Early medieval styles and clothing are very often thought to be dull, coarse and unattractive – a potato sack with a girdle. The stereotype might not be far from the truth as far as the lowest classes are concerned, but once in the realm of the middle and upper classes of society, one can discover an astonishing wealth of fabrics, colours and details. True, the basic cut remained more or less the same, but the ornamental details and the richness of materials more than made up for it.
In this article I will concentrate on a clothing for a wealthy 9th century Anglo-Saxon man and woman. The outfits presented here were made for Black Knight Historical. The cut of the clothes is pretty simple, but what presented the challenge was doing the research to get the clothes right in the first place!
Throughout the early and middle medieval periods fashions changed very slowly. The most important aspect of everyday life was usually practicality, and so the basic clothes of that period are simple, practical and durable.
The rudimentary attire of a commoner man or a noble man would consist of the following layers:
- Loincloth – a piece of fabric worn with hose or under trousers, usually depicted on the representatives of the poorer strata of society
- Braires : simple two-legged trousers. Made in wool or linen, with the advance of Hose (single legged, tailored to fit the leg tightly and attached by a drawstring to the braires), braires replace the loincloth and are worn underneath. With the advance of Norman fashions later on, they can become very voluminous indeed! Marc Carlson's page on Breeches/Braies/Trousers
- Winingas: The early braires, and later the hose, was often secured at the lower leg with winingas – long strips of cloth binding the calves – often with a criss-cross binding of a woven braid on top of the woollen winingas. Winingas were wound spirally up the leg and then secured by tucking the end under, or by a metal tag hook. Here are three Anglo Saxon hooked tags found in the UK: UKDFD Ref. No. - 1912, UKDFD Ref. No. - 12751, UKDFD Ref. No. - 21441
- Undertunic (smoc or serc) a linen, A-line garment with light cuffs and often a split hem at the sides – the predecessor of the shirt!
- Tunic, or overtunic (cyrtel) a linen or more often, a woollen garment on top of the undertunic. Tunics were of varied length, from mid calf to over the knee, and long sleeved. Often the length of tunics worn one over the other could differ– and the top one could be just a bit shorter to show off the contrasting colour or hem decoration of the undertunic. Their cut was simple - early ones were simply made up of rectangular pieces, split at the sides – later on gores were used to give the tunic skirts more volume. They were not always made of one length of fabric; many finds show that they were often cut from much smaller pieces, obviously depending on cloth available.
Often, the neck, hem and sleeves were decorated either with a woven braid or with embroidery, worked either directly on the garment or on a linen/silk/woollen band of a contrasting colour and then applied to the garment itself.
The tunics were usually belted with a simple braid or with leather belts.
- A mantle or a cloak was worn over the whole attire – a large variety of styles seem to be in evidence, from a simple rectangular piece of thick woollen fabric to semi-circular or circular ones, often decorated with braid and pinned with a brooch.
The outfit would be completed with shoes or boots and a woollen cap.
The set my client had decided on was two tunics and a rectangular cloak. He already owned braires and winingas and a linen undertunic, but wanted a slightly longer woollen tunic and a shorter one to go on top – and the cloak to compliment the image and to keep him warm in winter. The tunics were cut in the same way, with only the length being different – the overtunic has shorter sleeves too to show off the embroidery on the longer one. The pattern I used was based on the one from Mark Carlson's site – I decided on two side gores with no front gores, however.
- 2 m (2.5 yd) of honey mustard wool
- 2 metres (2.5 yd) of herringbone weave wool
- 2 metres (2.5 yd) of thick pale red wool for the cloak
- 8 metres (9 yd) of hand-woven braid to decorate the cloak
- 0.5 m (5/8 yd) of linen for the neck and cuffs embroidery
- Silk yarn for embroidery
Cut out the body of the tunic first, making sure there is enough space for movement. Cut out the sleeves, underarm gussets and side gores.
Sew the gussets to the sleeves first. Sew the shoulders together and then stitch the sleeves to the body – mark the middle line of each sleeve, and pin it to the shoulder seam to make sure it is symmetrical.
Sew the gores to the front of the tunic, then fold the tunic at the shoulder seams and run one long seam from the cuff to the hem, stitching the sleeve, front and back and gore to back pieces in one go. Repeat on the other side.
Turn the tunic to the right side, try it on and adjust the length and the width of the neck opening.
Repeat for the other tunic. Once sewn, I finish all the edges by hand using linen or silk threads, and couch down all the interior seams: it flattens them out and gives even a partially machine-sewn garment an authentic look.
All that was left the embroidery – and that took much longer than the tunics! I found Jane Stockton's article on Embroidery for Clothing most helpful for the patterns and techniques, there are very detailed instructions and a nice selection of patterns.
Start with preparing your fabric. I used two rectangles, one for the neckline and one for the cuffs.
I drew the design on the fabric and attached the fabric to my wooden tapestry frame. Make sure the fabric is taut and stretches evenly in all directions. Now start the lengthy process of embroidering. I used lovely silks from Sally Pointer, divided into two thread strands.
I opted to use chain stitch as it is relatively easy on straight lines, curvy lines and it is good for filling in shapes nicely as well. It takes a few trials to get the stitch length sorted out, but after a few minutes of practice, I was ready to embroider in earnest. Embroider I did - and for quite some time too!
Once you have all the embroidery done, take the pieces from the frame, and cut them to shape – make sure you leave some fabric so that the raw edges can be folded under and stitched to the tunic without compromising the pattern. Iron the pieces carefully and pin onto the fabric. Stitch the folder edges to the main fabric with small, even stitches. Once in place, iron again – and you are done!
The cloak is very simple. Cut a rectangle of fabric, hem it and it is ready. You can line your cloak, or leave it unlined, and you can put some decorative touches to it embroider the corners or hems, or, as in this case, you can sew a hand-woven braid on top of it. Braids were woven using either small heddles for simple patterns or tablets with holes, three, four six and eight hole varieties can be bought from at any re-enactment fair, and the basics of tablet weaving are easy.
As with the male garments, women from this period had a lot of choices as far as fabric, colours and decoration were concerned, though the basic cut remained simple.
The layers a wealthy woman would wear are:
- Undergown (smoc) – an A-line kirtle with tight sleeves, probably reaching all the way to the ground. It was most likely that women would wear one in linen (a later chemise or smock) with another one in wool over it. The second undertunic is often called the overgown as well, as the distinctions here seem to be rather blurred. I usually assume that the undergown is the linen or fine wool dress with long narrow sleeves, always reaching to the ground, on top of which you can have the overgown with straight or flared sleeves.
- Overgown proper (cyrtel) – a woollen garment with straight sleeves, which in later times started to flare out a bit, leading to the long trailing sleeves particularly evident in the 12th century Norman fashions seen in the relief scupltures on the Royal Portal at Chartres Cathedral, Eure-et-Loir, France (below right).
It could have been lined or unlined – the pictorial evidence seem to suggest that both solutions were used, though contrasting lining would present a nice decoration with the flared sleeve style (below left).
Queen Emma receiving the Encomium Emmae from its autho. The Encomium Emmae Reginae (1041-2), London, British Library, MS. Add. 33241
Three figures from the Central tympanum, cathedral of Chartres, France
The overgown would be ground or ankle length, though it is argued that it was indeed sometimes a bit shorter, probably depending on the amount of fabric available – or maybe to show off the contrasting colour of the undergown. Whatever is the case, my client opted for the slightly shorter version. Gowns and undergowns are often shown hitched up over the belt – a practical solution for such a long and voluminous garment!
- On top would go a mantle: a circular affair in wool, with lots of drape, or again, for practical reasons, a rectangular cloak like the men’s one would do the job just as well.
- Headwear: most women would wear a wimple. This was a rectangular piece of linen, draped around head and neck, often secured with a fillet - a braid or metal circlet worn on top. Veils were popular among the ecclesiastical community, but with time secular women would wear a veil and a circlet on braided hair as well.
My client opted for a woollen undergown decorated with embroidered bands of silk, a shorter overgown decorated with a woven braid and a rectangular cloak in lovely chequered wool.
- 3.5 metres (4 yd) of fine, deep aubergine wool
- 3 metres (3½yd) of red wool
- 2 metres (2½yd) of chequered wool for the cloak
- 8 metres (9yd) of hand-woven braid to decorate the overgown and to serve as a girdle
- 0.5 m (5/8 yd) of yellow silk for the neck and cuff embroidery
- Silk yarn for embroidery.
The cut and pattern were almost identical to the men’s tunic, but obviously longer. Also, the overgown sleeves were straight and not narrowing. The method of construction is the same as the men's garments. Here is a closeup of the embroidery and finished undergown.
Here are the two outfits worn by Ian and Kindra at the Norfolk Cathedral Christmas Fair – and don’t they look snug and dashing!
Bibliography & Source List
Historic Needlework Resources: Anglo-Saxon embroidery [Accessed 02/03/2011]
An overview of Anglo Saxon dress in the Regia Period (PDF)[Accessed 01/03/2011]
String Page: Basic tablet weaving [Accessed 05/03/2011]
Carlson, I. M. (1996-). Some Clothing of the Middle Ages Historical Clothing from Archaeological Finds. Retrieved 10/03/2011
Jane Stockton, Embroidery for Clothing - Anglo-Saxon (PDF), [Accessed 02/03/2011]
10th and 11th Century Clothing in England: A Portfolio of Images [Accessed 05/03/2011]