An Unseamly Mistake — Seam Topstitching

For the past few years, the late medieval period has become quite popular in historical clothing circles. For a period with relative few extant sources, the level of research has surged ahead in leaps and bounds. As a result, many people in costume circles are making and wearing late medieval clothing.

An unmistakable mark of these late medieval outfits is topstitching on all the seams. This is accomplished by pressing the seam open inside the garment and felling the seams flat with an even running stitch from the outside through both the seam allowance and the outer material. The result is a seemingly decorative stitch a few millimeters away from the seams, adorning them. If asked, the seamstress will usually reply that she does this to strengthen the seams. She will sometimes even reference Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard and Kay Staniland’s Textiles and Clothing, c.1150-c.1450 (a.k.a. “The MOL Book”) saying that “this is the way seams were done back then.”

Unfortunately this ostensibly good research is nothing of the sort. The reference in Crowfoot et al. does not document this stitch on seams in the medieval period. Matter of fact, it does quite the opposite. I quote it in full (emphasis mine):

“The back seam of the hose was joined by either running or back-stitches. It then appears that the seam allowance on each piece was held in place by tiny running-stitches, worked from the outside, 2-3mm from the seam. This approach to consolidating a seam does not appear to have been used elsewhere on medieval garments, to judge from the evidence of the London textiles.” Crowfoot et al. pg 187-88.

 

Furthermore, seams stitched in this manner don’t appear on the Moy Gown, the Greenland finds, the Carnamoyle Gown, the Kragelund tunic, or any of the other extant 14th and 15th century garments. The only garment on which such seams appear is the Golden Gown of Queen Margareta, housed in Uppsala Cathedral in Sweden (Geijer et al. 1985, pl 23a). It is thought the seams were stitched down in this manner to help the long skirt seams to lie flat. However, it is not clear that this stitching can be seen from the outside of the garment.

The necklines, sleeve ends, and hood face openings of the Greenland finds are stab stitched which can look similar to decorative top stitching. However these textiles are sewn in this manner to reinforce the edges. The seams of the garment are not sewn in this way ? only the hems. In many cases the seam allowances are overcast on the wrong side of the garment, but these stitches do not show through to the outside.

In other words, there are no extant examples of late medieval garments that are decorated with a row of running stitches on either side of every seam. Even the hose from the London finds are only decorated in this manner along the back seam. Even other hose from the find are not sewn in this manner.

It has also been argued that this top stitching was done not for decorative purposes, but for strength. Stab stitching a hem like those on the Greenland finds was certainly done for strength and to keep the hem lying properly. Making a parallel line of running stitches on either side of a seam strengthens nothing. If the seam rips, the stitches holding down the seam allowances will not stop the seam from pulling apart. This treatment does nothing but hold the seam allowances flat inside the garment.

Could medieval seamstresses have done this stitch on all their seams? Of course. Did they? Obviously not if most of the historical record shows no such stitching. And before you use the “what if the stitches rotted away” argument, remember that there was no thread extant with the girl’s hose in the London City finds either. The evidence of this decorative stitch is nothing but holes in the wool. So if there had been this type of stitching on other garments, it would have left similar holes.

If you wish to reconstruct a pair of hose based on this child’s, there is no reason to omit the top stitching. This is the instance in which it was done. But it does not belong on either side of every seam on every reconstructed medieval garment.

As with all mistakes, this one gives us an opportunity to learn something important that will help us grow as researchers. First, do not follow someone else’s instructions blindly. Ask questions. Secondly, just because a seam treatment or an edging technique or a buttonhole stitch is done a certain way on one garment does not mean that it is common or even appropriate for all other garments for that time period. Remember, this mistake grew out of a decorative technique used on one small girl’s hose. None of the other hose in the find were stitched in this way. And none of the other garments were either.

Bibliography

  1. Crowfoot, Elisabeth, Frances Pritchard and Kay Staniland. Textiles and Clothing, c.1150-c.1450. 2001: The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.
  2. Østergård, Else. Woven into the Earth. 2004: Aarhus University Press, Denmark.
  3. McGann, Kathleen. Unpublished notes made at the National Museum of Ireland, July 1998, and July 1999.

© 2006 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.