Medieval Costume Making – the surcoat

I know that this blog gets lots of hits from people looking for medieval info so thought I would post some info about making costume.

I am not a very good seamstress (just a bit of needlework at school) and have a very experimental approach to making garments but thought I would share some of the process with you. I don’t usually use patterns anymore apart from when making women’s clothing as I need that to fit (not that they really do!) Usually I am making bigger versions (for Jake) or replacing worn out things – with sword cuts in them- so tend to cut round the existing garments. You can find some good basic patterns in general sewing shops in the costume section of the pattern books or websites such as these here . These will need adapting but are good as a starting point. There are also lots of more authentic books available. One of the best for info on patterns is the Medieval Tailor’s Assistant by Sarah Thursfield – a very good source. Another useful book with not as much detail of how to make clothes but lots of ideas is Medieval Costume by Mary Houston.

If you want something a bit more specific to certain garments then Petty Chapman publish a very good series of pattern books. The website does not have prices on it but are they pretty cheap so get in touch for details.


The surcoat is a loose garment worn over armour – there are various different versions but most follow a fairly standard pattern. There is little shaping to this garment it is basically two rectangles of material curved in from the shoulder with slits cut into the front and back to allow for movement.

The surcoat cut out
The surcoat cut out

This surcoat has a V shaped neck as shown in the pic below (the white is paper put behind the neck for contrast.)

The V neck
The V neck

The shoulder and side seams are then sewn up leaving a generous arm hole for getting the surcoat on over padded jacket and maille! As well as the front and back slits the side seams are left open as well up to just below the knee.

The garment then needs hemming round neck armholes and the splits in the sides and front. If I am making one for show purposes then this all has to be handstitched – this one is just for training in so was machine stitched.

Normally the surcoat will display the heraldry of that role so that is where the applique or painting comes in. Below are two pics of some of the knights in our group showing their surcoats.

Sword training at Bolsover Castle - Cameron in red and green, De La Zouche in red with yellow spots
Sword training at Bolsover Castle - Cameron in red and green, De La Zouche in red with yellow spots, Mortimer in black and green arm fringe
During a show at Asby Castle - De Graily in black, Cameron in red and green and Percy in yellow and blue
During a show at Asby Castle - De Graily in black, Cameron in red and green and Percy in yellow and blue

The surcoats look really colourful and you can see from the show pic how well they move when the knights are fighting.

14 thoughts on “Medieval Costume Making – the surcoat

  1. Hi

    im a re-enactor and im looking for a surcoat to be made for me so do u make and sell them if so what price ?

    hope to hear from you soon


  2. Does the patterns go on the front or also at the back can someone help me pls in this matter regards.

    • Hello Steve

      Front usually – most of the surcoats in our group are plain on the back, the exception being that if they have more than one colour (parti-coloured) they will be made in that design front and back but only the front will have the actual heraldry on.

      Hope this helps.


  3. I have seen some cases where the Gorget, spaulders and pauldrons are shown on the outside of the surcoat. Most cases I only notice maile under the surcoat. What is correct? Also , what determines color and pattern on the surcoat?

    • Hello Jim

      All the longer surcoats that we use are for going over maille for earlier period costume. Usually later period surcoats are shorter and more fitted so you could see the armour on top of those.

      The surcoat pattern is your heraldry, it was a way of recognising people on the battlefield, particularly in the earlier periods when cloed great helms were worn. In the later 15th cent households all of your troops would wear your colours but often in the form of a livery coat over armour or a livery badge on their garments to show who they belonged to.


    • Hello Jason
      Surcoat will be about 4ft 6” in length depending on height of person you are making it for so for both sides allow 9ft or 3 metres.

  4. You say a surcoat is basically two panels joined at the shoulder and side but your pictures show knights wearing something which seems to flair at the bottom as they move .Are they wider at the hem than the waist?

    • Hi Freddie
      Yes sometime they are but I have seen lots that are straight panels just joined at the shoulder then belted. It seems to depend on period as the earlier ones are long and quite a bit wider at the hem than the shoulder. With the latest one I made for Jamie there is a bit of flare but not a huge amount – his is joined below the armholes but only for a bit leaving a large side split for movement.

    • We normally make them out of linen for authenticity but you can use a strong cotton or gaberdine. Thanks.

  5. Is there a way to go more in depth on how you do these things I can’t for the life of me find any YouTube videos good enough I’ve never sewed before and am just trying to make a simple crusader fit

    • Hello Boston, I would suggest looking at basic how to sew videos as the steps involved are no different for a re-enactment garment than other things. I have not got the facilities to make videos but this one looks a very good introduction. The really important thing is to get the right fabric. I would suggest linen as not only is it authentic for the period, it is very easy to sew. Avoid thicker fabrics as for a beginner that can make the seams tricky. Hope that helps and please feel free to message me with any specific questions. Thanks Alison

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