“The Mysterious Bliaut Revealed” by Mistress Enid d’Auliere, OL
NOTE: See also the files: bliauts-msg, Garboholic-art, fasteners-msg, cotehardies-msg, cl-12C-Woman-art, silk-msg, p-shoes-msg, embroidery-msg.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
The Mysterious Bliaut Revealed
by Mistress Enid d’Auliere, OL
A garment called a Bliaut appeared in the historical record from about 1120 to about 1170, then was replaced by the form fitting cotehardie, along with the secret of it’s construction. The bliaut seemed to be a form fitting lady’s garment (though there was a men’s version that I will address in a different article) from the shoulder to the hips, then fell from the hips to the floor in graceful pleats, almost accordian-like. There seems to be a large girdle or belt around the midsection of the garment, obscuring how this garment might have been achieved. Often the bliaut was depicted with wide sleeves on the overdress and a tight fitted sleeve on the underdress. In the few descriptions we find from the period, it is mentioned that the dress was often made of fine silk, rich and beautiful fabrics that would have cost a king’s ransom in the early middle ages, though it could be made of other fabrics as well, which would have been most likely fine wool or linen.
This graceful garment has intrigued historians and costumers for ages. It has an elegant line to it, seemingly light and flowing even in stone. But the stone has kept it’s secret and the bliaut continued to be a mystery in the costuming world. Many theories have been put forth to explain the seemingly unexplainable. The Victorians depicted the bliaut as having a large, quilted, fitted girdle around the midsection, almost like the beginnings of a corset. Other theories have included the possibility of the bodice and skirt being separate pieces, though other examples of that skill waited for centuries to appear; wide skirts with inserted gores or even netting between a short bodice and dropped skirt. Unfortunately, none of these theories successfully explained the appearance of the dress within the skills known to be available to the seamstresses of the time. None of them truly explained the odd middle section and what that might have been even if they might have explained the construction of the dress. The mystery remained.
The Detective Work:
I had determined that there had to be an answer to the riddle of the bliaut that fitted with the known skills of the seamstresses and needle workers of the period. I just had to find it, that’s all. So, lets take a look at this garment once again. The bliaut is a fitted garment from the shoulder to the hips ending in close pleats that fall to the floor. The midsection is fitted with “something” similar to an expanded belt or corset and obviously decorated, primarily in horizontal markings. The skirt falls from the this midsection to the floor in graceful, close pleats and doesn‘t appear to be much larger at the bottom of the skirt than at the top of the skirt, making it also pretty close fitting. The sleeves seem to be large and often bordered with either embroidery or woven trim. The neckline of the bliaut is wider and often a “V” neckline or a keyhole neckline, both being used at differing times with decoration around the neck, either trim or embroidery. The underdress seems to be unremarkable, a round neckline and long, tapered sleeves that seem to lace at the wrists.
Now, let’s look at how this garment might have been constructed starting with a couple of basic assumptions. Assumption number one is that the garment is one piece from shoulder to floor. The reason I am assuming this is that there is no other garment with a separated bodice and skirt until the 15th century. I can safely assume that this knowledge was unlikely to have been gained and lost in the space of 50 years. Assumption number two is that the dress appeared as depicted in the statuary and drawings of the period. Given those two assumptions, the question for any good seamstress is if the pleats end at the floor, where do they need to begin?
Given assumption number one, the answer to that question is at the top. The pleats had to begin at the shoulder to be able to appear as they did at the hips and fall to the floor. They had to be folded on the straight of the grain of the fabric (or the warp) in order to fall so straight and gracefully to the floor. It’s in the nature of fabric itself. That means that the whole garment had to be shaped by manipulating the fabric by pleating it from the shoulder to the hips creating the pleated skirt. Let me say that again because it’s the key to the whole dress. The fabric is manipulated into place by a series of pleats from the shoulder to the hips. Looking at the garment again, I determined that my garment would be pleated at the shoulder and again at the midsection to create the fitted silhouette shown in the statuary from the ￼
period of the actual garment.
The next question is what is that stuff in the middle? Is that some kind of belt, sash, corset? What are those horizontal lines? If it is a belt in itself, why is there another belt over it? In the construction of the dress, I found the answer to this problem as well.
What we are seeing, or so I believe, is the pleating around the middle to fit the garment, sewn down to secure the pleats and embroidered over with decorative stitches to make it pretty. The process of pleating stiffens and thickens the fabrics and the decorative stitching further enforces the structure the pleating began, giving the midsection the signature stiff and quilted appearance. This leaves the skirt to drop from the hips to the floor in the graceful and close pleats we see in the statuary. The pleats are vertical so the stitching to secure them would be best if they were horizontal, giving the midsection it’s signature look.
The Bliaut Revealed:
The garment itself is not beyond the skills of the artisans of the period, actually it was well within the skills of the seamstresses given a bit of innovation and lots of time. The pleating is not a documented sewing technique that I have found, at least to this extent, however, no examples of this garment yet exist into our time, so it is impossible to tell if pleating was taken to this extreme during this period. Looking at the finished statuary, I have to conclude that pleating rather than smocking or gathering is the most likely technique used to result in the particular silhouette of the garment.
This pleating technique is time consuming, but quite lovely when it is finished. The garment, using this technique, would have been based on a T-tunic pattern, just starting out very large, probably involving the full width of the fabric available for each side, thereby needing the length of 4 dresses for the body of the dress plus fabric for two sleeves, pleated into the shoulders and midsection until the dress is formfitting though the body to the hips, falling in neat, graceful pleats to the floor as it has been shown in the drawings and statuary from the period.
Now why would the artisans of the time use such a time consuming technique as hand pleating an entire garment to fit and spending hours embroidering over the pleats? We can’t really know the answer to that, but my belief is that at this time in history, rich, fine silks were becoming available to the courts of France through trade with the Holy Lands. These fine silks intimidate me now even with modern scissors, but most likely would have intrigued and intimidated the artisans of the day presenting a unique challenge. Not wanting to cut the fabric with the scissors available in Iron Age Europe, they invented another process to shape the fabric. It may have been that the fine silk fabric was so valuable, they didn’t want to discard a scrap of it; they were afraid to cut it; or they just came up with idea, there is now no way to know, of course. It is certainly possible that this method of construction enabled the seamstresses of the time to use more fabric thus displaying the wearer’s wealth. Fine silks would have been worth their weight in gold, if not more, so wearing yards and yards of fine silk would have proclaimed the wearer’s status loudly.
It is reasonable to say that the bliaut was, indeed, a transitional garment, coming between the loose and simple T-Tunic and the more fitted and complicated cotehardie of later periods. It is just possible that the pleating technique used to fit the bliaut helped shape later patterns, however that is just a guess. My guess is that the ladies of the day wanted something more elegant than a T-tunic from the fine silks that were becoming available and the leap from a T-tunic to the pleated bliaut was a logical step given the skills and tools of the time. The step to the fitted bliaut was the first time a fitted garment was worn that was purposely fitted through the waist and hips and must have been the haute couture of the day, nothing short of the medieval Channel.
The method of construction is simple in theory and a bit more time consuming in practice. The width of the garment at the bottom of the skirt is equal to the top of the garment, it is all fitted to the wearer by making small pleats in the fabric which are sewn over to fix them in place. The pattern is that of a simple T-tunic without the gores on the sides, just two rectangles, one for the front and one for the back. I find it best if both the front and back are made up of the full width of the fabric piece, so that each rectangle contains 2 widths of the fabric and cut longer than the garment is intended to be. The pleating and sewing take up more length than you would imagine. The front seam where the two widths of the fabric are sewn together will be the center front of the garment and the same thing for the back, but it will be the center back.
Now you can begin pleating. The pleating will begin at the shoulder and neck and then again at the midsection or waist. This is a time intensive process and takes patience, I’ve found. Keeping the pleats even is the trick to this technique. Pleat the fabric to the measurement from shoulder to shoulder of the wearer, leaving space for the neck, of course. Make the pleats as long as you wish, but longer pleats mold the fabric better to the body of the wearer. However, keep these pleats as even as possible as they affect the pleats at the midsection and how the skirt falls.
My personal technique for pleating is folding, pinning with straight pins, and repeating until the desired width is achieved. This allows for fixing mistakes and adjustments by simply moving the pins. Once the I have the pleats in to the proper width and as evenly spaced as possible, I baste the pleats in place with a single thread later to be removed, press them down and draw the lines for the beginning of my embroidery. I draw the horizontal lines so that they are straight, and take the rest of the pattern from that. You will notice that once the horizontal lines are embroidered by using either a chain stitch or split stitch, the pleats make box shapes. I embroider an X in each box then a + over that in a contrasting color of thread. This simple embroidery makes a star shape and can continue the width of the garment, eventually resulting in fixing the pleats in place.
Once the front and back neck/shoulder are done, you can move on to the midsection. This is a bit more of a challenge in shape, though the pleats are usually evident by now from having been secured at the shoulders. The statues show that the front midsection was a convex shape or bowed out, but tell us nothing about the back. I’m assuming that the back was a concave shape or bowed in for the purpose of this garment and ease of fitting. The design I chose was to have a border around the midsection top and bottom and then horizontal lines within the rest of the design. The width of the midsection should be just a bit larger than the measurement of the wearer’s midsection. You can adjust the pleats to fit this measurement but remember that the embroidery stitches will pull it in a bit.
Sleeves are shown to be large and flowing, angel type in design. I have continued the pleating method to the shoulders of the sleeves and embroidered the tops of the sleeves to achieve the effect I wanted. I believe that the design of the sleeves are pretty open to discussion and imagination, given the skills and tastes of the time. They could be long and pointed, or open and flowing, but always show a tight-sleeved undergarment with the bliaut.
This technique is intensive in detail and hand sewing, but simple in cutting. I think it has been in front of us all this time, but not seen because we no longer fit dresses by pleating methods, nor have we done this for many centuries. It is a technique lost to time, so lost that there is no name for this technique. We have smocking and shearing, but no name for this pleating method that the seamstresses of this long ago time used to fit the fine fabrics they found in their hands. Though the name is lost, the technique need not be entirely lost. With some practice, this pleating method can create new bliauts equally as lovely and flowing as the original gowns were.
Copyright 2007 by Marcia Wallace. <orlando at portagetravel.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
Edited by Mark S. Harris The-Bliaut-art