Rapier-Armor-art - 12/28/00
"A Few Practical Notes on the Construction of Rapier Armour" by Mistress Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester, O.L.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefanís Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
A Few Practical Notes on the Construction of Rapier Armour
by Mistress Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester, O.L.
I've been making protective clothing for the rapier arts for nearly three years now, in that time outfitting nearly every fencer in my area, as well as doing loaner tunics; I'm currently sewing my fourth set of gear (by now, it's just a matter of fashion, rather than dissatisfaction with construction). I've even entered my rapier armour in our regional A&S (using the new Middle Kingdom rapier armour criteria), receiving a first for one piece and a second for another. I write this article in hopes of saving those of you contemplating making your first set of armour (or whoever's going to do it for you) a few headaches.
How does rapier armour differ from regular garb?
This is a loaded question. Looks-wise, the best rapier gear I've seen is indistinguishable from regular garb--until it is taken off. One of the wonderful advantages of our art is that we can still dress to the nines on the field, if this is our thing. However, precautions must be taken so that the gear still does what it's supposed to--protect the fencer--as well as being comfortable and durable.
Choice of fabric:
Think carefully on this one. The regulations specify four layers of middle/heavyweight fabric (or "trigger", if they use that name in your part of the world). This is a guideline--not an absolute--it's not meant to restrict your choices of fabric. What I'd recommend is making up a "trigger test patch" of four layers of this fabric about six inches square, but only sewn on one edge. Take it with you into the fabric store. When you run across a promising fabric, you'll be able to compare it instantly with the standard. A lot of upholstery fabrics which make lovely armour may actually end up being equivalent to two layers of trigger; likewise, if you run across some cheap remnants in the remainder bin, you should instantly be able to figure out how much you'll need. But also pay attention to the properties of the fabric itself. For instance, not all upholstery materials are equal. Some are loosely woven and tend to ravel at the edges; others are tight as a drum and wouldn't unravel if a tactical nuclear missile exploded in them. For obvious reasons, the second makes more durable armour. Watch out for Scotch-guarding in these fabrics. You certainly don't need it, unless you plan to wear your gear during the monsoon season, and it does interfere somewhat with the way the fabric breathes.
You also need to keep an eye out on the strength of the fabric itself. I have seen seemingly strong, heavy fabrics tear to shreds after only a couple of wearings. Velveteens and corderoys are the most prone to this; if there's a problem, itíll usually show up after the first washing--which makes pre-washing vital. Be wary of anything on the bargain table, especially anything labelled "100% unknown fibres". Besides having the potential to be extremely uncomfortable if these fibres turn out to be synthetic, many "bargain table" fabrics are of inferior quality and may have odd quirks (one batch I bought had an odd, petroleum-like smell). However, if you've seen the fabric on the shelf in the store before at a regular price, and it appears to have been moved there because it's the end of the season or the colour is ugly, go for it.
Fibre choice is another important factor. Generally, cotton or a cotton blend is best, not only in terms of durability and comfort, but in terms of cost. Remember that all layers need not be of the same material. Also take into consideration where the gear will be worn, and how heavily. Rapier armour usually gets sweated in a lot, so youíll want something thatís easy to wash and that will hold up under this kind of treatment. Itís not a bad idea to consider making two sets of gear--one of basic, durable materials for practices and another for indoor tournaments and "dress" occasions.
While Tudor, Spanish, Italian, Elizabethan, and Cavalier doublets and pants conform best with fencingís historical milieu, you can certainly make other styles as well (I've made a fencing cotehardie for a gentleman of my acquaintance). If you are on a budget, or want something to use until you figure out what you "really" want, you might try a tunic. Somewhat fancier, but very easy to make and very comfortable is a long (knee-length or longer) Eastern European or "Cossack" coat (a style which is actually contemporary with the fencing era). Just about any male style (and some female styles) can be adapted to fencing.
How do you turn a regular pattern into one for rapier gear? The first is the most basic--make sure to take into consideration the extra layers. This means you should probably add a little extra room along all the seams; it's especially important to make the armscryes and wrist opening larger if they are close-fitting. Also take into consideration the effect heavier materials will have on the way the garment fits and moves. Most fencers I have talked to do not like to fence in tight-fitting sleeves--they especially need mobility around the shoulder joint. Tight sleeves which are fine for a regular-wear doublet may tear out quickly in one for fencing. Furthermore, tight sleeves are quite uncomfortable in hot, humid weather. Loose fitting sleeves are a Good Thing. Recently, I attempted to authorize in schlager wearing my splendid new Cavalier garb. I'd noticed the garb--more specifically, the fairly tight-fitting arms-- forced a few adjustments to my epee style, but nothing I couldn't work around. I'd never tried to fence schlager in the new garb. To my surprise and consternation, the garb was so restrictive in the upper arm area that it hindered me from handling the weapon effectively and was actually wearing me out. I was unsuccesful in my attempt. Two weeks later, I gave it a try in my usual Cossack coat and had no problems at all. The moral of the story? You should not sacrifice style for comfort--but if you plan ahead, you should not need to.
If you're making a doublet, check the waistline of your pattern. Many doublets have high waistlines because originally the breeches or slops were tied right into them; if you do not compensate for this somehow, you may end up with dangerously underprotected areas when you raise your arms. You can compensate by lowering the waistline somewhat, by adding skirting to the doublet, or by doing the historical thing and tying the two garments together. Remember also to make the neckhole bigger, so that a hood may be tucked in underneath.
Your next concern is the closures. It is perfectly possible to make regular button closures down the front--but don't forget to add a placket in behind them. Stitch down the placket so that if a sword should slip between two buttons, it will be stopped by a solid seam. Place your velcro or zipper or whatever on the other side. You can also adapt patterns so that the two front pieces overlap enough to be safe, or you can even make "underwear armour" which is designed to be worn under other clothing, so that it looks like you're fencing in a shirt and light jerkin.
Now, for the actual sewing. ALWAYS double-seam all seams for rapier gear, and it's not a bad idea to triple-seam in areas that are under stress, like the armscryes. Make sure when you seam that all layers are included in the seam. Sergers are terrific for rapier armour--but I'd still recommend straight-seaming after you've done your serging for extra strength. ALWAYS use good quality thread for rapier armour (not the 4/$1 cheap stuff--resist the temptation! It's worth it!) If your fabric is fraying a lot, invest in some Fraycheck. When it comes time to add any ornamentation, make sure it's tacked down solidly. (A warning: braid trim, unless it's actually braided like a pigtail, has a tendancy to unravel after a few pokes with a sword). If you're creative, you can produce fake slashes and such for doublets, but always take care to insure that there are no little holes where a blade could slip in.
While you're at it, take some scraps and make up a test swatch of the fabrics in the body of your garment. Might come in handy if someone ever wants to test your armour with a broken foil....
An addendum: Making an effective cloak for rapier
When making a cloak for the art of defence, you are trying to do two things at once: to make an attractive clothing accessory and to make an effective off-hand parrying device. Of these two goals, the second is most important. A fencing cloak which does not flow well or is either too light or too heavy is useless. Not all fabrics are suitable for a fencing cloak. After a fair bit of experimentation, I have found that the best combination for me is one layer of middleweight upholstery material (not too stiff) backed with a layer of middleweight cotton or bengalene. Along the circular outer edge, I attach upholstery cording--the nice fairly thick kind--for added weight; it also looks nice and makes the cloak flow well. I have found that the optimum length for a fencing cloak is about the length of the arm or slightly longer (which also makes it look nice if you actually wear it). Now, this combination might not work for you--but my cloak seems to get borrowed a lot! If you are able to, test drive potential cloak materials in the fabric store by giving them a shake or a swirl. Some fabrics just do not "flow" well. Remember also that if you've got your heart set on a particular fabric that's too light, you can always add a middle layer between the outer layer and the backing. A good cloak makes fencing this style a lot easier and a lot more effective, but everyone has different preferences. Be willing to experiment and find what works for you.
Copyright 1996 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and 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.