Late Antique Trousers
In this section I’ll provide step-by-step information for making your own late antique trousers–fitted trousers with plenty of room to maneuver. I arrived at these instructions after studying two articles which detailed 5 pairs of late antique pants. There was a lot of variation among these examples, but they all had certain principles in common. After the instructions there’s a section which compares these principles to the ones that underlie modern pants and Ilsa’s Basic Pants with Gusset.
Recommended materials: bottomweights, esp. 7 oz or heavier linen, wool.
Recommended seam finish: French seams, or felt-fell seams
As my dad always says, “Measure twice, cut once.”
-a flexible measuring tape
-pattern paper (such as tissue paper, craft paper, newspaper, or similar.)
-scissors for cutting paper
-Optional: graph paper for drawing mock-ups of your pattern pieces.
-2-2.5 yards of 45” fabric, prewashed and preshrunk (run your fabric through the washer and dryer once before starting your project).
-a writing utensil for use on fabric (such as tailors’ chalk or washable fabric pen)
-fabric scissors (separate from your paper scissors! I recommend pinking shears for this project).
-a spool of polyester thread (in a color that matches your fabric because it will definitely show).
-a sewing machine (+ appropriate needles, etc) or a hand sewing needle.
-weights (like coffee mugs or paperback novels—these are for weighing down your fabric while you mark, pin, and cut).
-Optional: iron and ironing board. If you’re using a fabric that creases easily, ironing it periodically will make things easier. If you’re using a fabric that resists creasing, ironing your seams flat will also make things easier.
You’ll need the following measurements. Record them on your note paper and label them carefully with your name, the date, and what each measurement represents:
- Natural waist to ankle + 4” = ____
- Around your thigh just below the knee + 4” = ____ (x 2 ____) Some things call for B, others for 2B.
- Around your hips at the widest point + 4” ____ – B x 2 = ____
- (From your belly button, down and under your crotch and up to the small of your back [be generous] + 4”) /2 = ____ In other words D always = half of your crotch measurement.
- (Around your thigh at the widest point – B) + 4” = _____
- Length of your thigh from just below your butt to the back of your knee + 4” = ____
- The width of your belt + 1” = ____
All of these measurements (except for G) have 4” added for seam allowances and ease. This should give you about 1” worth of seam allowance on each edge (generous enough for French seams or felt-felled seams) and still leave 2” of ease.
Lay out pattern paper, draw, and cut out the following shapes:
-A rectangle, whose measurements are A x 2B. Label this “Legs. Cut 1.”
-A second rectangle, whose measurements are C x (D + G). Label this “Back flap. Cut 1.”*
-A third rectangle, whose measurements are E x F. Now draw a line diagonally through this rectangle to make two triangles. I recommend that you leave the rectangle intact as a paper pattern even though you’re going to cut along that diagonal line when you’re working with the fabric. Label this “Triangle inserts. Cut 1.”
-A square, ~ 5” x 5”. Label this “Gusset. Cut 1.”
-A small rectangle at least 2” x G. Label this “Belt loops. Cut 4.”
*To make pants for myself, I actually cut this piece as a trapezoid where the waistband edge is 4” narrower than the bottom edge. This shape isn’t attested in the historical examples, but it does lead to better fit around my hips.
Before you start marking and cutting your fabric, you’ll want to do some preparations.
–You may want to block out your pattern pieces on graph paper. I like doing this because it helps me think about they will fit on the fabric.
-Label your paper pattern pieces (or graph paper drawings) with the names of the pieces, “cut 1” or “cut 4,” your name, the date, and the dimensions.
-Make sure your fabric is prewashed and preshrunk.
-Iron your fabric so that it will lay flat.
-The cut edge of your fabric will probably be a ragged diagonal. Ignore that line and instead lay out the edges of your patterns along, or perpendicular to, the selvedge. This will help you follow the straight grain of your fabric as much as possible. The edges of your pattern pieces should run parallel and perpendicular to the weave. If you’re having trouble verifying that, you may want to “square your fabric.”
Lay your paper patterns on your fabric so that the straight edges follow the grain of the fabric. Pin them in place securely and cut along the edges of the paper.
I. Cut out your “Legs” (Rectangle A x B2):
1) Decide which B2 edge will be the waistband.
2) Fold the rectangle in half lengthwise (and iron it!).
3) Measure down D from the waistband along the folded edge and make a small mark with your fabric pen or chalk.
4) Now cut up to the mark from the bottom edge along the fold line. This should create an obvious pants-like shape.
II. Next, cut out your “Back flap”:
1) Decide which C edge is going to be the waistband.
2) Measure down G from that edge and mark it out along the whole width. Don’t cut!
3) Just mark the fabric so you don’t forget about the extra length that G represents—this fabric will form your belt casing.
III. Now cut out your “Triangle inserts”:
1) Remember that you drew a diagonal line through this rectangle on your pattern paper.
2) Draw this line on the fabric as well, but this time cut along it to create two right angle triangles.
IV. Cut out your 5” x 5” “Gusset.”
V. Cut out 4 copies of the “Belt loops.”
Tip: For all of these seams, don’t sew all the way out to the cut edge of each piece of fabric. Instead, leave about a seam allowance free. This will make it easier to sew later seams.
I. Sew the triangles to the back flap:
1) Match up the E edge of a triangle to the D edge of the backflap right at the bottom of the backflap so that F and C create one continuous line.
2) Attach a triangle to each side and you will end up with this shape:
Note that I’ve folded the backflap under at the top to save space.
II. There are two ways to do the next step:
1) Attach the Gusset to the Legs:
A. Insert one corner of your square gusset into the apex of the slit you made in your Legs piece.
B. Sew one edge of that corner to the inside edge of one leg, and the other edge of the corner to the other leg.
Tip: Compare this directly with Step 4 in Ilsa’s “Basic Pants with Gusset.”
2) Skip the Gusset: This square gusset piece is optional. Not all the historical examples included it and I found that I didn’t need it. If you skip the gusset, then in the next step, you will sew the bottom edge of the back flap directly into the apex of the slit in the Legs piece.
III. Sew the long edge FCF to the inside edges of the Legs:
1) Fold that long edge in half to find the middle of C and mark it.
2) Now match up the mark with the free corner of the Gusset (or the apex of the slit).
3) Starting at the middle of C/the corner of the Gusset, pin half of edge C and one edge F to one edge of the Gusset and the inside edge of one leg.
4) Repeat step 3 for the other half of C + F / the other Gusset edge + inside edge of leg.
Now all your main pieces are attached to each other!
Before you go any further, I recommend that you hem the bottom edges of the Legs and the waistband edges of both the Legs piece and the Back Flap.
IV. Sew the main leg seams:
1) Starting at the waistband edges, match A edges of the Legs piece to D edges of the Back Flap, leaving G (your belt casing) protruding above the top of the waistband edge on the Legs piece.
2) Sew all the way along one edge A, matching it up with D of the Back Flap and then with the hypotenuse of a Triangle insert, and finally with the remaining inside edge of one pant leg.
3) Repeat for the other edge A/pant leg.
Your pants are almost done!
- Form the casing and belt loops:
1) Go back up to the waistband of your pants. There will be two raw fabric edges along the sides of the G (your belt casing). Fold them over and whip stitch or zig them in place to finish the edges.
2) Grab that extra fabric (G) and fold it down towards the outside of your pants to form the casing. Sew it down along the whole length to make a tube.
3) Grab the belt loop rectangles. Fold and sew them so that none of the raw fabric edges are showing.
4) Attach the belt loops at even intervals around the front and sides of your waist band.
Enjoy your new pants!
The next section compares this pattern to two others and talks about what problems trousers are meant to solve and how those various patterns solve them. You don’t need to read the next section to make the pants, but it will help you think about what your pants are meant to achieve! Hopefully these ideas will help you choose the right pattern for your needs and improve your mastery of patterns you already know!
Why wear trousers?
In this blog post, I want to present a different way of patterning pants that I learned from a couple of articles by Anne Kwaspen about late antique trousers. The two articles compare the patterning of 5 pairs of pants from late antiquity and the early middle ages (3 from Egypt, 1 probably from Syria, and 1 from Denmark). Although each pair of trousers is a unique construction, they all have certain principles in common which we can use to make better pants for ourselves.
But first, let’s be real here. You don’t have to wear pants. We’ve all rolled out of bed at an event, thrown on a tunic long enough for modesty’s sake, and gone on about making breakfast etc.
So, what are pants actually for?
What problems are they meant to solve and what problems do they create?
Trousers are meant to cover the lower half of the human body with a garment separate from that which covers the top half. They are, definitionally, crotched–that is to say, the pieces come together to wrap around and fully cover the underside of the body. This is the single most awkward part of the body to cover—and not just because it makes people giggle. Whatever your biology, the human crotch is a weird, awkward shape.
This shape becomes even harder to deal with when you consider the fact that humans have strong, flexible hips. If all we had to do was sew a few pieces of cloth together so that they met in the middle then we’d be set. But no. As we’ve all experienced, we also need to provide enough room and enough flexibility to run, climb, and kick things without causing a blow-out.
Additionally, because of the crotch issue, pants are pulled up rather than down. A tunic stays on because it is pulled down over the head and is seamed across the shoulders. Gravity then helps keep it in place. With pants though, gravity is the enemy.
Will all this mind, there are three important problems that we need to think about when we make pants:
1) How will we go from two volumes (the legs) to one volume (the hips)?
2) How will we accommodate a full range of motion?
3) How will we resist the pull of gravity?
With any pants pattern you look at, you should be thinking about how it will address these issues.
Let’s look at a modern pair of blue jeans
Divide the legs and look at the crotch area. I know it’s weird. Just do it.
You will see a junction that looks like a cross, but if you try to smooth it out, it won’t lay flat. This is because most blue jeans (and the majority of modern pants generally) are made of four pieces which are not all the same shape. Each leg is made up of a front piece and back piece. On the outside seam, the two pieces are sewn to each other along their entire length—from ankle to waistband. But on the inseam, they are sewn to each other only until they reach the extra fabric that forms the crotch. If you complete the pants up to this point you will have two separate volumes, one for each leg.
To join the two volumes, you will sew back panel to back panel and front panel to front panel. (This is usually done by turning one leg inside out and putting it inside the other). You can do this as one continuous seam that would begin at your waist band, go under your body, and reach up to your waistband on the other side. Now you have two volumes that become one volume. Problem 1 is solved.
In following this crotch seam, you’ll notice that the part which is formed by the back panels is longer than the part formed by the front panels. This is because you have more volume on the back side of your body than you do on the front side.
This is, more or less, how modern pants solve Problem 2. But modern pants are cheating. In addition to accommodating the shape of your butt by using a cross junction with more in the back, modern blue jeans also incorporate modern fabrics—like spandex—which allow for more forgiving (one-size-fits-most) design.
Spandex also allows modern manufacturers to deal more readily with Problem 3: Gravity. In particular, they can make the waistband slightly smaller than the maximum width at the hips, which means that when the pants are on, the waistband itself helps hold them in place. Add a belt to the mix and you’ll never have to worry about your pants falling down.
Next, let’s look at Ilsa’s “Basic Pants with Gusset” (Thanks Ilsa!)
Click on the link and follow along!
These pants are made of three pieces of fabric: Two large rectangles and a square. Additionally, this pattern calls for a drawstring.
These pants solve Problem 1 in a way that’s very similar to modern pants. There is no outside seam, but there is an inseam that’s created by folding each rectangle in half length-wise and sewing each rectangle to itself up a certain point.
Tip: The current version of this tutorial includes some shaping that accommodates the natural tapering of the legs. This makes for a much nicer pair of pants but doesn’t affect how they work conceptually.
The single volume for the hips is also created by sewing these rectangles to each other in a fashion similar to modern pants. You could turn one leg inside out and put it inside the other. Then you would sew down from the waistband in “front” and “back.” This would solve Problem 1, but not Problem 2.
To solve Problem 2, we need that third piece—the square-shaped gusset. Instead of the cross junction evident when you look at a pair of blue jeans, Ilsa’s pants have a gusset. This gusset allows you to solve Problem 2 without spandex and without the shaping which we saw on the blue jeans. Instead of sewing front to front and back to back all the way down to the inseam, you instead sew the sides of the large rectangles to different sides of the square.
Need more room to maneuver in your Basic Pants? Make your diamond larger! You can also make each leg rectangle wider. However, the bigger you make your pieces, the baggier the pants will be. And eventually the extra fabric becomes cumbersome.
This problem was what inspired me to look for other patterns. How could I solve Problems 1 and 2 but also have something more fitted?
Late Antique Trousers (and Geometry)
We can think about Ilsa’s Basic Pants as beginning from the concepts used in modern pants and working backwards toward something with more utility for fighting. The cross-shaped junction used in modern pants is modified with a gusset that provides more range of motion.
The trousers from late antique excavations begin from a different point—wrapping a single large piece of fabric around the waist and legs and then adding pieces to fill in the gaps. The late antique pants use: a large rectangle (which we are going to partially split), a small rectangle, two right triangles, an optional square gusset, and some belt loops. All of the pieces are simple, straight edged shapes, which use the fabric as efficiently as possible.
Despite the differences, some concepts that we looked at in Ilsa’s Basic Pants will still be relevant.
1) The idea of a gusset and how you insert one are both key to understanding how these pants are made. You could think of them as having three gussets: a square one in the same position as the gusset in Ilsa’s Basic Pants, and two triangles that go on the backs of the thighs.
2) The measurements you need to begin with are similar. To make Ilsa’s Basic Pants, two of the measurements you need to know are:
- The circumference of the widest point of one thigh + 4”
- Distance from 2″ below belly-button level to ankle, taken along outside of leg, + 3″
For late antique trousers you’ll need to know
- The distance from your natural waist to your ankle, measured on the outside of your leg + 4”
- The circumference of your thigh just above the knee + 4”
Ilsa’s Basic Pants call for one more measurement (your instep), while the late antique trousers will call for a number of others. The most important of these, however, is the distance from your belly button to the small of your back, measured by passing the tape between your legs—in other words, the measurement of your crotch!
All of the other measurements you will see in the instructions are related in some way to these three: Waist to ankle, width of the thigh, and distance around the crotch.
Solving Problem 1
The late antique pants solve Problem 1 pretty differently from how the modern pants and Ilsa’s Basic Pants solve it. Because you are starting from a single wrapped piece of fabric, you first create two volumes, by splitting that large rectangle.
The next piece of fabric is sewn into the split and wraps under and around the underside of the body. This deals with the rest of the crotch distance and returns us to a single volume that accommodates the hips.
You could put the pants on at this step and you’ll find that Problem 1 is more or less solved. You have two volumes—the legs—and a wrap that returns us to one volume—the hips.
Solving Problem 2
But, if you tried your pants on, you would find that the backs of the legs wouldn’t close. Here’s where those three gussets come in.
The optional square gusset contributes to range of motion for the same reason it did in Ilsa’s Basic Pants.
The triangles fill in the remaining space on the back on the thighs. Because the hypotenuse of each triangle is cut diagonally across the grain of the fabric (this is called “bias cut”), that edge has more stretch than the others. This stretch comes in handy in providing range of motion.
Solving Problem 3
The waistband of your late antique trousers will be as wide as the widest point on your hips. But most people’s waists are actually narrower than that—if only slightly. Here is where we need to solve Problem 3. All of our historical example, (as well another example, the Thorsberg trousers) have a belt casing on the back of the waistband. This is created by folding over the top few inches of the smaller rectangle—the one you used to form the crotch of your trousers. Add some belt loops, spaced out evenly around the rest of the waistband, and you’ve solved Problem 3!
I hope you enjoyed learning more about pants (and crotch design)!