Bliauts and more: 12th Century Women’s Clothing

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Matilda’s Wedding Bliaut

Chronicle of Ekkhard von Aura, c. 1120. Empress Matilda is the third figure from the right. Image credit: Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

I designed this outfit based on the near-contemporary illustration of the 1114 wedding of Empress Matilda and Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. The illustration of from the Chronicle of Ekkhard von Aura. I made the dress out of a lightweight wool flannel in dark green. The trim is silk brocade in geometric patterned stripes. I chose the stripes to match Matilda’s trim as closely as possible, where her trim had motifs such as dots (neckline, tight sleeves) and zig-zags (loose sleeves). Her dress also lacks bicep bands, so I omitted this common 12th century decoration on this garment. It’s hard to tell if she is wearing a belt, or if the lines at the waist represent wrinkles in her dress. I chose to make a ceinture (wrapped fabric belt) out of the same silk brocade that I used to the trim. The skirt has 6 evenly-spaced gores, since I have found this skirt style to be suitably voluminous and dramatic for what I imagined the skirt of an imperial bride might look like. The skirt had to be left to the imagination, since the Empress is sitting behind a table in the illustration. I constructed this garment with a sewing machine, and finished it by hand.

Trapunto Quilted Chemise

Many 12th century depictions of women show necklines and cuffs with even, parallel lines or ridges. Since these ridges often travel around curves, particularly on keyhole necklines, a quilted texture is much more likely than pleats or gathers, which would only be able to form straight lines. The style of quilting I have used here is called trapunto, and it is characterized by the process of back-stitching the design onto 2 layers of fabric, then stuffing desired areas with yarn or batting using a blunt needle through the back layer of fabric. The earliest extant example of trapunto quilting is from 14th century Sicily (the Tristan Quilt). This intricately illustrated quilt was made with linen fabric and linen thread, and stuffed with cotton. I used linen fabric and linen thread as well. I chose wool yarn as my stuffing material because it would have been more readily available in northwestern Europe where my persona is based. I quilted the keyhole neckline and the cuffs to just below the elbow. This garment is entirely hand sewn. I have washed this garment twice, and the quilting has held up very well. I would like to thank Mistress Helewisa de Frejous for bringing trapunto quilting to my attention.

Ridged cuffs in 12th century artwork. A&B: Chartres Cathedral, mid-12th century. C: Hunterian Psalter, 1160-1175. D: Manuscript of Eberbach, 12th century.
Ridged necklines in 12th century artwork. Chartres Cathedral, mid-12th century.

Purple Brocade Bliaut

This garment was based on depictions of dresses with narrow, ankle-length skirts that are made from patterned fabric. I suspect that these dresses were made from heavy brocaded silk fabrics that would hold a relatively smooth shape, rather than falling in folds like other styles of 12th century dresses. Heavy silks such as these would likely have been quite expensive, so a narrow and slightly short skirt would have saved fabric. These dresses are worn over another layer with a longer and fuller skirt that is usually white, but sometimes a pastel color. I suspect this inner layer is made of linen. I made a chainse to wear under this outfit (described below). It could be worn with just a chemise under it, but none of my chemises are floor length. I constructed this garment with a sewing machine and finished it by hand.

Short, narrow bliauts worn over longer, fuller skirts. A: Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, 12th century France. B: Berthold Sacrimentary, 1215-1217. C: Reims MS 23, 1100-1124. D: Story of Job, 1175-1200. E: Hunterian Psalter, 1160-1175.

Smocked Cuff Chainse

I needed a linen layer to wear under my purple brocade bliaut, so I decided to make a chainse. This is a 12th century woman’s garment, generally made of white linen, that was an outer garment in its own right. The chainse is distinct from the chemise, which was an undergarment. An analysis of the descriptions of these two garments in contemporary literature can be found in Eunice Rathbone Goddard’s Women’s Costume in French Texts of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. I gave this garment a V-neckline to show the quilted chemise under it. The V-shapes in the front and back were accomplished by putting a slit in the centre of the fabric, then pleating the fabric at the shoulders. I constructed this garment with a sewing machine and finished it by hand. I also chose to make smocked cuffs with a ruffle. Ruffled cuffs are depicted in at least one 12th century carving (shown below). Smocking was also a common surface treatment in the 12th century. Extant examples of 12th century smocking are on the tops of gores from church vestments that became saints’ relics.

Lady with a smocked sleeve and ruffled cuff. Eglise de Benet, Vendée, France, 12th century. Image credit:
Smocked gores on 11th or 12th century ecclesiastical vestments. A: Alb of St. Hugo. B: Alb of St. Bernulf of Utrecht.

Pleat-Neck Gown

I wanted to try some structural elements that I had seen in a few pieces of 12th century artwork. I wanted to make the pleated and beaded V-neckline on a Chartres Cathedral statue. I also wanted to try the sleeves from a French enamelled casket from about 1180. I used a silk and wool blend herringbone twill fabric. I sewed it with linen thread where the thread wouldn’t show, and silk thread where it would show. I decorated it with freshwater pearls and silk embroidery. The sleeves are simple tunic sleeves made extremely long, with slits at the wrist area to put my hands through. I wanted this garment to be easy to wear, so I made it in a T-tunic shape that could be pulled on over my head and didn’t need to be laced. This garment is entirely hand sewn.

Chartres Cathedral. Mid-12th Century
Enamelled box front panel. Limoges, France, 1180. Image Credit: British Museum.
Enamelled box top panel. Limoges, France, 1180. Image Credit: British Museum.

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16 Replies to “Bliauts and more: 12th Century Women’s Clothing”

  1. Hello! I loved your work. You attention to detail and your research on the sources is wonderful!
    My name is Mariana, and I’m from Argentina. I am writing a novel set in 12th century England and France, and although it’s fiction, I want it to be well researched. If it’s OK with you, I would like to ask you some questions about the styles of clothing, hairstyles and jewelry that were used at the time. Thank you! [This comment was sent directly to the exhibit author along with the email address.]

  2. Hello,
    I was wondering if you have any information on the red coloured trim on the v-neck bliaut.
    The sleeve and the bottom trim is gold but the neck is red.
    This is the manuscript Initial D from the Story of Job 1175 to 1200

  3. The detail in you pieces are beautiful. I had seen some pieces which I am now certain used those techniques but I did not know the name for them. Thank you for outlining them.

    I hope to one day see these in person which is the downside of virtual.

  4. As usual, I love seeing your work, your excellence in pursuit of the 12th century aesthetic, and your enthusiasm for experimentation. Fabulous and informative display, and of course I love what you did with the trapunto chemise 😉 Well done my fellow 12th century traveler!

  5. These are amazing, and I love all your research. From a technical side of things, are there any resources you could recommend for sewing on pearls? I’ve never tried this, but it looks so amazing I think I’d like to try. Thank you for taking the time to share your work!

    1. Information about how the pearls were sewed on was really hard to find. There are some really fancy extant 12th century pearl-embelished garments, but the museum descriptions of them don’t say much more than “there are pearls on them”. I sewed them on using beaded buttonhole stitch, which is the same as regular buttonhole stitch, but you drop a bead onto the ‘across the edge’ segment of the stitch. Buttonhole stitch has been around for a very long time, and it gets the look right while holding the pearls securely, but I can’t really say if that’s how it was done in the 12th century. Also, C-grade and D-grade pearls mimic the look of the ones on extant garments the best. They’re tiny and lumpy, so they aren’t popular and they’re hard to find, but they’re pretty cheap when you do find them.

      These are some of the most famous pearl-decorated garments, in their museum exhibits:

  6. Wow that Trapunto quilting. Really nice explanations in here, I like your intrepretation of the brocade and the Chartes Cathedral sculpture. You can see the quilted bit sagging over the bliaut trim near the neck, which cinches that argument for me. Wonderful display. Looking forward to learning more about this.

  7. As someone who had dabbled somewhat unsuccessfully in deciphering 12th century construction techniques, I adored your exhibit. The trapunto quilting totally blew my mind! I would love to geek out more on some of the specifics that you’ve covered here. All of the garments here are absolutely lovely. -HL Lantani de Forez

    1. I would love to chat with you about 12th century clothes! It’s definitely a challenge to interpret that style of artwork, especially with so few extant garments to compare it too. But that’s the fun of it for me, it’s more like solving a puzzle. My general approach is to see if I could build it with just rectangles. If just rectangles won’t do it, add a few simple curves and some triangles. With those shapes and some surface treatments like quilting, smocking, and pleating, I can usually come up with a reasonable approximation of the artwork. It’s fun to play with all of the possibilities to design my own plausible garments too.

  8. I like your choice of trim on Matilda’s wedding bliaut – it seems very appropriate. My favorite though is the quilted chemise. Nice job with the trapunto quilting. It’s a lot of work but you’ve kept the lines beautifully straight. I agree with your interpretation of the purple brocaded bliaut. Silk was a 12th century status marker, so having the richest material as the over gown really shows it off while keeping it safely away from the floor! Again, your work on the trim really captures the 12th century aesthetic. That smocked cuff is rare and compelling. I’ve wondered about it, and I love seeing what you did with it – bravo! The pleat neck gown is another one off. I think it came out quite well, and again the simple trim is very appropriate. The sleeve tippets or whatever they should be called in the 12c are problematic, aren’t they? They show up in a variety of places. I think of them as the minimalist approach to the long sleeve cuffs. I’ve wondered if they’re removable – no extant indication one way or the other, of course. What a delightful presentation – excellent work!

    1. Thank you for your kind words! The trapunto was a lot of work, but the texture and shape it provides really adds to the look of an outfit. I’m also pleasantly surprised how well it holds up to washing.
      My focus in the last few years has been to study the 12th century aesthetic, and try to re-produce it as much as possible with my choice of materials and surface treatments. It makes a lot of difference to the look of the outfit, but I’ve found that it isn’t much more expensive or labor intensive than the more modern-looking trim I was using before.
      I think tippets is a reasonable word for the narrow sleeve extenstions. They’re not the same as the 14th century version, but they’re a similar aesthetic and I don’t know a better word for them. I’ve read mentions of removable sleeves in 12th century literature, but I don’t recall seeing visual clues to how that was done. These narrow extensions from the wrist get in the way much more than the sleeves that flare out from the elbow. I could definitely see somebody saying “I’m cutting these off and pinning them back on when I want to look fancy”. Doing that would result in functional tunic sleeves, and the attachment point would be nice and small and easy to do a temporary attachment.

  9. Really well done. I can clearly see how you for too your garment decisions from the illustrations.

    Yours in service,
    Mistress Gyelle Spence

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