A late 14th century woman's gown from Uvdal in Norway

Made in 2007

This costume was made as a part of my Master's test in the no longer active medieval group Nordrike's Tailor's Guild. In this test the applicant had to make three complete costumes, from different times in the span 600-1600 and/or from different regions, so that attempting master showed his/her knowledge of more than one era. Both sexes should also be represented and one of the costumes was required to be totally hand sewn, while no visible machine stitching was allowed on the other costumes. In one of the costumes the body-covering garment: cotte, kirtle, whatever you call it, also had to be based on a preserved garment.

This costume met both the requirement that it should be totally hand sewn and that one of the garments should be based on a preserved garment. In fact the whole costume is based on one find of a woman's complete costume, from grave 31 in the Uvdal stave Church in Norway.

The find is only published in the doctoral dissertation of Marianne Vedeler: Klaer og formspråk i norsk middelalder (downloadable from academia.edu), from 2007. I have used not only her presentation of the find, but also her interpretation of it's cut and look. It is not possible to remove the different layers of clothing from the very well preserved body without damaging them, so Vedeler has done a demanding detective work where she, among other methods, has used CT-scanning to study all layers.

 A reconstruction of the costume in the grave is made more difficult by the fact that this type of gown with gathered pleating over the body, of which there are more examples from Uvdal and from Herjolfsnes, is not seen in period artwork.This does, on the other hand, makes it even more interesting to reconstruct, since there are at least three larger archaeological finds, but no pictures of it. In Vedeler's dissertation there is a drawing of her interpretation of the gown. That drawing is of course under copyright, so I have drawn my own:

The gown in the grave was made from undyed grey-brown wool. Because I couldn't get hold of any of that I chose to make the gown from a dyed grey-brown wool. It's a medium thin tabby, while the original, like so many other medieval textile finds, was a twill. I have not found any information about what type of thread was used, so I chose linen thread. This (or some other vegetable fibre) was used in the Bocksten bog man's costume; and when waxed it is very strong, a necessary requirement for all those gathering stitches. The gown has a peculiar cut: It has a "bodice", which is cut in one with the sleeves, and a finely pleated "skirt". It has a v-neck, and along the neck there is a 4-5 cm wide strip of the same fabric, which continues past the tip of the v-neck, then sewed together. According to Marianne Vedeler this shows that it is not only a decorative band around the neck opening and suggests that it may have continued opening way down to the lower hem, as can be seen on my drawing above. The preserved parts of the front pieces of the "skirt" are pleated with 4-5 mm deep standing pleats. The back piece(s) are harder to discern, but CT-scanning indicates that they were pleated in the same way, something that can be seen also on the gown in Uvdal grave 33. I have chosen to use that construction. The gathered pleats do not continue below the waist, on the find the pleated part is 13 cm long. Since I have in all probability a larger bust then the young girl wearing the gown and also have a very long torso I made the pleated part 22 cm long, including seam allowances at the top. It can not be seen if the original gown had gores at the sides, but I've chosen to insert gores to increase the width at the hem.

The bodice:

Lots and lots of gathering threads:

The pleats are locked with backstitch:

When the dress was finished I noticed two things. Firstly that I was allergic to something in the fabric and secondly that it made me look really huge! This gown does not in any way conform to either modern or the most common aesthetic ideals of the late 14th century. Instead of showing off the figure this gown gives the impression of a pleated tent. It is impossible to know if this is due to some mistake on my side or if this was the desired impression, since this type of gown isn't depicted anywhere. Since the find has no opening and closure it must at it's narrowest point be wide enough for the bust, something that determinates the look of the whole gown.
   The woman in the grave was, however, young and possibly she did not (yet) have a large difference between bust and waist measurement; this is definitely a type of gown that looks better on a woman with a small bust. The other preserved gowns with gathered pleats of this type seem to have been worn by children or a small adult.

To make the pleats more even and also more permanent, and hopefully get rid of whatever in the fabric that made my eyes itch, I washed the gown by hand in warm water with some soap. The weight of the wet gown pulled the pleats downwards and made them straighter and neater.

The gown was made ankle length on purpose, since for example the women's gowns from Herjolfsnes (on Greenland) reached either to the ankle or even shorter.
In addition to the gown the buried woman wore a linen shift with traces of madder, hose, mittens and a hood. Apparently she didn't wear an under tunic/cotte, as was common in the Middle Ages, all layers are, however, preserved and there's no trace of such a garment.

The shift was made from very coarse linen: 8-9 threads/cm. There were also traces of madder and tannins in the fabric, which suggests that it was dyed a reddish (or pink, or peach, or pale orange...) colour.I couldn't find that coarse linen, mine has c. 12 threads/cm, but it's till much coarser than anything I would have chosen normally. But, with the help of Felicitas Schwarzbergin who has done some natural dyeing, I did dye it with madder.

 The linen was first washed in the machine, on hot, so that it shrunk. Then it was washed with sodium carbonate. This is done to remove the lignin from the fibre. The lignin is what makes the fibre shiny and also what makes it hard to dye. I used 150 gram of sodium carbonate with approx. 6 litres of water and 1 kg fabric (dry weight). It was kept just below boiling temperature for an hour and one could see how the water turned brownish from the dissolved lignin. Then the fabric was rinsed and put in a strong bath of green tea. Green tea contains more tannins than black tea. In medieval recipies oak apple gall would have been used, but they're somewhat hard to get hold of and more expensive, so I used tea instead; the tannins are the same.

The fabric was left in this bath over night. At the same time 1,5 kg of madder was soaked, and also left over night, to better release the dye. The next day I removed the fabric and wringed the excess "tea" out if it before putting it in a strong mordant bath of 250 grams of alum to c. 5 litres of water. The fabric was left there for five hours. After soaking up as much mordant as it could I rinsed the fabric by washing it on the gentle cycle in the machine (without detergent). Finally Felicitas and I took the mushy madder and put it in a large plastic tub, on top of an old nylon net curtain. The curtain was used to make a big bag to keep the madder contained, loose pieces of madder can get stuck to the fabric and spot it with stronger red. I filled up with c 35 litres of water and then put the fabric in, weighing it down with large drinking glasses. It's Felicitas and my daughter Maja on the photos.

Thee photo below shows how the fabric looked after five minutes in the bath. After one week it was a dark coral orange when you looked at it in the tub. That colour didn't stay when the fabric was taken up and rinsed however; instead it turned out to be a nice, soft pink colour. Since I hadn't been at home constantly, stirring the fabric, but instead been at work, the colour got a little uneven and blotchy. It almost looks like it's tie-dyed. If I had bought linen dyed with modern methods I would have avoided this, but, on the other hand, I wouldn't have learned the things I know now about have linen dyed with tannins and madder looks. Since this was the dyeing method used on the find it was a valuable experiment.

The degree of preservation is much less at the feet than at chest. There are, however, remnants of wool fabric at the feet, which can be either hose or leg-wrappings. In grave 33 there were rests of a pair of red hose, which inspired me to make red hose. I used the pattern from Textiles and clothing 1150-1450. Medieval finds from excavations in London:4, which is based on a 14th century find. The fabric is a thin worsted wool that was a remnant from a cotte I made for Maja.

The hood in grave 31 was made from blue-green wool, and so is mine. From the photos I've seen from the find I can't make out how long the liripipe was, but since longer ones are more common towards the end of the 14th century I made mine pretty long. My hood also has a rather small shoulder piece, since both art and the Herjolfsnes finds show that the shoulder piece was smaller at the end of the century than around the middle.

In addition to the well-known finds from Herjolfsnes and Bocksten there are finds of hoods from 14th century London. These are of the open, buttoned type, but have in common with some of the Herjolfsnes hoods that they have gores inserted at the shoulders and not in the front like in the Bocksten hood.. I chose to make my hood in this way. The opening for the face is made narrow to make the hood stay on the head and not be dragged back by the weight of the liripipe which has happened with all my other hoods.

The mittens were not knit or made with knotless netting (naalbinding), but sewn from madder red wool. I made a very simple pattern, basically drawing from my hand and with the thumb in one with the hand. The modern thumb placement, "under" the hand, is apparently later than the middle ages. The mittens are sewn with linen thread and the seam allowance are narrow and split and sewn down on each side, to reduce bulkiness inside the mitten where it might irritate.

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