One of the interesting, or possibly boring, things about making “dark age” clothing is how consistent a lot of it is. While there are a number of garments that are decidedly different to make, like the Viborg shirt, they tend to be rapidly recognisable, while you can create a whole range of styles as variations on a simple theme.


When I’ve finished the undertunic I mentioned before, I’ve a list of other garments to make. Not that I've progressed far into the one I've started thanks to far too many things.  We’d like to get to a position where both Rose and I have two full sets of everyday working kit, so we can have a change of clothes when one lot gets soaked, or just something clean when we need it. That means making another cyrtel and undertunic for myself, and another dress for Rose, who may eventually also need a second underdress as one of her two isn’t as good. Yes, I have other cyrtels (early Anglo-Saxon, a couple of different Viking ones, clerical, Norman, 12th century), but all too “rich” for too much plebbing-about around camp.

All these new garments, and the old ones, are variations on a theme. If you understand the following summary instructions, you’ll then be able to see how similar the processes/garments are, although the results can look quite different.

This is how to make a “generic” cyrtel or undertunic. I’m silently assuming that you will hem your cut pieces as desired and according to your chosen method as required, and won’t forget to add half an inch seam allowance along every seam, and a little more on hems. The construction is quite simple:

  1. Take a rectangle of cloth as wide as your shoulders (or measure loosely around your torso for the desired garment circumference and divide by 2, it comes out much the same) and twice as long as your desired “drop” (the length from the nub at the base of your neck to the bottom edge of the garment: just below the knee is good). That torso-width will also conveniently give some of the other measurements you need.
  2. Fold it in half. The head hole will go on this fold, so this will be the whole main body panel in a single piece.
  3. Cut two trapeziums for the arms. At the base they should be as wide as the body of the garment, which allows free movement. At the narrow end it should be slightly wider than the circumference of your fist, so you can get your hand through but they won’t be loose/flappy. It’s best to pin what you think is best, and adjust for the fit you want by putting the sleeve on, in case you have bulging muscular fore-arms, or will be wearing arm-guards under the garment. This also allows you to adjust the length, but this will be roughly the same as the width of the body panel.
  4. At this point, I would sew the neck. To do this, decide what shape you want (I prefer a curved keyhole), and separate from the main body cut a collar piece the right size and shape, and check if fits. Then sew it on to the body positioned so the front-back divide of head hole (which will be much more to the front than the back) is on that fold you made earlier. It also wants to be left-right centred.
  5. Now cut the head hole in the garment body, within your collar piece, before folding the collar piece through the hold (which hides its existing stitching, especially if machined), and hand-sew it in place both around the hole and at the edge of the collar piece. Your fabric now has a distinct inside and outside, with the collar piece inside (unless you’ve done it in a contrasting colour and want it outside for appearance). If it already has a right and a wrong side for another reason such as the appearance of the weave you’d better have put the collar piece on the right side, I’d recommend pinning and playing before sewing in this case.
  6. Sew each of the sleeves closed along the slanted side of the trapezium. The opposite, “fold”, side is the top. Fold the body panel midway as before, right sides together, insert a sleeve also right sides together and folds matched up, and sew it in. Repeat for the other sleeve.
  7. Fill in the rest of each side of the garment with a “gusset” triangle or “gore” which has sides of the required length, and is as wide at the bottom as half of the body panel (so having done both sides the total circumference of the bottom hem is increased by 50%).
  8. Slit open the front and back of the garment vertically along the centreline to waist height, and sew in another “gusset” triangle or “gore” front and rear, again sized “as required” for length and half as wide as the body panel (so with both of these, and the two side ones, the bottom hem is now equal to twice your original circumference or four body panel widths).
  9. Finish all your hems.

Assuming you went with “about or just below the knee” for your “drop”, that gives you a nicely skirted “generic” “dark age” garment form. You can bag it through your belt for an earlier, shorter look, or let it hang low for eleventh century chique. Or with not much change the same process gives you very different effects:

  • Vary the drop, and adjust gussets as required: as a very broad rule of thumb earlier=shorter, and a “bum hugger” will want little or no flare from the waist.
  • Keep the forearms tight, and make the sleeves longer, to give wrinkles as shown in eleventh century illustrations.
  • Omit the side gussets, just sew each side closed down to just below the waist, and omit the front/rear gores, to give a side-split tunic, which may go well for earlier Vikings, or for manual labourers.
  • Omit the front/rear gores, just slit the body panel open and hem to give a front/rear split tunic that’s stereotyped as “Norman” but suits the well dressed man from other areas too from the mid eleventh century.
  • Garments found in Greenland have their front/rear gores going much higher, up to about armpit/nipple height, which may be another later style, but can look quite good. It can help to make bulges in the tunic front less obvious helping women be less obviously female when fighting, and may actually use less fabric and give a more flattering appearance when ensuring a good fit for warriors whose six-packs have been replaced with small barrels.
  • Equally you can close the sides to themselves below the sleeve and only start the side gores at waist height, consistent with the front and rear gores, giving a more fitted style, though this is better suited to slightly shorter tunics that are not front/rear split.
  • Its common to see bits in contrasting colours, whether bands around hems or entire panels such as the gores and/or sleeves, to show wealth and status. As reinforcement at hems, or to apply embroidered bands, I’m fairly comfortable with this, though I’m not sure how firm the evidence for entire panels is.