Genealogy and Dressmaking?

Just a few weeks ago, I attended the University of Kent Medieval & Early Modern Studies (MEMS) Festival. By now, you probably know that Medieval genealogy is a big interest of mine and so it is not surprising that the MEMS Festival would be appealing. The Festival itself was a large affair, taking place over three days. There were four sessions a day (each split into two different subject areas), which included two to three presentations of papers. The sheer volume of papers and speakers was phenomenal! Not having been to a MEMS Festival before, I don’t know how it usually works (this year it of course took place online), but I wondered if perhaps it was trying to fit a little too much in? The talks I attended were very brief and there was not the time for the speakers to go into any great detail. In any case, it was quite a feat of organisation and my hat goes off to the organisers at the University of Kent for pulling it all off, despite the usual technical hitches.

Inspiration from MEMS Fest

The talk I was most interested in was in the section ‘Needlework of History.’ That particular section included talks on the topic of historical clothing and needlework used in devotional books. Cecilia White’s (from the University of Kent), ‘Recreating Historical Clothing’ was of particular interest, as I have recently been thinking more about the clothing our ancestors would have worn. In a bid to further understand my Medieval ancestors and those I research, I have begun a new side project. Eventually, I hope to make my own Medieval outfit of the sort worn by one of my own ancestors, Joan Sydenham (neé Stourton). I did write a previous post (or two) about the Stourton family and my own connection to them, which you can find here and here. I am still seeking further confirmation (research has been almost non-existent recently due to COVID restrictions in archives), but what I have so far looks promising!

Whatever the outcome for my own Medieval connection, going through the process of learning about (and subsequently trying to recreate) Medieval clothing will better help me to understand what life was really like for my Medieval ancestors. The more well to do women would likely not have made their clothes themselves, but the act of choosing cloth, learning about sewing methods and taking the time to put that into practise to make a garment, will add to the background knowledge that I have when I research. Understanding the period will help to make me a better researcher.

Why bother making historical garments?

Gaining further knowledge of the period is exactly the sort of thing that Cecilia White’s talk suggested. Making a historical garment can tell us information about those who wore it, beyond the genealogical. For instance, if a garment uses a lot of material, then the wearer would need to have been wealthy enough to afford it. Likewise, something I had not considered was the potentially unwieldy nature of some garments. If people were wearing these sorts of garments on a daily basis, then they would have been wealthy enough to not need to undertake many activities in such a restrictive garment. It is a case of practicalities- those who needed to work, needed garments that allowed them more freedom of movement. Those who did not need to work (or perform the same sort of activities), could wear garments that were more of a fashion statement. This then becomes a statement of status too.

Where can I find information on the topic?

As well has having attended Cecilia White’s talk, I have found many channels on YouTube that also cover the same subject. Cecilia herself is an ‘experimental archaeologist,’ someone who tries to recreate items from history using any physical and documentary evidence gathered. Whilst the YouTubers do not label themselves so formally, to my mind, they are practising a form of experimental archaeology, in searching for patterns of the time, looking at the materials that would have been used, the type of person that is being portrayed, and garment construction techniques of various periods. Those channels that I have found so far concentrate on a range of periods and not just Medieval dress, but they are fascinating to watch! The below is a list of those I have looked at so far and have found to be interesting and useful in content:

How will I go about this?

So for my own project, I plan to try to recreate the sort of outfit that may have been worn by my ancestor, Joan Sydenham. Joan died on 21 April 1472[1] and the family were based at Brympton, near Yeovil, Somerset. There are various stages to this project, which I plan as follows:

  • Research- looking for sources that tell me what Joan might have worn. I am particularly interested in looking for Wills that might include clothing, and monumental inscriptions and other images which might show what a woman of the time was wearing. The second portion of the research will be to look at texts which have been written by other authors who have researched sewing and dress-making techniques of the time. I already have my YouTube channels and The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant by Sarah Thursfield, but there are others that I wish to look at.
  • Planning- Thinking about the time period, Joan’s social rank, her marital status (a widow in this case). These will all have a bearing on the layers needed to produce the full garment, which can then be drafted using methods of the time.
  • Production- The final stage will be making the garments- yes garments plural! Not only will I need to make undergarments, outer garments and headwear, but I am also planning to test each one out first before I cut up proper fabric! I am more at the beginner end of sewing, so this is an important step for me. Learning to fit will also be a bit of a learning curve, so test pieces will be a must!

There is a lot to think about in a project such as this and as I have more experience in knitting than in sewing, it will take some time. I am not giving myself a particular time limit (due to work pressures and my recent shoulder and wrist issues), but I will keep you updated as I go along. There are many videos of this sort of thing on YouTube now, so I will instead keep blogging and writing about it instead. The below photograph is a sneek peek of my first attempt at what The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant calls a fillet. Something a bit like a hairband made of material, that probably sits under most headdresses.

Genealogy and Dressmaking | Shersca Genealogy | a mock up fillet
The part-finished prototype of a Medieval style fillet. I really got to practice oversewing! © 2021 Shersca Genealogy.

Next time, I hope to have the whole thing!

© 2021 Shersca Genealogy


[1] Inquisitions Post Mortem. England. Crewkerne, Somerset. 31 October 1472. SYDENHAM, Joan. Collection: Chancery: Inquisitions Post Mortem, Series I, Edward IV. Reference: C 140/42/45. The National Archives, Kew, London, England.

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