Apron with Honeycomb Smocking

IMG_1548Recent scribal projects have provided the opportunity to pour over the luminous pages of the Luttrell Psalter.  While looking for design elements to adapt, I’ve kept a running list of images depicting 14th century clothing and accessories.  With these images of hoods, shoes, dresses, and such in the back of my mind, I started another list of articles of clothing that I’d love to add to my kit.  Since it’s summer, a hat was on the top of the list, followed by pattens to keep the shoes I made during the winter out of the dew and mud, and then an apron to protect my dresses from some of the messier parts of camp living.  In the flurry of activity that surrounded GNEW, I had to set aside the plans for an apron, until now.

Looking back at the images in the Luttrell Psalter, I decided to try my hand at smocking, a technique used to gather material.  Some of the examples show beautiful, more elaborate patterns in the way the material is stitched, but since this would be my first go, and I need a utilitarian apron, I decided to use a more basic, honeycomb pattern.

IMG_1481 There are wonderful websites with tutorials and instructions.  I found the links on Medieval Silkworks to be particularly helpful, as well as the basic instructions shown on Tipnut.  Preparing samples using different grids was one of the most helpful things I did as I started planning my own apron.  There are images showing the results of that on a previous post.  For this apron I ended up using a grid where the gathering stitches are placed 1 cm apart horizontally, with the rows of stitches set 1.5 cm apart vertically.  The final stitches that produce the honey comb are worked in number 8 pearl cotton, with stitched nodes worked at the gathered points and 1/2 way to the next gathering point.  Though more laborious to set up, I found that using many rows of gathering stitches helped me keep my final stitches in neater rows.  The final honeycomb is far from perfect, but I can see how it would have been much more frustrating to produce if I had used fewer gathering rows.

The local fabric store only had white linen in suiting weight the day I went, and it feels a bit heavy.  The honeycomb smocking does add a lot of stretch to this rather unyielding fabric, though.  After working up this first bit of smocking, learning the basic technique, and this basic and pretty forgiving stitch, I have many ideas for what I’d like to try with the next project.  Next time, I’d like to try smocking with a slightly lighter weight linen, use linen thread, and pay even closer attention to keeping the pleats in line as I gather to make sure that they are even.  The pressure is off though, now that one is complete and ready to use!


Tests for Smocking

A first go at smocking.  These are samples of honeycomb smocking to test the grid that will determine how the stitches will be placed.  I’m using Medieval Silkwork’s wonderful links.  I couldn’t find clear information about how to set up the grid, so I made my own test piece, as I prepare to make a linen apron with smocking at the top, as inspired by aprons shown in the Luttrel Psalter.

The smocking on the left hand side of the middle photo is done using a grid where the gathering stitches are placed 1 cm apart horizontally, with the rows of stitches set 1.5 cm apart vertically.  The final stitches that produce the honey comb are worked in number 8 pearl cotton, with stitched nodes worked at the gathered points and 1/2 way to the next gathering point.  This produced a fine diamond pattern.

The smocking on the right hand side of the middle photo is done using a grid where the gathering stitches are placed 1.5 cm apart horizontally, with the rows of stitches set 2 cm apart vertically.  Again, the final stitches that produce the honey comb are worked in number 8 pearl cotton, with stitched nodes worked at the gathered points and 1/2 way to the next gathering point.

Frilled Veil, phase one

I’ve been eyeing Cathrin Åhlén’s amazing tutorial for making a starched frilled veil for some time. Her very complete instructions have made this project so much fun! https://katafalk.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/starched-frilled-veil/  Here are my first steps…

14th Century Turnshoes

After thinking and researching about shoes for several years, I decided that there were probably many things that I wouldn’t understand until I started working and that it might be best to jump in and give it ago.  Based on 14th Century turnshoes from the London finds, these shoes were constructed of thin vegetable tanned goat skin uppers, thick cow hide soles, and waxed carpet warp (cotton).  Turnshoes are sewn inside out, with or without the aid of a shoe last (these ones are unlasted), and then turned outside right after soaking the leather to make it more pliable.  I was so anxious to turn them that I didn’t get any photographs of that part of the process… maybe with the next pair.

For me, the most difficult part of this project was drafting the pattern.  I started by tracing my foot, and then adjusting the design so it fitted more of the look of 13th century shoes like the ones at the Museum of London.  These shoes are long and narrow, in fact, I made the pattern more narrow than my foot at the ball of my foot, and very tight at the heel, to make the shape of the sole look more like the shape of the period examples.  This felt strange at the time, as did using the same pattern for left and right foot, a custom of the time, but I didn’t want the finished shoes to be too floppy.  So I decided to let myself experiment with this first pair, realizing that they may not fit properly and I might have to modify the pattern and try again.  Giving myself permission to make this first pair as a practice pair was really liberating.  I realized that what had been holding me up starting these shoes in the first place was my fear of wasting materials and time making something that wouldn’t be useable.  Deciding that the purpose of these shoes was to learn, and trusting that they would probably fit someone, allowed me the freedom to get over the initial hurdle and start making the shoes that I had wanted for so long.

With my initial tracing of my foot modified to look more like a symmetrical, period sole, I folded another piece of paper in half the long way and keeping the fold centered over my foot, from ankle to toe, I began trimming and pinching the paper until it laid over my foot pretty smoothly.  Where the top paper touched the edge of the sole pattern I creased it until the edge of the pattern piece covering the foot began to become apparent.  This piece that covers the top of the foot is called the vamp of the shoe.  Taking the vamp pattern piece off my foot I folded the paper along the original line and fiddled with the edge until the piece was symmetrical, checking from time to time to make sure that it still covered my foot.  Having a friend’s helping hands would have made this fitting process much easier.  It was sometimes difficult to hold the paper and mark the pattern line, or hold the vamp pattern to the sole in enough places to make sure it would fit.  It is possible to use tape, though, to tack the vamp to the sole along the edge to test the fit of the shoe.  I loosely fitted another piece of paper to make the heel.  On this piece I marked in pencil where I thought the heel piece should meet the vamp, and then added about 0.5 cm to that edge to make sure I was able to fit the heel more closely as I made the shoe, as I didn’t yet know how sewing the shoe might modify how the pieces fit together.  I added a 0.5 cm seam allowance to the edge of the vamp where it would be sewn to the sole to allow room for the seam as well as turning.

Once the pattern pieces felt done, I used them to cut the vamp, heel, heel reinforcement, and lacing strap pieces from a 3 ounce, vegetable tanned goat skin from Brettuns Village.  I cut the sole from much thicker vegetable tanned cow hide that a friend had given me.


To attach the upper pieces to the sole of the shoe I used a saddle stitch version of the split hold stitch, with two strands of waxed cotton carpet warp thread.  I would like to try using linen thread with a follow up pair of shoes, but I had this carpet thread on hand and was eager to get going.  The split hold stitch is lovely.  With the pieces inside out, I started sewing at the center of the toe and vamp, first using an awl to make a hole diagonally down through the flesh side of the sole piece, out the lower part of the edge of the sole, and through the vamp, which was perpendicular to the sole, flesh side out.

Making stitches in this way, rather than the stab stitch, makes the finished seam very smooth when the shoe is turned.  I find these shoes so much more comfortable than an earlier pair of turnshoes that I made using the stab stitch because I was afraid that the sole leather I was using was much too thin to hold a split hold stitch.  The key with the split hold stitch is to start making the hole into the sole quite a ways in from the edge of the sole.  I made these stitches a little more than 0.5 cm in from the cut edge of the sole.  I used an awl to make the holes through the sole and vamp, drew the first thread through the holes until it was tight, then pulled the second thread (going in the opposite direction) through the same hole (being careful to avoid piercing the first thread with the needle if I could), then pulled both treads quite tight.  I found that I didn’t need to add a welt, which made it easier to sew the pieces together, in fact, even trying to add a third layer to reinforce the heel added too much bulk and the reinforcement piece would not lay flat for me.

I stitched from toe to the end of the vamp, then started another pair of threads at the toe and sewed down the other side of the shoe.  The heel piece had a little wiggle room because of the added seam allowance, which was really helpful at this point.  I butted up one edge of the heel piece to the vamp’s heel edge (without overlapping) and continued sewing using the saddle type split hold stitch to attach the heel to the sole, leaving the seam between the vamp and heel open for now.  Once sewing around the heel, I could see how the heel piece wanted to lay and was able to trim the other side of the heel that would meet the other side of the vamp so that they would butt up against each other, again, with no overlap.  With the second shoe I attached the heel piece to the vamp piece on one edge before sewing the upper to the sole, to make it a bit easier, but both ways will work.

To stitch up both sides of the vamp and heel I used a variation of a “blind hold stitch” with waxed, heavy duty, cotton sewing thread.  The thicker carpet warp was too coarse for the thin goat skin and kept tearing the leather. This stitch is lovely because it lets you attach 2 pieces smoothly, with out overlapping them, and the seam is invisible from the outside of the shoe.  I stitched diagonally down through the flesh side of the leather, out the edge, into the edge of the other side, and up diagonally out through the other flesh side.

With the stitching done, it was so exciting to turn the shoe and try it on.  The goat skin was so supple, I wasn’t worried about how most of the shoe would turn, but the toe was quite another story.  So I soaked the toe portion of the shoe in water for a few minutes before toweling it off and turning the shoe.  I still wanted to use a piece of leather to stiffen and reinforce the heel, and decided to tack it in place along it’s top and sides, and leave the edge close to the sole tucked behind the seam of the sole and heel piece.  This has held after quite a bit of wear.


After this I attached a strap of goat skin to the top edge of the heel that would wrap around my ankle.  The strap was split into two lacing ends.  The lacing ends threaded through a pair of holes on the other side of the heel piece, and tied into a loose knot to hold the shoe in place, no buckles required.  This simple and effective method of closure can be seen in the image of period shoes from the Museum of London shown above.

I died the shoes using a brown, alcohol based dye, but would love to try a period dye with the next pair.  When they were dry I rubbed them with mink oil to shine them up and keep the leather soft.  The shoes felt tight at first, and it took some time to get used to the one pattern for both feet, but they have been a joy to wear as they stretch to fit my feet.  The split hold stitch hides the seam beautifully, which protects the thread, hopefully making them wear well for a long time.

Other Helpful Sources:

I. Marc Carlson’s book Footwear of the Middle Ages was an invaluable and exhaustive resource: http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~marc-carlson/shoe/SHOEHOME.HTM

As a visual learner, Laughingcrow’s short, but clear video on Scandinavian Turnshoes really helped me understand aspects of the shoemaking process that I wasn’t able to comprehend when described in written instructions.  The video can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4-nyo5zzks

Or: http://villagevideo.org/turnshoe/


Saint Birgitta’s Coif

During the 13th through 15th centuries, it was expected that married women living in Northern and Western Europe wear some kind of hair covering. Over time, women covered their hair in a variety of ways, as the fashions of the day changed. In art of the time we often see a simple white cap (huvete, huve, huva, or coif) made of linen or silk. The cap is sometimes worn alone, or as a foundation for wimple and veil.

Head coverings for married women are an interesting cultural phenomenon, especially since they are no longer as common throughout Western European society, though still practiced by others, often as part of the religious/social context of a specific community. For those in Western Europe in earlier times, it was thought that once a woman became sexually active, her hair “gained supernatural potency” that could affect the world around her. Thusly, it became important for her hair to be covered, “especially when near farmland or entering a church.” [i] These ideas may seem antiquated to some in the West now, but allow us a deeper appreciation for how society viewed women’s power and potency as a volatile or unpredictable force, and these seemingly simple pieces of cloth were used to mitigate it.

This coif that I’m presenting here was inspired by a cap attributed to the 14th century Saint Birgitta of Sweden. This example is constructed of light weight linen/cotton cloth and cotton thread. The interlaced herringbone stitch of no. 8 pearl cotton is used to create a lace web to connect the two hemispheres of the cap.

[i] James, Ronald M., Introduction to Folklore: Traditional Studies in Europe and Elsewhere.


1300–1400 in European Fashion, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1300%E2%80%931400_in_European_fashion#Headdresses

Carlson, I. Marc, Some Clothing of the Middle Ages – Hats and Headwear – St. Birgitta’s Coif, Copyright 1998,1999.

Katafalk, St. Birgitta’s Cap: https://katafalk.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/st-birgittas-cap/

Medieval Silkworks, Women’s Caps: http://www.medievalsilkwork.com/2008/11/womens-caps.html

Reddit AskHistorians: Why did medieval women wear headscarves? Was it simply fashion, or were they worn for reasons of modesty/morality?: https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/2heb8s/why_did_medieval_women_wear_headscarves_was_it/ or Introduction to Folklore: Traditional Studies in Europe and Elsewhere, by Ronald M. James

New Autumn Garb

It’s been a flurry of activity… drafting dress patterns, gathering dyestuffs, and sewing and sewing and sewing. All these clothing items have been sewn entirely by hand. I lost track of how many meters of thread I’ve gone through! A sweet indulgence, but my 14th century woman’s kit is really filling out.  The linen kirtle is dyed with ground acorn meal and iron liquor, sewn from a Reconstructing History pattern.  The woolen dress is based on the Herjolfsnes dresses (number 42) from Greenland.  For the Greenland dress, I studied drafts of the original dresses, and poured over Matilda LaZouche and Isis Sturtewagen’s websites, and then dove in and drafted my own pattern, sewing a sample from an old flannel sheet.



Blue Wool Liripipe Hood

The new 14th century hood with liripipe is finished!  This hood is a modified version of the Herjolfsnes no.72 hood from Greenland and hood no. 246 from the excavations in London.  Done all by hand, this was a laborious and very rewarding project. I learned how to make cloth buttons and a tablet woven edge, and used up almost every last scrap of this luscious blue wool.

And once more, much thanks for Cathrin Åhlén fantastic tutorials. https://katafalk.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/buttoned-and-lined-liripipe/

Saint Birgitta’s Cap, first round

Receiving a friend’s well worn linen shirt became an invitation to start in on a prototype coif, inspired by the Saint Birgitta cap.  Working up the interlaced herringbone embroidery that connects the two sides is very satisfying, though the learning curve is steep at first.  If you wish to make your own, there’s a wonderful tutorial by Cathrin Åhlén at: https://katafalk.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/embroidered-st-birgittas-cap/

Arched Top Hedeby Bag

Another style of Hedeby bag, these arched top handles support a smaller bag than the saw-toothed top. I really like these ones! This bag is also based on finds from Viking era Hedeby. Beautiful oatmeal colored wool lined with white linen, with a tablet woven woolen strap based on a woven band from the Oseberg ship burial.