I love the Middle Ages. I don’t quite know when this love affair began, but I know it must have started fairly early, for I used to ski in the garden with only one staff (like the 19th century paintings of medieval skiers I had seen) before I was 10.
When I was in my very earliest of teens, I was introduced to the classic novel “Ivanhoe”, written by Sir Walter Scott and published in 1819. It was a tale that had everything! Noble knights and fair maidens, but also outlaws, wars, kidnappings, blackmail, witch hunts, backstabbings and duels, brave and good-hearted heroes and heroins fighting racism, sexism and powerhungry rulers. What’s not to love?
Of course, the book is very much the early 19th century idea of medieval society, in fact, I “blame” much of the ideas many people have about the Middle Ages today on Georgian and Victorian writers like Scott. The simple story was not enough for me, I wrote lengthy fan fiction in which the two female characters, Rebecca of York and Rowena of Rotherwood, joined forces, won everything and changed the course of history. We all need some medieval girl power in our lives!
In October, I joined Foundations revealed, a community of people who sew, for people who sew. They host a competition every year, and this year’s theme was “Once upon a time…”. The challenge? Create a garment or outfit for a literary character to wear. Feeling like I’m making enough 18th century stuff at the moment, and not really feeling the Victorian, Edwardian or Renaissance vibe, I landed on wanting to make something medieval.
What better than one of my two childhood heroins?!
Now, I have been Team Rebecca for a while, but she is Jewish, and I don’t feel comfortable “playing” a Jewish character, being a gentile myself. Is there such a thing as blackface, but with the portrayal of Jewish characters? I don’t know, but I don’t want to contribute to such a thing, if there is. The history of the Jewish population of medieval Britain is extremely interesting, as well as terribly sad, and deserves better and more thorough treatment than I can give it in a project like this.
Therefore, I decided to create an outfit for Rowena of Rotherwood. She is the ward of Cedric the Saxon, a proud Saxon lord, and the childhood sweetheart of his son, the titular hero Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe. When Cedric discovered their romance, he kicked is son out, who then went on to follow King Richard (The Lion Heart, you know. Of Robin Hood fame) on crusade. He returns with his reputation in shambles, to an England seemingly on the brink of civil war, rules by the useless Prince John and his merciless Norman knights, who wish to force the remaining Saxon nobles into submission. Ivanhoe and Rowena have to battle through EVERYTHING, from tournaments and bethrodals to others, to kidnappings, murder and fire. There is a lot more going on in the book (Ivanhoe is injured, but healed by Rebecca, the two are incarcerated together, she is tried as a witch by
Christopher Lee the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, King Richard returns and hangs out with Robin Hood and his merry men… and this is not even half!), and I would recommend it, but as far as Rowena and Ivanhoe goes, this is sort of it.
When we first meet Rowena in the novel, she is coming down to her own “bethrodal feast”, as foster-daddy Cedric has decided that she has to marry Athelstan, the last half-way believable Saxon pretender to the English throne. To join Saxon houses and gain power, you know. Her feast is crashed, however, by a priest and a Norman Knight Templar, who are looking for a nice meal, somewhere dry and warm to sleep – and who are eager to see Rowena, who, of course, is known throughout the land as a GREAT BEAUTY™ (she is a fairly tale princess, after all).
Rowena is described, through the eyes of the Norman knight, as very pretty, very pale, with blue eyes and a fine figure:
Her profuse hair, of a colour betwixt brown and flaxen, was arranged in a fanciful and graceful manner in numerous ringlets, to form which art had probably aided nature. These locks were braided with gems, and, being worn at full length, intimated the noble birth and free-born condition of the maiden. A golden chain, to which was attached a small reliquary of the same metal, hung round her neck. She wore bracelets on her arms, which were bare. Her dress was an under-gown and kirtle of pale sea-green silk, over which hung a long loose robe, which reached to the ground, having very wide sleeves, which came down, however, very little below the elbow. This robe was crimson, and manufactured out of the very finest wool. A veil of silk, interwoven with gold, was attached to the upper part of it, which could be, at the wearer’s pleasure, either drawn over the face and bosom after the Spanish fashion, or disposed as a sort of drapery round the shoulders.
Looking at this, it becomes fairly obvious that a) Sir Walter Scott had seen illustrations of 12th century ladies, and b) he did not know too much about fashion history.
The first bit,
Her profuse hair, of a colour betwixt brown and flaxen, was arranged in a fanciful and graceful manner in numerous ringlets, to form which art had probably aided nature. These locks were braided with gems, and, being worn at full length, intimated the noble birth and free-born condition of the maiden.
doesn’t bother me too much. I’m not sure if he actually meant that serfs in 12th century England cut their hair to show their lowly status, but I like curly-haired people in my popular culture, so I’m happy Scott decided to give Rowena lots of (apparently fake) ringlets. I can do ringlets! I was less certain about the “braided with gems” part, that… sounds impractical to me. At first, I planned on sewing some hair extensions onto ribbons, and then sew gemstones onto those ribbons, and wrap them around my braids.
What I ended up doing instead, was attach some sew-on glass crystals to metal wire, to create a sort of hatpin/hairpin hybrid. They looked extremely tacky when I stuck them into my braids (very “Gemstone Braid Barbie!” if such a thing ever existed), but used sparsely, only one tying off each braid, didn’t look half bad. I also wore a circlet, which I bought in 2019, and that has both blue glass beads and white pearls, and will have to be sufficiently gemstoney. The ribbons I’d used turned out to be too wide for the braids.
Scott then states
A golden chain, to which was attached a small reliquary of the same metal, hung round her neck.
This makes sense, he wants to give her jewellery, while making it clear she’s a good, Christian lady (the reason why she arrives late for her own feast is that she has been to mass, probably praying to be delivered from a marriage she doesn’t want). I happen to have one of these, courtesy of an ex-boyfriend and a lot of summer weeks spent as a reenactment fighter at Medieval Markets and Viking Festivals.
A reliquary is a piece of religious jewelry with space for a relic. My cross can be opened, and these cross-shaped ones would often hold a splinter from the holy cross or some earth from Golgata. Mine is a copy of a Russian one, but they are fairly similar throughout Europe, and serving the same purpose.
Then, we come to the Exhibit A in this trial of Scott’s knowledge of 12th century fashion:
She wore bracelets on her arms, which were bare.
I… I have seen imagery of women with bare arms.
Can you see what all of these women have in common?
They are involved in some seriously heavy labour (pun not originally intended)! Would medieval women have bared their arms when they were harvesting, giving birth, milking cows, washing dishes, churning butter and kneading dough? Almost certainly. Would a noblewoman, attending her own engagement party, be bare-armed? Almost certainly not.
I think this is Scott’s attempt to make a distinction between Rowena and other ladies, between the Saxons and the Normans. The Normans are the modern men, the superficial and artificial civilized people, while the Saxons are the noble savages, closer to nature, not as refined, but more true and trustworthy. My theory is that, while most “noble savages” in literature at the time Scott was writing were indigenous people of some new world of other, Scott was writing about white people. You could get away with describing dark-skinned strangers as almost naked, but not his readers’ forfathers. Rowena’s arms are pretty much the only part of her body he could describe as bare.
I did consider wearing bracelets, but decided against it in the end. I wanted my sewing to shine!
The next bit is almost Exhibit B for poor Walter:
Her dress was an under-gown and kirtle of pale sea-green silk,
It depends on how you read it. The undergown worn by pretty much all women in 12th century England, was the shift. This was your underwear, and also part of your personal hygiene. In a time when taking a bath could be difficult (cold in winder, impossible to avoid Peeping Toms in summer), impractical (water needed to be collected by bucket, heated by fire, and then carried out of the house again) and potentially dangerous (opening the pores of the body to let illness in, according to pre-modern medical understanding of contagious diseases), it was simpler and better to use linen underwear to wick moisture away from the body, and serve as a second, washable skin. All the sweat, dead skin cells and gunk from the body would be taken away and washed with the shift.
No one. NOT ONE. Never in the history of ever did anyone make their shift out of silk. It makes no sense. At all.
First of all, silk doesn’t breathe. It doesn’t transport body moisture away from the body, it just traps it in. All the other natural fibers are better at this job than silk.
Secondly, you want something you can launder, launder well, and launder often. Silk is NOT easily laundered. Do you own silk garments? Go look at the care instructions. Chances are, they say “dry clean only” or something along those lines. Now imagine if all your underpants and bras were dry-clean only. Practical? Not really.
Thirdly, silk was CRAZY expensive in the 12th century (as, to be fair, it still is). Using it for an undergarment makes very little sense indeed. So, Sir Walter, if that was your meaning, you’re bonkers, and we’re not doing it.
However, a kirtle, a dress, of silk? That’s much more doable! I decided to make one, unlined to go on top of the linen shift, from a beautiful pale-sea green silk satin.
Most tunic or dress like garments, from ancient Egypt through to at least the 15th century, were made the same way, as a T-shaped garment, often flaring out towards the bottom, made from squares, rectangles and triangles, and allowing for pretty much no fabric waste at all. This was the pattern I decided to use for my silk kirtle.
I struggled with it, I’ll be honest. The silk slid around on the table and had a mind of its own, and when I started stitching into it, the fabric frayed and fell apart. I ended up having to enforce all seams with narrow linen tape, to give the fabric a little more body and strength.
I wanted the sleeves to be very long and very narrow, to create the wrinkled effect you can see on some statues and in some illustrations of the period. This meant I had to sew shut my sleeves, which is a historically plausible technique (I mean, if you can afford silk, you can afford someone to stitch you into your garments!). That created challenges of its own, because sewing the sleeves shut would strain and tear the frail fabric. To solve this problem, I made some tiny thread loops along the sleeve split. In retrospect, I should not have placed them like I did (for “spiral lacing), but the result is fairly good.
As you can see, I decided to trim the kirtle with some tablet-woven braid. I used two different patterns, both attempts to create the cross and wave patterns you can see on the statues at the Chartres Cathedral. I have never tried tablet-weaving without supervision before, so my result was obviously not as nice as if I’d been very experienced, but I am still happy with the result. The trim on the kirtle is woven with silk and linen threads.
Scott describes the kirtle, and then
over which hung a long loose robe, which reached to the ground, having very wide sleeves, which came down, however, very little below the elbow. This robe was crimson, and manufactured out of the very finest wool.
This sounded to me like a bliaud, the long, wide, long-sleeved over-dresses or gowns so popular in the 12th century. If you google “medieval princess dress”, this is what you get:
Of these, I’d say 7 or 8 are very strongly inspired by the 12th century bliaud:
Can you see the similarities?
Well, I’ve been wanting a bliaud for a while, so bliaud it is! I bought the most beautiful red wool cloth from Skaar Tekstil, and got cutting.
There is DEBATE as to what the bliaud was, and how it was made. Some think it was a very narrow bodice, sewn onto a very wide, pleated skirt. Others argue that it is a long, loose dress with a corset-like wide belt on top. Seeing as the waist seam didn’t really become a thing until the 15th century, and corset like belts appeared even later, I favour the theory that the bliaud was a tunic-like garment, shaped and sewn like all others, from mostly rectangles and triangles, but with the widening of the sleeves below the elbow and lacing up one or both sides of the bodice to create the tight fit and the wrinkles so visible on the statues of the period.
This would also explain the many examples of bliauds that are very wide and not at all tight or wrinkled in the body. I constructed my bliaud like my kirtle, only with the loooooong and faintly ridiculous sleeves and a V-neck instead of a keyhole neckline.
The bliaud was sewn with waxed thread (instead of the silk I used for the kirtle). I used backstitches and running backstitches, folded the seam allowances to one side and hemstitched them down. The sleeves, neckline and hem are all turned once and hemstitched, as the wool was very friendly and did not threaten to fray.
I made tablet-woven trim for the bliaud as well, only from wool instead of silk and linen. The wool was much more beginner-friendly, and showed the pattern much better, even though I should probably have picked a darker colour for the crosses.
Still using Scott’s description as my guide, I arrived at Exhibit C. *sigh* Walter, Walter, you naughty Scot.
A veil of silk, interwoven with gold, was attached to the upper part of it, which could be, at the wearer’s pleasure, either drawn over the face and bosom after the Spanish fashion, or disposed as a sort of drapery round the shoulders.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a creature of luxury, and I LOVE the idea of a silk and gold veil (although, having worn the silk veil for a couple of hours, 12th century style, I began to understand why linen was preferred. Silk is slippery on hair…).
Veils and headscarves of all kinds were a staple of life for women of all ages and social strata in the Middle Ages. They are pretty as well as practical, easier to clean than head and hair, and great for keeping muck and smells out of your luscious locks.
Mind you, nobody wears a silk and gold veil for the practicality of it. It’s a fashion statement, that also serves to keep you demure and chaste looking. Silk veils (with or without gold) are unusual – but this is not my issue with Scott’s description. My problem is with this:
attached to the upper part of it (…) either drawn over the face and bosom (…) or disposed as a sort of drapery round the shoulders.
A medieval veil is not attached to the upper part of the dress, and although they can be drawn over the face, they belong on the head, not on the shoulders.
Sir Walter Scott. Did you mean neck handkerchief? Did you mean fichu?
This is a fashion plate. It’s from 1819, the same year Ivanhoe was published. Can you see what’s going on around her neck?
I DO BELIEVE IT IS A SILK VEIL INTERVOWEN WITH… maybe gold, or maybe just stripes, but still! THIS is a veil that is drawn over the bosom or arranged around the shoulders.
I ended up making my veil from a very thin, white silk, which I stitched over with golden metallic thread to give the illusion that the fabric had been woven with gold. I made it oval, and then wore it double.
Sir Walter Scott, being a Regency gentleman, did not describe the legs of Lady Rowena. However, I’m a completionist. I already had a couple of pairs of hosen, as well as some tablet woved garters, but I needed shoes.
I attended a medieval shoemaking class in August 2019, where I made one pair of 13th century turnshoes under hefty supervision. Last autumn, I made myself a pair of viking turnshoes from a shoe kit I bought from Foxes and Ravens. They came all cut, with stitching holes made and a very handy youtube guide. After these two experiences with lots of hand-holding, I felt ready (if apprehensive) to make my own shoes from scratch.
My good friend Karianne came and stayed with us for a small week before Christmas, and brought with her oodles of shoe leather. We got our shoe patterns from this book:
I picket a shoe from Oslo. It’s maybe a little early for Rowena, probably from late 11th or early 12th century, but the only pattern for shoes for later in the 12th century were for boots, and although boots would have been very handy in the Norwegian January snow, I felt boots would be a poor fit with Rowena’s silk kirtle and luxurious bliaud.
My shoes are not perfect copies of this shoe, as this one has a seam down the front. The seam is not there to connect two pieces of leather, and it’s unclear whether it has a decorative purpose, or whether it’s to tighten the leather after it had stretched with wear. I favour the last theory, which is why I haven’t included it with my shoes.
I learned a lot from this shoemaking process, mainly that I REALLY like making shoes! It’s just such fun, and I really feel like I could get quite good at it, if I practice more. Hands down the most difficult bit was the cutting, but that’s partly because we decided to cut our soles from very thick leather (which will make for very comfortable shoes, but gave us both blisters when cutting), and partly because I don’t have the right tools for the job. If I were to really get into shoe making and get good a it, I would have to invest in some proper tools. However, I am really happy with the result!
And with my shoes done, the outfit was done! On a sunny January Sunday, with lots of lockdowns and little else to do, my boyfriend and I drove south, to Borre, where the Midgard Vikingcentre has built a replica viking guildhall.
Is Rowena viking? No. Was there massive similarities between how the Nordic Germanics and the Saxon Germanics built their great halls? Definitely. And it proved an amazing setting for showing off Rowena to the world!
I am so happy with this project! The competition winners will be announced sometime in March, I think, but that isn’t really important to me. Having gone from book to idea to drawing to finished outfit has given me such a rush, such a sense of accomplishment, it’s a prize in and of itself!
I’ve made some videos, documenting the process and showing off the end result. You can view them here:
I will concentrate on my big Mrs. Bamford plans now, at least for some time, but I will definitely be doing more medieval stuff in the future! I already have sinister plans…. Mwoahaha!
Until then – take care, and goodbye!