Monday, November 18, 2013

Mid 14th Century Armor

I have chosen the mid 14th century as the time period for the first set of tutorials for the SCA on a Budget series largely because of the armor of that period. While mid 14th century clothing is simpler than the clothing of later time periods, it is not any simpler than clothing from earlier time periods. In contrast, the armor of the mid 14th century is more complicated than the armor of earlier time periods, which might lead you to wonder why I chose that period as a starting place for my tutorials. The answer is fairly straightforward, which is that the armor of earlier time periods does not meet the minimum armor standards for SCA rattan combat. Furthermore, the armor of the mid 14th century is far simpler than the armor that comes even a few decades later. Because of this, the mid 14th century is a "sweet spot" in medieval history where the historic armor is sufficient to meet SCA armor standards, but is simple enough to be made by novices with limited tools and metalworking experience. Ideally my focus will be around 1351 which would make the armor perfectly suited to the Combat of the Thirty (CotT), a special type of melee that occurs at large events like Pennsic

So, what would a mid-14th century knight or man-at-arms wear into battle?

I urge you to first watch this video titled "How a man shall be armed" which has been prepared by La Belle Compagnie, a Hundred Years' War reenacting group that has done some remarkable research. The armor that we will be making will be most similar to the armor worn by the man on the left from 1337, the start of the Hundred Years' War.

Helmet: Nothing says medieval armor like an awesome helmet. For the mid 14th century, you have a few options. If you are planning on making the helm yourself, the simplest option is to make a great helm. By the mid 14th century, the great helm was going out of fashion, but they could still be seen on the field. Great helms have the main advantage of being simple and requiring minimal tools to make. They also look pretty cool. However, they have the disadvantage of having limited visibility and of presenting flat striking surfaces (not all of them do this). An example of a nice great helm is worn by the fighter who is facing us in the first image of this forum thread:

The most popular style of helm is the bascinet, which is seen in the video linked above. These were initially worn underneath great helms, but ultimately they developed into a helmet of their own. They initially did not have any form of face protection, but visors and nasals developed quickly afterwards. In the SCA these are often made as a fairly cheap starter helmet and face protection is carried out by welding steel bars together to make a "basket" for the face. As far as making these yourself, they aren't terribly difficult, but do require some more tools than the great helm, are a little more difficult to shape, and require access to welding equipment. If you are going to buy a helmet, this is probably your best bet.

A third option is the kettle helm. I won't go into much detail about them, but essentially they are a steel wide-brimmed hat. Medieval kettle helms lacked face or side protection, but SCA versions typically include a bar grill and some metal slats to met the minimum armor standards. These are about the same difficulty to make as a bascinet, but have a few more pieces, so they're a bit more expensive to buy.

Choosing between these helm styles will largely be a question of aesthetics. In general, I recommend simply buying your helmet, as making your own requires some metalworking skill, access to materials and tools, and will take a relatively long time to complete on your own.

Padding: The first layer of any armor is typically padding that serves to cushion the body against blows, provide a place to attach other pieces of armor, and make wearing armor more comfortable. Typically padding was made from cloth, with a natural undyed or bleached linen outer shell that is padded by either stuffing some form of material into channels stitched into the fabric or by quilting layers of thick material between the layers of the shell. Historically the stuffing would be a natural material, and I urge you to do the same. When armor was stuffed, materials like un-spun wool, horse hair, and raw cotton were used. If you use the quilting method where you stitch multiple layers of fabric together, this would be accomplished by using many layers of linen or 1-2 layers of fulled wool. Interestingly the padded layers actually offered significant protection from arrows, as layered cloth is fairly puncture resistant, and raw cotton in particular seems to wind itself around the shaft of arrows that spin as they pass through the padding.  I have had success using fulled wool to pad my 16th century arming doublet. Wool serves as a very breathable layer of padding. In addition to the materials I've listed here, bamboo quilt batting also works quite well.

Depending on how you count, there are 2 or 3 different padded garments that you will want to create. The first is a garment that is sometimes called a gambeson or aketon and protects the torso. The construction of this garment is similar to the Bocksten man tunic. The second garment you'll want are padded cuisses. These cover the upper leg and also serve as a place to attach the knee cop. Building these two garments first is probably your best bet, as all of the rest of your armor will fit over top of your padding and/or will be attached to it. The third padded piece goes inside your helmet and serves as padding for your head.

Elbows and Knees:

SCA armor standards require that you protect both your elbows and knees with rigid protection. For the purposes of this suit of armor, we will accomplish this with simple elbow and knee cops that do not have any lames and does not involve any articulation. This will keep it simple and keep costs down. Making elbow and knee cops isn't particularly hard, and for many new armorers, they are their first piece, so making them is definitely an option, however these aren't usually terribly expensive pieces to simply buy either. Depending on your willingness to shape metal and your overall budget, you may consider simply buying these pieces. Once you have made or bought them, they will be attached to the sleeves of your padded gambeson and to your padded cuisses. This will help keep them in place. You will also usually need to add a strap that will go around the joint to keep the cop in place.

Wrist and Hands:

If you are planning on fighting with sword and shield, the cheapest way to protect your hands is to wear demi gauntlets (that protect the wrist and hand, but not the fingers) and put a basket hilt on your sword and shield (to protect your fingers). If you plan on using two-handed weapons (great sword, spear, polearm), you'll need full gauntlets that protect your fingers too. This gets expensive, there's really not a great way around that. Demi gauntlets are harder to make than elbows, but they're not too difficult. Getting fingers and thumbs to articulate correctly, however, is fairly tricky, so you're probably going to end up buying gauntlets.What's more is that protecting your hands is really important. It's fairly easy to break a finger in SCA combat, and since most people work with their hands, that's not really something you want. Hockey gloves are the bare minimum protection required by the rules, but they're really marginal in their protection. Fighting with them, especially sparring with pole arm or great sword while wearing them, is asking for broken fingers. Don't skimp on your hands.

Legs and Arms:

Armor for your legs and arms is optional, but highly recommended. The simplest and cheapest way of armoring these body parts is using splinted armor. Splinted armor takes the form of metal splints riveted or sewn to a leather or cloth backing. This method keeps the amount of metal shaping to a minimum and is a fairly forgiving and flexible method of armoring your limbs. As far as limb armor goes, the forearms (vambraces) are the most important part to armor followed by the upper leg (cuisses). Upper arm protection (rerebraces) are also a good idea. Lower leg protection (greaves) can also be useful. Striking below the knee does not count as a legal blow in SCA fighting, but it happens sometimes and it hurts. Splinted greaves will also improve your appearance.


Neck protection is required. At a minimum you will need to attach a chain maille drape to your helm. However, in my opinion, this is a very poor method of protecting against thrusts which are highly prevalent on the melee field. I recommend that you also wear a gorget to protect your throat. Gorgets don't really exist in the mid 14th century, however you can make a simple gorget in the same way that you make a coat of plates. While it is inaccurate, it will aesthetically match the armor. Furthermore, if you wear a chainmaille (or leather or quilted cloth) drape from your helmet, the gorget will be hidden.


The SCA requires that you protect your kidneys with a minimum of thick leather. Some people do this using a weight lifting belt. If you have finished your gambeson, you can put on a leather belt underneath to protect your kidneys, and that will serve as sufficient armor to meet the rule requirements, but I don't recommend it. Historically the body's main protection would have been chain maille, however during the mid 14th century, coats of plates started to be worn. You can see an example of a coat of plates in the video above. Essentially this is constructed by riveting overlapping plates of metal to a leather or cloth coat. This provides rigid protection for your torso and serves as kidney protection.


The appropriate style of shield for the mid 14th century is a "heater." Aluminum is a popular choice for making shields in the SCA because it is light, but they are also expensive to buy. Some people use street signs to make them, but this method still requires that you affix some form of edging on your shield. A more attractive, cheaper, and more attractive method is to make a bent plywood shield.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Seam Finishing Techniques

When I made my first few outfits, something that I didn't know about (but really wish I did) was seam finishing. I was never really "formally trained" at sewing, so nobody had ever explained to me that if you didn't finish the seams of your garments that they would fall apart the first time you put them through the wash. If you've ever had this happen to you, then you'll know that this is indeed a very sad thing.

Now, there are plenty of ways to finish your seams, and I can't cover them all, but I will talk about a few common ways to do it. Some of these require extra equipment, while others work best when hand-stitching.


Probably the easiest and most-straightforward method of finishing your seams is by using a serger. Now, you're probably thinking, "What's a serger?" Simply put, it's a special kind of sewing machine that finishes edges and they look like this:

Finishing seams with a serger basically involves running the machine around the edge of each piece of fabric before you sew them together. It really couldn't be any simpler (unless you could figure out a way to never need to thread one). Sergers also typically trim the fabric edge so you get a nice clean finish. For an example of a serger-finished edge, grab the nearest t-shirt, turn it inside out, and take a look at the seams. You'll see that they are essentially wrapped in thread. That is what a serger does. The major drawback of a serger (aside from the difficulty in threading one) is that it requires an extra piece of equipment, and they aren't exactly cheap. It is worth checking with sewers in your local group to see if one of them has a serger that they'd be willing to let you use for your project (I don't own one, but borrow my roommates when I need to use one). If you can't find a serger, you can approximate the effect by using the zig-zag stitch on a regular sewing machine. It won't be quite as strong or as neat, but you can get pretty close with careful stitching and trimming (Of course this requires you to have a sewing machine as well). 

If you find that you lack the fancy machines necessary to serge/zig-zag stitch the edges of your garment or if you want a more medieval look, felling your edges might be for you. Felled seams often appear in canvas tents and sometimes jeans are constructed using them. Felled seams are a historical method of assembling garments and are quite strong (which is why they're used in tents). If you are sewing by hand, this is probably your best bet for most seams. Essentially they are done by having the two pieces of fabric (blue and green lines) wrap around each other as shown in the image on the right. They can be done by hand or using a sewing machine. The orange lines show roughly where the seams go when hand sewing. I like to do these by overstitching. This is shown in the image below:

For machine sewing, you can get a special presser foot to help you make them, but this is unnecessary. Unfortunately you'll find that there really isn't a way to do this without creating a visible machine stitch, which is something I like to avoid when sewing medieval clothing. However, you might find this to be acceptable, particularly for undergarments (shirts, braies, etc). Furthermore, you can create a hybrid where you do the first seam stitch with a machine, roll the felled seam over, and finish with a hand stitch (hem, overstitch, etc). 

This is another good explanation of how a felled seam works:

This is a reasonable tutorial for how to make them using a sewing machine:

Another way of finishing edges is to roll them over. This tucks the raw edge inside the roll so that it can't unravel. Rolled seam edges are shown above, and they can be carried out in a couple ways. The neatest way is to put a narrow hand-rolled hem around each piece and then sew the pieces together, but a quicker way to do it is to simply stitch your fabric pieces together, leaving a wide seam allowance (3/4" - 1.5" depending on how much fabric you need to leave yourself). Then, simply fold this seam allowance over twice, tucking the raw edge inside, press with an iron, and stitch the edge down (by overstitching, hem stitch, etc). You can also do this with a sewing machine, but like before, you'll have a visible machine stitch (unless your machine can do a blind hem stitch, but most can't). 

This is a good tutorial on doing a hand-rolled hem:

For a quick reference sheet to some basic sewing stitches, look here:

Note: What I have called overstitching during most of this tutorial is referred to as a "whip stitch" by this stitching guide. For rolling over and finishing hems, there are several stitches presented in this guide that will work just fine including the whip stitch, vertical hem stitch, cross stitch, and even slip stitch. However, you will probably find that the simpler, spiral ones are a bit faster.