Making a 15th Century Princess Gown Part 1 || Historical Reconstruction


Merry meet, good friend! Today I shall be attempting to reinterpret
the princess’s red gown from this painting, entitled ‘Saint George Slaying the Dragon’. It’s dated to around 1450 so I’m really excited
to get to explore some late medieval dressmaking techniques. First and foremost I must disclaim that, since
I was working off of a painted reference instead of an extant garment pattern, there was definitely
a fair amount of interpretation on my end of the process. Especially when we get into the land of sleeves
in part two of this video series. While in general I always strive to back up
my claims with historical evidence, I cannot claim complete historical authenticity on
this project, if only because we’ve now entered a distant realm of time in which so little
evidence actually remains to us. I’m going to do my best to point out any areas
of debate or uncertainty, and as always, please do feel free to chime in at the comment section
down below if you have any other additional insight. Now onto the sewing! For the basic pattern, I mainly used for reference
one of the few surviving tunics from the period, a woman’s gown discovered in Herjolfsnes,
Greenland, in the late 14th to early 15th century. It consists of center front and back panels,
and 4 slim side panels cut to shape snugly round the upper body. These panels flare out substantially at the
hem in wide gores to give a very full skirt, a silhouette that is prominently confirmed
in European artwork and statuary round this time. There are also gores inserted to the center
front and back panels of the extant gown, but since my reference seems to open down
center front, I’ve omitted the front gore and preserved only the one in the back. For the main body of the gown, I’ve picked
up this vibrant red wool. I’ve had to choose a partly synthetic wool
blend in order to save on cost, since I needed so much material. I have 9 yards here which should be enough,
but I must point out that my fabric is a luxurious 60 inches wide, whereas historically, fabric
widths tended to be much narrower and would have required more yardage. Wool was extremely prevalent in the medieval
wardrobe, particularly in England, as evidenced by the amount of wool textile remains recovered
from archaeological deposits along the Thames. I’m targeting my research specifically towards
15th century England, since the original painting is depicting the legend of Saint George, so
I’m hazarding a guess that the figures would reflect English styles of dress. Now it’s time to mark out the pattern pieces. I haven’t been able to find any definitive
evidence as to how this was done in the 15th century, but I do know there is evidence of
marking out being done with ink by the late 16th and early 17th centuries, so this is
the method I’ve decided to try out. It’s worked out surprisingly well: the ink
gives a strong, clear line without bleeding or soaking through the wool. We’ll see if this still holds true on some
of the silk later. I’m using a hand-cut quill to transfer the
ink, and if you’re curious how to cut one for your self, I happen to have a video explaining
all of the excitement, which I shall link here. Also, in case you’re wondering, no: I’m not
this tall. I’ve added an additional 5 inches to the hem
to puddle around on the floor, as seems to have been the fashion amongst medieval ladies
who apparently didn’t have to do much walking. So now that the main gown panels are all cut
out, it’s time to start putting it all together. I’m starting with the center back gore, which
is inserted by splitting the back panel on the fold of my center line up to the marked
point where I want the gore to finish, just a couple of inches below the waistline. Although upon reflection, I think I may have
placed it a little bit too low. The gore is attached to the back panel with
a running back stitch: that is, a running stitch with a single back stitch taken every
couple of stitches, to ensure that the seam is nice and secure. Excavated garments prove that the majority
of stitching was done with running stitches, unless a seam had to take significant strain,
and these skirt seams don’t have to do that much heavy work. I can completely understand why: running stitches
are much quicker, and there are so many miles of skirt seams ahead. The prospect of saving any bit of time on
this process is an enticing one. I’m using a dyed linen thread to do my stitching
here, seemingly the most common thread used in the period. Silk was also often used, but was expensive
and therefore mostly reserved for more costly materials, like silk fabric. There is evidence of cotton threads being
used, as well as wool. By the way, most of this archaeological research
I’ve sourced is from this wonderful text published by the Museum of London, called ‘Textiles
and Clothing 1150 – 1450’, which documents in excruciating detail all sorts of fabrics,
threads, dyes, garments, weave patterns, trims, buttons, construction, excavated in the City
of London dating to between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. I highly recommend you have a look through
it if you’re interested in reconstructing something from this period. It’s answered so many of my questions. Once the back gore is set in, it’s time to
embark on the long journey of seaming together the gown panels. Patterning Me is a fool and neglected to put
balance marks on these panels, so I’m hoping things don’t turn out too chaotic. Pro tip: don’t be like me. I had a bit of a think about what type of
stitch to use to attach all these panels. Since the bodice is very fitted, I didn’t
think a running stitch would hold it together as strongly as a backstitch would. But backstitching the approximately 32 yards
of seaming here sounded like it would take an unreasonable amount of time. In any case, the skirt seams don’t need to
take any strain, and wouldn’t need the strength of a backstitch. So I came to the decision to start off with
a backstitch at the bodice area, then change over to a running stitch a couple of inches
below the waist line where the skirt starts to flare. I have come across no contemporary evidence
to support this technique, but sometimes it’s just nice to experiment with a bit of logic. My handy Museum of London source observes
that the average stitch length on extant artefacts is between 2 to 4 mm, so that’s what I’m aiming
to reproduce. The brilliant part about not needing electricity
to sew is your projects are wonderfully portable. Finally, the center front seam is stitched
up at the skirt, but left open from hip level up. This seems to be a common construction method
for the 15th century houppelande, which I think the gown in the painting resembles. I’m reinforcing the first couple of inches
with backstitches, since there will be a bit of strain here when the garment is put on
and removed. The rest of the seam is finished with running
stitches. One thing that has become clear to me during
this process is that I don’t think my pattern quite properly reflects the gown in the painting. See all that gathering at center front there? …yeah. I’m pretty sure there’s supposed to be a waist
seam in this gown, with the front skirt panels gathered into the bodice instead of the long
continuous gore panels that I initially interpreted. Similar to, as I just mentioned, the 15th
century houppelande. So despite my best efforts, the gown I’ve
ended up with isn’t quite the same gown from the painting, but since the evidence I’ve
been working with is contemporary, my interpretation isn’t necessary inaccurate; just a slightly
different style. So at long last, we have the beginnings of
a gown. This is an excellent point for a fitting,
while all the seams are still unfinished. It’s much easier to unpick a bit of backstitching
than it is to undo the whole felled seam, so I’m off to go do that now. I think this is a nice interval to stop for
part 1. Still to come are sleeves, trimmings, buttons,
closures, lacing, and a whole lot of felling. Give us a subscribe if that’s anything of
interest to you, and I shall see you next time for some more historical sewing adventures.

45 Replies to “Making a 15th Century Princess Gown Part 1 || Historical Reconstruction”

  1. you, a talented and well educated fashion historian: don't be like me 5:01
    me, a dumbass in all meanings of the word: one step ahead of you

  2. I'm just intrigued you did this by hand, I'm just making a dress in school and I'm not even done yet ._. (Maybe because I only have one lesson every week)

  3. nice attention to detail and very professional. Also you are very pleasing to the eye. I very much enjoyed the hand stitching.

  4. Bernadette Banner: finds something wrong with the closure
    Me: looks at painting than dress*
    Uhm uhm uhm…. there’s nothing wrong

  5. This is my first of Bernadette's videos and my first foray into dressmaking videos.
    My current takeaway is that inexperienced seamstresses must regularly give their needles an express trip to the nail bed of their thumb

  6. the first video I saw of you, I thought you looked a bit like the Actress Ellise Chappell from the series,
    Poldark, I can see you do great work. I love how you explain everything

  7. I don’t know if anyone cares, but I once made a suit of armor out of two stools. Just… wanted to put it out there.

  8. I am tempted to see if Bernadette can make a historical dress via the way that dresses were made during the period the dress is from

  9. love your videos! i've been using them as some motivational background while i work on my own (first) little sewing project (it's a yoda doll for my friend) and it's so relaxing. your work is incredible and the information you give while making such amazing pieces is so interesting. you're making me want to actually learn how to do some practical sewing for myself!

  10. I doubt you’ll read this comment a year on, but if you do, I actually have a source on fabric widths for the period that I found two years ago when I was working on a project for a competition. Long story short: in places like France, England, and Italy the fabrics were being commercially woven and the widths matched modern standards after fulling (for wool). In Greenland, where we get most of our extant finds, they still used home-woven fabric during the period, so the fabrics were still narrow. Your textiles are sumptuous and your seam-work is perfect, in my opinion. If you want to talk sleeves (I know this isn’t your primary area), I’d love to nerd out with you!

  11. Don't you get a lot of commentary while sewing in public? When I was doing embroidery in public, suddenly everyone wanted to talk to me about it.

  12. When walking, a lady would use skirt lifters.
    Additionally, fine ladies had others do the running. 😉 This is NOT to say ladies didn't have quite enough to do!
    Reading that book, which I still have in hardback, always makes me want a new loom & ability to weave, once more. It's a marvelous book.

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