How to Make Eyelets (and Fast!)
This is a text I use to teach eyelet-making at re-enactments. The information for making hand-stitched eyelets is especially useful to historic re-enactors, including medieval and Rev War.
Please note! I reference the tomb effigy of Katherine Beauchamp in the instructions. Pictures of her are just below the text section.
Making the Eyelets
Were all eyelets in cloth stitched? Yes. They did not have metal eyelets/grommets in the middle ages (or the 18th century, for that matter). Can a sewing machine do one? Most cannot. My (very expensive) embroidery machine can, but they're actually not as neat and pretty as the ones I can do by hand, so I continue to do all of my eyelets by hand. A typical cotehardie for me contains between 22-32 pairs of eyelets. My latest record was about 22 eyelets done in less than a couple of hours (and while watching TV no less), so they're not terribly labor-intensive or time-consuming, if you know how to work them properly.
101 Places to Put an Eyelet
Eyelets were terribly popular throughout the vast majority of the middle ages, especially in the 1200's onwards, when clothing started to become tighter-fitting and it was no longer possible to just pull a tunic over your head and be done with it. Eyelets started to appear from the elbows-down on dresses and tunics of the 13th century, then on cotehardies, doublets, corsets and gowns--you name it--in the 14th century and beyond. Gambesons (along with other under-armor wear) and surcoats were probably using eyelets before clothing. Lacing pieces of maile (and later, pieces of plate) to under-armor garments was quite common, and to do that, you needed an eyelet in your fabric undergrament. To say nothing of the eyelets needed for tents and sails and who-knows-what-else.
In the middle ages, the most common way to lace up a garment was by spiral-lacing. With spiral-lacing you have one cord and you put a knot in one end. You thread the cord up through a hole on the bottom, then you take it down through the eyelet on the other side. Then you come back up through the next eyelet up on the opposite side, and so on. The pattern is of the cord spiraling upwards, hence the name. Yes, laces only ever spiral upwards--never downwards (at least not on clothing; Elizabethan corsets may be different).
The trick to getting the lacing to look just right and for making your fabric lay just right is to offset the pairs of eyelets. If you don't offset the eyelets, then you will get a slight pucker at the bottom and a slight crookedness at the top as the lacing pulls your cloth up on one side.
As you can see on the effigy of Katherine Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick (below), only the bottom pair of eyelets are even; the next set of eyelets has the one on our left lowered by half the spacing distance and the one on the right raised by half-again the spacing distance. From there all of the eyelets are spaced the same distance apart until you get to the top of the neckline, where the last pair of eyelets are offset in the opposite direction as the bottom ones (one on the left is 1.5 spacing and the one on the right is .5 spacing), with one pair of matched eyelets at the very top.
Why spiral-lacing? Why not crisscross lacing, like for tennis shoes? I have worn both kinds of lacing and can tell you that the crisscross lacing will tighten up and pucker in certain places and loosen and gap in others, whereas the spiral lacing does not move that way. Medieval people knew what they were doing.
You only need two tools to make eyelets (well, besides a needle and thread, obviously); one is a stiletto. You can get a stiletto from a blacksmith, or you can make do with a sharp-pointed object, like a metal knitting needle or a leather awl.
The first thing to remember about your stiletto is that it needs to be larger than you want your eyelets to be; as you stitch around your eyelets, they will shrink, so you have to start larger in order to end up with decent-sized eyelets.
At the same time, your stiletto should not be too large. My stiletto is as thick around as my pinkie finger--maybe a little less--and that's quite large enough. Your hand-stitched eyelets won't (and shouldn't) have the open diameter of your typical metal eyelet. Your eyelets aren't for showing off; they just need to be large enough to slip a cord through--no more. The benefit to this is that you don't show your underwear through the the eyelet holes; the cording should completely fill up the hole.
The second tool you need is a water-soluble quilter's pen. You can use colored chalk (and you will need to use white chalk or a white pencil on very dark fabrics), but I find that nothing makes a neater, faster mark than a quilter's pen.
The only thing that you need to do with your fabric is make sure it is double-thickness. For the front-opening of a cotehardie, I usually just fold my seam allowance back from the opening and stitch it down, then make my eyelets halfway between the edge and my stitches (my seam allowance is 1/2", so my eyelets are a little less than 1/4" from the edge when they are completed). I have done eyelets like this in linen, light-weight silk, and cotton, and have never had a problem with putting eyelets in only two layers of cloth. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that when spaced so closely together, no one eyelet takes a lot of strain from the lacing, thus keeping it from being ripped out. And yes, I wear my cotehardies quite tight, so there's plenty of strain to go around! If you are working with something loosely woven (like gauze), then you might want to iron in a strip of interfacing before folding your seam allowance over and making your eyelets. But even the very fine silk that I used for my wedding dress has born up well.
You can never go wrong with eyelets 1/2" apart. While Philippa of Hainault's effigy in Westminster Abbey had eyelets placed about 1/4" apart, most brasses and effigies seem to be closer to 1/2".
You can see in the included picture that the eyelets are finger-width apart on Katherine Beauchamp's effigy, which is slightly more than 1/2", however, as 1/2" is a nice, round number, and easily divisible and multipliable for the offset measure, it is what I use.
Why not use a larger measure and place fewer eyelets? This is okay to do where eyelets will have no strain and you're not relying on them to keep your important bits covered--surcoats to be worn over armor are a good place to set your eyelets further apart--however, I would caution everyone to never place your eyelets further than 3/4" apart, or risk getting gaps in your fabric where you would rather not be gaping. I have been doing 1/2" eyelets for a while now and have never had gaping.
Mark your first pair of eyelets directly across from each other and 1/4" - 1/2" down from the neckline. With the next set, place one eyelet 1/4" down from the first eyelet, and on the other side, place the eyelet 3/4" down. Continue to place all eyelets 1/2" down from the eyelet above to it until you reach the bottom of the garment. Then, opposite to the offset below, put one eyelet down 1/4" and the other eyelet down 3/4"; this will make your last pair of eyelets even with one another.
Now that you have your holes marked, take your stiletto, center the point of it on the dot, place your left-hand index finger on the backside of your cloth and use your right hand (switch this if you are left-handed, obviously) to twist your stiletto--as if you were using a wooden drill to start a campfire. Once you feel the tip of the stiletto come through the cloth, grip the cloth with your left hand and continue to twist the stiletto and press down until you have opened up the hole. Remember, the raw hole needs to be larger than you want the finished hole.
Remove the stiletto from the fabric (you may need to twist it a little to get it to back out). Knot your thread and place whip stitches around the edges of the hole. Make the stitches a bit longer than you think you ought to, and give the thread a good pull; this will shorten the stitch and help hold the hole open further. Since everyone's hole sizes will be different depending on their stilettos, I can't really tell you how many stitches to take around the hole; I can only tell you that you do not have to have the edge of the hole solid with them. This isn't embroidery where you have to fill in all of an area; you only need 10-12 stitches or so (again, depends on the size of your hole) to hold the hole open. Since you are using a stiletto, which does not tear the fabric, there is no worries about the cloth fraying out around the holes. That's trick number one to making fast eyelets--don't overstitch them.
Once you are done with your eyelet, don't cut the thread! Make your next hole with your stiletto and then turn your fabric over and run the needle under one layer of fabric and up around the eyelet. Move up to the bottom of the next eyelet, turn the fabric back over and then proceed to stitch it. When done, repeat running your thread up to the next eyelet. That's trick number two to making fast eyelets--never cut your thread between eyelets.
By the way, this same trick works for stitching on buttons (stitch on a button, knot the thread, carry the thread up to the next button spot and add another button) and even when doing hand-stitched buttonholes.
Katherine Beauchamp's Eyelets - Top
Katherine Beauchamp's Eyelets - Bottom
Lacing for Eyelets
Now all that remains is to make lacing. This is so surprisingly simple, I wonder why it took me so long to come up with (others may already know, but I'll repeat for the benefit of anyone new). The easiest way to make lacing is to take buttonhole thread (thinner) or crochet thread (a bit thicker) and braid it. It's that simple. Of course, you can always use a lucet to make cording, or buy ribbon or something else to use, but more likely than not, you have thread sitting around at home that matches your outfit already (if not, don't be afraid to paint white thread--I did that for my wedding dress, because I couldn't get heavy gold thread to match, and it worked surprising well); braiding is fast and easy.
To make a braid, measure the length of your opening and triple the length (you may not want your cord that long and may end up just doubling the length in the future, but you'll not be left short with triple). Cut three strands of buttonhole or crochet thread to the measurement, knot one end and run a safety pin through the knot. Attach to your pants or a piece of furniture and braid. Do not knot the end when you are finished. Instead, thread it through a large-eyed needle, such as a tapestry needle, and thread it through your eyelets, making sure the knot is on the inside of the fabric and that the first eyelet you come through is on the side where it is offset by the 1/4" eyelet (in the case of Katherine's dress start on the left-hand side-as we view her-and pass across the top to the right-hand side, then under and up through the short eyelet, then over to the raised eyelet and so on). Remember, this is spiraling-up; you started on the wrong side of the opening if you are running your lacing down from the higher eyelet to the lower one.
If you have trouble pulling your cording through an eyelet, take your stiletto and widen the hole a little bit. Don't be too forceful as you might break your stitches, but for the most part, even a little bit of widening will make the eyelet open up enough to pass your cord through.
When you reach the top, the lacing will be on the inside; trim the braid if you want it shorter and knot the end, putting a large enough knot into it so that it won't slip out of your eyelet. Don't trim the lacing too short, as you will want enough to spare to loosen the garment and let yourself out. Loosening the laces to get the garment on and off will be how you get in and out of it; you will never have to lace it up again. Once you are in the garment, the tension on the lacing should be enough to keep it from opening up, but if not, do a loop-knot. When you go to remove the garment, undo the loop knot and loosen the lacing until the garment is loose enough to pull off. Remember that people in the high middle ages bent over at the waist and pulled the hem of their garments up over their heads (turning the garment inside out as they did so). This also works with taking off maile shirts.
And there you have it: how to quickly make eyelets and how to use them.
The Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing is an absolute necessary reference manual for anyone that sews on a machine or by hand. Everything you need to know about sewing with great how-to pictures.
The Medieval Tailor's Guide has good instructions on all manner of hand-sewing, as well as pattern-drafting. The only thing is, my eyelet directions are MUCH faster than theirs.
Textiles and Clothing is an in-depth book on medieval clothing, best reserved for true costuming geeks. But it has some examples of eyelets on extant pieces, as well as buttons, buttonholes and linings.
Related Medieval Links
- Extant Medieval Resources
Want to see more of the effigy of Katherine Beuchamp? Want to see extant medieval jewelry and knitting? Head over to my page of Extant Medieval Resources to see the pictures that my husband and I took on our trip to England and Scotland a few years a
- The Medieval Nun's Squidoo Hub
Take a look at my hub and see what other medieval and crafting lenses I have available. Join my fanclub to get updates of when I add new lenses so you'll never miss anything you're looking for.
- How to Lucet
This is the website I used to teach myself how to lucet. I assume I'm doing it right because cording comes out the bottom.
- Cotte Simple
Information on making cotehardies.