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Medieval Armor (as it relates to fabric only)

This is a coat of plates on display in the Royal Armories Museum in Leeds, England. It is constructed of two layers of fabric with a layer of overlapping hexagonal metal plates placed in between (I was able to see the plates through a hole in a second coat just like this one). The plates are held in place by the heavy threads on the front of the coat, which pass through a hole in the center of each plate.

My husband made the statement, ďI donít know why they put the stitching on the outside of the coat; a sword cut will cause the plates to come loose.Ē I tried to explain to him why the armor doesnít fall apart when hacked at, but his eyes became glassy and he meandered into a new section when I began my various and sundry arm gesticulations recreating the molecular make-up of linen thread. Iíll try and put it in words so everyone else with an interest in this type of armor can understand (after all, Iím a seamstress, and thread is my bag, baby).

I think this piece of armor is a lot like my bead embroidery. People who have not worked with glass beads in any way assume that they are quite delicate and easy to break, when, in actuality, they are quite dense for their size and surprisingly hard to break. When packed tightly together, as they are in a piece of embroidery, they are even more resilient, because any force applied to them is distributed over all of the beadsóin the same way itís possible for a human to lay down on a bed of nails. I think this quilted coat of plates is deceptive in the way that my bead embroidery is deceptive; it looks more delicate and easily destroyed than it is in reality. Just as with my beads, if you are not familiar with how threads work, then you tend to underestimate their durability.

Number one. There were two of these coats on display in the Museum. Given that medieval and Renaissance armor has had a low survival rate to the modern day, that there are two of these pieces in one museum would seem to indicate to me that they were fairly numerous/popular. My husband was familiar with them before seeing them in the museum, which means someone (or some persons) has featured them in books as well. I think itís safe for me to argue that if someone had invented a piece of armor which did not work, it would not have become popular, and so there would not be numerous examples of it. So, we must first work under the assumption that this type of armor did function quite well, despite the stitches being on the outside. Now it remains to see why the threads are not as destructible as they would seem at first glance.

Number two. There is not one single thread which holds a plate in. Rather, there are four threads, each coming from a different angle, which holds a single plate in place. Lose one thread and you still have three left. And letís be realistic: whatís the likelihood that you are going to suffer four glancing sword blows, each from an angle which is perpendicular to each thread thatís holding in one plate? Even if that did somehow happen, whereís the plate going to go? It canít fall down between the outer and inner layers of fabric because of all the threads holding in all the plates around it. No, it will stay right where you left it, short of ripping the fabric open and pulling it out.

Number three: threads are harder to cut than you first think (just as glass beads are harder to break than you would imagine). When you go to cut a piece of twine (which is really what these threads most closely resemble in thickness), what do you reach for: scissors or a knife? Donít you have to saw at the twine with your pocket knife, whereas a pair of scissors snips it cleanly in two? A sword is just like your knife in this case, only less effective. Most people, when cutting cording with a knife, will put the blade under the twine and pull the blade upwards to cut because that puts the most tension on the cord and makes it cut faster. A sword blow to this armor, however, is always made with a downward cut. Also, a sword blow will not have the sawing action that is often necessary to make a knife cut through a piece of cording. And when you cut cording with a knife, you use the flattest, longest section of the cutting edge. A sword, when hitting the front of this armor, will only drag the tip of the sword down it, giving you an even smaller cutting surface than your average knife.

Because the armor is rounded over the human shape, itís unlikely that any sword blow will rake down the entire length of the garment. Thus, even if you do cut some cords, youíre not likely to cut very many with one blow, not to mention that because itís handmade, none of the threads lines up in perfect symmetrical lines with the others anyways, so you never have more than a few cords in a line with one another.

One last thing to note is that these cords are both taunt and short in length, and a scraping blow is more likely to just run right over them, rather than snag and break them. And there you have it: why quilted plate armor works. And I didnít even have to show it in a dance routine.

This is a helmet from the later middle ages (sorry, I donít know enough about this particular helmet to date it better than that), also in the Royal Armories Museum in Leeds. What was interesting to me, however, was that a second helmet, mounted directly under it, was turned upside down so that you could see the lining in it. Unfortunately, it was much too dark down inside the helmet to get a picture of the lining. So you will have to bear with me while I try and recreate it in Paint.

This is, as best I can draw, the lining inside of the helmet. It was comprised of individually stuffed and completed sections of fabric, which were then pieced together inside the helmet (I seem to recall that they were just overcast/whipstitched together). I think the lining was attached to the inside of the helmet via small holes around the perimeter of the helmet, as is typical with other types of helmets (you can see pairs of small holes in the picture above).

The one thing I have thatís off in this diagram is that the helmet was egg-shaped, so the triangular pieces on either end need to be elongated a little in order to fill the helmet. Not all of the pieces were in the helmet, but there were enough pieces still intact that I am confident this is how it would have looked originally. The white areas in the sections represent open holes; this lining was not solid. I can only assume that this was done to help make the helmet slightly cooler. If you are familiar with cheap riding helmets or plastic baseball helmets, they typically have a similar arrangement inside of them, minus the padding (that, and they are usually one single piece of plastic or leather; each of these pieces was separate).

The fabric appeared to be linen, although I wouldnít know medieval hemp if I saw it, so that is also a possibility. However, linen is typically the fabric of choice for other under-armor garments, so I donít see why it wouldnít have been here too. It was stuffedósorry here men folks, but thereís nothing else I can think to compare it toóto about the thickness of a regular maxi pad, maybe a little bit thinner--hard to tell what it was like originally since the more you wear something like this (and the older stuffing gets in general), the more it compresses. It was impossible to tell what the stuffing was, but from reading various books on gambesons, it may have been stuffed with wool, cotton, or raw flax (I think horsehair was another option for gambesons, but I donít think it was a possibility in this case).

Go to another section:

Medieval and Roman Jewelry
Medieval Fabric Pieces (including knit)
Medieval Shoes, Pattens and Misc. Wearables
14th and 15th Century Clothing (representations only)
Late Medieval Armor (as it relates to fabric only)
Medieval Home Furnishings
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