Saturday, September 30, 2023

1590s Maternity Clothes - A German Loose Kirtle and Loose Gown

There's something about a looming deadline on an impossible time table that makes me want to make super elaborate things at the very last minute.

With my local SCA's Baronial College a mere two weeks away, I decided, quite suddenly, that I wanted to make a whole new ensemble to wear to it. The last time I'd made anything 16th Century was over a decade ago and wouldn't fit even if I wasn't 7 months pregnant, so I had to make something new! I couldn't just show up in modern clothes, right?

I decided to take a stab at a German loose kirtle, since I figured that would be the comfiest, roomiest option that would require the least amount of finagling to fit over a bump that seemed to be expanding daily. I also wouldn't have to worry about finishing my long in-progress stays or my farthingale in order to wear it.

Loose gowns and kirtles seemed to also have been favored in-period as maternity wear. There are plenty of portraits of women with a noticeable baby bump wearing loose gowns and unfitted kirtles, like the examples below.

Top Left: 1562: Portrait thought to be Lady Knollys (maternity), by Steven van der Meulen.
Top Right :Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts II, Portrait of an Unknown Lady, (c.1595) Tate

Maternity portraits in the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period seem to have been something of a trend. Pregnancy was rarely depicted in portraiture in other eras, but we have a number of portraits of visibly pregnant women from the late-16th and early-17th century wearing fashionable garb and showing off those belly bumps. Some art historians have called this period a golden age of maternity portraiture, because it drops off almost entirely after the 17th century when visible pregnancy nearly vanishes from portraiture. Some speculate that the increase in maternity portraits during the late-16th century is linked to the rise of Protestantism, where instead of the Catholic ideals of chastity and virginity, Luther and the Protestant church declared pregnancy to be a "holy state", and that the later disappearance of these types of portraits is because of a rise in more conservative values again - pregnancy suggested that the woman was sexually active, and even the dutiful wife was supposed to appear pure and chaste, so no more maternity portraits. It's an interesting subject that hasn't been widely studied, but if you want more info I suggest checking out Karen Hearn's book Portraying Pregnancy: Holbein to Social Media.

Anyway, The Tudor Tailor and Patterns of Fashion 3 both feature patterns for the same loose kirtle, based off this extant from the Germanisches National Museum.

Loose kirtle - 1560-1590, Germanisches National Museum
Unterkleid zum Weiten Rock (T3618) | Objektkatalog

In the first week of work, I planned drafted the patterns out of the books and got everything ready to sew so that once I had fabric in my hands I could power through and get the garments themselves done as quickly as possible. But when I compared to the measurements in Tudor Tailor to my own, I discovered that there was a 17 inch difference between them! I didn't see the point of drafting out the pattern as-is and then suffering through trying to slash-and-spread to cover such a huge size gap, so instead I drafted out a new body block (using my most recent pre-pregnancy measurements) and altered the pattern from there so that it matched what I was seeing on the original.

The kirtle has no waist seam. The front is very loose and flowy, while the back is slightly more shaped but not overly fitted. There's a panel on the front that acts as a forepart and is sewn onto the front of the kirtle and so is not integral to the construction.

I only had to draft two pieces for the kirtle - the front and the back. Once I had my initial draft, I did a mockup in some cheap muslin to see how it fit. The mockup was slightly longer than the initial pattern since I extended it down to hip-length and added the flare of the skirt. I ended up taking a scoop out of the center back seam and adjusting the armhole a bit, but otherwise it was pretty close!

The loose gown to go over it would also be based on a pattern in The Tudor Tailor, which is even more simple than the kirtle pattern - they body is just one pattern piece, which you cut out four times. I used the front piece from the kirtle pattern as my starting point, since it was already 90% there, and simple straightened the side seam line. That was it!
The Tudor Tailor pattern has two options for sleeves, but I was sort of tempted to do Spanish-style hanging sleeves as seen on some very late period examples from the 1590s and beyond. But then I'd have to have much flashier kirtle sleeves, and I didn't think I'd have the time for that. So, I first tried going for the sleeve that resembled the Edwardian leg-o-mutton sleeve, but ya'll, that was one weird sleeve pattern. All of the volume was concentrated under the arm instead of on top, creating a sort of weird armpit bag. I thought that I must have done something wrong, even though I'd drafted it directly from the book, so I posted in the Elizabethan Costuming group on FB, where Ninya Mikhaila, the author of Tudor Tailor and creator of the pattern said, "Nope, you did it right! That's how it's supposed to be!" It was nice to know that yes, I do actually know what I'm doing, but also, I hated it.

Two halves of the sleeve. Each piece was placed on the fold to create the entire piece. The smaller piece is the sleeve lining, with the larger piece the fashion layer.

You can see here how all of the volume is in the underarm. If all that volume was on top, I would have liked the sleeve a whole lot better!
So yeah, I hated it, and decided to draft out the alternate sleeve pattern, which was a loose, one piece sleeve with a slash down the front to reveal a colored lining.
I didn't take a pic of the mockup of this sleeve, but it worked right off the bat and was much more sane than the other style!

With the patterns ready to go, the weekend arrived, and I could finally hit the fabric warehouses in Dallas to find my fabrics.
The fabric plan was to make the kirtle in black taffeta, which I already had in my fabric stash, with something spiffy for the forepart and sleeves, and to find a flashy brocade for the gown that would be interesting enough on its own that it wouldn't require a lot of time-consuming embellishment. While a huge number of loose gowns in period were black, toward the end of the century, and the decades that interest me the most, colorful brocades and velvets are not unusual and make for some really striking gowns. Armed with a vague plan, I hit every warehouse I could, and eventually came away with these - the black slated for the forepart, and the gold for the gown.

I started sewing as soon as I got home, diving in with the kirtle. I cut out the front of the kirtle first. Since I didn't have a full-length pattern, I had to measure down from the waist to create the skirt portion.

To make the forepart, I drew out the line I wanted onto the pattern, and then just folded away the portion that I didn't need.

The forepart then was stitched down directly on top of the front panel, with the seam allowances tucked under.

The next day, I switched gears and started working on the gown. I agonized for a while over cutting the gown fabric because I though that I hadn't bought enough and that I'd have to cut one panel upside down to make it work, but after staring at the fabric for a good while I realized that the pattern was designed in such a way that there was no right or wrong way. Whew! That meant that I could cut everything out just fine and still have plenty left for the sleeves, and my minor crisis was averted.

I was using a gold taffeta from my fabric stash for the lining, and I ended up not having enough of it to line the entire gown. Luckily I had two bolts of slightly different colors, and I could use the not-quite-suitable one to line the back panels where it wouldn't be seen. 
I managed to get the entire body of the gown cut out, assembled, and lined in a single day!

Over the next few nights, I worked on sleeves. The sleeve pattern is cut down the slash line, creating two pattern pieces. Between finagling the lining, pressing everything, having to hand-sew the colored panel in - as well as some ouches to give the gown a bit of sparkle - and pleating the sleeves into the armscye, the sleeves took up more than half the week.
By Thursday evening, I still had the hand-sewing to finish on the second sleeve, which meant I had to finish the gown sleeve, the kirtle, and all my accessories - a partlet to wear under the kirtle to mimic a shift (since I wouldn't have enough time to make an entire new shift), a coif, and a forehead cloth - on Friday night. Eep!

To give myself as much time as possible to work on the gown at kirtle in the evening, I took a length of linen with me to work on Friday, where during my down time I cut out and hand-sewed my coif and forehead cloth, and cut out the pieces for my partlet.
I used the pattern from ye olde for the coif, and used measurements from an original forehead cloth to pattern out mine. I think the coif ended up slightly too small, because afterward I compared the measurements to some museum extants, and the extants seem to have a few more inches of length on them. However, I'm not too bothered, and I was really happy with how both of these items turned out.

 When I got home, I finished up the remaining sewing on the second sleeve and set it in, thereby finishing the gown! I had quite a bit to do on the kirtle, and y'all, I cut all the corners I could. I cut out the back of the kirtle and sewed it to the front, and then did the dirtiest hem I have ever done, turning up the extra length once and stitching it into place. The neckline was finished off with a bit of cotton bias tape, and I installed an invisible zipper up the center back, because there was no way that I was going to be able to sew all the necessary eyelets in time. I left the entire thing unlined because there was absolutely no time left.

The last thing to do was assemble the partlet. I had used Margo Anderson's free partlet pattern, which includes instructions, so all I had to do was follow along, and the entire thing went together in about 1 1/2 hours.

And with that, the outfit was...wearable!

I have to say that this was, by far, the most comfortable Elizabethan outfit I have ever made. I wore it all day Saturday at Baronial College, and was always comfortable. I could take off the gown when I got too hot and just wear the kirtle. It was like wearing a big fancy nightgown and big fancy bathrobe. It was fabulous!

I plan to take the kirtle apart and fix the construction shortcuts I took, line the thing, finish the armholes, and do the proper interlining of the bottom of the skirt like the original had. I also still need to make sleeves for it, since I ran out of time to make them before the event. The zipper will get replaced with some hand-sewn eyelets. 
I also plan to make myself a proper shift so I have all the complete layers.

However, the gown itself is 100% complete, and I love it! I also love that I can wear it with other kirtles in the future, so its a really versatile piece.


Davies, Alan. “Elizabethan Art Expert to Explore Rare 16th Century ‘pregnancy Portrait’ in Chancellor’s Lecture.” Welwyn Hatfield Times, Welwyn Hatfield Times, 2 June 2021,

Figes, L. (2020, January 20). Portraying pregnancy: From prehistoric art to Jacobean portraiture. Art UK.

Garcia-Navarro, L. (2020, January 26). Tracing 500 years of pregnancy portraits, from the Tudors to today. NPR.

Mikhaila, Ninya, and Jane Malcolm-Davies. The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing 16th-Century Dress. Costume and Fashion Press, 2015.

Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion 3: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women C1560-1620. Drama Book Publishers, 1985.

Margo Anderson Free Partlet Pattern - Free Patterns


  1. It looks fabulous and comfy, who h is a real win!

  2. As always your research is just amazing. You look beautiful!