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The Ten-Gore Dress: Cotehardies from Herjolfsnes

Lady Gwenllyan verch Morgan

Historical Background

The settlement at Herjolfsnes was founded c. 985 by emigrants from Iceland, under the leadership of Erik the Red. As was customary, each of the primary settlers took an area for himself, and it was named for him. Herjolf Baardsen took a fjord near the southern tip of Greenland (Herjolfsfiord), but lived in a settlement known as Herjolfsnes. In its time, Herjolfsnes was a major settlement and port. It lasted for approximately 500 years, until politics, weather, and poor diet contrived to wipe out the last of the Greenland settlements.

The people of Greenland had plenty of wool, butter, and cheese to trade, but very little grain. They were expected to be self-sufficient, but in truth, trade ships were vital to their survival. From the style of their clothing, they still considered themselves to be Europeans, copying the garments worn by visitors or received as gifts from the European countries. By early in the fifteenth century, the appointed bishops to Greenland churches didn't even bother to go to their bishoprics. Records show that as of 1492, no clerics had been there for at least 80 years. Norway claimed sovereignty over the colonies, and forbade trade with other countries. The Norwegian ships rarely came to Greenland at all. Native hunters grew bold and attacked a few settlements. The formerly robust Norsemen grew weak and undersized, and the skeletal remains show much sign of deformity due to poor diet. The clothing found in the Herjolfsnes graves shows that some illegal trade did continue into the very early 15th century, but a period of severe winters prevented any further trade. In 1408 an Icelandic ship was taken off course to Greenland, to the settlement in Hvalsey. They departed in 1410, the last known visit of any Icelanders to the Greenland Norse settlements.

The very location of Herjolfsnes was forgotten, and until sometime in the nineteenth century, the remains of the settlement were left to the Eskimo natives, who dismantled most of the structures for building material. A few artifacts were found c. 1885, and brought back to Denmark. In 1921, Dr. Nörlund led a dig at Ikigait, as it was then called. The discovery the church graveyard, and the remains therein, are the basis for his works on Herjolfsnes.

Clothing at Herjolfsnes

The graveyard at the Herjolfsnes church contained the remains of some of the original Norse inhabitants. A few were found in coffins, but most were buried simply, wrapped in shrouds. The shrouds were items of clothing, some torn into pieces, some almost intact, and generally assumed to be the personal clothing of that person. There were numerous hoods and hosen, but the best-known finds were the dresses. The dresses were both male and female, adult and child. Dr. Nörlund includes a great deal of research to date these dresses, concluding that most of the finds are consistent with very late 13th c. to very early 15th c. clothing as seen in numerous paintings, illuminations, statuary, and brasses from that period.

There were two basic types discovered; a slip-on dress and a style that buttoned down the front. None of the Herjolfsnes dresses apparently had more than a short neck-lacing, if any. There were even a few remnants showing the close pleating that became popular in 14th c. France, Scandinavia, and Italy. At least one of the button-front dresses (male costume) also had a narrow stand-up collar. Several had buttoned sleeves.

The dresses were all made of wool, either a three or four-shaft twill. The finds were all in black or brown threads, but Nörlund believes that there were colors in the fabrics that have been leeched by time and the soil of the burials. In many, there was no hem, leading to the conclusion that the dresses were lined with fur that did not survive. Details of finishing, including decorative edgings of plaited cords, are given in Nörlund's books.

The majority of the dresses were the "ten-gore" variety. The number of gores was so important from a fashionable point of view that there are examples wherein a false seam was sewn in to create the requisite number of gores. Most of the garments are of a slip-on variety, tight sleeved, close-fitting in the top and very full in the skirt. These are the dresses this layout will reproduce.

The most notable peculiarity is the sleeve itself. The seam is on the top, in line with the shoulder seam, and all examples have a triangular gore set into the back edge of the seam. This will be addressed in the section under Assembly.

Layout and Cut

It is generally assumed that the most common fabric width was 22". The often-cited cut of the ten-gore dresses (see below) is the one seen by most people. The female dress was extremely well preserved, and details of construction have been repeated in many places. What makes these dresses so practical is that they can easily be cut from 22" wide material with almost no waste of fabric. The basic layout will fit a person approximately 5'6" (with a little "puddle"). The bust and/or chest measurement from this basic layout will range from about 42" to a maximum of around 55". The hip will average 120" and the long sleeve as given is about 25".

The style has a number of advantages.

All information above is from Dr. Poul Nörlund's "Buried Norsemen at Herjolfsnes", part of Meddeleser om Grønland, vol. 67, 1924, or from Nörlund's Viking Settlers in Greenland, 1928.

Basic Cotehardie Layout

The following pages will have several photocopies from Nörlund's article- the basic shaping of the gores, varieties of sleeves and necklines, and a photo of one of the better-preserved dresses. Also you will have a basic layout for cutting the dress. The layout is given two ways; as a single layer meant to be laid out on a 22" wide piece, and as a doubled pattern cut from at least 44" wide fabric. I have found it works best to cut all sections except the sleeves, assemble them, then do the sleeve last. Assembly is in a logical order, although there can be variations to that order.

Assembly

1. Seam back gore pieces
2. Set gores into front and back pieces (see section on setting points) Image coming soon!
3. Sew side gores... ALWAYS sew a straight edge to a bias edge. The seams will come out more evenly if you try to work with the bias on the bottom as you sew. You can also baste or pin the gores together. Start with the front or back panels and attach two gores on each side (see diagrams). Image coming soon!
4. Sew main side seam between the front and back panels - this will be the only straight edge-to-straight edge join in the dress (or you may baste or pin). Image coming soon!
5. Pin shoulders and adjust gore seams to fit. If the dress is to be tightly fit, the seams will be deep. Depending on how you seam, the gores may end up looking almost like a "princess" seam. Do final seam.
6. If you wish, face the front and back neckline.
7. Measure armscye- NOW cut the sleeve to approximately that size.... It does not have to be exact.

Sleeves

It's my belief that the sleeves would have been done this way for practical reasons. Setting any sleeve "in the round" is difficult, and requires careful adjustment and fitting. The habit of setting in the round didn't come about for some time, although there are cases where you may want to do so in order to achieve a particular effect. The construction of this garment allows the sleeve to be set while the garment itself is still partially flat - a major advantage when you don't have pins to hold things together. The shoulder seams could have been basted so the garment could be fitted to its owner. The sleeve gore would have been the result of guessing or approximating the size needed for the armhole... The surviving examples from Herjolfsnes show gores in a variety of sizes. Lastly, it would be easiest to sew up the sleeve, shoulder, and facing (if any) all in one long seam.

Start setting the sleeve from the front shoulder edge. The lowest part of the curve will come close to the center side gore seam. If the sleeve is too short for the opening (as it is in the Herjolfsnes finds), cut leave enough space to seam a gore to the back edge of the sleeve, then finish sewing it into the body. The sleeve seam, shoulder, and facing are all joined as one seam.

Points

Setting points can be easy- I recommend practicing on scrap fabrics before setting points into garb.

  • Cut center slit about 2" shorter than the gore piece. Mark a spot on the center line ½ - 1" above the slit with a pin.
  • Find the center point of the gore by extending and crossing the seam allowances
  • With right sides together, lay the gore on top of the slit, aligning the center points and holding them in place with one pin.
  • Start sewing about six inches from the top of the slit (easier to fit into the seam), sewing up to the pin. Bring the needle down into the fabric and keep it there. Take out the pin.
  • Turn the whole piece so that the main body piece is at right angles to the machine, with the slit to the right. Lift the presser foot, making sure the needle STAYS in the fabric. Use sharp pointed scissors to clip the main piece up to the needle.
  • Keeping the needle in place, swivel the gore piece underneath 180º. The main piece should fold back on itself at a 90º angle. Make sure all the pieces are flat with no puckers. Make ONE stitch.
  • Turn the gore again to align the edge with the other edge of the slit and seam the whole length. Go back and finish the other seam.

The trick is in the notching, and turning the pieces so they lay flat. If done properly, the gore will have an almost imperceptible square top- that one stitch. If you think you really need to reinforce the point, you can sew in a triangle of fabric or twill tape to the seam allowances.

Miscellaneous Notes:

The cutting plan of the Greenland dresses is similar to that of the "Kragelund Gown", recovered from Kragelund Bog in Jutland, and dated to late 12th or very early 13th c. CE. Much shorter than any of the Herjolfsnes finds, it also has gores set front and back, and on the sides. The sleeve is much less fitted, and rather baggy.

This layout will require about six to seven yards of 44" wide fabric - more if you decide to make full or hanging sleeves, or if you are adapting the pattern to a very large person. The final hem circumference will be in the vicinity of 5½ yards, depending on the width of your gores and how much seam allowance you've used. Make a full-scale sloper first, and use that to determine your actual yardage.

The dress can be made loose enough to slip over, or be adapted to lace front, back, or on both sides. Buttons are known to have been used on front closures and sleeves. Sleeves may be dagged, scalloped, or made short with tippets. Many of the originals have a tight-wristed sleeve with a slit in them but no buttons or lacing holes; there is evidence that they were sewn shut on the wearer. The layout attached shows only a basic sized sleeve, wide enough to fit a hand through.

If the person you are making the dress for is wide chested or very broad shouldered, you may want to cut at least the back into two separate pieces, adding width to both halves along the center seam. A long reverse gore may also be used to add back shoulder width (but beware in both cases not to make the neckline too large). If the back is cut as two pieces, then the back gore pieces can be set straight to the main ones, and the center seam done all at once.

A smaller version can be done with a scaled down layout, or by eliminating four of the side gores. If you still want the "ten-gore" look, put a pintuck false seam down the wrong-side center of the four gores you do use. The width of the front and back pieces can be altered- just make sure not to make the width between the armhole cutouts less than the person's shoulder width.

Dividing both front and back with a seam also makes doing the dress in particolor very easy. Just be careful when seaming to get the alternate seams set in properly. The front gore, in this case, can also be cut as two pieces.

While I have included some general measurements for cutting the layout, it would be best for you to adapt them on the sloper pattern to the person for whom the garment is made. This is especially important for armscye depth, sleeve length, and sleeve width in the upper arm. The original garments had very large, deep (and usually very irregular) armholes, indicating that the garments were not carefully measured out before hand. The layout as given here will fit a woman about 5'4"- 5'7", with some puddling, and the bust will fit up to 56" over modern under-garments. For very large garments I use a basic width of 26" (must use fabric 52-56" wide).

In general, women's dresses will be floor-length or longer. Men's cotehardies will be below the knee to mid-calf. Pocket slits can be put into the seams in the front (about hip-high). In the originals, the pocket slits were either in the seams or cut into the front piece. The only edging was a thin braided cording on some of the garments. Many show no sign of the edges being finished or the garments being hemmed. The original garments of the find were probably lined with fur, but no trace of any ornate decoration was found. Nörlund speculates that the garments may have been dyed in bright colors, but no trace of this remains. The basic layout will do for cotehardies or dresses about 1100- 1500. I have used this to do Italian gamurra (underdresses) and a variety of dress styles.

Nörlund's diagrams of the garment construction have been reproduced in many places. Note that when you make the gown, part of your total armscye measurement will come from the gore width under the arm after seaming. Take that into account as you make the gown.

If you decide to do side lacing, you may prefer to use a modern sleeve pattern, with the seam under the arm.

Cutting the side gores as wedges will make the cutting layout quicker to do. The actual seamline will resemble Norlund's diagrams if you're going to be making a snug-fitting garment. The layout below has no openings or slits for lacings, but these can be added. Just remember that front or back lacing will reduce the width of the garment by the amount of seam taken in facing the slit, and the overlap when laced up.

The dress at left shows both a cut-in pocket slit and a false seam.

My thanks to Master Rashid al-Gyanji, East Kingdom, for introducing me to the Herjolfsnes finds, and for the origins of the layout.

Lady Gwenllyan verch Morgan
Shire of Shadowdale, Calontir
Gwenllyan@aol.com

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