An Eleventh-Century Englishwoman’s Cyrtel, part V (and last)


   I didn’t have time to do any of the seam treatments I wanted to experiment with, beyond pressing the seams of the sleeve and sleeve lining pieces so that they would lie nicely together. This I did — not having an iron — with a glass paperweight. At an event I was at some time ago, I overheard a conversation about the different theories surrounding finds in some graves of smallish crystal balls — scholars often jump to the conclusion that because they have no clear purpose they must be ritual objects of some sort, but one of the people in the conversation said what if they were small portable seam-pressers? A glass paperweight is not quite the same thing, but I figured it might be close enough to see if the whole idea is balderdash or not. And it actually worked quite nicely on the small sections I was able to do, so I don’t think it’s impossible. Own-Crocker writes about the possibility of those balls being used as linen smoothers as well (pp. 94, 277, 303). I’ve since tried a paperweight on linen rather than wool, and it does work well (not that I have any other experience to compare it to).

   I would like to be able to calculate the amount of time I spent on this cyrtel, but I can’t. Chronology is deceptive, because I started it in July 2018. However, I only worked on it for two weeks, getting as far as inserting the side gores while hemming as I went along, before life got in the way, and a stretch of bad mental health followed. I worked on it off and on for the next year, more off than on, and only started it seriously again in December 2019. Thereafter I averaged an hour a day on it, but quite a few of those hours were spent ripping seams and working through obstacles rather than doing any actual stitching. But no matter how early one starts a project, the inescapable SCAdian curse follows: a few weeks prior to the event you must and will find yourself wishing you weren’t driving yourself to site, that you might add on potential sewing time in the car. 

   Also, the sleeves were going swimmingly as I attached them to the body, and I was actually able to line up their upper seams with the shoulder seam — and then, with the first more than halfway sewn on, Wednesday before the event, disaster struck in the form of me lining up the sides in preparation for side seams and finding them not to be the same length. And of course the longer was in front. At that late hour, did I dare unattach the sleeve, reposition it hoping to avoid holes, and redo it? Or, as I have done twice before, did I fold over the extra in the least conspicuous place possible, knowing that neither Philosophia nor the Weingarten Virgin seem to have that kind of extra detail on their gowns (the latter’s being especially untailored), and hope for the best? Eventually I settled for the latter course, resolving in future to double-check the sides and make their matching a priority over lining up with the largely unseen shoulder seams. Which you can do by sewing up the side seams last.

What I learned from this project

   Bone needles are fun to work with and you can get tiny stitches with them. I don’t want to go back to metal needles now. Part of it is a sensory thing — bone needles warm up in your hand as you use them, and get smoother over time, and mine is starting to get ever so slightly flattened where I hold it — how could you not like something that you can shape and mold and which also isn’t cold like metal and doesn’t set your teeth on edge when you inevitably drop it? Durability is an issue, of course — I only have the one bone needle and I’ve been so very careful not to sit down on it. Still, if I did, yes, it would break. But it wouldn’t physically hurt me the way a metal needle does.

   I still hate sleeves. Not wearing them but sewing them — as much as possible a matching pair — having to do a tricky thing and, when it’s done, not being able to rest on that but having to go and do it over again (it’s a bit like life, put like that). Having to join them up to the body piece and somehow not leave or make any holes. The entire process of inserting sleeve gussets, which are useful and good and marvels of engineering when you consider all the different things one square or triangle of bias-cut fabric has to do, but endlessly painful to put in. I’d thought that maybe having a different kind of gusset this time would make the process easier, but unfortunately not. 

    Listen to your fabric. This can be anything from the level of individual stitches — where does it want the thread to pass? — to what project it wants to be. I had three pieces of fabric which would have done okay for the sleeve lining, but despite inconveniences such as not having enough to fully line them, it was the green twill that refused to give up on being part of this garb. So it is now, and I hope it’s happy. I quite like the contrast. 

    This project confirmed for me that I really do prefer the two-gore to the four-gore look for this period. I think you can argue that the Virgin in the Weingarten Crucifixion could have four gores, given the way her skirt drapes between her knees, but generally speaking I think two gores look more like the art.

   Because of the bug problem, and the project not fitting in my nice safe stash bin, I took to keeping it in the freezer between times of working on it. It didn’t have much trouble thawing out, though I can’t vouch for any damage the constant freeze-thaw cycle might do to fabric kept this way permanently. Being wool I would think it would be pretty resilient; other fibres perhaps not so much. Still, I didn’t find any new holes in the fabric after that. 


   It may be worth noting, now that the trials of making this garment are over, that this is only my fourth such project (counting the first, which, alas, subscribed to almost every stereotype I decried in the earlier parts of this paper) and my first attempting such a persnickety degree of accuracy. No doubt a more experienced seamstress in any period would have accomplished a garment of this pattern much faster than I did, and with less stumbling about and getting confused about the littlest things. But while this cyrtel is far from perfect — something it shares with every work of human hands, including its cousins the now sadly lost garments contemporary with the artistic sources which are all that remain to us today — it is certainly functional: it fits me, for whom it was made, and is not so fragile that I’m afraid to do normal things in it, and even looks something like the pictures. Perhaps it’s a lot of work to go to only to prove that people were still wearing t-tunics, yet I hope we don’t look down our noses at the style simply because the separate pieces are all straight lines, but can appreciate how with a minimum of patterning fuss such elegant folds and drapery are achievable. 

   This is a reconstruction of eleventh-century female dress only in so far as the art I have had to rely on is an accurate representation of the current fashions, a question whose answer seems lost in the mists of time. But as a learning exercise and piece of experimental archaeology, I consider it a success. Since we have no extant garments to reconstruct all I can hope to “reconstruct” is the general look and drape of the garments as pictured. So I could have done an equally good job, judged as a representation, with synthetic fabric and sewn on a machine. True. But the experience is part of learning how things work — as Cathy Hay says, the process of hand-sewing is more than merely the price you pay for getting to the finished wearable object. While it takes much longer and is harder on my wrists than machine-sewing would be, and while it can be at least equally aggravating when you have to stop and rip out a seam, I find sewing is also much more fun when your fabric and your thread and even your needle are pleasant in the hand, and your connection to the people who first made these things is that much clearer.


Owen-Crocker, Gale. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. The Boydell Press, 2010. Various pages. 

Brewbane, Æthelflied. Sewing With Period Tools. 2016. Accessed 12/31/19. Link:


Cain, Joy Selby. An Anglo-Saxon Cyrtel. 2019. Accessed 12/31/19. Link:

Thomas, Kate. Wealthy Wynflaed’s Wonderful Will. 2016. Accessed July 2018. Link:

   I used the following pages from the Bodleian and Morgan libraries, respectively, to date the manuscripts I reference:

“Benedictional of St Æthelwold”. The British Library. July 2018. Link:

“The Junius Manuscript”. The British Library. July 2018. Link:

“The New Minster Liber Vitae”. The British Library. July 2018. Link:

“Gospels of Judith of Flanders (MS M. 708)”. The Morgan Library and Museum. July 2018.


About Nolie Alcarturiel

I enjoy practically anything to do with medieval history, including the domestic arts, with an especial emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon era. In my spare time I read endlessly, do medieval living-history, hold philosophical debates at the drop of a hat, and write books on even slighter provocation.
This entry was posted in History, Non-fiction, Research, SCA, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to An Eleventh-Century Englishwoman’s Cyrtel, part V (and last)

  1. WordPress keeps eating my old drafts, WordPress won’t let me publish the new ones with categories or tags, and I can’t find the pictures for this part. In spite of that I bring you the last in this long-drawn-out series and hope you find it somehow useful. Our next series is going to be on the Entwife project, which is now about halfway done.




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