Sunday, July 16, 2017

In Search of Armor: Gambeson

My current gear, I've got my new arms on here,
Although taped on still. Legs, and breastplate are
Loaner, so's my helmet (restingby my feet)
I've been a bit lax with my blog over the last couple months. Not because I've not been sewing, but because with the SCA event season upon us, I've been too busy desperately trying to finish stuff to have time to spend writing it up. We've gotten much more involved this year: started attending camping events, and both of us started fighting, so suddenly I have 6 people in need of complete wardrobes, rather than just one or two outfits, plus an entire encampment to organize. It's been crazy to say the least. But I wanted to take a break from the hurly burly of pennsic prep to share the next step in my quest for armor that doesn't weigh a thousand pounds and fit like it was made for a much larger man....

The next step in my skin out armoring process is the Gambeson. For those of you not familiar with armoring terms, this is a padded (usually by quilting) closely fitted jacket style garment worn under armor to give you some padding. It has varying styles. I chose one popular in the 14th century because I was fascinated by the large circular grande assiette sleeve. It's some of the most interesting patterning I've ever seen, and I wanted to try it! There's a fascinating surviving example of this style in the purpoint of charles de blois (Housed in the Musee Historique des Tissus). Although it has been postulated that this rich silk garment was actually for show, it has the style of the more practical arming coats of the time. The pattern is a variety of crazy partially probably inspired by a desire to conserve fabric, and partially practical. The circular sleeve gives you almost complete mobility in a skin tight garment, which explains why the style was popular for so long. (For a wonderful discussion of the topic with all the applicable sources, see this well done Article).

I started with a body pattern pulled almost direct from my body block, as this is a very fitted garment.  I used a center back gore in the skirts to give me fullness for my hips and rear, and cut the sleeve holes out to the aproximate shape. Then I used The Cotte Simple's directions for Drafting with your good friend, Math which were very clear and simple and resulted in an almost perfect fit at the first go. I fudged the lower arm (there's a seam at the elbow hinge) but came out with a good result there the first time around as well. With a couple very minor alterations, I went straight to the final garment without a second fitting.

I decided, based on the example of other local fighters, that I was only going to pad key areas of my gambeson, for the prevention of heat stroke (Who wants to be wrapped in a quilt under their armor on a hot day? NOT ME) Therefore I cut the complete pattern out of white 4.7 oz linen (Dharma Trading again!) then cut a second layer for the areas that were going to be padded. The padded areas are the high wear areas, so I wanted to have the outer layer be a heavier weight. I didn't have any heavy weight linen I wanted to sacrifice for the cause, but I did have a big bag of scraps from making other garments that I had planned to piece crazy quilt style to make a lining for a  cloak or something, they were all nice quality and heavier weight, so I decided that my gambeson would be crazy quilt style, and got to piecing.

With my outer layer ready, I needed to sandwich some sort of stuffing between the layers of linen. Historically wool, flax, and horse hair were used for armor padding. In the modern day, we have a lot more options. I knew I wanted to avoid synthetics at all costs for this project, because of how hot they are. Although cotton is a popular modern choice, I wanted to avoid it because of it's sponge like qualities and slow drying rate, which I thought might lead to my gambeson growing things and developing a powerful stank. Horsehair and flax are not easily available, so that left me to choose between wool, and bamboo, which is noted for it's anti microbial properties. I consulted the various fighter groups, and finally decided to use, not wool batting, but just washed and carded wool fleece from my own stash. Evidently it will felt itself into the shape of my body after a few uses. That, plus the fact that I already have it, were powerful incentives.

I sandwiched the layers together, body of garment, padding, then outer layer, and pinned it to death. I was originally going to quilt this on my treadle machine, but after looking at the sort of dished shape of the back of the garment, decided it would be less painful in the long run to do it by hand. So I quilted all the padded areas with a large stitch and perle cotton. It turned out looking rather like the carapace of some fantastic beetle.

Then I put the sleeves in, This was a bit tricky because I didn't want to catch all that padding in the seams, making a lump to chafe my poor delicate skin under my armor. After consulting with my mom, whose degree in practical fashion design makes her unusually qualified to deal with these problems, I decided to face the inner seam out, clip the padding back and top stitch it down, then cover the whole mess with a piece of trim.  I treated the elbow and sleeve seams similarly, although much of that was padded meeting linen, so I clipped back the padding, rolled the edge of the top layer under, and used a tiny invisible hand stitch to put it down. There was no way to get the machine down into the arm to top stitch it (at least not easily) The key was to always trim back as much of the bulk as possible before finishing the edges. This was accomplished by by trimming the padding back so it ended about a quarter to an eight of an inch before the seam (leaving room for any turned under edges) and grading the hidden parts of the seam. This was a lot of work, but it avoided any bulky stiff lumpy chafey seams.

I had to finish all the edges of the quilted areas where they met the fabric. The easiest way to do this was to put some bias taped down over the edge. I really wanted to use a linen tape trim, but the price was a little steep, and I ended up going with some cotton bias tape that I already had in a complimentary color of green. I running stitched it down to the linen side, then used a mostly invisible whip stitch to sew it through all three layers of the quilted areas. Sewing through all the layers will keep the quilted edge from pulling free over time and wear.

I finished the cuffs with some silk scraps and a little perle cotton stitching. I don't know how I feel about the stitching. I might do it differently if I did it again. the effect is a little overkill, but then again the whole jacket is a little overkill.  the bottom edges I rolled and hemmed, and the collar I finished with a small bias silk strip.

The front edges had to be hearty enough to take ties. So I finished them off with a wide facing strip of very heavy (canvas weight) linen leftover from Husbeast's latest pair of pants. Then I used my favorite method for shirt ties, scaled up. First I put a hole where I wanted the tie using my handy tailors awl. Then I threaded 4 strands of perle cotton through, and finger loop braided short cords. Husbeast has yet to destroy shirt ties made in this manner, and I hope my gambeson will wear equally well. By going through the fabric itself you eliminate the weakest link of the tie: the place where you sewed it down. I also love how tidy it is without any messy sewn on ends or stitches showing on the outside. A little gentle scraping of the fabric with your fingernail shoves all the threads back into place and closes the hole around the cord completely.

Please excuse the crappy mirror selfies
And it was finished! The range of motion in this thing is strictly incredible. Full 360 degree shoulder rotation, I can wrap my arms as far around myself as they will go without straining the garment. I can lift them over my head and barely budge the bottom hem. There is a little extra fabric at the front of the arm. I'm not sure if that can be done away with. The placement of the sleeve hole on this garment is ideal for range of motion, but not ideal for the more sloping away side bust of the female form. Angling the seam line back away down the side of the bust would eliminate the extra fabric,  but might reduce range of motion. I still think I look rather like some sort of fantastic beetle, but I more like that than not. I'll use buckles or points to attach my rerebraces and elbows to the gambeson, which will keep them from sliding. Right now I'm using points and am dissatisfied with the ease of getting them tied up by myself and, it may just be the paracord I'm using, but they tend to come undone, which is annoying.

Here are some better shots of the whole thing laid out so you can see all the glorious details NOT in a slightly dirty mirror.
The elbow has a LOT of bend built in. surprisingly this is less awkward when your arm is held relaxed than you'd think. The elbows look a little poofy because I doubled the padding there compared to the rest of the forarm. I've been whacked on my vambraces with a polearm and it didn't leave a big mark, so they don't need a lot of padding. Elbows are fragile and pointy and should be padded well. 


with it open you can see the construction, the quilted channels, and also the front facings. there are no interior seams to bother my skin. 

The beetle carapace. the padding on the back is quite heavy. it doesn't limit my motion there, and it will do a good ob of protecting my kidneys. I also went pretty heavy with the padding on the upper back, because that will not be covered by hard material, so I think the extra padding will be welcome. 


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