Make yourself the perfect High Medieval common woman's dress!
Get our full-size paper pattern with complete instructions and historical notes for 15th century Commonwoman's Kirtle with long (A) or short (B) sleeves and pin-on Sleeves. Easy enough for a beginner. Beautiful enough for an expert.
Fits busts 30½"-48" and waists 23"-41". All Sizes in one envelope. Historical notes and embellishment suggestions included.
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light weight to coat weight wool
light linen for lining
Gown: 6 yds 45" or 4½ yds 60" wide
Lining (optional): 6 yds 45” or 4½ yds 60” wide
Sleeves 2 yds at least 45” wide
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Below is an excerpt from the historical notes you will receive as part of this pattern:
The Woman’s Kirtle in the 15th century
What is a “kirtle”. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, says that the word kirtle derives from the Middle English word kirtel, from Old English cyrtel, probably ultimately from Latin curtus, meaning “short.” An Irishman is wearing a “Kyrtil” in Magnus Berfaet's Saga from 1093. The garment is described as being short. It is also definitely a man’s garment.
Before the Renaissance there simply are not enough inventories of clothing to determine the names of all the garments people wore in their everyday lives. Our use of the word kirtle for this 15th century women’s garment stems more from the existance of the term in 16th century wills and inventories than anything else. Assuming the word did not magically materialize at midnight on December 31st, 1499, we call earlier derivations of this underdress by the same word -- kirtle.
In the 15th century and possibly much earlier, what we now call the kirtle was the common woman’s basic gown. It was simply constructed of a four-piece bodice (two backs and two fronts) and a skirt. It existed in sleeveless, short-sleeved, and long-sleeved versions and was worn directly over a woman’s linen smock or underwear. In earlier centuries the kirtle had no waist seam, but by the 15th century this feature was added, allowing a widening of the skirts. Worn with pinned or tied on sleeves, it could be dressed up or dressed down as suited the occasion.
Medieval calendars show women working in the fields without sleeves and their smock sleeves rolled up and their skirts kirtled about their hips. When working (or dancing, as shown above left), women seem to have removed their sleeves for ease of movement or for coolness. The picture at left also shows the front opening of the kirtle slightly unlaced. This may also be for coolness as the dancer exerts herself. The peasant in the picture at right retains her sleeves while she works, but she kirtles up her skirts over a belt so they allow easy movement of her feet.
Other depictions show women in distress with their sleeves missing or pulled on but not pinned. This can be seen particularly in religious paintings depicting the Crucifixion and the Massacre of the Innocents (Rogier van der Weyden has painted a number of Magdelenes in this state). It has been suggested that these women are not fully clothed; that they are not wearing the upper layer of clothing that would make them decently dressed. However pictures of common women who are not in distress also show women wearing kirtles with pin-on sleeves and no upper gown. It is possible that even common women wore an upper layer on formal ocassions. But these women are obviously not “undressed” without it.
Noblewomen also wore this gown, but as an underlayer to their elaborate fur-lined or silk brocade gowns. The front of the kirtle may be seen at the neckline of the overgowns in illustrations of the saints’ lives in illuminated manuscripts and sometimes glimpsed when ladies hold up their hems to walk. The picture at left is from a mid-fifteenth century brass depicting an English noblewoman. You can see the front-lacing kirtle at the neckline of her gown.
Whether an undergarment or basic dress, the kirtle was to play a more important role in future generations. As elaborate fabrics became more prevalent, fake fronts and skirts were pinned to the kirtle to give the impression that the entire undergown was of a finer material than it really was. This conspicuous consumption became a hallmark of the Renaissance when the kirtle reached its height.
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This information © 2006 Kass McGann and Reconstructing History