Sewing Diaries: Making a Manteau de Lit

I tend to agonise over decisions. It is rare for me that a piece of kit goes from the planning stage to finished product in the space of two days. Rare and rather exciting. But on this occasion I was working to a deadline. This weekend I will be at Carlisle Castle dressed as a Jacobite, and while I have been putting together eighteenth century kit for some time there are still a few pieces missing. So last Friday I decided to make a manteau de lit, or bedgown.

A quick trip to Leeds market yielded some nice material, and a quick internet search led me to a simple pattern published in 1769 by F.A. Garsault, in his Description des Arts et Metier.

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Now I know that 1769 is a little after the dateline for the event I’m going to this weekend, but the bedgown was a common item of clothing for women of all classes through most of the eighteenth century. It can be made from wool or linen depending on how warm you want it to be. I opted for wool with a linen lining. Wealthy ladies might wear a bedgown made of silk after getting out of bed in the morning and before appearing in public. For working women the bedgown was often worn all day over jumps or stays, frequently with an apron over the top. It was a practical and comfortable garment, well suited to carrying out manual work.

You will need at least 2 metres of material each for the outer and the lining. You may want more depending on your height or if you want a slightly longer garment. The length can be anywhere from below the knee to mid thigh. My general rule of thumb for sewing reenactment clothing is that inside seams may be done by machine if necessary, while any visible stitching such as hemming must be done by hand.

I should also note that I left out the back pleat and the sleeve gathering shown in Garsault’s drawing. There are examples of bedgowns with and without these features and time was somewhat limited. Other examples omit the side pleats and are instead cut with a sloping side.

Process

  1. Fold your material in half across the width and trace the pattern to a suitable size. Cut out the pattern and use it to trace the same shape onto your lining material. Cut out the lining.
  2. Cut along the fold line which joins front to back at the collar, then cut the front of both outer and lining in half from top to bottom along the line shown.
  3. Round out the front of the collar by cutting away the front corners.
  4. Sew the front to the back along the side of the collar, top and bottom of the sleeve, down the side, and down the side of the skirt. Leave the short section labled a in Fig. 10 unsewn. Repeat for the lining. Press your seams flat with a hot iron.
  5. The most time-consuming bit is pleating the sides. You will need to iron in the pleats before you sew them. I opened out the unsewn seam to lie flat against the side of the jacket, and then folded each side of my pleat back in to the centre along the side seam to make a sort of double pleat. Once you have ironed your pleats, sew them in. Repeat for the lining.2016-06-22 11.27.26
  6. Making sure to place good side to good side, sew the outer to the lining along the bottom of the jacket and then up each side of the centre opening. Leave an opening along the back of the collar to turn your garment the right way out.
  7. Once the jacket is the right way out and the sleeves of the lining have been fitted into the sleeves of the outer, close up the opening in the collar by hand. Then sew outer to lining along the sleeve cuffs, also by hand.
  8. Press all your seams flat. A ribbon tie can be added as a closure, or the bedgown can be closed using pins. Generally the bedgown was worn with the sides overlapping, so I have opted for the latter. The sleeves should be short enough to work in, and can be rolled up to below the elbow.

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The finished bedgown. Overall I am happy with how it turned out. It is certainly comfortable to wear, and to have a project finished in two evenings of work is always satisfying. If I were to make another, I would leave myself more material for the collar. The collar on this one wound up very small and hard to turn over. That said, I would definitely recommend this pattern to anyone planning a manteau de lit of their own. It is easy to follow, easy to adapt, and I am pleased with the result.

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Jorvik Viking Festival

Every year since I moved to York I have taken part in the Jorvik Viking Festival. Normally I don’t get a chance to take any photos of the event, being somewhat preoccupied with other things. Like fighting a horde of Vikings. But this year I managed to capture a few snapshots. (The photo above from last year’s festival is not mine, but you can see me marching along in the middle ground.)

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The markets are always one the most exciting parts of the festival. I didn’t do a great deal of shopping this year, but I got one or two nice things.

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The Merchant Adventurer’s hall makes a lovely setting for half of the market stalls. I normally spend most of the Friday shopping and looking around before the big battle on Saturday.

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This year there was a display set up on Parliament street showcasing different aspects of Viking life, including a small boat.

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On Saturday afternoon the armies form up outside the Minster before marching to the Eye of York by Clifford’s Tower for a series of three practice skirmishes. This year the festival commemorated the Battle of Assandun in 1016, and here the English army prepares to march under Edmund Ironside.

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Meanwhile the Viking army prepares to follow King Cnut into battle. I portrayed one of Cnut’s honour guard of Jomsvikings led by Thorkell the Tall.

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For reasons which I hope are obvious, I didn’t get any photos of the battle itself. But I did sneak a quick and slightly blurry shot of the Viking army about to march on for the big evening battle. As always, it was great fun and I look forward to next year.

Travelogue: The Battle of Marathon

Last autumn I spent two weeks traveling across Europe to attend an international gathering of reenactors at Marathon, in Greece. This is a trip which had been in the works for over a year, and I got to see and experience some incredible things. The objective was a commemoration of the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, to be held on the site of the battle and attended by reenactment groups from all around the world.

Here is my odyssey.

I set off from my home in York in late October, catching the Eurotunnel to Calais, and subsequently getting lost in the French countryside as the evening light faded. The plan had been to save money by camping on the way. Unfortunately every single campsite in Europe was already closed for the winter.

The almost miraculous appearance of a cheap hotel saved the day, and things only got better from there. The second day began before dawn in a thick, cold fog. But the sun finally burned through and the approach to Mont Blanc afforded some breathtaking views.

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And some unsettling ones. I cannot recommend the viaducts in this part of the world to anyone with acrophobia.

On the other side of the tunnel I was into Italy, my very first visit to the country. This time I had planned ahead and made a last minute booking via the magic of phone internet. I managed to find a beautiful (yet very reasonably priced) apartment run by a lovely Italian lady in the town of Reggio Nell’Emilia. She didn’t speak a word of English. I do not speak a word of Italian. Yet we managed to communicate in some mix of the two. It was one of those perfect travel moments that can never happen until you take a step outside your comfort zone.

The next day I continued down the eastern coast of Italy to catch a ferry from Ancona, stopping briefly in Rimini to see the sights. The sight that will stay with me most is one I never expected, although it was actually the scent of incense that struck me first. Then I rounded the corner from a side street into the path of this procession.

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I have never been religious but I do enjoy the trappings and the rituals of religion, and this was so completely different from anything I had experienced in the cold, Anglican world where I live. This was the moment I really felt I came face to face with the heritage of Italy.

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The ferry left Ancona by moonlight, bound for Patras, and the next morning I awoke in a different world. The sea was blue, the sun was warm, and something in the air smelled just as I remembered from my last visit to Greece the summer after high school. That last part might have been psychosomatic.

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The ferry charted a course past the island of Ithaca, not only the famous destination of the unluckiest man in Greek epic poetry, but also the namesake of my own childhood hometown.

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I took twelve photos of it. Twelve. They all look the same.

Arriving in Patras after twenty-three hours at sea, I continued straight on to Athens in the dark. The roads were just as mad as I remembered them too. Finally the traffic slowed a little, and coming over the crest of a hill I saw the city spread out beneath me with the Acropolis lit up at its centre. The city itself was the same yet different. It was more run down. Graffiti covered almost every building. Walking through the streets that first night it sometimes felt as if I had stepped onto the set of a dystopian film from the 1980s. Even so, Athens is still one of my favourite cities.

I had a full day to be a tourist before continuing on to Marathon, and I visited all the usual places with no small sense of nostalgia.

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I also had great fun wandering around the markets, of which there were a wonderful variety. Meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, pastries, nuts and spices, antiques, hardware, and all manner of souvenirs vying for attention. I must have eaten my weight in baklava.

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The next day there was a short drive to Marathon, many introductions, and a campsite to set up. The groups putting on the event came from Greece, Italy, France, Romania, Bulgaria, England, Canada, and the United States. I had the chance to meet and work with some excellent reenactors and truly lovely people, and I hope to see them all again. The sense of camaraderie around the campfires in the evening will probably stay with me as much as anything else.

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On the Thursday and Friday we put on educational displays and activities for groups of schoolchildren, with a certain amount of help from a team of translators. On Saturday the campsite was open to the public, and we put on a show describing some of the tactics and the outcome of the Battle of Marathon. I was portraying a Scythian in the Persian cavalry.

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You may notice the slightly incongruous modern bridles on both horses. Unfortunately neither horse had seen anything like a Greek hoplite before, or a shield, or a spear, or a bow, or historical tack. In fact the black horse I am riding in this picture had received very little training of any sort. We were incredibly lucky to have horses available for the event at all, and I enjoyed spending some time training and working with them. But with very little time available, when it came to the battle, the cavalry elected to run away.

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In the brave and noble tradition of Sir Robin.

In addition to the public displays we carried out experiments on the movement of a phalanx, and the pressure that could be exerted in the push between two armies. On our final evening we met with a historian, Fotis Karyanos, who very kindly offered to take us on a tour up to the site of the Greek encampment before the battle.

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Sadly my stay in Marathon had to be cut short by a day due to a ferry strike. On the other hand, that meant an extra day to see Italy. After arriving back in Ancona, I spent the night in Ravenna where I had one of the most delicious takeaway pizzas I have ever tasted. The next stop was Verona. I was not enthused by the prospect due to my inveterate loathing of Romeo and Juliet. However, I can now say that it was absolutely 100% worth it.

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There are plenty of good reasons to visit Verona, but if you go for no other reason, you should go to see the Roman Arena.

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Walking from the tall, echoing internal chambers out onto the sand it is not hard to imagine the roar of a crowd eager for blood.

After Verona it was time to head back through the Mont Blanc tunnel. It was almost two weeks since I had left York, and even on the Italian side of the Alps it was starting to feel very much like late autumn.

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Back in France I visited the Thiepval Memorial and drove along the front line of the Somme before spending a rainy night in Calais. Finally on the fifteenth day I arrived back in York, tired and somewhat poorer than when I left, with a bag full of laundry and a phone full of pictures.