Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Cutting Voluminous Garments: A Rumination

Tacuinum Sanitatis (BNF Latin 9333)
Fol 103, 15th century CE*
Detail of mural at
Kanonikerhaus in
Constance, Germany,
c. 1320 CE*
Just a few days ago, I was reading a paper by Tina Anderlini on about 13th century European clothing, and how important it was to have the right elements in a costume, even though the basic element was simply a voluminous robe.   In a supplement to the paper, Tina gives sketches as to the cut of the clothing components. Links to the supplement may be found on Tina's French-language blog, Paroles d'Arts.  (The supplement itself is in English.)

As is apparent from the patterns sketched in the supplement, and from the photographs with Tina's blog post, 13th century garments such as the robe she writes about were voluminous, and featured from four to about half a dozen shaped gores.   That fact raised a question in my mind; how did people manage to cut out the pieces necessary to make such garments?

The answer may be simple for rich people's robes.  They would likely have been made by professionals, who could simply use a big table on which to spread the fabric and cut out any gores.  Because both fabric and gores were not very wide by modern standards, it was only necessary to have a reasonably smooth flat surface that was long enough and high enough off of the floor for ease of cutting.  The art of the 14th through 16th centuries does show clothes makers using or having such a table (see the images to the right).
Taymouth Hours (Brit. Lib. Yates
Thompson, fol. 180v), c. 1325-1335 CE*
But I have not been able to find, so far, a piece of period art from the 13th century showing the cutting of garments at the time of the clothing types described in Tina Anderlini's paper.  That raises a question.  Were big tables used at that time for clothing cutting? And what did poorer people do when they wanted to try making similar garments for themselves?

Tacuinum Sanitatis (BNF NAL 1673) Fol. 94,
Fol. 94, 1390-1400 CE 
The earliest art I found was an early 14th century mural of a woman trying to do something with shears and fabric held in her lap, though it did not appear as though she was cutting shaped fabric pieces for a tailored garment (upper left). I also found a 14th century marginalia piece purportedly showing St. Francis making himself a robe using the ground as a work surface, but that robe is not really a shaped or terribly voluminous garment, and the rolling hills shown in the image are not a plausible work surface, even for simple tailoring (lower left).

During the early Iron Age, fabric was woven and then sewn or pinned into garments with little or cutting, so this question did not arise.  Nor did it arise during the Migration Period or the Viking Age.  Based upon period artworks, clothing in those periods was fairly short (ankle length or just touching the floor at most) and was not very voluminous compared to fashions in later centuries.  In addition, most tailoring was simple.  It involved either small pieces (such as the Thorsberg trousers), larger pieces cut or torn along straight lines, perhaps with small cutout areas such as the curved sleeve heads and armpit gussets for which evidence was found at Hedeby, for example.  Some of the scraps found at Hedeby show slightly curved seams, which likely were made by subtly changing the width of the seam as one sewed. Probably all of these items could have been made without a solid horizontal surface.  I did most of the work on one of my apron dresses without a large flat surface.

In her study of the medieval Greenland clothing finds, Woven Into The Earth, Else Østergård suggests that the kind of shaped-piece cutting necessary for the kinds of late medieval garments found might have been accomplished by temporarily removing a door from its hinges and using it as a cutting surface.  (p. 94).  It is difficult to imagine a better cutting surface available to poorer people who made their own clothing, or a better example of people living far from the center of Europe, trying to emulate current fashions.

I will have to look more seriously for 13th century art depicting the cutting of clothing, to see whether better evidence for the door theory is available.

* All images in this post located on Karen Larsdatter's Medieval Material Culture pages.


  1. Hi Cathy, thank you for this paper. I may have a little clue, but may be it is not for a professional tailor. In the roman Galeran (so full of information), Frêne is cutting her fabric (cloth of gold)... on the floor. And the author said it was as good (or may be even better... Medieval litterature style :) ) than a professional tailor. It seems weird. But that's the only clue I can remember about this interesting question.

    1. Hi, Tina! Thanks for visiting.

      Whether using the floor makes sense depends on what that floor is made of. It's fine if you have a stone or wooden floor. I was thinking of Viking age dwellings in Scandinavia where the floor often was packed earth. Thanks for your comments, though. It's given me more to think about.

  2. I haven't searched for pictorial evidence and I much prefer using a table or floor or bed to lay the fabric out flat. However, I've cut diagonals in mid-air with another person's help. I learned that I don't really want a true point at the top of a triangular gore but prefer to keep about an inch wide flat. I started with a rectangle slightly longer than waist to ankles. My partner and I each held the short side about an inch from the long edge on opposite corners and let the sides drop. The mid-weight tabby-weave linen folded clearly enough that I could finger-press the diagonal and then cut. The resulting right triangles were a little wobbly but functioned well enough in the garment.
    Beth S

    1. Hi, Beth! Thanks for stopping by.

      You're certainly right about making the top of a gore slightly flat; I've made more than enough undertunics with them to convince me of that. And I can see where one might cut adequate diagnonals as you describe. The more difficult question is how one cuts the thin but long pieces typical of later medieval garments without getting the sizes too far off.

      You note that your diagonal cutting was done on mid-weight tabby linen. But what of outer garments (or inner ones for that matter) made from wool? Wool does not finger-press well, nor is it stiff enough to cut easily by the method you describe, and it was used for outerwear (possibly most outerwear) in the Middle Ages. That's where the table shown in 14th and 15th c. medieval art makes the most sense. My question really comes down to how early that kind of solution to the "how do you cut all that fabric" problem became common.