The dark secrets behind the dress

A couple of months ago, Curious Frau poster a picture of a german gollar from Schwaebisch Hall, it was found in a house and was once a precious piece of garment, and passed down from maid to maid. You can see that it has been patched an re-patched, just so it can be used over and over again.


20130920-184717.jpg (photo by M. McNealy)

It’s an adorable piece of garment, and give us a hint of the value that it once had for the owner/s, so precious that it has been taking care of in all the possible way to make sure it would be wearable for along time.

A friend of mine provided me with an interesting aspect of our modern way of approaching the recreation of another time period, of the stress we all have of wanting to have a new garb for every new event we attend, but either not got the money to buy fabric or the time to make a new dress. Or both. Or maybe not even have the skills to do it yourself. She suggest that we should instead just relax and wear that same old dresses …because it’s pretty period right?

The very same friend decided to hand sew a complete garb; apron, coat and vigil dress all by hand, with the latest pattern research and with period stitches. During the process, she told me, she suddenly noticed that working by hand gave her a completely different relationship to her dress; the amount of time and labour she put into it gave her an new insight of the making of a dress might have been like for those who once did it, not for a hobby, but as a part of the everyday life. The dress wasn’t just a dress, not even the underdress, she knew every single inch of that dress, has been made by her hands. Her revaluation of sewing gave me an insight of “why” I never liked a complete new dress I made, it was machine made. The first machine sewn dress I have made in 5 years, an I only made it because I felt the pressure to have a new piece of garb for the next event …I used it one time and decided that I didn’t like it (and it was also a bit to big). It was just a pile of fabric, it took me two-three days to make and it wasn’t me, just because it was not hand sewn, it hadn’t the “soul” that my other (sometimes crooked and patched and funny) garb have.

So, remember the cutting anxiety you might have right before you start cut your new fabric? What then if you also have weaved the fabric, dyed the yarn, breed the sheep etc …then a dress is not just a dress, it’s a huge amount of time invested in it, just like the patched German dollar.

To valuable to just discard.

To go into this even further, I asked some friends about how long time it would take to just weave the fabric necessary for a dress, and they told me it takes about 12 hour to put up the loom for a 70 cm wide fabric, and weave 10 threads/cm, takes around 50 cm/ hour. So for a simple underdress I would estimate around 5-6 meter of fabric (depending on how full you want it, would take about 16-20 hours (they told me to take into consider the small things like the yarn tangles etc).

It takes me around 3-4 days to handsew a simple 4-panel dress with gores (if I do nothing else but sewing all day) , so just making a dress including weaving (not spinning the yarn, dyeing or anything) would take about 3-6weeks (I would assume I need to at least make some food ever now and then) …but that kind of gives us an idea of the amount of work they once put into a dress; of course did they try to save it as long as possible, what ever needed to be adjusted, was still going to take lesser amount of time then to make a complete new dress.

My very first trossfrau dress has been around for a couple of years, and is still a favorite even though it is a bit worn and patched and used. I lost some weight awhile back, and needed to take in the bodice, and so I did and, well, I don’t know how I was thinking, but I removed too much around the bust area. So, either I make a new dress or I alter an old dress.

Now some might say that it’s easier to just make a new dress, but this particular dress is all hand sewn; just the 3 meter of cut, folded, sewn flowers on the skirt trim took me almost 3 weeks to do, and , 4 years later, I still remember how incredible boring it was (…which didn’t really stopped me from doing it again with my purple one), but it is my first dress and I really like it, and it just doesn’t seem right to rip it apart and re-use some parts for a new dress.

And did I mention that I really like the dress?

So here is the dark secrets, an example of the behind the door view of my wardrobe and how I continuously patch and repatch my dresses;

1) the dress is tighter and therefore not enough room for the bust at the too, the solution is to add an extra piece of fabric.
2) trying to see if the patch might be enough …because then the seam would be hidden by the trim
3) attaching the extra piece of fabric
4) attaching the trim over the seams

The finished alternations;



As you can see, I cheated some on the inside; since that part doesn’t have any particular stress I just skipped adding the lining, and I used hooks and eyes instead of moving around the lacing rings. You can also see the seams where I had to add extra trim due to the alternations (the alternative was to rip all of the remaing trim down to the waist, including ripping some of skirt seam around the waistline). I didn’t do that, because the dress is still very old and will never be used in an A&S display nor win a beauty competition; this dress is a piece of my everyday dress, so I don’t mind if my seams are visible or not.

Since I was alternating the dress anyway, I also decided to lower the back to match the square front (and it will also ease the stress in the front, yeah, my bust was still a bit to large to fit, but I didn’t had any other option to increase the front without redoing the bodice even more then the little triangle)

Removing is of course easier then adding, so it is a simple procedure; mark, cut, stitch together.

The skirt also has slashes in the perfect hight of getting caught by benches, branches etc, so it is a continuing work of repairing of the slashes;


The linen thread also gives up after a couple of years;


Is it worth it then to keep on attending to your garb, sewing, patching an petting it? Obviously for me it is, this dress is not only a dress, it is a companion who has been with me over a long time, sharing many good memories over the years, and I have, literally, touched every inch of it with my hands over many hours over making it, repairing it and wearing it!

So to all of you out there, with the pre event anxiety of not having a new set of garb, why not reuse your old ones? Maybe replacing a trim? Taking it in? Adding a new lacing? Patch that hole in the front?

And speaking of being period, I’m a Trossfrau, I don’t have a bunch of fancy ladies-in-waiting serving me new clothes. I have to take good care of what I have …and use it as long as I can.

An overview of the Trossfrau

Landsknechte (German plural, singular Landsknecht) were mercenaries from the late 15th to the late 16th century. Knecht, meaning servant, helper, or stooge, was also used for the paid foot soldiers that were to be known as the Landsknecht. The format of the German mercenaries was inspired from the Swiss army, as was the dress fashion. Swiss mercenaries were called Reisläufer, and you can use the slashes to spot the difference between them: Germans had “x” slashes and Swiss had “+” slashes.
The tross were the camp followers who traveled with each Landsknecht unit, carrying the military necessities, food, and belongings of each soldier and his family. The tross were made up of women, children, and some craftsmen.
The name of the women traveling with the landsknecht came be known as kampfrau or trossfrau. Neither is a period name even though today they are used to describe the group of “females hanging with the landsknechts”. Just before this class I took a long discussion with Meisterine Katheryn Hebenstreitz, about what to name to use for all those women who follows the Tross, and decided that Trossfrau, seem more accurate then the word Kampfrau, and therefore that is what I have decided use in this hand out. Feel free to use the term you like, the important issue is that other people know what you are talking about.
The period description of the women would have to be divided into several categories according to their role in the Tross:

The fraue was the person the Landsknecht was legally married to, even though they also had a sort of fake marriage that happened when the leaders tried to regulate the number of women following the tross. Since the war campaigns usually started during spring, this kind of marriage was known as a may marriage and the wife known as mai fraue.
Whure was a women who wasn’t married to the man she followed, kind of like a modern partnership with a man and a women.
Dirne was the prostitute who made her living by selling her services, and they even could be found in the payrolls as a legal worker during the war campaigns. Some men left their wife at home while they in the field had a mai fraue or a whure who helped him and took care of him during the war campaign. The women also took part in the looting of the battlefield as a way to make some extra money for living. Some of the women also had a professional role in the camp as neterin (seamstress) or lautenschlagerin (lute player), etc.

The most popular theory about the elaborate dress is that it started as loot from the battlefield, and was then altered to fit the new wearer. A new leg replaced the old one, a piece of brocade became a trim, etc, which can be done easiest by slashing the parts that might be too tight. The style of dress later developed and eventually became so flamboyant that Kaiser Maximilian I exempted it from the prevalent sumptuary laws as an acknowledgement of their “…short and brutish” lives. One theory though claims that Kaiser Maximilliam had trouble controlling the Landsknechts and therefore gave them the freedom to dress as they wanted rather than seem like a weak ruler.

Remember… your dress doesn’t have to be an exact copy of a 16th century woodcut, you are free to cut any corners you want to – but always be aware that you also are part of someone else’s dream.

The small picture of paintings and woodcuts are not necessary an image of a Trossfrau (as you probably noticed), but added to give you a broader perspective of the different construction and appearance of the 16th century German dress. The head-to-toe woodcuts under the section “The dress”, are all images of a Trossfrau.

The Gollar is made out of wool and lined with linen, and often just covers the top part of the body. It can be pointy in the front, have a high neck and be worn open in the front. It has usually decorative trim, and can be lined with fur.overview gollar

The Apron is made out of a rectangular piece of linen, with pleatwork embroidery (smocking) at the top, using the same pattern as seen on the chemise. The early recreations of a split Trossfrau dress (separate jacket and skirt) were probably a misinterpretation that the apron was a part of the chemise visible in the waistline. You can find three different kinds of aprons: as a skirt, as a rectangular piece in the front, or as one with two rectangular pieces sewn together in the sides and pleated in the top and with bands over the shoulder.
The pouch is made out of leather and has several compartments.

The chemise, or shirt, is made out of linen, with pleatwork embroidery or smocking. The chemise can be either low cut or have a high neck collar and comes to mid thigh. The chemise is made out of rectangular shapes gathered by the smocking around the neck line and cuffs. The pattern for the chemise is usually based either on the Sture Shirt findings from Sweden and the fragments from Alpirsbach monastery in Germany. The chemise is basically unisex, except for the few examples that have more smocking on the sleeves.

The dress is a fitted bodice with a contrasting colored trim, which hides the stitches from the closing (either laced or hooks and eyes). It has long sleeves and some woodcuts indicate that the sleeves are attached to the dress by ties. The skirt is made out of a gathered tube, either with rolled pleats or double box pleats, and has often two stripes in a contrasting color (some woodcuts indicate the use of brocade). The woodcuts shows that trim, stripes, and sleeves are sometimes slashed, either the ‘x’ or the ‘+’, but also only a simple ‘/’ (which doesn’t necessary means that the dress actually was slashes, but instead was a way pointing out if she was either a German or a Swiss). The outer dress is made out of felted wool and the bodice is lined with one layer of linen. The slashes are either white silk or linen, depending on your budget, but many of the pictures may indicate that it’s actually the chemise you see through the slashes, and not added puff. But if you study upper class clothing, you can clearly see that the puffs are made by adding extra fabric sewn into the dress between the lining and outer fabric. If you want to add extra puffs, then silk is recommend for the sleeves or any other places that you want to puff them a bit more. Linen looses the puffiness, attracts dirt easier, and is heavier than silk. The skirt is hoisted up by a belt worn over the hips, letting you use the opening in the front as a pouch. The Trossfrau rarely had any complex double puff/slashed sleeves, their dresses are usually very simple without the decorations that the male garb had.
Overview Trossfrau

The hat has many different shapes from small to big, from stiff to sloppy, from a few feathers to totally covered with a large amount of feathers. It’s made out of wool and the puffs can either be of colored linen or silk, depending on your budget. There is even knitted berets preserved from the period, which were used for both man and women. The ostrich plumes (preferably plumes and not feathers, since the plumes has a nicer softer approach), should be natural colors (white, grey, black, brownish). Almost all the feathers are white in the woodcuts and paintings. The head cloth consist of three layers: it probably was just two braids, crossed over the head to form a bulge underneath the cloth, wulsthaube. On top of that you can wear either a steuchlein (plain thin cloth) or a värcher (face is lined by pleats). The cloth covering the chin is called bendlein. The “tail’ is called schleier, and was used to cover you face during the dusty march through the country. The cloth is made out of linen, but can also be silk. Either way it can be decorated with embroidery

The underskirt is made out of linen and is a plain tube pleated at the waistline, and can have one or two stripes in a contrasting color. The hose were sewn out of thin wool, and held up with a band above the calf/knee. The hose can either be in one colour or several. The Shoes (Kuhmaleshoe = cow nose shoes; from the similar shape) has a specific flat front part, usually one band crossing the foot, but could also be more rounded as a modern shoe.

– Rogg, Matthias: Landsknechte und Reisläufer: Bilder vom Soldaten
– Holbein, Hans d.J.: Zeichnungen aus dem Kupferstichkabinett der Öffentlichen Kunstsammlung Basel
– -Mistress Katheryn Hebenstreitz, a Laurel and Pelican in the SCA with a focus on 16th Century German Clothing -Web Gallery of Art, The Web Gallery of Art is a virtual museum and searchable database of Western (European) fine arts of the Medieval, Renaissance etc – digital archive of paintings by Lucas Cranach and his sons – a community for Landsknechts and Trossfraus all around the world–Basic info about the Landsknecht and high resolution pictures of woodcuts, and don’t be afraid to try to search in a different language, it will give you a good start to find more pictures and inspiration.