Your First Garb -- Getting Started

As someone new to the medieval hobby, one of the first things you need is something to wear.  There are few requirements in this area, but there are a few criteria your first outfit should fulfill:
  1. It should be easy to make (no one starts out as an expert).
  2. It should fit (we don't want you to trip over your hem and break your neck).
  3. It should be historically accurate (we are historical re-enactors after all).
Too often new re-enactors are rushed to make something just to "get them on the field".  There is no reason for this haste.  Fabric costs money and sewing takes time.  Making bad garb is just a waste of precious resources.  Your first piece of clothing doesn't have to be something you'll be ashamed of in years to come.  You can make easy, historically accurate medieval clothes in minutes, and you can do it right the first time. For your first set of historic clothes, don't worry too much about country of origin or century.  If you re-enact medieval Europe, many things are similar if not the same.  As you learn more about your chosen area of study, you can expand.  But almost everyone during most of the Middle Ages wore some version of tunics and pants (women's tunics were floor-length).

Step One - what kind of fabric

To begin, you'll need some linen or wool.  Make sure it is not a wool/poly blend or a linen/rayon blend.  This will cook you in the hot months and freeze you in the Fall.  Besides, it just plain looks wrong.  Cotton/linen blends are fine.  They were used in period and called "fustian". 100% cotton is unacceptable for two reasons:
  1. Cotton was not grown in Northern Europe until the 15th century and even then it was such a luxury fiber that even Queen Elizabeth herself only had ONE cotton undertunic (a gift from the Spanish court), and it was so priceless that she never even wore it!
  2. Cotton does not take wear and tear well at all.  If you want your pants to last more than one event, don't make them out of cotton.
Modern cotton is too refined to look like period cotton anyhow.  So please shy away from this fabric. So to begin, get yourself some 3.5 oz (handkerchief weight) white linen for your undertunic and wool for your over tunic. Right now you might be thinking, "How can I afford real wool or linen?" or "I'm allergic to wool.  What shall I do?"  First things first.  Wool and linen can often be found at end-of-the-season sales at fabric stores.  If you find a fabric store that claims to be an outlet, all the better.  They buy bolt-ends (pieces 25 yards or less) from clothing manufacturers.  These are designer fabrics that are often priced $6-12 a yard.  But at the end of the season, the go on sale for half price.  I shop these sales every year, and end up selling a lot of my "haul" to Markland newbies at cost because I can't possibly use it all.  The answer is "shop."  Wool and linen at little fabric stores are usually not real wool and linen anyhow.  And the more run-down the store looks, the better your chances of finding "real" fabrics. If you really don't have access to a good fabric store, there is always the Internet.  There is a site called  This website sells different weights and colours of linen for $5.50 to $6.50 a yard (60" wide).  Also, they have a feature called "The Fabric Doggie Bag" where you can get pieces even cheaper than that.  Before you give up being able to afford real linen, surf to (they even have some wool too). So you're allergic to wool.  Are you sure?  Many people think they are allergic to wool, but just dislike the itchiness associated with the fiber.  Good wool isn't itchy at all.  Some wool isn't even fuzzy!  Goat hair and other wiry fibers make inferior wool scratchy.  Other people who think they are allergic to wool are really allergic to the chemicals used to process wool.  Sometimes you can find wool that is processed differently and you will be able to wear it in comfort.  Other times, a good run through the washer with baby shampoo will scrub away those chemicals.  If not, you don't have to wear wool. Linen is period-accurate too! If you can only do one layer at this time, go for linen since you probably don't want to wear the wool alone.

Fabrics to Avoid

Cotton Polyester Rayon Microfiber (a fancy 1990's term for polyester) Vicose (a type of rayon) Tencel (more rayon) Fleece (it may "look" like wool, but it's made from scrap cotton) Upholstery or drapery fabric Anything knit (like T-shirt material) Anything called "jersey" (even if it's wool) These fabrics may look medieval to you now, but they aren't.  And in most cases, they will be uncomfortable to wear and will wear out quickly.  In a few months, you will regret spending time and money on these "losers."  Do yourself a favour now:  choose wisely.  Your reward will be garb you can wear for years.

How to Tell the Real from the Fakes

If you've been talking to medievalists a lot, you may have already heard of the "burn test".   If you burn a smidgeon (yes, that is a technical term) of fabric, you can tell what fibre it is by smelling or observing what it does.
fibre smell ignites residue
linen paper/ burning leaves Takes a while to ignite. The fabric closest to the ash is very brittle. Easily extinguished by blowing on it. powdery ash
cotton paper/ burning leaves Steady flame. Easily extinguished by blowing on it. powdery ash
rayon, tencel, viscose paper/ burning leaves Burns readily with a flickering flame that cannot be easily extinguished. powdery ash
silk burning hair Burns readily, not necessarily with a steady flame. Not easily extinguished. ash easily crumbled
wool burning hair Harder to ignite than silk. Flame is steady but more difficult to keep burning.
polyester, acrylic, nylon burning plastic/ acrid Catches fire fast but sometimes puts itself out. It bubbles, sizzles, and melts. ash is hard
Now I know what you're saying:  How do you tell if something is a blend?   Well, if it is a blend, it will show the properties of both fibres which make it up.   That means, if it melts, don't buy it! The problem with the burn test is that cotton, linen, and rayon all react the similarly.   So how do you tell the difference?   Never fear.   There is a way!   Look at the fabric.   Feel it.   Try to crumple it up and see if it wrinkles easily.  If you can, take a swatch out into the sunlight.  Pull off a loose thread and "unspin" it with your fingers.
look of fabric feel of fabric look of thread look of unspun thread
linen random slubs stiff, wrinkles easily crisp crisp
cotton smooth, even weave soft cottony, like the edge of torn jeans fuzzy
rayon smooth, even or slubs at regular intervals smooth, "cold" fuzzy shiny the more you play with it

Step Two - how much fabric

Skip ahead to the next section and do the measurements.  Buy fabric that is at least 2 x "C" wide and "A" + "B" + "E" long. For a knee-length tunic, 2 ½ yards of 60" wide fabric should be plenty for most men.  For floor-length, 3 ½ yards of 60" wide material should suffice.  But trust your measurements, not mine! Before you do anything with your fabric, you should wash it.   All fabrics shrink to a certain extent, and it is best if they shrink BEFORE you cut out your garment.   This will also remove dust from the fabric store and commercial finishings from the factory that make many people break out or itch.   You can hand wash the fabric if you want, but I throw mine right in the washing machine on a normal (not delicate) setting.   Turn the water on hot (remember, you want it to shrink...) and toss your fabric in.   For wool, baby shampoo makes a great detergent.   For linen, use anything, but avoid Woolite for all fabrics.   Send the fabric through the dryer too, just for the extra shrinkage potential. When you take the fabric out of the dryer, is your wool fuzzy and soft?   Is your linen a lot softer than it was?   If not, send them through again.   The other great thing about this is that you won't have to worry about shrinkage when you wash you new garments!

Step Three - and now what?

Ah, this is the fun part.  Until the 14th century, medieval clothing wasn't very fitted.  Consequently, clothing from this period is even easier to make because of that.  One size doesn't fit all, but a handful of sizes do. For those of you already developing a research bent (give yourself a pat on the back!), the following pattern is roughly based on the Kragelund Mose tunic, Bocksten Man's tunic, the Skjoldehamn tunic, the tunic of St. Louis, and the Pazyryk grave finds, among others.  It is documentable to the 14th century but may be arguably as early as the 12th. First you'll need to take some measurements.  Having a friend help you with this is a really good idea.  The first measurement you'll need is from the bump at the base of your skull to where you want the tunic to end down your back (if you are a woman, measure to the floor).  Run the measuring tape close to your body so you take into consideration all the curves.  Add three inches to this number and call it "A".  Now measure around the largest part of your chest.  Add four inches to this measurement.  Divide by two and call it "C".  This is the length and width (respectively) of your front and back pieces.  Remember this.  Find your waist.  This is the narrowest part of your torso, regardless of where you wear your jeans.  Measure from your waist to where you want the tunic to end (or floor) and add three inches.  This will be the length of your gores.  Call it "E". Measure from the point of your shoulder around your bent elbow to your wrist.  Call that measurement "B".  Measure around the largest part of your arm and add a few inches.   This will be your sleeve width.   Feel free to make it as wide or as narrow as you like.   Perhaps you have a shirt whose sleeves fit the same as you want your tunic to fit (do not use a T-shirt -- they stretch too much).   Measure the sleeve of the shirt and remember to multiply by two if the sleeve is folded in half (as it would be unless you took the shirt apart).   Be careful not to stretch the fabric as you measure it.   Call that measurement "D".   Now lay out your fabric and mark it with your measurements as seen below.  Cut out the pieces as indicated.  Cut two 6" x 6" squares for your gussets.
Sew the front to the back along the top of the rectangles.  This is your shoulder seam.  Fold the sleeves in half width-wise (so that the folded sleeve is ½ D wide).  Line this fold up with the shoulder seam and sew that side to the garment on either side.  Sew the top of the gussets to the underside of each sleeve.  Sew one side of each gusset to the front body piece. Sew the one split gore together along the FLAT sides (not the slanted side - this is IMPORTANT).  Make a slit E" long up the exact center of the front and back pieces.  Insert the split gore into the back slit and another of the gores into the front slit.  Attach the other two gores to the sides of the front body piece, aligning their tops with the top of the front slit. Your garment should now look like the figure at right. Fold the garment in half along the shoulder seams.  Fold the underarm gussets in half diagonally and sew the remaining sides to the bottom of the sleeve and the side of the back body piece, respectively.  Your garment should start to look like the figure at left. Sew the bottom of the sleeves closed.  Sew the unsewn edge of the side gores to the back body piece on either side.  Sew the front to the back body piece under the gussets (if necessary). Cut your neckline (start small - be careful not to cut it too big!) and finish the edge. Hem the bottom and the sleeve ends, and you're done! Welcome to the wonderful world of medieval clothing construction.  Easy, huh?  Told ya!

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© 2003 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.