Late Roman Paenula Cloak

I needed a cloak for events, both to keep the rain off and to keep myself warm—since I moved to upstate New York and cold is a thing that sometimes happens there.

Before I finished my MA I spent some time with a German book that was all about late Roman/early Byzantine hats and head-coverings (Linscheid, Petra. Frühbyzantinische Textile Kopfbedeckungen: Typologie, Verbreitung, Chronologie Und Soziologischer Kontext Nach Originalfunden. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2011.). It included a few hooded cloaks! They were even from the 5th and 6th centuries! That gave me the inspiration to start looking into what my options were.

The most interesting hooded cloak in that book was a voluminous, ankle length thing with a very deep hood. When I was staring at the picture and the description I noticed that it was closed across the front by a triangle insert.

So I did a bit of research via the Romans of the SCA facebook page and found that people associate that kind of cloak design with the world “paenula,”–which clearly refers to a traveling cloak in classical Roman sources (e.g. Apuleis’ Metamorphoses). The forums had some nice simple diagrams for making one yourself:

I didn’t feel like I needed the ankle-length cloak from the book though, and the diagrams tended to suggest instead, a poncho-like cloak, which seemed just right for my needs.


SO! I grabbed a spare green army blanket and got to cutting! This wasn’t ideal material, since the book described the cloak I liked as 2/2 yellow wool. (A lot of our preserved textiles are yellow. Either Romans really liked yellow, or a lot of stuff just ages into a yellow color, or both.) But I didn’t want to spend any money on this project and, as often happens, I had something on hand that was almost good enough. Green is an acceptable color and at least it was part wool. Would be good in the rain, etc.

Here’s that cloak. The only feature that’s a challenge to sew is the triangle that joins the front edges and makes this cloak something to goes on ever your head, instead of around your shoulders. This is a feature I picked up from the academic book mentioned above and it’s archaeological example.

I added a couple patches of leather to the area that get pinned closed with a brooch, because I was worried about putting stress on the fabric.

I wore it to Ragnarok, where it proved to be the best thing to put on over my pajamas in the morning so I looked like I was garb while I walked to the bath house. Last Rag, on that one day where it really stormed, it was pretty great! I stayed relatively dry and warm and was very pleased with myself.

BUT, it’s always been too narrow in the shoulders. The cutting angle I used was like this, it seemed to me that it matched what I saw in Petra Linscheid’s book more closely than the diagram from the Scathians:

At Contention of Leeds Circle, I wore it constantly because it was a chilly 40 degrees F. I didn’t use a brooch, in spite of the leather panels meant for exactly that, because then it would have been way too constraining. While packing up at the end of the event, it finally tore along one side of the triangle, exactly as I feared it would. I repaired it and put it back in the drawer, but that experience confirmed my worst fears about it and convinced me to try again.


Alric mentioned that he had some fabric lying around unused that was closer to what I ought to be using: a handwoven 2/2 wool in a natural sheep color. I bought it off of him and returned to my design to see if I could correct the original problem.

The new cutting profile for the cloak looks like this, closer to the diagram above:

I cut this along the fold in the fabric, so that if you opened it up, it would form a half-circle. Then I slit it along the fold for about 14”–the depth of my hood. Likewise, I cut the hood so that the top edge was along the fold. Then I seamed up the back. Finally, I sewed the slit edges to the bottom of the hood.

The last step is to sew a triangle (much smaller on this version) into the open edges. It’s long bottom edge faces up, toward the hood, while the wedge formed by the top angle points draws the open edges of the cloak together. I decided the size of this piece by putting the cloak on and feeling for the point where the edges naturally came together easily, without impeding my range of motion.

I’m much happier with this result. I wore it Siege of the Azure Castle (Photo by Mederic!):

It’s warm, snugly, and easy to move around in. The fabric preserves some of the original lanolin of the sheep’s wool, so it will repel water better than the old one too. This is perfect for a cloak design associated with long journeys.

The only downside is that this design reduces some of the length in the back. I’m content with this amount of length, but if I wanted to avoid that problem, I would keep the same right angle cut, but make the back edge (along the fold) 14” longer than the front edge. That would make the shape of the rounded edge a little more complicated—it would be a half-oval, rather than a half-circle, like this:

I would keep the triangle insert and the method I used on the current cloak for creating and attaching the hood. I didn’t use my brooch as a closure method at SAC because I found I didn’t need it! That’s if I ever need to make another one. I’m happy for now with what I’ve got–both in terms of practical use and in terms of historicity.

About the author: Iason the Greek