Thursday, June 9, 2011

My 14th Century Long Sleeved Shift

I have finally finished the first of 5 pieces for my study of 14th century shifts!

I decided to go with the boring bit first…the politically correct standard long sleeved shift. Of course, there is lots of information available for this style of shift. Pour yourself a cup of tea and get ready for a good "sit down":


The long sleeved shift is the most commonly seen style of shift for women found in art and illuminations of the 14th century. It consisted of a full tunic with long sleeves for women and short sleeves for men. There are some very nice portrayals of the long sleeved shift found in the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook on wellness. It was written by an Arabic man by the name of Ibn Buland of Baghdad in the eleventh century. In the late 14th century, illustrations were incorporated into this treatise. Two illustrations to follow are of peasants working in the fields threshing wheat. It is likely that they are dressed in their underwear due to performing strenuous labour in hot weather.

There are also images of women in their shifts from The Decameron, a collection of 100 novellas by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, likely started in 1350 and finished around 1353. Two such illustrations follow:

And finally, there is a depiction of a martyrdom from a 1372 manuscript in the Hague, portraying Susannnah led to her execution. In the illustration to follow she can been seen wearing only her shift:

When I look at the styles of these shifts I see that they are all long sleeved. The first and second images from the Tacuinum Sanitatis seem to show the sleeves either loose enough to be able to push up the arms or perhaps they are tapered partway down the arm. The first image from the Decameron shows a fairly loose fitting sleeve. The image of Susanna led to her execution appears to show the sleeves somewhat tapered to the wrist. Each image appears to show the shifts fairly loose fitting to the body with the exception of the second Decameron image which I believe is slightly fitted to the upper body. The length of each shift varies from mid calf to ankle length, though the first Tacuinum Sanitatis image seems to show a belt being used to pull up the shift leading one to believe it is ankle length to start.


My intention with this particular shift was to prepare the pattern using a width of fabric that would have been available in the 14th century…approximately 50-90cm rather than the width of fabric we enjoy today…approximately 115-150cm. I also wanted to prepare a pattern that would waste the least amount of material as possible, since this is also a technique that would have been used in the 14th century. Most of my pattern was based on information found in The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant by Sarah Thursfied. The image below shows what the paper pattern looked like before cutting. I have marked off the 2 small areas of waste with cross hatching…the neck hole and a small area near one end. I believe I did the best job I could to make a pattern that would waste the least amount of fabric. The 2 gores were particularly tricky…what I ended up doing was tracing 2 pieces per gore in order to make them fit nicely. This is one of the techniques that was used to decrease waste. The final width of the fabric ended up being 90cm.


Fabric used: Bleached white softened 100% linen, 5.3oz weight.

Thread: 100% linen, waxed using beeswax.

Stitching Technique: 100% hand sewn using primarily a run and fell technique. I used a backstitch on the armhole areas for added strength. A couple of the gusset seam allowances were opened and felled on each side of the seam instead of folding it all to one side to make construction a little simpler. Hems were folded and finished with a running stitch.

And here is the result:

My opinion on the finished product? I think it turned out fairly well. Perhaps a tiny bit large on top but it fits perfectly well on my lower half. I am not a huge fan of the long sleeved shift, though. It doesn’t provide any support for the “girls”, so I would still need to wear a bra for my own comfort. I was hoping I could use it as a nightie but I won’t because it falls off my shoulders…the reasoning for that is the fact that the neck hole is rather large in order to not show underneath my 14th century gowns which are rather low cut with large neck holes themselves. Upon wearing it under the gowns, however, the gowns themselves hold up the shift since the gown construction is rather fitted to the body.

So, there you go…the standard, politically correct boring 14th century long sleeved shift has been conquered!

My next project will be one of the more controversial shift styles based on the Bathhouse Babes designs! No boredom expected here!

References for Above Section:

1) The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant by Sarah Thursfield, copyright 2001.

2) Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard and Kay Staniland, copyright 1992, 2001.

3) Dress in the Middle Ages by Francoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane, copyright 1997.

4) Reconstructing History Pattern: 14th century Women’s Accessories by Kass McGann






  1. The bath house babes shift is boring to sew. I have the pattern from Reconstructing History. Took me about a day to hand sew it. Reminds of the t-shirt style sundresses that were popular about 20 years ago.

  2. If you make your long sleeve shift without the sleeves and narrow the shoulder strap. Spaghetti strap not tank top.