Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Medieval Togs - St. Elisabeth's dress

I got linked to - pearl over at Livejournal put in a link on my homepage in connection with the so-called penance dress of St. Elizabeth from Thuringia. She also gave one of my articles (a very early one, I'm afraid that can be told from reading it) as a reference.
I am certainly very happy about getting referred to and cited - but alas, the article she mentions in her LJ post is written in German, and I'm feeling a bit sheepish because of that.

When writing my thesis, I realised that while writing archaeological papers in the language of the home country is easy on the author, it can be very hard on the reader - especially if he or she has not learned the language in school. I since decided to write more in English, and I'm feeling even more sheepish when I have to admit that I don't always manage. I do try, though, and I promise to continue trying in the future. (Before somebody asks and I have to introduce a third degree of sheepishness, due to technical reasons, my thesis is also in German. But once it is up and running as book version, I will try to get it translated and published in English. Promise.)

Well, back to what I wanted to post about: St. Elisabeth's "penance dress". This 13th century dress was preserved as a relic and can be found in a small church, St. Martin in Oberwalluf. It is a brown dress today and was brown in Elisabeth's time. I have not found out why it was called a "penance dress", and I think this name is mostly based on the brown colour and perhaps some misunderstanding of medieval garment cut. The fabric is an evenly woven, good quality twill that was napped on the inside. The piece survived as a relic, which explains why so much of the dress is missing today in spite of the wonderful preservation of the fabric: It was cut away and gifted. Typically, such gifts might go to pilgrims, important church members and into new altars, which need a relic for consecration. (That is why catholic altars always are consecrated to one saint, and usually the church is named for the main altar's saint.) One sleeve is missing completely together with a large bit of the breast area, and only half of the other sleeve is still there. The hemline is lost too. The gown today is lined with linen, and most of the cut edges are secured with brown linen bands.

One of my favourite aspects of this gown is the sewing technique. I first found this special seam type on Elisabeth's gown, and I nicknamed it "Elizabeth seam". The two cut edges of the garment pieces that are joined together are overlapping for about 5 mm. Then both edges are sewn down on to the other fabric piece, using overcast stitches. This gives a flat seam, uses very little extra material (much less than a regular seam) and looks nice as well. On the original gown, the overcast stitches on the left (inner) side of the garment are not stitched through, so only one line of stitching can be seen from the outside. The seams are worked with fine linen thread and in very fine stitches, and very evenly, too. You can see how fine and even the seams are in this picture, and you can get an impression of the fabric quality as well:

When I was in Oberwalluf to have a look at the original, I had brought one of my "copies" to show, as a thank-you for letting me in. The gentleman who opened church and shrine doors for me (you can see the little blue key on the edge of one of the doors) also took a photo of me in my gown, in front of the original:

The original dress and a reproduction worn by me
St. Elisabeth's dress is the one garment that I have reproduced most often during the last few years - not only because 2008 was "her" year. It is also the garment that taught me about the importance of details in medieval tailoring, about form-fitting clothes that don't look the part when hung on a clothes-hanger, and about choosing your fabric and sewing thread to match (but not necessarily in colour). In short, it has taught me how to think of medieval tailoring - and that is only one of the reasons I will always love this dress.


Teffania said...

Hallo, I'm here from pearl's journal, and hope you love to chat about finicky details on garments as much as I do.

So is this seam similar to the way some of the hose in the museum of London "textiles & clothing" book are constructed? (except the hose has running and overcast/whip stitch).

This method is near impossible to do by machine, but I've actually made a pair of hose with both sides in overcast stitch by mistake. I noticed that my fabric frayed less if my stitches were perpendicular to the seam on the cut side and diagonal on the other side. The opposite appears to be true of the stitching in your photo. (but then again, my fabric had more fabric than I'd prefer, and was on the very curved portions of the hose foot.

Anyway, while sewing this I found the easiest way to sew was to sew one side, then turn over and sew the other side. (Always sewing on the side with the cut edge visible). I notice in the photo that the stitches are prominent on the cut edge, but much less so for the other line of stitching. Do you think this is evidence for this garment being sewn this way? Did you get to see the other side of the garment? Did the seams look the same from the other side?

This seam type doesn't seem as strong as some types to me - the edge is exposed to fraying, (unless it fulls a lot which I can't see in the photo) and the stitches can pull out by fraying the fabric. Are the high stress areas (eg armholes) constructed in the same way? How do these seams stand up to wear and tear in your recreations?

Finally, if the garment has some badly reconstructed bits, how many seams are original?

I hope you don't take offense at this, I love people asking me hard questions about my garment theories, because they make me think, and reconsider. And thanks for making some of this material more available to us!

Anonymous said...

Thank-you Katrin, for posting about this.
No need to feel sheepish for writing in German, it means I get to try to remember my "Schul-Deutsch". Keine Bange! :)

~ Rebecca (aka Pearl)

a stitch in time said...

Rebecca, you are very welcome. And I know there are people out there like you, who know German, but there are also those who don't. And I've just been at the non-understanding-language end too many times not to feel self-conscious about that.

Teffania, yes please details details details! I'll answer your questions in today's post, so it doesn't get lost in the comments section.