12th century projects,  12th century white silk underdress,  Hand-Sewing,  Projects

My 12th century white silk underdress .1 – revisited :)

2015-11 - Racaire - 12th century white silk underdress - 12th century underdress - hand-sewing - silk - SCAToday I am going to revisit an “old” project of mine – my beloved 12th century white silk underdress. And yes, before you ask, it is the underdress with the Trapunto neckline, the hand made, decorated silk buttons,… 😀

How come? Well, while I was working at the 14th century hood project for my friends Pelican elevation, I was asked if I could revisit my 12th century white silk underdress.

And as I always love to talk about embroidery in general and in particular about my projects, I immediately and happily agreed to revisit this project. But first there was another task I had to take care of – I had to finish posting about the 14th century hood project… 🙂

…and now, that the last posting about the 14th century hood project was posted, I can finally move on to the next task on my list and fulfill the request of a very lovely lady who would like to know more about my 12th century white silk underdress… 🙂

The task per se is actually rather easy as I have a comprehensive collection of progress pictures of my work from at least the last 10 years. I used the last days to go through a rather small part of it – my 12th century white silk underdress project photos – in order to prepare them for a new blog post.

And now let’s take a look at the progress details I captured while i was working at this project! Enjoy! 😀 


Can you imagine how excited I was when I discovered this beautiful silk fabric at a small fabric shop at my very first Gulf Wars (SCA event) in Mississippi?! Well, I literally scraped together every last dollar & cent I brought with me to the event and bought as much of this wonderful silk fabric as I could afford.

It was definitely love on first sight and there was absolutely no question for me what I would do with this fabric. I saw it, I touched it and I immediately knew that it would make the most awesome underdress ever! What shall I say – even now, some years later, it is still my most favorite underdress and also my most valuable one. I still think it was definitely worth every cent! 🙂


About a month after the event, when I got back to Vienna again, I first carefully pre-washed the fabric in the washing machine with some mild silk detergent and then gave it some time to dry on a laundry rack. As beautiful as the surface of the silk was, I knew that the wrinkles would make a proper cutting of the various dress parts very difficult or even impossible.

And like always a quite easy solution could be found – I just had to iron the silk before I could cut it. As easy and perfect as this solution for my problem seemed, my heart was aching when I started ironing the silk fabric. I was just hoping and praying that the fabric would return to its normal structure as soon as I would wash it again. Yeah, desperate times require desperate measures and sometimes we take a chance even when we know that it might go terribly wrong…

As soon as the whole fabric was ironed, I started measuring and cutting the pieces for the dress. Btw. one of the reasons why it took me so long to put this posting together is that I already started a drawing of how I measure the basic parts for my 12th century underdresses and how I cut my fabric efficiently to get the most out of the fabric I have as I really hate to waste any fabric. I will finish the drawing and post it as soon as I start my next 12th century underdress project which should be rather soon.

This drawing, at which I am still working on, is more than just a chart of the basic pattern of my underdress – it actually shows the basic pattern which I use for most of my 12th century dresses. I just adapt this very basic and simple pattern from project to project to adjust it to the special alterations I have in mind for my dress project like certain sleeve types, overlength for the skirt part and/or a more or less fitted main body part….

But let’s get back to the 12th century white silk underdress. To make the assembly of the body part and the sleeves as well as the work concerning the neckline easier, I marked the top (shoulder) line of the fabric for the main body part. For this purpose I used a blue thread and created a line by using the very simple running stitch. This line not only marks the shoulder line – for a dress which has equal measure at the front as on the back, it actually also marks the middle of the long fabric part for the body – visibly marking the exact middle of both fabric parts.


This “helping line”, as I call it, makes it so much easier to set in the sleeves. It enables me to pin the center top point of my sleeves to my shoulder line and it makes sure that both sleeves are set in perfectly straight in relation to my body part. I normally also take good use of it as soon as I start working at the neckline for my dress.

Apropos sleeves – I made a sleeve pattern based on my arm measurements and cut out two sleeves:


But I have to admit that this was the last time that I actually prepared a paper pattern for dress sleeves as I soon found a much easier and better way to construct my sleeves.

It’s actually quite easy – now I normally just take the measurement of my biceps (while the muscles are under tension and my biceps reaches its biggest circumference) and add 2x seam allowance. For the lenght I simply take the desired sleeve length measured from shoulder and add again 2x seam allowance and a little bit extra to just make sure that I really have enough fabric…

Then I cut out a small square piece of fabric (about 4×4 inch or 10×10 cm) for the armpit gusset. After I sewed in the armpit gusset at the beginning of the sleeve, I just continue my hand-sewing for another 3 inches / 6 cm and stop my work at the sleeves until they are fully attached to the main body part. As soon as the sleeves are attached and the basic neckline is cut out, I put on the dress again and start fitting the sleeves quite tightly to my arm. As it is much easier to show this process in pictures rather than describing it with words, I’ll try to show you some pictures of how I construct and fit my sleeves soon…

However, this kind of fitted sleeve construction will be part of another posting in the future – for this actual project I just used the paper pattern I made and finished hand-sewing the sleeve in one pass.

Apropos the square armpit/underarm gussets – here is a progress picture of this part while I was working at it:


As you can see on the picture above, I am using the “Flat Felled Seam Finish”. Well, I am not very good at naming sewing details like this but it seems that this might be the proper term for it – at least several people on the internet are referring to this kind of seam finish with this term.

Btw. you can find a rather good drawing of this kind of seam finish on the last page of Lady Sidney Eileen of Starkhafns handout “Medieval Hand Stitching and Finishing Techniques” – just look out for the “Flat Felled Seam Finish” heading.

Regardless of all the “extra” work it requires, I really like this type of seam finish as it has some really great advantages. Any tension applied to this seam is actually divided between two lines of stitches. The tension is divided between the first line of stitches which connects both fabric parts together and then the second line of stitches which connects the border of the folded fabric to the fabric underneath. This makes this kind of seam quite long-lasting and dependable. It furthermore also creates a very beautiful flat seam and last but not least it also prohibits the fabric from any fraying. So to speak it’s a win-win-win situation/seam. 😉

And now to the next progress picture in which you can see how I set in the sleeve for the next step – to connect the sleeve with the body part:


Can you see what appears like a small triangle on the left side on the picture above? This is actually the final shape of the square underarm/armpit gusset underneath my sleeve. This small gusset adds enough extra fabric to my armpit that I can move my arm freely in any direction without restrictions of movement.

And finally also a close up picture of my “Flat Felled Seam Finish” for you – taken while I was sewing the sleeves to the main body part:


2015-11_Racaire_12th-century-underdress_1_white-silk_2_sleeves-5And at the picture on the left you can see the actual progress till now: The sleeves are already set in and show the intended overlength and ruffle.

When you take a closer look at my shoulder and arm, you can actually see how the rectangular body pattern affects the set in sleeve. The top sleeve part actually starts several cm/inches underneath the top point of my shoulder.

This might look odd to modern eyes but this very fabric saving cut actually provides us with the wrinkles along the armpit which you can see on so many 12th century drawings. As far as I know and the major publications tell us about the matter, the practice of adjusting sleeves and armholes to a round and more body fitted form didn’t actually start before the 13th/14th century…

Furthermore you can see on the picture above that I only made a very basic cut for the neckline – just enough to get my head through the cut to try on the dress. As I normally work alone, I got used to fit my necklines directly on my body while I am wearing the dress. All I need to adjust the top line of my neckline is a good pair of scissors, a big mirror and some patience as I am cutting away one strip of fabric after another until I get the perfect looking round neckline at the front.

The neckline at the back is a little bit more difficult if you are working alone – I normally tend to cut out a very “flat” curve on the back – very round at the sides which go over the shoulder and connect to the front and very flat – nearly straight – at the middle of the back side. Like always I tend to make smaller cuts and try on the dress more often until I am completely happy with the result. This is normally reached when the backside of the neckline is big enough that I can’t see or feel any major tension stretching the fabric at this point. [emember_protected not_for=3-4 do_not_show_restricted_msg=1]

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Well, I hope you enjoyed my posting about my “old” 12th century white silk underdress project so far. But this are enough details for now as this posting is already getting quite long. I will show you more progress pictures of the actual work at my Trapunto neckline and the decorated silk buttons in my next posting. 😀

Best regards Racaire