Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Tunic Necklines : A Tutorial


There is a lot of information out there regarding tunics, and their construction. Most articles and diagrams show a rectangular body with isosceles triangular shaped gores either on the front and back, on each side or in all four places. These patterns and diagrams show different ways of laying the tunic out on a piece of fabric so that you may cut out the tunic in a way that utilizes as much fabric and prevents as much waste as possible. Not a lot is said about the construction of the neck of the tunic though, and so that is what this article is about.

In the 1200s, the shape of the neckline seems to be mostly oval to round. There are some that are more square or pentagonal cut, and some, such as the shirt of Saint Louis (which we’ll come back to shortly) are tear drop shaped, but most are rounded. You can see these different shapes from the Maciejowski Bible. Here are a few examples:

Images from the Maciejowski Bible

The St Louis Shirt

When we look at the neckline of the St. Louis shirt, we see there is a bit of tape, or a band around the collar that crisscrosses at the center of the front. This band has several purposes; it serves to provide reinforcement so that the neckline doesn’t rip or wear out from usage, and it absorbs the body oils from the neck and prevents them from damaging the cloth of the tunic making it wear out faster. The tape band is also easily replaced when it finally does wear out. My friend Robin tells me that many of these pieces of tape have been found archeologically in London where old tunics had been refurbished for the second hand clothing trade.

Close up of the St Louis shirt neckline

When it comes to making tunics, I like to assemble my tunics first. Once the gores and gussets and sleeves are all assembled, I then come back and cut the neckline. This is however, just personal preference. If you’d like to cut the neckline and dress it first so that you can check the fit of your tunic (or medieval dress, for you ladies) as you sew, that is perfectly fine as well.  The first step is to put the shoulder seams of the tunic together, and fold the body in half lengthwise to find the middle. Then find the point one third of the way from the middle of the body towards the shoulder seam, and mark it. This is where you will make your cut.

Middle of the body in my left hand, the shoulder seam in the right

Pointing to the 1/3 mark, while Naomi takes up slack for me.

Once you find your one third mark, you will want to make a quarter inch long cut at about an 80-85* degree angle perpendicular to the top of the fabric, with your scissors angled towards the middle. You don’t want the first cut to be at a full 90*. You may find it helpful to have someone keep tension on the garment while you make your cuts.  Once you’ve made this cut, angle your scissors towards the middle of the body, and cut a straight line to a point about three quarters from the top edge of the fabric.

Making the initial cut

Cutting a straight line from the initial cut to a point ¾” below the edge

If you look at the collar on a modern t-shirt, you’ll see that it is slightly higher in the back than in the front. This is to help prevent that choking feeling of the collar feeling too tight. Our medieval tunic will be cut in a similar fashion as well. Next, we want to pinch the center of the front of the tunic in one hand, and pinch the center of the back of the tunic in the other hand and pull them apart. This will pull the sides of the neckline (the parts that would rest on our clavicle) together. You want to then pinch this area together in your right hand so you can make the next cut from here.

The middle front is in my left hand, the middle back is in my right. You’ll see the
Shoulder/clavicle area in the middle now

The shoulder/clavicle part in my right hand, front middle of the body in my left

At the point where my right hand is now is where I’ll make my next cut. I’ll make another quarter inch long cut at a 45* angle this time towards the front middle, and then a straight line to a point about half an inch below the fabric’s edge.

Making the cut

The cut

Cutting a straight line to a point a half inch below the edge of the fabric.

Once you’ve made these cuts, try your tunic on. If it is too tight, repeat these steps but only cut an eighth to a quarter inch the second time. It’s easier to cut cloth little by little than to add it back if you cut too much. If you want a tear drop shaped neck, then cut it deeper than a half inch from the top on the second cut. You may want to practice on a piece of scrap or muslin to get the angles and measurements correct before you cut into your good fabric of your tunic and ruin it. You may notice that what you thought was a straight line as you were cutting wasn’t 100% straight. Now is the time to asses that and trim up and uneven spots.

A high spot

Trimming it straight

Our rounded neckline, higher in back than the front

For the next part, we’ll need our neckline binding. To make this we’ll need to take a piece of white or natural colored linen or muslin and simply rip a strip off. You’re tape should be between five eighths of an inch, to one whole inch. When you tear your binding tape off the side of your fabric, if your fabric edge is not straight from having cut the fabric for something else, then you’ll want to cut a wider piece, and pull threads down to the desired width and trim the fringe off so that it is straight. If you make your tape any wider than an inch, when you try sewing it after turning it to the inside, you’ll find that the neckline will not lay properly at all.

Measuring an inch and a quarter

The strip is uneven, as you can see. I’ll trim and pull threads till its 1” wide

Once your tape is made, just pin it around the neckline of the tunic. With the right side of the tunic out, you want to start in the front middle, and work around the neck coming back to the front middle. When you start and finish, you want about three quarters of an inch of excess tape on either side of the middle of your tunic. Once you have it all pinned, just whip stitch around both of the raw edges.

Start ¾” to one side of the middle, unroll and pin

The tape is pinned, and the excess is cut off, leaving two overlapping flaps ¾”

Whip stitch the raw edges…

…until the raw edges are whip stitched all the way around and look like this

Once you have the top edge sewn to the neckline, simply just flip the tape to the inside. You’ll fold it so that the remaining raw edge of the tape is against the edges you’ve just sewn. Once it’s folded, just lay it down to the inside and the whip stitch the bottom edge of the tape to the tunic. You could do a running stitch, but the whip stitch will hold it more securely, and help it to lay batter. Remember to fold the excess flap edges under too, when you sew.

Folding the flap edge under

Putting all the raw edges together

Folding the tape to the inside covering all of the raw edges

Whip stitching it all down

Folding the edge of the second flap over to hide the last raw edge

All finished

And there you have it! How to cut and bind the neckline of a circa 1200s medieval tunic! I’d like to give special thanks to my friend Robin Mazza for always answering my questions about medieval tailoring, and sharing her knowledge on this subject. It was she who taught me this technique after discussing the St Louis shirt. I’d also like to thank my wife Naomi Wilson for being a photographer and an extra pair of hands.

- Josh Wilson, 2017 

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