One Kirtle to Rule Them All - A Brief Introduction to Kirtles


This post corresponds with the Youtube Live hosted by Burnley and Trowbridge on March 12, 2021. Firstly I will discuss what a kirtle is and the basic construction and materials.

I thought it would be a fun project to challenge myself to make one dress that I could style for several regions in Europe at the turn of the 16th century. If you are a person who attends Renaissance Faires, SCA events, or other historical recreation gatherings, you might find that you want to dress to different themes and places. It can be expensive to make a new dress for each theme. Enter the universal kirtle!

In late 2020 I made a kirtle to the fashion of the early 16th century. It is more English in style than any other region, but it is quite similar to dresses found in Northern Europe and the Holy Roman Empire, and even close to those worn in Florence during the late 15th century. The differences between these regional fashions are not so much in materials, but in details like how a skirt is pleated or gathered, lacing, patterning subtleties, etc. The Florentine term for a kirtle would be "gamurra", and I believe in German it would be "underrock", which means under dress. If you know a term in German that is more descriptive of a kirtle, please let me know, I would love to hear!

  "February, Breviarium Grimaldi" (1515–1520),by Simon Bening, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice.

A kirtle is a bust-supporting dress, which can be worn on its own for informal occasions or work, but was typically worn with a gown and other accessories. The term "gown" during the 16th century refers to an outer garment, and does not necessarily mean the gown was formal or fancy. A kirtle could be sleeveless or have sewn-in short sleeves. Separate sleeves could be tied or pinned on. Kirtles could lace up the front, sides, or back. The most popular color was red, but many other colors were seen. The term "petticoat" was also being used to refer to kirtles during this time, and you would often see inventories or wills mentioning a petticoat (skirt) with an "upper body". You would always wear your kirtle with a linen undergarment, called a smock in England. If you want to know more about kirtles in the 16th and early 17th centuries, read the Couture Courtesan's blog.

                         A Marriage Feast at Bermondsey, Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, circa 1569.

The big question asked of kirtles is always, "what were they boned with?" Usually, nothing. The bust support is mainly achieved by two things: patterning of the bodice and interlining(s). If the bodice pattern is done properly, very little additional structure is necessary. This means multiple mock ups in sturdy fabric, often with help from a friend to get the fit just right. To add structure, you can interline the bodice with thick linen, and include extra layers in just the center front made from more canvas, buckram (which is linen stiffened with hide glue), or even a layer of wool. Pad stitching or quilting these layers together makes it even more rigid. The academic research I have read of this period (which includes all the regions this kirtle is going to pass for) does not show whalebone being used until the middle of the 16th century at the earliest. There may have been some reed boning or cording. I won't judge anyone who chooses to toss some boning in their kirtles if that's what they prefer! I often put a few in the front to prevent the crease that's created when I slouch due to my terrible posture.

                   The Field of the Cloth of Gold, circa 1545, Royal Collection at Hampton Court.

The kirtle itself is made from a dark rose worsted wool, with the bodice interlined with linen canvas and lined with lightweight linen. The center front contains an additional layer of linen canvas and wool flannel that has been quilted together to make thick channels. In period, this could also be done with pad stitching, but I chose machine quilting to speed up the process. It closes in the front with hand done eyelets. The skirt is two full widths of the wool knife-pleated to the bodice. The bodice has lacing rings sewn inside the shoulder strap to tie on separate sleeves.

The pattern I used is my generic 16th century bodice block. I highly recommend the Tudor Tailor book for a very detailed history of the kirtle and how to construct them. You can buy their kirtle pattern from their Etsy shop. As the book discusses, in the 16th century kirtles would be made from wool (for all classes) or silk (the upper classes only). Fabrics that blended variations of wools, silks, and linens did exist, and for a great list of all those available fabrics, see the Tudor Tailor book. Natural fiber fabrics will breathe better, regulate body temperatures more easily, and are more fire-resistant.


  1. Watched the live video of your talk and was very interested in the medieval sports bra you made.
    Where would I best find a pattern or instructions for drafting something similar?

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