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Heraldic Field Tabards and Surcotes

by Lady Nastasiia Ivanova Medvedeva

Heraldic tabards and surcotes add immeasureably to the atmosphere of any event. Additionally, they make it a lot easier to identify fighters out on the battlefield, and the local herald at any event. They need not be difficult to make, though they can be as elaborate as your skill and imagination will dictate. These instructions will show how to make a simple, sturdy tabard or surcote, suitable for field use.

The difference between a tabard and a surcote is a simple one: Tabards have sleeves. Surcotes do not. Fighters and archers will probably be happier with surcotes, because the tab-like sleeves of a tabard may interfere with the movement of the arms. Heralds wear tabards, with the arms of the group or individual that the herald is representing on the front, back, and sleeves.

Note: Many people believe that a herald's tabard should have the gold crossed trumpets on it somewhere; if not front, back, and sleeves, then at least the sleeves. This is an SCA invention and in no way reflects period practice. When working as a herald, the herald is the mouthpiece of the group or individual (as at a pas d'armes or emprise). Therefore, the herald should wear the arms of that group or individual. The crossed trumpets are the ensign of the SCA College of Arms, and as such, are not appropriate for wear by a group or household herald in the discharge of his duties.

Suggested materials for a field tabard or surcote are trigger or cotton duck in a color that provides good contrast to the device that is going to be applied. You should also get fabric in the colors of the device, preferably in solid, strong colors. (Neons and pastels are a Bad Idea when it comes to rendering heraldic devices.) Lastly, you will need some double-sided fusible web, such as Heat N Bond or Wonder Under. It doesn't matter which, as long as it has a paper backing. This is important because you will be drawing on it.

Surcotes are quite simple -- they're basically two rectangles sewn together with a hole for the head. Tabards aren't much more complicated. They are two rectangles sewn together with a hole for the neck, and two smaller rectangles sewn one to either shoulder for sleeves. Basically, a tabard is a short sleeved t-tunic that hasn't had the underarm seams sewn up.

Tabard Pattern

For the purposes of this exercise, I am going to assume that the reader has sufficient skill to make and finish a garment like this.

Assembling the Device Appliqué

Fuse the Heat'n'Bond to the back of the colored material, making sure to cover a large enough area to draw the device element.

Trace the device elements onto plain paper, then cut them out, turn them over and trace onto the backing of the Heat'n'Bond. This way, when it is cut and fused, the device will not be backwards. Cut as many charges as you need for all the devices you are putting on your tabard or surcote.

Cut out the elements and arrange on the tabard to make sure everything is there and proportionate and the right way around. Layer the elements from the field up. First cut out and lay out the field, then any charges that go on the field, culminating with whatever charge is on top.

If you have counterchanged elements (where one element is half one color and half another, cut one complete charge in each color. Place the lighter colored charge on the field, then lay the darker colored one on top and cut along the line of division. The lighter color should be completely covered by the darker color.

When you are happy with the arrangement of the elements of the device, start fusing the pieces according to manufacturer's instructions (completing both sides of the garment for a double-sided device). That's it! If you want to finish off the edges of the device, use fabric paint in a pen-tip tube to outline the edges of the device and device elements, and to create the detail on the elements themselves. This is easier than cutting out tiny pieces of colored material for details (for instance, a rose gules barbed and seeded vert can be created with red fabric and green paint). You may want to run a line of stitching around the outside 4edges of the device in order to keep it from peeling up.

That's about it. If you have any questions, please contact me.

Below are two images from Heraldry: Sources, Symbols, and Meaning, by Ottfried Neubecker (1997, Tiger Books International, Twickenham, England, ISBN 1-85501-908-6). The first image is found on page 23; the second is on page 12. The caption on the second image has been rearranged slightly.

Garter King of Arms John Smart, 1456 English officers of arms from a tourney book, circa 1509-1547