Burgundian Project pt. 1: A Foundational Kirtle

After working on a large commission later last year, I took a little break from making anything that involved needle and thread. That changed with the start of the new year, and offering to teach a class for ‘Fiberuary’— a series of online classes offered through the Facebook group with the same name. Offering to teach a class on Kirtle Patterning 101 (because of an individuals request) had spurred me into action; I had 7 yards of wool and various linens in my stash, but it had been years since I had last made a kirtle.

Not satisfied with just a mere kirtle, I wanted to aim larger and create a 1470’s-1480’s Burgundian gown. However, I still needed to make the kirtle as the foundational layer, and I decided on the v-fronted styles shown here:

[From left: 1) Woman and Unicorn; illustration (vellum) by Robinet Testard (fl.1470-1523) from the ‘Book of Simple Medicines’ c.1470
2)Unknown, c. 1470
3) Adoration of the Shepherds (detail) by Hugo van der Goes, 1476-1478.]

So, what is a kirtle?

As we know it today, the kirtle is a supportive dress that was worn from the 14th – 17th centuries. 

Tailoring techniques became more complex with the expansion of a nearly globalized trading network bringing in new materials— specifically the production of wool in England, as well as silks imported from Lucchese merchants. Before 1330, dresses and men’s clothing were made in a T-shaped construction, but it was theorized in 1980 by historian Stella Newton that the invention of set-in-sleeves gave rise to the closely-fitted bodice.[1] This new tailoring technique, coupled with the anxieties of the plague, hundred years war, and the imported luxuries from Italian silk merchants into France gave rise to the courtly fashions of the 14th century as a form of sartorial escapism.[2] In a nutshell, high fashion was borne from anxieties and expanded consumerism.

The word “kirtle” during the period was used interchangeably with the masculine words cote, coteron, corset; as well as the feminine nouns cotte, and cotelette. [3]

Even more interestingly, a cote and kirtle/kyrtel could describe a fitted garment for men of the period:

“(ca. 1390): Ande al graythed in grene this gome and his wedes: a strayt cote ful streght, that stek on his sides, a mere mantile abof, mensked wythinne wyth pelure pured apert, the pane ful clene[…]”

“(trans) And all arrayed in green were this giant and his clothes, a well tailored straight cote that clung to his sides, a merry mantle above, adorned within with fur skillfully trimmed […]”

Buren, Anne van, and Roger S. Wieck. 2011. Illuminating fashion: dress in the art of medieval France and the Netherlands, 1325-1515. New York: The Morgan Library & Museum.

However, the word kirtle continued to be used well on into the 16th century to describe a supportive dress for women, as opposed to either a masculine or feminine outer garment of the 14th and 15th centuries. When we say “cotehardie” in the study of historic dress today, we are referring to a type of dress (both feminine and masculine) from a specific time from the 14th through 15th centuries. The word Kirtle is more broadly defined across a few hundred years as a type of supportive garment that later became gendered specifically for women. [4]

The Process:

The best way to get any supportive kirtle is to pattern the whole thing from the ground up. After refreshing myself in kirtle construction thanks to Morgan Donner’s tutorial, as well as La Cotte Simple, and The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant I got a working pattern from draping and pinning. This was extremely challenging due to it being the pandemic— I had no friends to help me out with the pinning portion. I got creative by making use of my sewing machine and making educated guesstimates with a sharpie. I also padded out my dressform using layers of quilt batting, a bra, and nylon stockings stuffed with lentils all smooshed together under a stretchy tank-top to hold it all in place. Surprisingly, it worked, and I have no plans of immediately dismantling my dress form any time soon… at least, until I can drop the Quarantine-15.

If you would to see what worked for me to achieve a bust-supportive pattern all on my own, please check out my slideshow for my kirtle patterning class here: Kirtle Patterning 101

This was the end result: a bust-supportive pattern on the left that is good for many eras from 1350 onwards. On the right is my modified result for the V-fronted kirtle.

To achieve the length of the gown, I made sure to mark my waist on the pattern and then measured downwards. I decided to cut the gown with a full bias hem and train with two gussets for a good amount of “swish”. Cutting on the bias complicates the hemming process, so I let the gown hang in the closet for a few weeks once it was assembled. The outer shell of the gown is 100% Worsted Wool I ordered from Burnley & Trowbridge a few years ago.

[Libby is a great assistant]

As I am a rather top-heavy individual— in total contrast with the fact that this style of dress was outwardly worn without an overgown by primarily young unmarried women (who do not have a larger busty frame pushing into middle-age territory), I needed to make some further structural modifications using a period technique: pad stitching. I pad stitched the inner foundation of the dress with unbleached heavyweight linen and thick embroidery thread. After doing this technique, I am never going back to using a simple lining for a medieval kirtle ever again. The support results were phenomenal.

[I tried to get the wrinkles out where I could before I took this image, but this linen had been pressed in a closet for 3 years. I flattened it out later under a heavy amount of steam and angry cursing.]

As you can see in the image above, the garment is lined in a green colored linen. While colored linen is not common to my knowledge in the medieval period, I wanted a contrasting lining effect that is seen to be so prevalent in the illuminations and altarpieces of this period (which seems to be silk or wool). Linen would also add a nicer drape to the garment, and it would keep me cooler at outdoor events. I also am a fan of stashbusting, and if it appears to be reasonably period, then why not? Waste not, want not— plus, I think it looked rather lovely with the merlot purple of the wool and reminded me of the color scheme of a Northern Renaissance altarpiece painting.

I assembled the shell of the dress by machine to save on time, but I hand-sewed all visible seams and finishes. In the image above is the interior of the dress with a strip of straight-cut wool facing tacked down with madder linen and chestnut silk thread. The armscyes are also bound with a straight piece of wool as well for strength purposes as well as in lieu of creating a bulky and unwieldy seam.

I felled the hem by hand all along the bottom edge of the gown. This was slightly challenging with a train belling out from the back of the dress.

The end result!
[Small train in the back is nice for day events: not too long, not too short. The brocade fabric hanging for my hasty last minute photo background is the planned fabric for the future Burgundian overgown.]

For now, I have woolen stomacher inserted in the front panel of the dress, but I am beginning to lean towards a two-kirtle theory for a fully supportive v-fronted gown, with the innermost layer being flat-fronted and/or side laced. More on that theory here: https://cathelinadialessandri.wordpress.com/2016/03/12/the-open-front-two-kirtle-theory/

The stomacher didn’t want to stay put and looked rather buckled under the lacing, so for now, I may line it with buckram and stitch it with temporary tacking stitches to the lining. I’m not sure if I want to wear a fourth layer under the eventual Burgundian, considering I live in Southern California, but we’ll see.

All in all, this was a challenging project to work on. Having being used to making open-fronted garments with boning (a later invention), making one that is flattering for my soft-bodied figure with only interlining and careful tailoring was definitely something out of my comfort zone. This is something I will definitely do again, and I am looking forward to further developments with the Burgundian project.

(1) Newton, Stella Mary. 1980. Fashion in the age of the Black Prince.

(2) Buren, Anne van, and Roger S. Wieck. 2011. Illuminating fashion: dress in the art of medieval France and the Netherlands, 1325-1515. New York: The Morgan Library & Museum.

(3&4) Ibid.