Monday, December 21, 2015

Making a Medieval Cloak: A Bit of Geometry

I looked forward to making a cloak to go with my Medieval costume, because I longed for the swishiness and practicality a cloak provided. I wanted a cloak that was full but not too full; a complete circle cloak just seemed like a disaster to hem and a swishing hazard.

I settled on a 3/4 circle cloak, meaning that instead of the cloak resembling a full circle when laid flat on the floor, it would resembled 3/4 of a circle. A 3/4 circle can be assembled with three 1/4 pieces, yet this would give me two seams to sew rather than one, and I was on a severe time constraint (at this point, Halloween was about a week away!). A circle can be divided in several ways. Into quarters, as shown:

Or, into eighths, as shown:

Thus, a 3/4 circle and 6/8 circle are the same size! But how could I get around the issue of all those seams? I cut the cloak in two pieces, each piece 3/8 in size. Below, 3/8 of the circle is shaded. This results in one edge being cut on the bias and one on the selvedge of the fabric. I used the selvedge cut edges for the center back seam, and the bias edges became the front edges of the cloak.

For this cloak, I wanted a material that was lightweight, yet substantial; luxurious, but not busy or overwhelming, since this piece is intended to go with other costumes in the future. I looked to period art for inspiration, and found several trends.

Trend 1: Cloaks were often solid

Lady 1370
Germany Frankfurt am Main
14th century depiction of Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Trend 2: Cloaks, especially those worn in images of the Madonna, could be blue (Throughout the Medieval and Renaissance art periods, and especially in the Renaissance, the Madonna is very frequently wearing a red/orange dress and blue cloak. Does anyone know of the significance/symbolism of these color choices?)

Madonna and Child by Lorenzo Monaco, Florence, c.1410
Madonna and Child by Berlinghiero, Italy, 13th century
Madonna and Child by Duccio di Buoninsegna
Illumination from the Jay Gould Hours, French, c. 1460
Further, as you can see from the images above, cloaks were usually floor length -- some even pooled at the wearer's feet, though this could be artistic license. At 45" wide, my fabric wasnt' wide enough for a floor-length cloak unless I pieced the fabric together, but I didn't have time for that, so a mid-calf cloak was made!

My cloak is made from Kona Cotton (I believe the color is Pacific), which is heavy yet has a nice drape. It is lined with an old white cotton sheet, which needed some clever piecing to fully line the cloak. The lining and outer fabric are attached by hand with a slip stitch, which allowed me to work on the cloak at school or in the car; the hand sewing actually went by rather quickly! I felt that the finished cloak was too plain, so I handstitched gold gimp braid 1/2" away from the edge. Turns out 8 yards of braid was just 2 feet short of rounding the whole cloak, so I had to get clever with disguising my lack of trim, and so the trim ends in swirls at the back of the cloak.

The cloak fastens with two large bronze dome buttons, between which a plastic "gold" chain is looped and then secured with a safety pin behind the buttons. This allows for easy removing and adjusting. This chain-and-button closure also appeared in some examples of period artwork, like the illuminated manuscript above. However, the chain easily slipped inside my dress unattractively.

Thanks for reading!


  1. My understanding is that blue pigment was made from lapis lazuli and was hugely expensive, so originally the colour blue was reserved for especially important people, such as Mary.

    1. Thank you for that interesting information! It makes sense that she would be honored in the most exquisite way possible.