for a green net and apply motifs in dark green on it. Or brown. I had planned to buy the linen I need yesterday in Borċs, a nereby town (70km or something like that) with lots of cheap fabric, but I'm ill and couldn't go. I will go there next tuesday and buy the linen.

2003-12-02   Today I bought 3 m grey linen and 4 m yellowish linen. I will prewash it on thursday and then I can start on the dress. The grey linen is for the lining and the yellow for the outer fabric for the areas which isn't covered with the brocade. Instead of using pink linen as interlining, between the brocade and the coarser grey linen, I might use the yellow linen for this too.

2003-12-08   I haven't been doing any sewing, but I have been doing some thinking. As I said, I'm going to adapt the pattern to my size (otherwise I could only dream of getting into the dress). But to do that I must have an idea of how the dress fit the original wearer. That isn't so easy, since the amount of body fat doesn't show up on skeletons and I don't know if anybody has done any research on the skeleton anyway. We also don't know who the original owner was.
   So, since I can't find out how this dress fit on the original owner, I have to study pictures of kirtles of this type. But this far I have not found any pictures of loose kirtles. There are a few pictures of kirtles that don't seem to have a waist seam however:
There is some debate if the left kirtle actually has a waist seam.The pattern above and below the arms don't match up, which would suggest that this kirtle had a waist seam. If there is a waist seam hidden under her arms it would on the other hand have to be placed closer to her hips than to her waist, which is fairly unlikely. Maybe the painter just made an error in the pattern on the dress? It has also been argued that loose kirtles don't have low necklines, but since I really haven't been able to find any pictures of loose kirtles and the kirtles that might be loose are worn with a gown that is almost always closed over the chest area, I don't know how you can draw that conclusion (I would really love tips on where to find paintings of loose kirtles).
Be that as it may, for my purpose it really does't matter, since this kirtle, however it is cut, definitely is fitted at the waist.
   The other kirtle is, for obvious reasons, not fitted at the waist. It is also much later, around 1600. Though it is hard to see, since it hangs so far out on the sides, she's also wearing a loose gown over her kirtle. This kirtle might have been cut like the german kirtle above, but by now it would have to be worn with the back lacing very open since she's apparently somewhere around week 36, when the belly is as high as it gets, before the baby sinks down and gets "fixed" in the pelvis. Or she's expecting twins, were the belly stays high all the time. She has probably some kind of belt just under her breasts to keep the dress close there. But there are no wrinkles or folds there, which it would be if the dress was cut too big over the chest area.
    When I looked in Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd" the other day, I found out that Janet Arnold also had the idea that the kirtle might have been for maternity wear, or for someone plump. The third picture is Anthonis Mor's portrait of Catherine of Austria (click on the picture to see it somewhat bigger). I don't think her kirtle has a waist seam, but since she's wearing a belt it's impossible to be sure. I think she definitely falls in the category "plump". Since she wears her gown closed over the chest we can't see if it's low cut or not. This picture is important to me because it shows a kirtle that is not white (compare the colour of the kirtle with the colour of the handkerchief in her hand) and I was beginning to think that all examples of loose gowns were black with a white kirtle, which wouldn't fit my plans at all.
   Comparing these pictures I still think it's a fair guess that the loose kirtles also where fitted over the breasts. It is the ideal for all other types of dresses and I can't see anything that would support a looser cut. The unfitted part is from below the breasts. So I've decided to make my kirtle only 5 cm bigger than my chest measurement and ease the lacing when needed. I plan to wear a corded corset that I made for my wedding (but ultimately didn't use) under the kirtle, only lacing it to just below my breasts. It is cut straight at the natural waist and has no point, since it was meant to be worn with a dress inspired by 15th century italian fashion. It will give some support, without being to constricting I hope. Ideal would have been a corset with both back and side lacing, like 18th century maternity corsets. If this doesn't work, I guess I have to use a regular bra.
    I have been too tired to start any cutting, and I have to clean the table in the kitchen before I can start with that. Usually I cut my dresses on the floor, but my body doesn't like that now.

2003-12-11   I've cut out all the pieces for the body, except the brocade front now. The brocade is in several pieces and will need some careful pieceing, but the original front panel(in silk with silverembroidery and silver spangles) was pieced too. But I will cut the brocade later, after I've put the body of the kirtle together, and then attach it by hand. Since I've replaced the silk taffeta used for the outer layer and a 44,5 cm high extra lining at the bottom of the dress, and the pink linen strip (38 cm in the front and 11,4 cm in the back) used to stiffen the dress even more, with yellow linen, there will be four layers of linen (+ the brocade in the front) at the hem and two layers of linen (+ again the brocade) at the top. All this extra interlining is to make the kirtle stiff enough to be worn without a farthingale, which would be highly impractical to wear when your pregnant. I mean, tie it at your waist??!!
   The coarse linen and the silk taffeta are made up separately and then stitched together with the raw edges out at the bottom. This is a somewhat unusual way to line clothes in the period. More commonly the lining and the top fabric were treated as one fabric and stitched together. That leaves raw edges on the inside and there are two ways of solving this. One is to only include one layer of lining when you sew the pieces together and then fold the edge the reamining lining and whipstitch it into place. This is what I do. I alternate so that the piece of lining is attached on one side and gets whipstitched on the other (I will see if I can either find or draw a picture of this and scan it, since it's much easier to understand if you have a picture). The other way is to cover the edges with a separate strip of fabric. This means more hand sewing than just making two dresses, sew them together at the hem and turn them before finally sewing the sleeve holes and neck opening together by hand. On the other hand it makes the lining sit securely where it supposed to be and diminishes the risk that the lining will stretch and become longer than the outer fabric.
   Well, since the kirtle apparently was made up in a more "modern" way which is more suited to machine sewing I'm going to do it that way too. Since it is going to be fully lined I'm not going to do anything about the raw edges, I'll just sew them together with a straight stitch. I don't see myself throwing this dress in the washing machine anyway. I will not start sewing tonight however, since my cold is back (after a week of feeling reasonably well)and cutting the fabric has used up all my energy.

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