Friday, September 16, 2016


CLASS DESCRIPTION:  In the following tutorial I will be posting video and pictures, walking you through "my" techniques for building a basic Elizabethan kirtle: bodice and knife pleated skirt using the "divide and conquer" pleating technique.

PATTERN:  I am using a pattern that I draped and drafted for a client (fellow guild member) for whom I am making a kirtle as part of our Household livery. The pattern is based on extant 16th Century patterns that can be seen in Janet Arnold's sketches, with some of my own additions. However, you can use a basic three piece bodice pattern.


- 5 to 6 yards Medium Weight Linen 58" to 60" wide.  (  I am using their "Crimson."
- 4 yards of medium weight fusible pellon interfacing - Stiffer the better!
- 2 yards of 100% Medium Weight Cotton (for bodice lining)
- 2 pkgs of 3/4 inch metal grommets.
- 4 skeins (Approx) of matching embroidery thread (couching for grommets).
- Large Tapestry Needle for couching grommets
- 2 large spools of matching thread.
- Sewing needle for your machine for medium weight fabrics.
- Zipper Foot for your machine.
- 4 yards of 1/2 inch wide Rigeline (for boning channels) - Available at JoAnns Fabrics.
- Duct tape.
- Ten 1/4" flat lightweight metal stays (Lengths will depend on your individual measurements); or 4 yards of synthetic Baleen; or pre-cut plastic boning; or 1/4" industrial strength zip ties (like those used by American Duchess's 18th Century Stays).
Two - Extra Firm metal stays (for front lacing bars) 1/4 inch wide
- 2 large Hooks and Eye closures for Skirt
- Spools of grosgrain ribbon (OPTIONAL) I used approximately 4 spools of 2 inch wide for the two rows at the skirt bottom; 2 spools 1/2" wide for top row at skirt bottom and the lower row on bodice front chevron; and 1 spool of 1/2" wide.

ADDITIONAL:  If you plan to alter a commercial pattern into one that is more historically accurate, you will need the following:

- 1 roll Swedish Tracing Paper 24" wide.  - Also check on Ebay for a better deal!
- Soft rubber eraser, to clean up mistakes if needed.
- Straight ruler
- French Curve

PART ONE: History of the Kirtle:  

The kirtle was worn by both lower and middle-class women as an all-purpose, utilitarian under gown. It was sleeveless and had a low, square neck, and either slipped over the head or laced up the sides, front, or back. Many were cut in a "V" at the back, with deeper armholes for ease of movement.

Kirtles can be made of linen or wool for the lower or middle classes. Silk or taffeta was used for the upper classes. Since I am creating a lower or middle class kirtle I am using a middle weight linen. I prefer linen, as it is cooler and more economical than a quality wool. Most reenactors use a wool that is more suitable for outer wear, such as the Wool for coats. But, a 100% Wool Suiting is the best weight for a kirtle and is actually closer to the actual extant garment below to the left.

 If you use wool, wash it first. Don't ever put it in the dryer! I recommend you coose a substantial weight of linen for your kirtle - A middle weight is my recommendation. Handkerchief-weight linen will be too light weight and will not wear as well.

 Linen should ALWAYS be washed by hand!!- AND NEVER PLACED IN THE DRYER.

The kirtle in the early Tudor period was a one-piece garment; i.e., the skirt was sewn into the bodice which was cut straight across the waist. It was worn predominately with an overdress. During the Elizabethan time period they evolved to two pieces - a bodice and gathered skirt. This was the precursor to the "pair of bodies" or corset.

Kirtles were generally made of one color i.e., both bodice and skirt were the same, such as you see in the picture to the right Some had short sleeves that were sewn into the bodice, others were detachable and laced on.

In England, the most predominant color for kirtles was red.

For the upper classes, kirtles were made of finer fabrics and were stayed with reeds. Metal stays were NOT invented until the 19th Century. For the lower classes, they were not stayed (boned). The bodice portion was fashioned from multiple layers of linen with wool or canvas between the outer and inner linings.

Skirts were either gathered or knife pleated and set into a waistband.

PART TWO:  Ordering Your Fabric

For quality European linen, with a nice weave, I recommend www. Their middle weight and heavy weight linen is of the highest quality and sells for a reasonable price.

They have 72 different colors available for their middle weight:  Starts at $9.50 a yard. 

They have 40 different colors for their heavier weight:

Linen can and does stretch - though not as much as wool. I prefer to line my kirtle bodice with 100% cotton and fusible interfacing to give it more structure and stability.  One recommendation is to use a white, cream or natural colored fabric for the lining, to prevent dye stains on your smock when you get wet or perspire, but keep in mind you "will" be able to see the white edges of the interlining, and your hand-stitches will be more visible.

PART THREE:  Altering Your 

Commercial Pattern.

Many of the commercial patterns you find available are not "historically" accurate; in that they have side-front panels that mold or conform to the breast rather than the proper flat or barrel shaped silhouette. I've added a few pictures below for examples:

The first is this popular, but now out-of-print Simplicity pattern. If you look closely at the picture, or examine the actual pattern, you will see that it as the curved side-front panel. This is an INACCURATE silhouette for 16th Century.

It's a pity, too, because the shape of the bodice point is actually very flattering for late Elizabethan, and the skirt is nicely done, and the sleeve pattern, at least for the "pouf" is actually very useful. I use it often - however, I make my upper sleeves and the lower fitted sleeve two separate pieces, as it is more historically accurate and versatile.

Another popular pattern for a "wench" or lower/working class bodice and skirt is the pattern below.

There are more issues than just the pattern in this second one, the fabrics are out right wrong - - but, that's another tutorial altogether! 

The good news is that you can take any of these patterns and with a few simple steps, alter them so that you have a more authentic silhouette! 

Here's what you will need:
  - Roll of Swedish Tracing paper, 24" wide.

-  French Curve
-  Ruler
- Pencil or Pen
- Straight pins
- Paper cutting scissors
- Plain muslin or cotton fabric for "mock up."

Step One: 

Match up your seam allowances, as I've done in the picture below.  The pattern I used is not one of the two I've offered for examples, but the same concept will apply. 

This particular pattern is a "French" cut bodice with the curved edge to the front. 

Lay the front piece over the side-front piece. 

Match your bottom edges. Pin the two pieces together. 

You can see that laying the front piece over the side-front will, in effect, alleviate the "curve" of the side-front piece. 

Some side-front panels have a more drastic curve, so you can slide it over to the left until that noticeable "curve" disappears. 

If you lose "width" in the neckline, you can always "add" to the pattern once you trace your pattern.

For this particular pattern, the neckline was too high, AND because I am not going to sew the two pieces together and ease it around the curve, there is a gap. (See the picture to the left). 


To fix this, I altered it by taking a "tuck" in the paper pattern - See picture below to the right.

I pinched it until the top edge sat where I wanted. 

I then folded that tuck over. Pin it down to keep it in place.

Doing this, alleviated the "gap."

Easy fix! Right?

Step Two:

Now, lay your pattern on top of your Swedish Tracing Paper. 

Pin it so that it doesn't slide around.  

It is always better to cut your pattern a little bit larger rather than have it too small. So if your pattern is "substantially" smaller (more than one inch) than your natural measurements, trace your pattern a size UP then make alterations to your muslin mock up. You want a "snug" fit, but your goal is not reduction; that is not the purpose of an Elizabethan kirtle or a bodice.

Now, using your ruler and your french curve, trace your pattern onto the Swedish paper. 

Because this particular pattern has a more crescent or curved neckline (like you see in French fashion from the 16th Century), I used my French Curve ruler to trace the curved edge. But for a kirtle this would usually just be straight.

Follow the shape and the edge of the pattern!  

Take your time. I recommend pinning it to make sure your pieces don't shift. 

For the front facing, use a straight ruler. If the pattern paper is thick enough - like this one was - you don't need a ruler. But I wanted my lines to be precise. If your pattern is made of tissue paper, then you will definitely need your French curve and your straight ruler! 

Since I don't know how this pattern will fit, I want to make sure my straps will be long enough; therefore, I am going to add length. 

You will be making a muslin toile or "mock" up before you cut out your pattern in your fashion fabrics. Don't SKIP that step!  This is very important!!

Now your front piece and your side-front piece has been altered so that it is "one" entire pattern piece.

From experience I can see that the armscye (arm hole) is too small!  - and too high.

This is AFTER I added length to the straps. 

The arm hole should be nearly level to the neckline. Here I'm going to use my French Curve to deepen the armhole so that it doesn't cut into the muscle.  BUT this is why you should make a muslin toile! 

You can see where the arrow is pointing where I deepened it. 

 I haven't added seam allowances here because the pattern I traced already allowed for it.

However, at this point you will need to measure the width of your side seam to the front seam. Times it by two. 

Make sure to measure the width of your back piece as well!
Now, compare these measurements to your own measurements taken while wearing your Elizabethan Corset (Pair of Bodies) or a bodice that fits. Measure from the front, from the left side to the right side just below the breast and at the waist. Why?  Because this will allow for any weight you may be carrying "in front." Now measure the back width similarly, as well as your entire circumference measurements at the rib cage and waist. 

Elizabethan bodices/kirtles are not meant to give you "reduction."  They are not built for that! 

The circumference of your bodice should only be no more than two inches smaller than your natural measurements. Natural means without a corset or a bodice. 

You want your pattern to be the same size as your measurements wearing the existing bodice or corset that you have on. 

To allow for the thickness of the corset or bodice, you can take away approximately 1/8 of an inch in total from your pattern. 

If you need to "add" width, do so at the side seams "not" the front or back piece, as that will make your neckline width too wide and it will fall off your shoulders.  

Make these alterations to your paper pattern. 

Decide NOW before you cut out your FIRST paper pattern draft, if you want your bodice to lace in the front or in the back. 

I don't recommend side lacing for a first time project. It's tricky. So I'm not going to cover side lacing in this tutorial. 

I prefer back or front lacing with a "modesty" panel. This allows you the versatility to adjust to any minor fluctuations in weight; depending on what time of the month you try on your bodice.

If you will be back lacing then you will take away the seam allowance in the front and cut your front pieces on the "fold."  

If your pattern calls for the back piece to be cut on the fold, and you've decided to back lace in stead, you will need to "add" a seam allowance to the back edge on your paper pattern of no more than 1/2 inch to 3/8 inch. 

For THIS tutorial I am demonstrating a "front laced" kirtle bodice. 

Step Three:  

Now, cut out your paper pattern out in muslin.

You will need assistance for this next step! So grab your sewing buddy! 

Still wearing your corset or bodice, you will pin the front (if it laces in front) using your seam allowances so that it faces outward; if it back laces, your seam allowances will be pinned in the back.  Now, pin your side seams, and your shoulder seams, allowing for the slant in your shoulders. Your toil should lay smooth and snug, but not "pull" or gap where it is pinned at the seam allowances. 

Check to make sure there isn't a pucker in the straps (see the video below to explain that step). 

Check the armscye. Using the "two" finger allowance method discussed in the video. If it is too snug, trace it about 1/4 inch deeper. REMEMBER:  When you sew it you will be taking away 1/2 to 1/4 inch in your seam allowances, so don't make it too deep!  

Now mark your shoulder seams and your side seams in your muslin with a pen - making sure to mark both sides of the "seam" allowances - on the front piece and on the back piece. 

Step Four:

Now, take your muslin and un-pin it. Lay it out flat. Lay your Swedish Tracing paper on top of your toile (mock up) and retrace the pattern. If you have more than 3/8 seam allowances pinned, make sure to trace where you've "drawn" your exact seams in pen. If you've taken away more than the allowed 3/8 inches, ADD 1/2 inch or 3/8 inch seam allowance on THAT NEW seam line. 

Now, you can save this custom fitted pattern for future use! 

PART FOUR: Bodice Construction.

 Step One:  Cut out Your Fashion Fabric, Canvas Inner Lining & Lining

For precise cutting, you can lay your cotton lining underneath your linen and cut all your pieces out at the same time. This will prevent any variance in the pattern, and all your pieces will fit precisely when you start sewing them together. 

Cut out fusible interfacing for both the lining pieces and your fashion fabrics. 

Iron on the interfacing and TRIM the interfacing around the edges. This is an important step! If you don't trim your edges, your pattern pieces won't fit together correctly. Don't skip this step! 

Step Two:  Marking Casing Lines

My bodices are triple layered: Fashion fabric, canvas interlining, and cotton lining. Using your canvas and cotton lining pieces, trace your casing lines and your seam allowances on the inside of the fusible interfacing. You will use these two pieces to create your channels.

Make sure you leave a "wider" space between the first casing and the second casing. The slashed row is a "no sew" area. This is where your grommets will be placed. Lay one of your grommets in that space and center it. Leave at least 1/8 inch on either side of the grommet and draw your lines accordingly. You need this extra space when you get ready to couch your grommets. 

Notice, as mentioned in the video, that my casing lines DO NOT extend all the way into the bodice points, and my bottom seam allowance is wider than what my actual seams will be!   

 Step Three: Bone Casings

Following your traced lines on the interfacing of your LINING, carefully measure and cut your lengths of Ridgeline. 

**Remember: Don't extend into the point of the bodice front!! 

 Cut your pieces flat on the top, and at a slant at the bottom, so that the bottom pieces follows the shape of the bodice slant. 

Tape your ends with duct tape to cover any sharp points.

Starting with your "lacing bar" line up the flat top with your marked lines at the top, and follow your stitch lines.   

Starting at the top, back stitch to make a tack, then continue to the bottom. Back stitch and make a tack at the bottom. Cut your threads.

Always sew, top to bottom, top to bottom when creating casings as demonstrated in the video.

Keep your needle on your drawn lines. Go slow! 

Notice how each casing is even along the top, and slanted at the bottom? 

Also notice they are spaced evenly. 

Step Four:  Insert Metal Stays

At this point, insert your metal stays OR Cable Ties. 

For the lacing bars in front, I doubled them up; taping two together then sliding them into their casing. The other four rows just have one stay per casing.  

Step Five:  Sew Front Pieces to Front Interfacings.

Switch to your zipper foot attachment. The zipper foot is the one on the right that I am holding.

Pin the right sides of your fashion fabric and your lining pieces together. 

Make sure you carefully match up the edges of your front seam allowances. 

 Using the zipper foot attachment, abut the edge next to the casing and stitch your front seam allowance for each bodice front piece. 

Don't run your stitches too close, or run your stitch into the casing to the left. If you do this, you won't be able to turn your seam allowance properly. 

See Videos Below. 

Step Six:  Clip Your Corners and Curved Edges 

Clip the corner at the bodice Point - Don't get too close to your stitches: 

Clip the Corner at the Bodice Top Front: 

Clip the intersecting seam of the strap and the bodice neckline. This is important so that you have a clean "corner" edge. 

Clip the curved seams:  

Step Six:  Turning your Bodice Rightside Out and Press.

NOTE:  I added my chevron trim in the front at this stage. If your are using trim all the way around, skip this step until the end. 

Step Seven: Shoulder Seams & Side Seams

With right sides together (top linen layer), carefully match up your edges at the bottom and the top, and pin.

Step Eight: Hand Stitching

Roll your seam allowances at the top of the side seams at the under arm and at the bottom edge, as well as the shoulder seams. 

Press with the steam iron. 

Turn the lining under at the shoulder seams and close it with small whip stitches.

Now line up the side seams seams of the front and lining at the bottom edge. Pin them for now. You won't be turning under the seam allowance along the bottom edge yet. 

Starting with the arm holes, and the side seams of the lining, turn your edges under and match them up and tack the lining closed, and the small gap under the arm hole. 

 Now, turn under and press the bottom seam allowance of both the linen and the cotton lining. Make sure it is straight and smooth. 

Starting from right side front (where you stopped your seam near the boning, work toward the side seam. Stop! Don't continue all the way around the bottom yet.

Repeat on the left side. Stopping at the side seam on the left and leaving the middle bottom open for now.

Now, smooth with the iron and make sure there are no wrinkles or excess fabric in the lining. 

If you cut your fashion fabrics and your lining out together your pieces should match up perfectly. 

If there is excess lining, you will have to take out your side seam whip stitches and make fold more lining fabric under until your entire lining lays smooth. 

If the lining matches up perfectly, you can avoid this step and continue on to close up the bottom using small, neat whip stitches.

Step Nine:  Mark Your Grommet Holes

Starting about 1/2 inch from the top edge, on the cotton lining, center your first grommet placement.  Lay a grommet on that chalk mark, to make sure you've allowed enough space so that your grommet isn't too close to your edge.  If it's too close, rub out the chalk and lower it and remark it.

To keep your lines straight, you can use your chalk and a ruler and mark a line down the center of the space you allowed for your grommets. 

Then mark your holes about 1 inch apart, following your chalk line. 

I didn't use that method, because I've done enough to "eyeball" it and make it straight, but I recommend you DO!

Now line the to fronts together, matching up your top and your bottom point. 

You can use a ruler to make sure your holes are lined up even on both sides. 

Line up up your pieces again, and check to make sure your holes are in alignment. If not, wipe off the chalk, and remark them again

Step Ten: Punching Your Grommet Holes & Installing Grommets