Late Antique Tunic Tutorial

Late Antique Tunic

This tutorial will provide another approach to making tunics. The pattern difficulty lies somewhere between the basic T tunic and the classic bockstein.

Time and Place

This type of tunic is attested by artistic evidence from all over Europe, North Africa, and the Near East during the late Roman Empire, but the majority of our preserved examples, both whole and fragmentary, come from graveyard excavations in Egypt.

The design is thus appropriate to the late Roman Empire, but it would also work for early medieval Europe up to about the 6th century. This basic design, with some modifications in cut, color, and decoration, remained the norm for Byzantium and the Near East as late as the 9th century. As a general rule of thumb, experts usually date more brightly colored garments with more tailoring to the later period, and garments that are simpler both in design and decoration to the earlier period.

The Look

Here are some cool photos of whole garments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

 

Here are some artistic depictions:

Missorium of Theodosius, 5th century

Luxor Temple Roman frescos, late 3rd century

“Stilicho” diptych, 5th century

Consular diptych of Constantine III, early 5th century

Mosaic of Justinian, San Vitale, Ravenna, 6th century

As you can probably see, we learn different information from these sources. The preserved tunics lack context–who wore them and how and when. While the artistic sources are often abstract, not in color, or obscured by other details (like cloaks or objects). We arrive at a good idea of what to make and how to wear it, by combining these sources of information.

Here’s a few general guidelines for choosing colors:

1) Neutral colors = more formal/respectable. Black on white is possibly government uniform.

2) Available colors: madder red, turmeric yellow (like mustard), a grassy green, indigo/turquoise, and purple (with caveats). Colors should be more muted than modern primaries. In between colors were difficult to obtain.

3) More color = more wealth, but for men it also equals less respectability. Roman men who cared about keeping up appearances (i.e. not me >.>) had to strike a balance between wealth and indulgence.

4) The same goes for decorations—more decoration (or more colorful and elaborate decorations) = more wealth, but not necessarily more prestige.

Supplies

For measurements:

-a flexible measuring tape

-pencil

-note paper

-a ruler

-a yardstick

-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.

For sewing:

-2-3 yards of fabric, prewashed and preshrunk (run your fabric through the washer and dryer once before starting your project). And 1-1.5 yards of a contrasting color. I recommend linen or light-weight wool.

-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.

-straight pins

-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.

Measurements

Measure twice, cut once.

These tunics are loose-fitting garments that were woven as a single piece, folded in half at the neckline and then sewn up the sides. They’re deceptively simple that way.

From Cut My Cote, by Dorothy K. Burnham (1973).

First, we’re going to look at how to make a plain tunic. After that’s completely finished we’ll talk about how to use a contrasting fabric to make a decorated tunic.

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:

Body:

  1. The distance from the top of your shoulder to just below knee + 4” = _____
  2. The distance around the widest part of your body + 4” = _____
  3. Half the circumference of your head + 2” = _____

Sleeve:

  1. The distance from the top of your shoulder to your wrist + 4” = _____*
  2. The distance around your wrist + 4” = _____
  3. The distance around your elbow + 4” = _____
  4. The distance around your bicep + 6” = _____

You can see already that the sleeves are the most complicated part.

* If the widest part of your body is much wider than your shoulders you should subtract the difference between the measurements from this number to shorten your sleeves. You should be able to follow the directions for laying out your sleeve pattern as normal, diminishing the distance between widths F and G to shorten the sleeve.

My hips are wider than my shoulders, but only be a couple inches. If this is your situation you may want to shorten your sleeves, but personally I just roll the cuffs back if they get in the way.

All of these measurements have 4” added to them for two purposes: seam allowances (enough for French or flat-felled seams) and ease. There are two exceptions: the head measurement—there’s just 2” of ease because this is a measurement of a void rather than a measurement of a piece of fabric; the bicep measurement: there’s 4” of ease here to maximize range of motion and replicate the look of the original.

Preparation

Lay out some pattern paper, draw, and cut out the following shapes:

Body:

1) A rectangle whose dimensions are A x B/2

Sleeve:

1) Draw a rectangle whose dimensions are D x G

2) Draw a line through the center lengthwise.

3) Along one G edge, measure out from your center line on both sides E/2. This means that one edge of your rectangle is now G wide, while the other is E wide, but both measurements are centered.

4) Measure back from the E edge along your centerline 8”- 9” and make a mark. This mark should fall less than halfway along the length of the sleeve, 2” – 3” before your elbow.

5) Measure out widthwise on either side of this mark F/2 being careful to keep this new line parallel to edges E and G. Now you’ve got three parallel widths E at the wrist, F a couple inches before your elbow, and G at the shoulder.

6) Draw diagonal lines connecting E to F on sides. Now you’ve got the shape of your forearm.

7) Measure forward from edge G 5” and mark it on both sides.

8) Draw diagonal lines connecting F to your new marks 5” for edge G. Now you’ve got the shape of your upper arm and a complete sleeve shape.

I swear that was the most complicated part of this whole pattern.

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 selvage. 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.

Cutting

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.

Body:

Path 1) Fold your fabric so that you can place one B/2 edge of your paper pattern along the fold. You’ll be using this folded edge to form your shoulder and your neckline.

Or

Path 2) If there’s no way to fold your fabric so you can achieve this effect and still fit your paper pattern piece, then you will need to add 1” to the length of your paper pattern and cut 2. Tip: if you can use the selvage edge for the neckline edge of your tunic, do it. It’ll save you time later.

Sleeve:

Cut 2 following your paper pattern.

Cut 2 5” square gussets.

Tip: If your fabric has distinct right and wrong sides, it’s good to always double your fabric for cutting with right sides together. That way you’ll be sure to get mirrored pattern pieces and any marks you get on the fabric while patterning and cutting will be on the wrong side.

Sewing

Body:

Path 1:

1) Hem the bottom edges of your tunic.

2) Working from the wrong side of your fabric, find the center of your top edge (the fold). Measure out in both directions from that center along the folded edge for C/2 and make marks. This is the width of your neckline.

3) Make a small hole along the fold and then carefully slit the fabric along the fold for the full length of C. Now you’ve got a hole for your neck to pass through, but the edges are raw. You’ll need to do a facing. If you’re doing a decorated tunic, you can leave the neck line unfinished for now.

If you take Path 1 for the body of your tunic, the result will look something like this. More photos for the finished version later.

Learn more about facings (with Ilsa’s help!) here.

4) If your tunic is going to be completely plain then you will want to use the same fabric for your facing that you’re using for the whole tunic. You’ll be turning it to the inside of the garment, so it will show very little.

5) Cut out a rectangle of fabric that is at least 5” wide and whose length is C + at least 3”.

6) Hem the rectangle all the way around.

7) Fold your rectangle in half lengthwise with right sides together and find the center.

8) Measure out along the edge in both direction for C/2 and make marks.

9) Make a small hole along the fold and cut along the fold for the full length of C.

10) Match up the slit C in the body of your tunic with the slit C in your facing with right sides together and pin it in place.

11) Sew 1/8” – ¼” in from the raw edge of the fabric all the way around the slit.

12) Turn the facing to the inside of the tunic.

13) Iron all the edges.

14) Whip stitch the facing to the inside of the tunic all the way around its edge.

Or

Path 2:

1) Hem the bottom edges of your tunic pieces.

2) Working from the wrong side of the fabric, find the center of your top edges. Measure out in both directions from that center along those edges for C/2 and make marks. This is the width of your neckline.

3) With right sides together, working from each outside edge in turn, sew up to the mark your made for your neckline, leaving at least a 1” seam allowance. These are your shoulder seams.

4) Get your iron and press that seam open all the way across, so that you now have 1” of fabric folded over all the along the neckline as well as along your newly formed shoulder seams.

5) Roll about ½” of that 1” seam allowance under so that the raw edge of the fabric will be tucked in and whip stitch all the way along this new folded edge on both sides of your neckline. Tip: If you happened to use the selvedge edge as your neckline edge then this step is unnecessary. The selvedge edge will not fray. You may still want to tack the edge down around the neckline.

Set your tunic body aside for now.

If you’ve taken Path 2 for the body of your tunic, your finished shoulder seam/neckline will look something like this on the inside. On this tunic, I took advantage of the selvage edge. This tunic has no facing because the decoration of the neckline was already woven into the sari fabric.

Sleeves:

1) Hem edge E.

If you know you’re going to be doing a decorated tunic, you can apply decorative sleeve stripes now! See below under “Decoration.”

2) Sew one edge of one square gusset to the 5” wide edge of one sleeve.

3) Lay out sleeve so that the wrist edge is toward the left.

4) Grab the left edge of the square and sew it to the other 5” edge of the sleeve.

5) Fold your sleeve in half lengthwise with right sides together and sew a seam along the forearm and bicep edge up to 1” from the 5” straight edges.

6) Lay out your sleeve again and mark the center top of the shoulder edge.

7) Repeat for the second sleeve.

Sleeves + Body:

1) With right sides together, match up the mark on the center top of your sleeve with the fold line or should seam of your tunic body.

2) Starting from that mark sew around the sleeve on edge G and continue along one free edge of the square until you reach the corner.

3) Now return to your mark and sew around the sleeve in the other direction until you read the point. Tip: If you’re flat-felling, now you’re ready to do step two of the seam all the way around the sleeve. Try to leave yourself some wiggle room for the transition to the side seam. 

4) Sew up the side seams with right sides together from the point of your square gusset down to the hemline.

5) Repeat for the other sleeve and the other side of your tunic!

Now your tunic is complete!

Since we’ve got the basic pattern down now, we can talk about the decoration.

Decoration

This is what your contrasting fabric is for.

Three things about the decoration make this pattern surprisingly challenging.

1) Materials: How are you going to replicate the look of tapestry woven decorations?

On all of our extant examples, the decoration is woven directly into the fabric of the tunic using a method called tapestry weave. All the Dagorhir and SCA examples I’ve seen have decoration somehow applied after the fact—the most popular methods are machine embroidery and applique. We’re using applique to create solid color blocks.

2) Positioning: Where should the pieces go exactly so that you replicate the look of these tunics as they’re depicted in the art?

3) Size: How big should the pieces be: a) in proportion to each other and b) in proportion to the size of the tunic?

If you look back through the examples I provided above, you’ll see a lot variation in these three factors. This is both a blessing and a curse. If you make something that looks similar to some of the originals that’s probably accurate enough given the range of variation. On the other hand, there are no hard and fast guides to answer these questions.

Some Vocabulary

1) Segmenta—Patches on the shoulders, which will lay over your shoulder seam. Usually rectangular or square.

2) Yoke—Decoration around the neck line.

3) Clavi—Stripes that run down the length of the body. They can stop above your natural waist or run all the way down to the hemline (in which case you wouldn’t need orbiculi).

4) Orbiculi—Patches that will line up, roughly, with either your clavi or your segmenta. They should be positioned so that they will lie on the tops of your thighs, near the knee cap, when you’re wearing the tunic. Sometimes round, sometimes square.

Tip: To distinguish the shoulder and knee patches from each other, I’ve a word that implies ‘rectangular’ for the shoulder patch and a word that means ‘little round’ for the knee patches. But there are examples of round shoulder patches and of square knee patches so don’t feel bound by the vocab.

Measuring and Cutting the Decoration

Yoke + Clavi:

1) Fold your contrasting fabric in half, right sides together, leaving plenty of length.

2) Measure a width along the fold of the fabric and is at least C + 3”. You want to leave at least 1” between the edges of your yoke/clavi and your segmenta, but any width up to that is acceptable.

3) Measure down from the folded edge at least 4.5” and mark out a line parallel to the fold.

4) Determine whether your clavi will reach to your waist or to your hemline. If you have enough fabric for it, you can cut out your yoke and your clavi as a single piece by following the instructions in steps 5-7. If you don’t have enough length, you will need to cut out separate strips of fabric that are the desired length + 1”.

5) Put your ruler along the short edge of the rectangle you formed for the yoke and measure down the fabric in a straight line, respecting the grain, for the desired length of your clavi + ½”.

6) Measure in from that new line at least 2” and no more than 6”. Skinnier stripes are far more common than wide ones, especially in a single color.

7) Make this new line all the way up to the bottom edge of the rectangle you’ve drawn along the fold. This is the shape of your yoke + clavi. If your clavi are going to reach all the way down to your hemline, then you will move on segmenta and sleeve stripes, but you will not need orbiculi.

Don’t cut yet. If you’re making your yoke and clavi out of one piece of fabric, you can use the space between the clavi for the other pieces. It will be easier to lay all of this out if you don’t cut the fabric just yet.

Segmenta:

1) Put your tunic on (being careful not to tug on the neckline if the edges are unfinished).

2) Note where the seam that joins sleeve to body falls on your shoulder. Decide how far above that seam on your shoulder the segmenta should start and how far they should extend down your arm. Make those distances with pins.

3) Take the tunic off (carefully) and make a note of the total length between the pins + at least 1”. Leave the pins in place.

4) The width should be at least 5” including the seam allowance.

5) On your doubled contrasting fabric, measure out a rectangle of those dimensions.

Orbiculi:

1) On your doubled contrasting fabric, measure out two squares that are between 3” and 6” inches to a side.

Sleeve Stripes:

1) On your doubled contrasting fabric, measure out two rectangles that are each at least 2” wide and F long.

Now that all the pieces are drawn, you can cut! You should have one yoke piece with four stripes trailing off of it (or one yoke rectangle and 4 clavi stripes), 2 segmenta rectangles, 2 orbiculi squares, and four sleeve stripes.

Sewing the Decoration

Yoke and Clavi:

This next section will look familiar if you read the directions under “Body: Path 1” above that explained how to create and attach a facing.

6) Hem the piece all the way around with a ½” hem, including all the edges of the stripes if they’re attached.

7) Fold your rectangle in half lengthwise with right sides together and find the center.

8) Measure out along the edge in both direction for C/2 and make marks.

9) Make a small hole along the fold and cut along the fold for the full length of C.

10) Lay the right side of the facing down on the wrong side of the tunic, matching up the slit C in the facing with the slit C in the body of the tunic. Pin it firmly in place.

11) Sew 1/8” – ¼” in from the raw edge of the fabric all the way around the slit.

12) Turn the facing to the outside of the tunic.

13) Iron all around the neckline.

If you created your clavi as separate stripes, then you want to pin them in place before you sew your yoke-facing to the body of the tunic. Line the stripes up lengthwise with the short edges of your yoke and pin them so that about ½” will be tucked under the yoke once it’s sewn to the body.

14) Whip stitch or blind stitch the facing to the body of the tunic all the way around the edge, including the clavi if they’re attached.

On this grey tunic that I’ve been using as an example, the clavi were separate pieces that I attached after I finished the yoke. Here are some photos that show the steps in that process: 

I used a ruler while I was pinning to keep a consistent distance from the edge of tunic. 

Segmenta:

1) Hem the rectangles all the way around with a ½” hem.

2) Whip stitch or blind stitch each segmenta to a shoulder of the tunic using your pins as guides.

Orbiculi:

1) Hem the squares all the way around with a 1/2” hem.

2) The positioning on these is tricky. Try the tunic on and place a pin at the point where the tunic hangs over your thigh, just above the knee, during normal wear.

3) Use that pin as a rough guide for the positioning of the orbiculi, bringing them into line with either the clavi or the segmenta—whichever are closer to the pin’s original position.

4) Line up the squares with the true grainline of the fabric. Pin them securely in place and sew.

Sleeve Stripes:

If you have all your pieces cut out prior to assembly, you can sew your sleeve stripes on your sleeve pieces before creating the arm seams. This will catch all the raw edges of the stripes inside the seams, so that you don’t need to do step 4.

1) Hem your sleeve stripes along the long edges with a ½” hem.

2) Pin one stripe to a sleeve about 1” from the hemmed edge of E, with the raw edges overlapping over the arm seam.

3) Pin a second stripe to a sleeve about 1” from the first stripe.

4) On both stripes, turn ½” of one raw edge under and sew it over the top of the other raw edge. This should catch all the raw edges and prevent fraying.

You should now have a fully assembled and decorated tunic!

About the author: Iason the Greek