Villaste rõivaste õmblusvõtted keskaegsete arheoloogiliste leidude näitel / Stitches and seams of woollen garments based on medieval archaeological findings


  • Jaana Ratas



Sewing by hand is certainly something that deserves researching, conserving and practising. This traditional craft might be used to make copies of items in museums or it might be used to produce modern clothing. One source of inspiration are the seams we find on archaic textile fragments. This article deals with sewing skills and techniques that are detectable on textiles recovered from urban waste from Estonian towns dating back to the 13th–16th centuries. Our article focuses on textile fragments from Tallinn chiefly, but we also look at a small assortment of finds from Tartu and Pärnu. Our main concern is with the sewing skills and the techniques used to make woollen clothes.

Medieval sewing skills and techniques cannot really be described using contemporary terminology or manuals: any finds are only fragmentary, and establishing a link with an object is complicated because old techniques differ considerably from contemporary practice. Fragments do have their advantages, however. For example, seams can be studied more easily. The lack of adequate terminology in our contemporary language arises from the fact that many medieval techniques have been forgotten.

The main research methods we used were visual observation with the help of magnifying tools and detailed documentation. Stitches and seams leave traces, which means we are able identify them. A thread that has rotted away leaves a row of holes behind it, and the existence of seams is revealed by imprints and by an unworn surface. Furthermore, different stitches shape the joints in a different way.

The article is based on 174 woollen textile fragments with a total of 321 seams. Eight different types of stitches were identified on those fragments: running stitch, partial and full backstitch, hemming and overcast stitch, and buttonhole stitch. Running stitch occurs the most often, in fully one third of the cases.

Seams can be divided into construction seams, hems and finishes, and seams for special details. Plain seam, seam with folded seam allowances, reinforced seam, lapped seam, whip stitch joins, buttonholes and buttons are studied here. English captions are provided for the illustrations of the article.

Most of the textile fragments originate from recycling, in the course of which the seams were cut out and thrown away. Sewing waste provides information about consumption habits, and sometimes objects can be identified. Certain seams relate to certain items, e.g. the lapped seam discovered in 14 cases definitely relates to the remnants of stockings.

The standardisation of techniques was noticeable. The length of seams and the width of seam allowances seems to be similar throughout the period under study: the running stitch is approximately 2–3 mm, the partial backstitch up to 7mm, and other stitches (zigzag) 2–3 mm long. The techniques identified with the help of medieval finds from Estonian cities are similar to those found in other European cities. We cannot tell from the fragments whether they have been made at home or by professional tailors.

Sewing by hand should be promoted and used in the production not only of copies of artefacts, but also of contemporary items too. This would encourage us to value handicraft and good materials and to make items that have an emotional value.

Keywords: stitches, seams, archaeology, medieval, textiles, sewing


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Research Article