A 16th century German loose kirtle

Made in 2004

 While pregnant, as can clearly be seen.

This kirtle is based on a preserved German kirtle from the 1570s, published in Janet Arnold: Patterns of fashion. The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c. 1560-1620 (London and New York 1985). You can read more about that one further down.

 I believe, and so did Janet Arnold, who discusses this kirtle briefly in Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, that this type of kirtle might have been for maternity wear as well as for plump women. When I got pregnant it therefore seemed like a perfect project (especially since I always will be what Janet Arnold calls "plump").

The photos are taken in the beginning of week 34 and Maja was born in week 42, nine more weeks to go, but I didn't know that then of course. In the top right photo I'm wearing the kirtle together with a loose gown in green wool, which also has it's own page with more details.

 Since getting pregnant is something that most women that make historical costumes will experience I thought it would be in the general interest to show what I'm wearing under the kirtle too. When I decided to make this kirtle I also decided that I would try to avoid "cheating" by using modern underwear. Women in the 16th century were frequently pregnant and managed without a bra, so why shouldn't I?
There were several options. One was to make a special maternity corset, those are documented from the 18th century and basically look like a normal front-laced corset but has additional lacing in the sides. This was too much work, since I might only wear this outfit once before the baby came. I considered breastbinding,  but when the time came for the photos to be taken, I was too tired to do any experiments, so I used a corset with hemp cord that I originally planned to use with italian late 15thc-early 16thc clothes that never were made.

As you can see I didn't lace it all the way down and a front-laced version would maybe have fit better, but it worked with back-lacing also.

 Under the corset I'm wearing a smock with blackwork around the square neckline and knitted wool stockings and on top of it I'm wearing a linen partlet with a ruff with lace pinned to it. The wrist ruffs are identical to the neck ruff and they are made from linen and machine made bobbin lace.

After this it was just to put on the kirtle and pin the wrist ruffs to the sleeves and then finally the gown and some headwear. This gown is not made with cut-away front, as the original loose gown, it's actually mainly made for wearing outdoors when it's cold. It was also a little too short in it's original version so at a later stage I added a brown velvet guard at the bottom of the gown. Then it looked like this.

Worn with a gold coloured hair net and a brown bonnet to give it a more German look. As you can see the kirtle works well also when not pregnant.

When Maja was born I also opened the side seams on the kirtle a little, to make it possible to nurse while still dressed.

Looks comfy doesn't it?
Since I had to be able to reach my breasts easily I wore a modern nursing bra, but since it didn't lift the bust much but mostly flattened it, much like a sports bra, the silhoutte wasnt too wrong.

Anyway, that was the general stuff, but since I once made a dress diary for this kirtle I have quite a lot of construction details to share with you:

The making of the loose kirtle
As said above, the kirtle is based on the woman's kirtle from Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg, that Janet Arnold describes in Patterns of Fashion on page 109. I use the word based rather than a "re-creation of" or a "copy of", since  didn't use the same materials as the original. The cut was, however,  the same, just changed to fit my size

 If you look at this drawing of the kirtle you can see that the front is cut totally straight, while the back is slightly curved after the shape of the spine.

The kirtle is also laced all the way down to below the hips, while some kind of neck closure is needed because the kirtle is cut so close to the neck, lacing it so far down is not necessary to get into the garment. These two thing makes me think that this kirtle was once used as a maternity dress. The shape of the dress corresponds well to the shape of a pregnant woman, with absolutely no shaping at the (then non-existent) waist and the lacing makes it possible to wear the dress throughout your pregnancy. Since the kirtle can not be worn on it's own and indeed was worn with a loose gown (see PoF), you can loosen the lacing in the back to accomodate your growing belly and nobody will notice, since they're not able to se the back of the kirtle.

 The original dress is made of silk and lined with linen. The undecorated sides and back are plain ivory silk, lined with coarse linen, while the decorated front is made of ivory silk with silver thread in the weft and embroidered with black silk and blueish metal spangles.
It is lined the same linen and interlined with fine pink linen. the sleeves are of the same embroidered silk, lined with pale pink linen. There are lacing holes on the sleeve and kirtle to lace them together.

I also looked at some period artwork to try and figure out the fit of the kirtle. Since the amount of body fat doesn't show up on skeletons I used period images of loose kirtles on pregnant and non-pregnant women.

This is Anthonis Mor's painting of  Catherine of Austria.

This is a very late English portrait showing a woman pregnant in about week 36 - , when the belly is as high as it gets, before the baby sinks down and gets "fixed" in the pelvis.

And this, which is Swedish, is also a couple of decades later than the preserved kirtle.

My kirtle is made of linen and a  rayon brocade that I got from my aunt. Since the brocade isn't silk, I decided no to spend a large sum of money to make the not visible parts of the dress from silk, but use linen for that too. I did  however follow the general construction of the dress, with a inner layer of coarse linen and an interlining of finer linen behind the brocade.

Here you can see the brocade I'm going to use. The darker parts are actually a little raised and made of longer, floating, extra warp threads. Since the brocade is yellowish I decided to use yellow-ish linen for the rest of the dress, lined with grey linen.

The brocade was  in several pieces and needed some careful pieceing, but the original front panel(in silk with silver embroidery and silver spangles) was pieced too.

But Ifirst I put the body of the kirtle together: Since I replaced the silk taffeta used for the outer layer and the 44,5 cm high extra lining at the bottom of the dress with yellowish linen, as well as the  the pink linen strip (38 cm in the front and 11,4 cm in the back) that was used to stiffen the dress even more,  there is four layers of linen (+ the brocade in the front) at the hem and two layers of linen (+ again the brocade) at the top.

All this extra interlining is to make the kirtle stiff enough to be worn without a farthingale, which would be highly impractical to wear when your pregnant: I mean, tie it at your waist??!!

The coarse linen and the silk taffeta layers on the original gown were made up separately, as two kirtles, and then stitched together with the raw edges out at the bottom. This is a somewhat unusual way to line clothes in the period. More commonly the lining and the top fabric were treated as one fabric and stitched together.

So I sewed two linen kirtles, ie the lining and the top layer, separately and the I let them hang for a couple of days.
Since two pieces on the bias are attached to each other on the sides (I choose to lay out the pieces so the straight front seam was along a selvedge), there was a risk that they would stretch. And I'd rather have that happen before I have sewn the two layers together.

Piecing the brocade was tricky, but I managed in the end, sewing the pieces by hand from the right side, so that I could see the pattern all the time. Since the brocade used to be a curtain the colour varies a little due to uneven sun bleaching between the different pieces, but I don't think it's so much that people take notice.

It's pieced in two places.

The brocade was attached last of all the mayor pieces, because I wanted to sew both the 45 cm additional lining at the bottom of the kirtle and the brocade through both  the yellowish linen on the outside and the grey inner fabric, to make the kirtle more stable.

 After I had made the hem of the lining + the narrower interlining even, I sewed the lining and top fabric together. After that I joined the broad interlining at the hem and attached it's upper edge with running stitches through all layers. The stitches are ca 5mm long and I used unbleached, waxed linen thread.

There are 38 hand made lacing holes, sewn with unblecahed linen thread. They are made with a buttonhole stitch, where the looped thread is placed on the outer edge of the ring of stitches.

After sewing it all together it was clear to me that the person who originally owned this kirtle must have had terribly sloping shoulders. Since I tried to be true to the original pattern, I thought it might work out in some way, even if it looked impossible to fit the shoulders of the kirtle to my, extremely straight, shoulders. Unsurprisingly this wasn't the case. I had to remove at least six centimeters at the neck on both shoulder seams, and still it sloped a little too much. This made the neckhole a little narrow, especially on the backside and the front piece thus a little too big compared to the back piece, making the neck hole stand out slightly.

Since I had already done the lacing holes, my options on how to fix this weren't that many. I could either open the shoulder seams again or gather the front part of the neck hole slightly before binding it with the grosgrain ribbon. I chose the latter and it seams to be working.

The four layers of linen didn't make the dress as stiff as I thought they would. They did make it heavy however, this might well be on of the heaviest dress I own, and I do have quite a lot of heavy wool dresses. To make it stiffer I chose a rather sturdy grosgrain ribbon to bind the hem.

The arm scyes were then bound with a bias strip of the yellowish linen and I made ten lacing holes for each sleeve.

On the original gown the borders are made of black and white bobbin net, with silk taffeta applique. I was certain that I couldn't find black and white net and decided to go for all black. The quest for black net turned out not to be an easy one and in the end I had to settle for a softer nylon tulle, that at least was made of lozenges and not hexagons, which are really out of period. When I attached the first border of net it actually looked better than I thought it would.
 Actually, I had first thought that I shouldn't make the borders, that the kirtle would look better with just the brocade, but when finished I think they give the kirtle a nice German look.

After sewing the net to the kirtle I applied silk motifs. On the preserved gown that belonged to the kirtle the applied shapes were glued on paper to prevent fraying but I thought it would be fine to use fusible interfacing instead. I also decided to use silk satin instead of taffeta, which the original kirtle had because I already had silk satin.
 The drawings of the pattern in PoF isn't too clear, and unfortunately there is no detail drawing of the appliqué, but after a while I could make out three different motifs.  In the original the pattern continues all the way to the side seam, but Idecide that doing that would be the ultimate proof of insanity, since I didn't intend to let the linen parts be seen.
It was quite a lot of work to stitch these things in place and the interfacing may prevent some fraying but not all so you have to stitch over all the edges carefully to protect them.

After I had sewn the silk pieces to the I tried to find a black and gold braid to edge them with. The original was a narrow braid with silver tinsel in the middle.
I tried first with a black and gold braid that I bought during the three hour quest for net. Unfortunately it turned out to be both too wide and too loosely woven to sew around the edges of the silk appliques and since I hadn't been able to find any other narrow braid or trim with gold thread I decided to go for good old soutach braid. At least I knew that while it was tricky, it was possible to edge appliques with som many narrow turns with it (I have made a banner with lions on before, they were only 20 cm high and had many very sharp turns).
Since I still wanted the metallic thread from the original I decided to sew running stitches with gold thread in the middle of the soutach braid after I had attached it. That means that I have sewn around all the motifs three times! First whipstitching them carefully in place, then the soutach braid and then sewing the gold thread. At least the last went much faster than the other ones.

Here are pictures of the whole band of trim and a detail: The border looks a it more wobbly than it actually is. Apparently I didn't manage to lay the dress out even before I took the photos.

The silk decoration on the narow band is much simpler than in the broad band, but it still needed to be attached, edged with braid and sewn with gold thread.

The last thing done on the body of the kirtle was when I sewed the two rows of black silk cord that follow the edge of the fancy front fabric on the original.

The sleeves were made from the scraps left over from the brocade and lined with linen. They also have net and silk applique.

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