Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Lengberg Finds and Late Medieval Tailoring

A few years ago, I wrote several posts drawing my readers' attention to the work of Beatrix Nutz with various 15th century undergarment finds from Lengberg Castle in East Tyrol.  A few days ago, I found the video that appears to the right of this blog, which shares some original research that is even more startling.  A webpage by the University of Innsbruck briefly describing this project can be seen here

The video is a narrated slideshow about the implications of the Lengberg finds for the history of tailoring. The slideshow was created by Professor Nutz and two independent American researchers, Rachel Case, and Marion McNealy, who used their long experience in historical sewing to make reproductions of some of the Lengberg finds to discover how they must have been created.   The result is a fascinating look at some long-forgotten techniques of European tailoring.

Their analysis started with the find that resembles a modern long-line bra: a few other costumers had previously recreated that item, as the links in this sentence show.  Rachel and Marion believed that the "bra" was actually only part of an undergarment which was more of a supportive dress, since the "bra" had a calf-length skirt attached.  They reasoned that, without a skirt, the bra would tend to ride up and be uncomfortable and less supportive.

Of even greater interest, and research value, were pleated pieces of linen that the team concluded was the underlayer of a dress.  Two such finds are discussed, one believed to have been made for a grown woman and one for a little girl.  The fact that bits of blue wool remain fastened to the right side of the linen tend to support that idea.  Between their review of period artworks showing dresses with similar shaping in the bodice area, analysis of the finds themselves, and their recreations, the three researchers reached some interesting conclusions.

Their first theory, as noted above, was that the "long-line" bra likely had an attached skirt. (I wonder what the costumers who have made non-skirted versions think of this idea.)

Their second theory is that the purpose of the pleated sections of the dress-lining was to shape the gown over the chest.  Though it isn't clear what purpose the pleats served for the little girl's dress, the effect of the pleats over the chest on the woman's dress would be to emphasize (without supporting, because the skirted bra undergarment does that) each breast separately as its own rounded shape--a profile that appears in period art and that Nutz/Case/McNealy call "apple breasts."

This "apple breast" shape was achieved, they believe, by stitching the pleated linen lining to the wool outer fabric by a technique used by modern tailors to create wool suits today.  It's called pad stitching.  The sempstress.com site has a tutorial explaining the technique here.  The lined garment would then be steamed or pressed to further perfect the shape of the gown, which would be worn with a skirted bra-type garment.  Bias-cut sections located in the strap areas are also critical for the correct shape.

Why didn't this tailoring style persist?  In the early 16th century, fashion for women shifted to styles that compressed the breast, and sometimes the waist, to create a more conical shape.  This silhouette was created primarily by an undergarment called "stays" and more recently, the "corset".  Shaping with a corset did not require unusual shaping of the gown, so the pad stitching fell into disuse, and the corset remained the primary women's shaping garment for the next 400 years.

This slideshow is heartily recommended as a great way to absorb the critical details of a key piece of new research from the Lengberg finds.


  1. How interesting! I always just assumed the apple shape you see in paintings was just an example of artistic idealization - basically the medieval equivalent of photoshop.

  2. I also thought the "apple" shape was artist's exaggeration, but apparently not. I would love to see the reproduction woman's gown they made in wear! Perhaps the authors plan to set forth their findings in an article for NESAT XIII, and will include photographs of the gowns they made to explore their theories.

  3. Hi Cathy, there will be an article on the new NESAT proceedings, due out on Feb, on our Lengberg gown research. There will be photos and pattern diagrams for the girls gown in the paper, but not the woman's gown, as that hasn't been finished yet.

  4. Hi, Marion, thanks for stopping by! I look forward to reading that NESAT article. Thanks for the update.

  5. Hello Marion. I find this very fascination and I’m trying to figure out if it would be possible for me to make some sort of reproduction of the woman’s gown myself. Have you finished it yet? Is there anything more to read or see about this?