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Medieval Sewing Techniques:
Stitches, Seams & Sewing


Methods of sewing, joining seams and making eyelets and buttonholes is a topic of great interest to many historical costumers and re-enactors.

Contemporary sewing guides say a little about actual techniques, and snippets of information come to us from other sources- such as a few extant garments scattered the world over, and from written advice.

One snippet to a young housewife when caring for fabric that it should be 'sprayed by mouth as a tailor sprays water on the part of a dress he wishes to hem.'

This tells us that it was fairly common practice for a tailor to dampen a hem with water as it is being sewed.

Construction time
Making clothes was a time-consuming business, More than one person might work on a garment at a time, which can make it difficult to determine how long it took to make something. Housewives might also work on a garment or outfit sporadically.
A little information about the time and costs of making garments comes to us from the Great Warderobe accounts from the English Royal Family in the 14th century, and from this we can estimate the time taken to make certain things.

A pair of hose: about half a day.
A cloak: 3 - 6 days depending on whether it was lined or not.
A supertunic: 3 - weeks depending on whether it was lined or not.
A tunic: 1 - 6 days depending on complexity, lining etc.

Based on my personal sewing experience, these times are all achievable, with exception of the hose, unless the seams are left raw, which would make the feet extremely uncomfortable.

Some special purpose clothing appears to have been commisioned on very short notice and may not have has the finishing quality of garments which were to be worn again and again.

The image at right is a detail from a 15th century illumination showing a woman cutting and patterning.

Stitching methods
There is a common misconception about the quality of medieval clothing.

Many suppose that because sewing machines were not invented, the stitching and quality of clothing was rough or poor. This is nothing more than a gross insult to our women forebears.

It must be remembered that as everything was hand-stitched, sewing was a skill that a young girl would attain great proficiency in at a very young age. By the time a young woman was sewing clothes for herself or her family, a considerable level of skill could reasonably be expected.

Even a poor woman with home spun fabrics would take care to provide her family with the best sewing she could manage to produce garments which would be both warm and durable. Shoddy workmanship would lead to clothing falling apart at the seams whilst the fabric was still serviceable- a waste that the poorer woman could not allow.

Methods of stitching fabric were fairly simple. Shown above:

Method 1. Fell stitch.
Method 2. Running stitch.
Method 3. Combination fell and running stitch for added durability.

Joining fabric together
Different methods were employed for the joining of different fabrics. For a comprehensive look at archaeological sewing, please visit Heather Jones's website ARCHAEOLOGICAL SEWING.

I will not reproduce all the information here when she has done such a huge amount of excellent research already.

Three simple methods of joining fabric together are shown here-

Method 1. The fabric is laid with the outer sides together. A running stitch joins the fabric.
Method 2. A backstitch provides greater strength for a seam.
Method 3. A more time consuming method of seams utilises an initial join which is then opened flat and overstitched with two lines of running stitch. This third method makes a very solid and flat seam.

The images shown here and those shown below are taken from the Museum of London series of books about medieval clothing and remains their property.

If a selvedge could be used, it did away with the need for a hem. Cut edges, of course, required hemming to prevent fraying.

The fell stitch, shown at right, was most common. The fabric is folded under and the folded again and stitched into place is depicted below along with variations: combined with a running stitch and a running stitch used alone.

The Goodman of Paris in the late 14th century advises his wife that fabric should be:

'sprayed by mouth as a tailor sprays water on the part of a dress he wishes to hem.'

This example of a neckband shows that a silk strip has been sewn to the inside of the neck of a high-grade woolen garment.

A band like this one would provide extra re-enforcing where wear and tear is likely to occur. The opening reinforcing is made from a narrow silk strip. It is dated between 1325 to 1350.

It is possible that this garment or others like it had similar bands at the ends of the sleeves to reinforce the edges which were subject to the most wear.


Without the use of zips, dresses were fastened by either buttons or lacing. It was more likely that the underdress was laced, providing and smoother and flatter silhouette and a more snug foundation garment. The outer dress was more likely to be fastened with ornamental buttons which were rounded or ball-shaped rather than flat.

Shown at right, a detail of eyelet holes on silk facing from a deposit dated at the 14th century. Traces of woolen cloth from the original garment are able to be seen at the edges of the facing band also.

Eyelets and lacing holes on kirtles were generally no more than 2cm apart. Placing the holes any further apart and the lacing would not prevent the dress from gaping unattractively. A well-made eyelet was as strong as the metal ones we use today.

Eyelet construction

Take a tape measure or ruler and mark out the eyelets at no more than 2cm intervals. When you have marked the eyelets so they are evenly aligned on both sides, you may remove the tacking stitch. Using a double thread or a thickish linen thread, backstitch a circle around the marked hole to provide re-enforcement. It will also give you a guideline to keep your eyelet where you intended and prevent it becoming lopsided.

Using an awl, pierce the fabric carefully pushing the threads apart.

It is very important that you do not tear or cut the cloth or your eyelet will lose some of its strength or tear under pressure or repeated wear. Make 4 stitches north, south, east and west to hold the hole open and gently use the awl to reopen the hole.

All that remains, it to sew around the circle with close stitches, using the awl from time to time to keep the hole open. You will be surprised at how sturdy the result is.

Buttonhole construction
Similar in construction to the eyelet, the buttonhole is achieved as shown in the picture. The main difference in construction is that the buttonhole always needs be cut before stitching.

The blanket stitch is then used to go around the opening. Buttonholes were usually, but not always, sewn onto a garment which was reinforced with a strip of silk or linen fabric for re-inforcement.

Buttonholes, like eyelet or lacing holes, were very close set and always ran at right angles to the edge of the opening of the garment. Care must be taken to make the buttonhole not too large as it will open a little with sewing.

The images shown here are taken from the Museum of London series of books about medieval clothing and remains their property. The image shows buttonholes at the edge of a woolen garment from a deposit dated to 1325 to 1350.

Sewing Tutorials
I have a few tutorials showing how to make eyelets, buttons and buttonholes as well as how to make the lucet cord which is handy for lacing gowns or for using for drawstrings on pouches.

Look for them on the Pattern and DIY page HERE


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