How Do You…?

Make a Tunic
By Lisa Klassen-Barnes
History
The tunic, much like the t-shirt of the modern world, was the basic garment of the ancients.
Dubbed a ‘status-free garment’ due to the fact that anyone and everyone wore it, its shape
originated in the simple hide garments of Neolithic man made by sewing two skins together
with sections left open for the arms and head. As technology progressed, tunics were made
from felted wool, then woven fabrics made from linen, wool, cotton, silk or a combination of
both. They were decorated with brightly colored dyes, woven patterns and trim and sometimes
even precious gems and metals.
Although it is not known exactly when the tunic made its debut, it began life in ancient Greece
as the chiton. Originally, the chiton was a rectangular piece of cloth that was worn folded on
one side and left open on the other, but later the side was sewn shut. It was pinned with fibulae
at two points on the top, creating a hole for the head and two holes for the arms and was often
worn with a belt. The chiton was worn bloused by both women and men, men wearing it just
above their knees and women wearing it usually at ankle-length. It was always sleeveless,
although Alexander the Great’s conquests introduced a vogue for Persian-style long sleeves,
which were added by moving the arm openings to the side and sewing on separate pieces of
fabric. This rectangular style with side sleeves was known as the kolobus. In the late Roman
Empire, the kolobus became an important ecclesial garment. It was also the precursor to the
dalmatica.
Ancient Romans called their version of the chiton a tunic or tunica. It was a rectangular garment
with arm openings at the top of the side seams and a central opening for the head. During the
Republican era, long sleeves were deemed effeminate although the Roman army began to see
their worth as they pressed northward under the leadership of Gaius Julius Caesar, who was
notorious for wearing long sleeves and criticized for wearing them by the likes of Sulla. Early
Imperial tunics were wide and sleeveless, some as wide as a man’s full arm span. The garment
was utilitarian. When working, it was often worn under one arm and over the other or tied up
in the back to give a tighter fit. The extra fabric often provided extra padding when worn under
armor. In the late Roman Empire, long-sleeved tunics became fashionable most likely as a result
of the influence of Germanic and Eastern styles dictated by foreign emperors.
Tunics were often decorated with clavus, a single vertical stripe or clavi, multiple stripes. In the
Republican and early Imperial era, they denoted a man’s rank in society. Senators wore wide
purple clavi on each shoulder, while equestrians wore narrower versions of the bands. Later in
the empire, however the stripes became de rigueur on all tunics worn by men, women and
children. The late empire and Byzantine era also saw the creation of the orbiculi, elaborately
embroidered roundels placed on hems and at the shoulders as well as the addition of patterned
yokes and clavi that ended in arrowheads and tassels. The Romans had a wide variety of color
choices for their tunics. The lower classes and military would most likely have worn natural
shades of linen and wool and cheap, widely available dyestuffs that yielded colors like madder
red and brown. Men generally shied away from bright colors which were favored by women.
Wealthier citizens wore more brilliant colors, the most infamous being Tyrian purple.
Roman women wore the tunica in two forms: the tunica interior or subtunica which was a
smaller version of an outer garment which was known as the stola. Like the chiton, the stola
was simply a longer version of the tunic. It was not, however referred to as a tunica, as that
garment was associated with slaves and the lower classes and the stola was the sole providence
of the Roman matron. It was usually very wide, a trait which gave the garment ‘sleeves’ of a
sort. It was bloused to ankle-length and worn with a girdle, waist band or tie. Women’s stolas
came in a wide variety of colors. Of note were bright green and red, which were thought of as
‘cheap’ and violet and yellow which were solely seen as women’s colors.
The tunic was also worn by Germanic and Celtic peoples outside of Italy. Called the crys in the
language of ancient European Celts, it was a simple rectangle with arm openings on the side,
like the Roman tunica. The Celts favored long sleeves and bright colors and ancient authors
often remarked on their checkered clothing, plaids and detailed embroidery. Women wore a
longer ankle-length version called a gwn often underneath a shorter crys.
Modern Recreations
Many modern re-enactors find the large tunic to be overly bulky and chose to make smaller
versions. Most fabrics found in retail stores are only 45” wide which makes sewing a large tunic
difficult as well. If you would like to make a large tunic, look for 60” wide fabric. The ancients
had access to wool, linen, cotton and silk, but do choose your fiber according to the social rank
of your persona. Blends of these fibers are acceptable, but avoid synthetics. For help with
choosing colors, research natural dyes and the colors they produce.
In order to help you decide on the dimensions of your tunic, I have provided a chart of the
dimensions of a number of historical garments. The amount of fabric you will need for a tunic
depends on the style you want to create. For a modern fit tunic of the Roman style with
‘sleeves’ created by excess fabric at the shoulders, I use two simple measurements: the width
from elbow to elbow with arms extended, and the length from neck (I use the prominent bone
at the base of the neck) to the bend of the knee. To the length measurement I may add 5”-7”
for a longer tunic suitable for wearing without trousers. For a woman’s garment, measure from
the back of the neck to the ankle and add 5”-9” depending on the amount of blousing you
desire. Add 1” to the side measurement for seam allowances and 1.5” to the length. These
measurements will give you the dimensions of your rectangle. You will need double this to get
the total amount of fabric needed for your tunic. Cut your tunic on the grain. You can use either
the warp or weft grains. You may wish to purchase an extra ¼-1/2 a yard of fabric in case of
shrinkage and for straightening. You can also use the extra fabric to make a waistband. I highly
suggest pre-washing your fabric.
Materials
Pre-washed yardage, amount to be determined by personal measurements
Matching thread
Ruler/Straightedge
Pins
Scissors
Tape measure
Fabric chalk/marking pen/pencil
Ironing supplies
Sewing machine(s)
Hand sewing needles
Instructions
1. Measure and cut your fabric according to your measurements. To get a straight edge on
the grain, you can usually make a small cut and simply tear the fabric on strong woven
fibers like wool and linen.
2. Determine appropriate arm and neck opening measurements by pinning your tunic
together and trying it on. The size of these openings is completely up to your own taste
and research. Women will need to determine an appropriate length for a kick pleat,
usually 12”-18” and made on one or both of the lower side seams. This opening allows
one to walk without encumbrance. Mark these measurements on your fabric with a
fabric pen or chalk.
3. If you plan on finishing your seams with a zig-zag stitch or a serger, do so now.*
4. Pin your rectangles together and sew using .5” seam allowances, being sure to reinforce
the ends of the arm and neck openings with backstitching.
5. Press seams open.
6. Finish the arm and neck openings as well as the bottom hem by rolling the raw edge
over twice so that it is encased and sew it closed.**
7. To make a waistband, cut extra fabric into 3” strips. A waistband should be your waist
measurement plus at least 6.”
8. Sew the ends of the strips together.
9. Press the fabric in half length-wise with seam allowances on the outside.
10. Sew down the length of the fabric creating a tube.
11. Turn the tube inside out and press. While pressing, turn the ends of the tube inside,
hiding the raw edges.
12. Sew the ends of the tube shut to complete your waistband.
* Some re-enactors will want to entirely hand stitch their garment. For hand-sewing
instructions, please visit http://www.renaissancetailor.com/demos_handtech.htm. This website
also contains some great instructions for making period-correct trims and embroidery. Another
good site is http://www.sew4home.com/tips-resources/sewing-tips-tricks/hand-sewing-basics.
Reader’s Digest: New Complete Guide to Sewing is a great book for both machine and hand
stitching information.
**When I make a tunic, I always serge the raw edges and machine sew the inner seams. All
visible hems are hand-sewn. For hand finishing, use a blind hem stitch.
Sources
Houston, Mary G. (2003). <i>Ancient Greek, Roman & Byzantine Costume</i>. Mineola, NY:
Dover Publications, Inc.
Norris, Herbert. (1999). <i>Ancient European Costume and Fashion</i>. Mineola, NY: Dover
Publications, Inc.
Nosch, Marie-Louise ed. (2012) <i>Wearing the Cloak: Dressing the Soldier in Roman Times</i>.
Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxbow Books.
Sebesta, Judith Lynn & Larissa Bonfante, eds. (2001). <i>The World of Roman Costume</i>.
Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Sumner, Grahm. (1997). <i>Brassey’s History of Uniforms: Roman Army Wars of the Empire</i>.
London, United Kingdom: Brassey’s Ltd.
Sumner, Grahm. (2009). <i>Roman Military Dress</i>. Stroud, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom:
The History Press.
Olson, Kelly. (2008). <i>Dress and the Roman Woman: Self-presentation and Society</i>. New
York, NY: Routledge.