This is a general introduction on how to make your historical garments. I decided to make this post instead of writing the same thing in each “how to” post, making it easier for you to get to the information you want.
So, before you start cutting away into your fabric, I recommend that you have a plan for your garment. Is it just to be a costume or is it a serious recreation of historical findings? Who do you want to convey – what type of person, from which rank or segments of society? Maybe you want to show a specific finding from a specific grave? Or maybe you just want some historical clothes? Your plans can be small or big, it doesn’t really matter – just give it a thought.
Have you read my post about what to think about when making historical garments? Take a look at it if you want a deeper understanding of reconstruction of historical clothes. You can find it here! In this post you can read more about the historical findings we have and what to think about when making historical clothes. I hope it can be helpful for you to build up the credibility of your historical clothes.
The reason I think it is smart to have a plan for your garments is because it will be much easier to make choices along the way. What type of fabric should you use? What color should you choose? How much fabric do you need? When you’ve decided on what you want to make and why you want to make it, you can start thinking about what fabric to use and so on. For an under dress you can choose for example linen or lighter wool. In Viking age graves we have found both linen and wool so they would both be historically correct. But again, think about what segment of society you are conveying. I believe linen was used mostly by richer people as it took longer time (and therefore more expensive) to achieve the same amount of materials compared to for example wool.
If you are going to make garments for everyday use, you should, in addition to deciding which layer of society you are conveying, take into consideration where you live. If you live in a cold place, I highly recommend wool as wool is better when it comes to dealing with cold and wet weather. Also, you should think about what time of year this garment will be used. Are you making winter clothes or summer clothes? For winter I would recommend heavier wool and for summer lighter wool or linen (again depending on where you live).
I would like to point out that we don’t have many complete garments left from the Viking age. Mostly there’s small textile fragments preserved. When we make historical clothes, we base them on these fragments. We can also use art from the period itself, like the small pendant Valkyries in the picture above. The sagas also gives us some few descriptions on how the garments could have looked and what they were made of. Although this sounds like a lot of sources, we still know very little about how the vikings looked in their everyday clothes, or how the lower societies actually dressed. Most of the fragments of textiles that we have is from rich graves. The fragments of textiles that we find is often related to metal objects that has been lying firmly against the fabric and therefore preserved it. The more metal objects, the more textile is preserved. One should therefore keep in mind that graves and depictions generally may show how the richest people dressed. But it is still something to work from, as long as you keep this in mind.
It probably goes without saying that we must guess a little when it comes to making garments based on these fragment, stories in the sagas and the depictions. There are a few good articles covering textile fragment from the viking age. I highly recommend Hilde Thunem’s articles “Serk”. They describe the most important findings when it comes to under dresses (serk).
So, I assume by now you have given your garment some thoughts. Then it is time to think about what textile you want to make your garment from. If you want your garments to be close to historical correct, you should use a textile that they actually used in the viking age. You can read more about what material and weaving technique they used (and what graves they were found in) in the article “Viking textiles” written by A wandering Elf. You can also find a lot of good information in the article Cloth Weaving Patterns. These articles mentions some of the most known graves and can absolutely be worth a read to get a feeling on the correct textiles to use.
Now that you’ve been giving your garment some thought, it’s time to look at the tools you will be needing. To make a garment you really don’t need that much equipment. The most necessary tools are:
– Your fabric
– Some good fabric scissors
– A measuring tape
– A good sewing needle
– Some needles to pin the pieces of fabric together
– Some thread in the same color and material as your fabric
– Wax for your thread (especially if you’re using linen thread)
– A pencil or something to draw on the fabric with
How much fabric will I be needing?
This is probably one of the most asked questions when it comes to making garments. If you measure the total desired length of your garment (from the top of your shoulder, over your chest and down to where you want the garment to end), the length of the sleeves (measure with a bent arm, on the outside of your elbow, from the top of your shoulder to your wrist) and then the length from right above your hip and down to the same place as your total desired length. Add these numbers together and you’ll have the amount of fabric you will be needing for your garment. Please notice that this applies when your fabric is 150 cm in width.
Notice that you will be needing seam allowance. This allows you to fold down the fabric after sewing two pieces together so it doesn’t unravel. If you’re new to sewing, I recommend to add a seam allowance of 2 cm per seam just to be sure that you have enough fabric. Remember to take all seams into consideration, so if there will be one seam in each end of the textile, you will double your seam allowance. For example, if you’re making a tunic or a dress, you will have a front and back piece. On each of these two pieces you have one seam on each side of the width of your fabric, so you’ll have to add 4 cm to your measurements. It’s better to make your garments too big and then make them smaller, rather than making them too small. It is very hard to make them bigger after you have cut the fabric!
Better safe than sorry
Before you start cutting your fabric, I recommend washing it. This step is of course optional. I normally wash my fabrics before cutting it, and I do this in case I need to wash the garment later someday in the future. Wool and linen usually shrinks slightly when it is washed, depending on what type of wool or linen you use. You want your fabric to shrink before you make a garment out of it, not after. I normally never wash my woolen garments in the washing machine, but I always need to wash my linen garments after events or after a season. Either way, I wash the fabric in beforehand, just in case. You never know when you need to wash you wool garments. If your fabric is a very, very loose weave, I would recommend not to wash it at all because it can very easily unravel. If you really want to wash it anyway, it would be smart to make an overcasting seam on the raw edge before washing it. This is done by folding the material and then sewing it down with big stitches. Use big stitches because they are fast to make and then easier to undo after.
If you decide to wash your fabric, be sure to handle it with care. Use the most gentle program on your washer, preferably a wool program or a fine wash program, and a detergent intended for wool if your washing wool fabric. For linen I use 40*C as this will be a good temperature to wash it later when it is dirty. Do not stretch the fabric unnecessarily while it is wet. If you use wool it’s going to drip a lot from it in the beginning as wool can save a lot of moisture in itself. Therefore, dry it outside if possible or in a place inside that can handle water (in the shower for example). The very best way to dry your fabric is to lay it flat so it doesn’t stretch. If you have a very large piece of fabric, you can fold it once or twice to make it smaller. Notice that this will make it dry slower.
Sewing the pieces together
You will of course have to cut your fabric before you can sew your pieces together. You can find instructions for the cutting part in my “how to” posts. I just want to write a bit about how to sew your pieces together and what stitches you can use. First of all, I recommend using wool thread for wool fabric and linen thread for linen fabric. Try to find a color that matches your fabric well. I also recommend waxing your thread, especially for linen thread, because this will make your thread stronger and more long-lasting. This can also be done with wool thread for a stronger thread.
Don’t use a too long thread. As the thread will be going back and forth through your fabric a lot of time, it will become thin and ragged after a while. You will get the hang of it after a little while.
When it comes to stitches you can choose to do what ever fells best for you or you can use historical correct stitches. If you’re making a replica of a specific garment, I suggest using the same stitches as on the original if you are able and if the stitches are still there. Sometimes you can be lucky and have enough stitches left on the original garment to see the distance between each stitch. If you just want to get the pieces together and you don’t care too much about the stitches, I recommend using small enough stitches to hold the pieces together, but not so small that they will kill your motivation. I make 1 mm stitches with 1 mm in between them. This is truly optional and very individual – not everyone likes stitching as much as I do.
There are many different stitches to use. You can find a list of different stitches here with some explanation. My best recommendations are the running stitch, the back-stitch or a stoating stitch for when your sewing two pieces together, and the pick stitch or a version of the running stitch for when your folding the raw edges down.
In the pictures below you can see some of the stitches and seams used on some historical garments.
I found these pictures on Pinterest and it was very hard to trace the origin of them. Please let me know if you know where they are from.
Now you are hopefully more ready to start your sewing project that before reading this. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me here, on Facebook or on Instagram. The very best of luck with your sewing!
Love, Tonje Årolilja
3 thoughts on “Preparations before making your garments”
Good afternoon, Tonje. I find this post about how to prepare garments prior to sewing very helpful and inspiring. Of all the paragraphs written, I find the washing and drying parts most helpful because when my garments hit my door, I certainly am going to consider washing my diamond twill wool I ordered from Nornilla Fabrics, and linen from Runfridr Elna’s Historical Textile shop. Moreover, the images of whip stitches, catch stitches, hem stitches, and all other Nordic Iron Age sewing techniques that the Norsemen utilised, were helpful to me as I did a small demo on a piece of linen, sewing with a copper needle with waxed linen thread. It came out as well stitched; and I know to knot the end of a fabric, even if I should not have the thread too long, as it can wear out gradually.
Thank you for your kindness and helpfulness about those wondrous tips.
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Hello Gregory! I am happy to hear that you find it inspiring. I can’t wait to see your diamond twill fabric (I already saw your linen, as you know). Looking forward to see the finished garments! 😀
– Tonje Årolilja
The upper part of your seams and stitches diagram is from Chrystel Brandenburg’s paper “Early medieval textile remains from settlements in the Netherlands. An evaluation of textile production” in the Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-1 (May 2010). It is available for free here:
and well worth reading.