Wednesday, 13 August 2008

The Cap of St. Birgitta

In the latest volume of Medieval Textiles and Clothing Camilla Luise Dahl & Isis Sturtewagen present a new analysis and interpretation of the so-called "St. Birgitta's Coif". They argue, very convincingly, that it is not a coif which ties under the chin (something which is typically associated with men), but a cap where the ties are meant to be drawn backwards towards the back of the head instead, resulting in a headdress that would look a lot like these ones from the Maciejowski Bible.

The cap is made up of two pieces of linen fabric sewn together with interlaced herringbone stitch. 8.5-9 cm is left unseamed at the back, creating a split. The bottom edges are pleated and the cap is edged with an embroidered linen strip that continues on to form the ties. Together, the split and the pleated edges create a "pouch" at the nape of the neck when the cap is worn (Dahl & Sturtewagen, 131-133).

At Historiska Världars forum, a Swedish re-enactment forum, reconstructions of the cap have been discussed over the past few weeks, and since I'm currently making myself a late 13th - early 14th century wardrobe I was inspired to make one myself.

My goal was to use the construction of the Cap of St. Birgitta, make it fit my head (which is a lot bigger than what the original wearer's appears to have been...) and at the same time achieve something that looked like what the women are wearing in the Maciejowski Bible. I found that the biggest obstacle to do this was my hair - there simply isn't enough of it to give any kind of cap that characteristic pear-shape! As Åsa Vävare at Historiska Världars forum clearly demonstrates in this picture, the hair makes all the difference (it's the same cap worn first "without" hair, then "with" hair)...

To make my cap, I first took a measurement from the top of my head to the nape of my neck, i.e. the part of my head the cap would cover. I added 8 cm to the measurement (for the split) and used that as a guide when I cut the curve of the two pieces that make up the cap. I made a cotton mock-up to try out the pattern and promptly discovered that the "pouch" was much too large for my short and very thin hair. The cap sagged and looked pretty sad and deflated unless I used the ties to scrunch it up. And the "scrunched-up" version didn't look much like the images in the Maciejowski Bible. For mock-up no. 2, I only added 2 cm for the split, which resulted in tighter cap with a less pronounced pouch that fit me much better, so I used this pattern for my linen cap.

The finished cap

The final version still looks a little deflated, but that can be remedied with a couple of fake hairpieces...

Fake hair!

I made these braids from unspun flax and they can be arranged in a number of ways to boost my flimsy pigtails; as long as I cover them up properly they work really well, and I too can have at least the semblence of proper hair!

The cap worn with fake braids

It can also be worn with the ears showing, as in most of the images in the Maciejowski Bible:

The decision to make the split very short naturally makes my cap less like the original, with its 8.5-9-centimetre split, but it certainly looks better on me. It's nice and tight, which makes it practical to wear as a foundation for a veil too.

To join the two halves of the cap, I used a scaled-down version of the interlaced herringbone stitch described by Dahl & Lester in Medieval Textiles and Clothing 4. I've never done any kind of interlaced stitch before, so I decided to keep it simple and made the seam rather narrow - unlike the original where it's approximately 1.7 cm wide. The next cap I make will definitely have a more complex embroidery; it was so much fun to try something new!

I haven't had the opportunity to wear my cap for a full day yet, so I don't know how it will work when really put to the test, but for now I'm reasonably pleased with it. With a few more experiments I think I can find a cut that works better for me, but I'm certain I will still need some sort of stuffing to achieve the right shape...

My version of St. Birgitta's Cap

Medieval Textiles and Clothing 4 (eds. Netherton, R. & Owen-Crocker, G. R.):
Dahl, C. L. & Sturtewagen, I. 2008. "The Cap of St. Birgitta", 99-129.
Dahl, C. L. & Sturtewagen, I. 2008. "Appendix 6.1. The Construction of St. Birgitta's Cap", 130-134.
Dahl, C. L. & Lester, A. M. 2008. "Appendix 6.2. The Embroidery on St. Birgitta's Cap", 135-142.

Martinsson, Å. Birgittas huva

Saturday, 2 August 2008

A late 14th - early 15th century outfit

Some time ago I got to model some of my medieval outfits for Svarta Galten, a group that arranges LARP-events (Live Action Role-Play). They wanted pictures of late 14th century clothing as inspiration for the participants of their events, which are set in the fictional, medieval-ish world of Kastaria. The result can be viewed on their homepage, but I thought that I'd put up a few images of my clothes here as well.

Pink dress
(other people might prefer to call it a cotte, a cotehardie, a kyrtle/kirtle or some other word, but I try to avoid using historical terms until there's a clearly defined terminology for medieval garments available)

I'm very happy with this dress. It's made of a wonderful, lightweight, slightly fulled 2/1 wool twill, laces up the front and gives me ample support without being constricting. The bodice is lined with linen to prevent the twill from stretching. Since this photo was taken, I've made the sleeves even tighter by adding buttons to them to make it a little more 'fashionable' (and it's always nice to be able to roll up your sleeves when you do the dishes...).

I make all my tailored medieval clothing by fitting them onto myself and adding gores; the pink dress is no exception. I do have an assistant - my rather rigid and unsquishable dress dummy, but for the final adjustments and to get the bust support right I need to wear the dress myself. It's a little tricky fitting a dress with no one to help, but it can be done. It also helps to be stubborn, patient and not afraid of pricking yourself with pins...

With the pink dress I wear my shortsleeved

Green over-dress

This over-dress is also made of 2/1 wool twill, but it's heavier than the pink dress and more fulled. I had very little of this fabric so while I wanted to use the short-sleeved dress from Herjolfsnes as a model, I didn't have enough to make the side-gores go all the way to the armscye and had to settle for a simpler cut. I also had to piece the sleeves together from several pieces (a rather common practice in the middle ages). The sleeves are a bit too long in these images so I shortened them a little after the photo session. I haven't seen too many medieval images showing short-sleeved overdresses like this one (short-sleeved without tippets or flared sleeves, that is), so if anyone out there has some art references to share, please drop me a line!

Both dresses are completely handsewn with waxed linen thread.

Photos: Tobias Högström/Svarta Galten