This site is an online reference for re-creational medievalism, which involves making a sincere effort to reproduce the lifestyle of a race or region of the distant past. I am interested in researching and re-enacting life as a member of the Fifth Century (AD/CE) Irish Celtic nobility. If you found this page without checking my index page first, you will find more information there. Individual sections of this site may be linked to or reproduced for non-commercial purposes (including SCA events and publications), as long as proper attribution is included.

Works cited included in the clothing bibliography.

Echna's Celtic Garb Ornamentation Page

After constructing the form of your garb (whatever version of it you choose), the next step is to ornament it. The Celts were as famous for decorations to their clothing as they were for leading wild lifestyles. Even among the various Celtic peoples, the Irish were legendary for particularly flamboyant clothing. Since there are no surviving remains of clothing from anywhere near the time period in question that are truly Irish, and Danish and other European "bog finds" have regional variations, the Irish re-creationist will have a tricky time designing clothing that is both unique and authentic.

I have an image gallery of garb I've made and ornamented. This was added February 27 of 2003.

Base Designs

Certain images are recognizable as being traditionally Irish in design. One of the most famous styles is Celtic Knotwork - which evolved from simple patterns to a way to fill spaces in illuminated manuscripts. Knotwork appeared on carvings, in paintings, on handcrafts (pottery, jewelry, etc), and as a decoration for clothing. Draw Your Own Celtic Knotwork is a site that takes some of the mystery out of this ancient practice. For a computer-based Freeware knotwork program, try Zen Soft.

Another form of design that originated in text was ogham. This was the pre-Christian alphabet of the Celts, and was used throughout Ireland and parts of Great Britain. While there's not much documentation for using it as a border for clothing, it might be useful for a "pagan" re-creationalist who wants to represent adherence to the "native" rather than the imported Christian ways. It would add an interesting flavor to garments that might otherwise feature designs that are so repetitive as to become boring. Ogham was originally used to record names on grave stones - so, engraving a name on a piece of jewelry, or, banding the hem of a léine with an ogham message *might* not be completely out of the question, although it certainly wasn't common practice.

Circles and divided circles, spirals, twists, zigzags, Celtic key patterns, and checks (woven into the fabric or added over as stitching) are all examples of various borders that can be added to a garment. A good book on Irish archeology will provide an invaluable source for simple through complex needlework designs. A book on needlework charting will teach you how to take a design and break it down into individual stitches. Much of what is thought of as "Irish" actually was imported early Christian illumination styles or Viking-Age Scandinavian art adapted to Irish tastes, both of which are outside the scope of the fifth century.

However, don't let people tell you knotwork isn't Celtic - the Irish had their own (simpler) forms of it before they adapted the complicated Scandinavian zoomorphics and heavy interlacings.


Needlework was highly prized by the Irish, who added silk and metallic embroidery to any garment they could afford to ornament. Silk was too costly to be woven into a full garment - instead, precious scraps would be unravelled into the base thread. Occasionally, narrow bands of silk would be used as trim or folded over the raw edges of garments. This was a greater expense than embroidery, because more silk was consumed in the process and would be reserved for the most formal clothing of wealthy nobles.
Couching was particular form of needlework that might have have been used during the fifth century. A length of cord (wool yarn, linen or silk thread, or fine metallic wire) would be twisted into a pattern (perhaps a simple style of knotwork) along an area of fabric, then another thread was stitched over it in a zig-zag or stem stitch to hold it in place. While the documentation of the execution of this style is sketchy (at best), couching is a reasonable explanation of how period images of these designs could have been created. Strings of small beads could also be couched into patterns.

Zig-zag stitches are diagonal stitches that both cross over the cord being couched and alternate which side of the cord they originate from. So, the first stitch might be cross left over to the right. Then, the second would cross right over left. This makes a series of matching "V" shapes when examined closely. Care must be taken to make sure all stitches point in the right direction!


Stem stitches are straight stitches that are both perpendicular to the cord being couched and each follow in the same direction. The needle will come up very close to the cord being couched, then slip over it, and then push back down into the fabric. When pulled snug, the stitch almost invisibly holds the cord in place. This is repeated along the length of the cord.

Couching on the cuffs of a pair of sleeves, with a closeup of the same couching stitches (couched with stem stitches).
"Satin" embroidery
Another form of needlework. This would be used to fill in an outline by placing parallel stitches of thread right next to each other. The thread would be pulled in the same direction for each stitch, resulting in a matching pattern on both sides of the fabric. This would give the cord a very slight "fullness" or "padding", and was best for blocking in geometric shapes or simple leaf or animal patterns.
Three triquetra (Celtic three-pointed knots) filled in with satin stitches.
Split Stitch
Split stitch (like satin stitch) is used to fill in an outline. One half of the cord hangs down from each side of the eye of the needle. The needle is pulled up through the fabric, and then is turned back "towards" the thread, pushing between the two strands, which separates (or "splits") them. This is easier to understand when a visual example is provided.
Extreme closeup of split stitches in green yarn.
This is an embroidery of a horse I adapted from a reasonably common zoomorphic interlace known as the "running dogs". One dog has as rather an equine-shaped head. I simply changed the paws to hooves and reshaped the tail. Then, I had a horse. The horse is embroidered in different shades of linen thread, and is outlined with stem stitches and filled in with tight split stitches.
Back Stitch
Back stitch is very much what the name sounds like. You stitch "back" towards the previous stitch. This creates a very nice and reasonably solid-looking (from a distance) line. Back stitch is most often used as an outlining stitch.
Here are a pair of boars embroidered entirely in back stitches. The cord is black embroidery floss, and the fabric is a textured orange silk. I sewed and decorated this brown and orange tunic for my foster-father, Aonghus.
A closeup of one of the boars. It ought to be clear that I could very closely follow the outline of the original art as the back stitches allow for tight curves and sharp angles.
Tapestry Bands
These are the trim borders most people are used to seeing. Thread of some sort is sewn over or woven into a long, thin strip of fabric. In most cases, the base fabric would be woven as tightly and evenly as possible, to provide a smooth surface to stitch onto. Once completed, the band could then be sewn onto any garment it will fit on. Additionally, if it is decorated with costly materials (silk, metallic wires, etc), it can be removed from an old or damaged garment and re-used on another. The stitches used are those mentioned above. Tapestry work could be added to regular linen, silk or wool strips, or added over tablet-woven bands. The hem (from the knee down to the edge of the garment), and neckline of garments were the most common areas to ornament. If the garment had sleeves, the wrist area would be embroidered as well.

You can find bands of linen for embroidery in most large needlework stores (as well as through mail order sources). They range from three to six inches in width, and will have plain or decorative woven selvage edges. For narrow metal-work (gold, silver, copper thread) you can purchase linen tape used for making tape lace (ranging in width from 3/8 inch to 1/2 inch). Cotton twill tape comes in wider widths.

Geometrics, spirals, and simple interlacings were the images most likely used. This is where an understanding of the history of Celtic Knotwork and early Irish ornamentations styles or jewelery decoration would be of particular use. The images used to decorate everyday household items would be the most likely candidates for what was used to decorate clothing during the same time period.

Trim merchant online

Contrasting Fabric

Not every garment needs to be decorated with trim along specified borders. Sometimes you can simply use contrasting fabrics in the construction of a garment to provide nice accents and details.

I've experimented with this technique on my own from time to time and enjoyed it. In particular, I like to make contrasting sleeves on male and female léinte. A particular favorite of mine is to use one color/weave of sleeve fabric for the upper two-thirds of a sleeve, and a contrasting fabric for the bottom third. This does two things...helps finish a garment when I may not have enough scrap left to do full sleeves...and provides yet another form of decoration. When I join sleeves this way, I'll sew a band of trim along the seam where the two colors meet, to help 'blend' the look.

There's another woman in the clann who sews garb for the members, who is years (decades, centuries?) ahead of me in both design ability and overall sewing skill. She displayed some garb for members that made me almost swoon with delight (and gave me some ideas to adapt). The tunics were basic round-necked tunics with of a particular plaid pattern. The pants for each set were made from solid-color linen-look cotton/rayon with contrasting waistlines and ankles of coordinated plaid cloth. Either garment could be worn individually, or mixed and matched to create even more gaudy Celtic looks. At the same time, they looked incredibly sharp paired together. For the ladies, she made linen-look gowns with two-tone sleeves (not unline the ones I described above, although I don't think she hid her seams with trim). The lower third of the sleeves, the rounded neck, and the bottom third of the length of the gown were all decorated with cotton flannel plaid fabric. The final appearance was very attractive and polished without a strip of embroidery or commercial trim anywhere on the garment. Also, it was an effective use of 'scrap' material, which is a VERY period practice for almost any century....

A final suggestion on this topic - I sometimes sew scrap plaid fabric into long, narrow tubes and press flat. Then, I sew this in place just like commercial trim (with the seam hidden against the fabric being decorated). I prefer to do this with Phrygian caps (with wool trim on wool fabric), but, any garment can benefit by this. I would not suggest mixing blends of fabric - only use wool trim on a wool garment, and only use plant fibers on plant fibers. I find the trim doesn't "wear" as well if used otherwise.

Some More Guesses

As mentioned throughout this site, there are no remains of Irish-Celtic clothing from the appropriate period with surviving needlework. That means every decorating style is guesswork or iterpretation of imprecise sources (literature or artwork). Some techniques involve more "guessing" than others. The following selections will be ornamental styles from other cultures that had some sort of contact with Ireland, or styles from up to a few centuries later. However, using them is not even as recommended as the above descriptions. They are provided as an attempt to provide a bit more variety and ease in decoration. Sometimes, alternating through the same few colors of metallic knotwork trim gets tiresome, or, you don't have the time for an elaborate embroidery pattern, or, you're trying to speed-decorate multiple garments (like...say...a complete wardrobe for a week-long camping event).

First is using either blanket stitch or herringbone stitch (directions found in any embroidery book) on the folded hems, cuffs, or necklines of garments, so that the stitching is exposed on the outer surface. This is actually a Scandinavian style (which dates back to Migration Age, under which the fifth century falls). As long as the color of the yarn or silk you use for the stitches contrasts well with the fabric color, you have instant needlework at a quicker rate than pictoral stitches! If the blanket stitch is done well, you can even knot fringes to hang off of it, which will add back to the Irish styling.

Second is naalbinding (commonly called "looped needle netting"), another Scandinavian technique, that dates back to well before the Migration Age. There are many varieties of looped stitches, but, the basic stitch is simply a continuation of blanket stitching, over the previous row. With two or three rows of this added to the edge of a garment, you have a crocheted-looking edging that can provide a nice contrast with the right cord fiber. I use naalbinding to decorate a good percentage of my garb. It looks very stylish, wears well, and provides a lovely handwork decorative touch that's relatively quick to put into place. Our clann has enough Norse ties justify touching up clothing in a pre-"Viking" style from timae to time.

You have to be careful when you add looks and styles that are recognizable as belonging to other cultures. I borrow from many cultures. I've used British Celtic, Norse, Continental Germanic, Middle Eastern, Roman, and Slavic ornamentation techniques. I find this actually helps me create more of an Irish apperance. Since there's so few specifically Irish options, taking from many other cultures helps keep me from looking like a clone of another culture, but, gives me a range of options to choose from. If I only borrowed from the Norse, I suspect I'd start looking like a Viking clone. For my persona, taking from other cultures is a matter of taking a technique and adapting it to recognizable Irish materials and motifs.

A major consideration for me is that I'm often making "batches" of clothing for people with minimal amounts of time. I don't usually get garb requests with six months of time to plan. Instead, it will be less than a month before a big event and multiple garments will be needed. If I was to embroider tapestry bands for every tunic or dress, NOTHING would get finished. On the other hand, I don't want to just slap commercial trim onto everything. I use simple forms of decoration to provide "real" handwork in the least time-consuming ways possible.

A recent favorite of mine is to buy narrow silk ribbon (sold for ribbon "embroidery" projects in craft stores), or very narrow grosgrain ribbon, and use that to trim garb. I run it under herringbone stitches (so it looks like the herringbone stitches are holding it down), or, I embroider it through the fabric (it looks particularly sharp to stitch down one layer of silk ribbon with a contrasting color ribbon of herringbone stitches). You have to be a little careful if you use ribbon as a sort of thread, because it tends to pinch and fold and twist. Be patient when "sewing" with it, and the results are quite wonderful.

Make Use of Layers

Even with the small selection of needlework stitches and ornamenting techniques I mention on this page, elaborate clothing could be designed and created. However, many people just don't have the time to create a whole wardrobe that's embroidered from knee to hem, *and* for several inches around the neck and wrists. A feasible way to get around this is the two-fold practice of layering and being consistent.

First, layer garments with embroidery or trim on them. Decorate your top layer and inner layer with a small amount of embroidery, and make sure both are visible. It gives a richer and more opulent look to your entire outfit by doing this. One or two "lonely" rows of needlework on the neckline of an inner leine suddenly look bright and festive when peeking out over a tube dress with commercial trim sewn along the neck opening.

Next, decorate your clothing in stages, and learn (and master) the techniques by consistently adding them to each garment in succession. As I learned new techniques (or even improved existing skills), I would go through my older garb and add on to existing ornamentation. My clothes went from being fairly boring and "nekkid" looking (if you'll pardon the pun), to all being at least minimally embroidered, or trimmed, or both.

As well as allowing you to improve your clothing over time as you participate, being consistent in techniques also helps keep your entire wardrobe functional. Of all my leinte, one of my favorites is one the first one I made. The fabric is a heavier weight of linen than I've otherwise found and very soft. It was cut to be a good size for me, and it's just comfortable to wear. By improving the embroidery over time, it keeps up with the newer garb, which means no one is likely to recognize it as my beginner's effort.


Next up are some digital images of embroidery, to see how I layer stitches together to ornament my garb.

Top to bottom: Naalbinding (blanket stitch), herringbone, french knots, couching (green wool overlaid with white wool), split stitch. It's not clear in the picture because of the way the fabric is folded, but this is the neck and shoulder line of the garment. French knots _are_ unquestionably from a much later time period of embroidery history. However, decorative knotting in stitches is such a universal concept that I feel some sort of knotting is appropriate for interpretive purposes.
Top to bottom: This sleeveless garment was ornamented with simulated metallic golden thread (which makes it difficult to photograph). I used feather stitches in a row with each stitch facing the same direction. The next row was herringbone stitches holding down a length of narrow purple grosgrain ribbon. The last is another row of feather stitches open in the opposite direction from the first row. Below that are four plastic amber-like beads sewn into a decorative cluster. Feather stitches are another post-period technique. I happen to like the appearance. I don't have any information on where beading was done on garments, but, it does go back to the fifth century.

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Updated: Friday, June 09, 2005 11:00:03 PM