Revival Clothing 14th Century Linen Gambeson
A hands-on review by Michael Edelson
Ask average enthusiasts about armour and their imagination will conjure images of shining steel plates, riveted rings of mail, and magnificently articulated gauntlets with glowing latten accents. It is not uncommon for collectors to own one or more complete armour harnesses and not even be aware that such defenses are nearly useless without an essential foundation; the gambeson, also known as the aketon or arming coat.
The earliest reference to the European gambeson dates back to the 9th or 10th centuries, though variations were most likely worn back into antiquity. Not much is known about early medieval gambesons, except that they were most likely made using a sewing technique called quilting. An outer and inner layer usually made from linen or wool were joined together by sewing rows of lines across the fabric, forming tubes. The garment was either stuffed first or the tubes were sewn, stuffed, and then sewn shut. A variety of materials were used for stuffing, including flax fiber, scrap cloth, horse hair or whatever else was readily available.
The first known use of the medieval European gambeson was as a padded defense to be worn under mail. Although mail is an excellent defense and will stop cutting and piercing damage from most period weapons, it will do little to absorb the associated blunt trauma. Padding the mail by wearing it over a gambeson enhances its protective aspects by supporting the mail and allowing the impact to be absorbed by a larger area.
For men-at-arms who could not afford any other forms of protective gear, the gambeson often served in combination with a simple helm as the only armour worn. Gambesons designed for this type of use are believed to have been thicker and their outer layers made from tougher materials such as canvas or leather. In later centuries the jack, made with as many as thirty layers of cloth, is believed to have replaced the gambeson as a standalone piece of armour.
As plate defense were added to mail in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the thickness of the gambeson gradually diminished. The addition of plates required a greater degree of mobility from the gambeson to accommodate the added encumbrance, and the plate defense themselves were capable of absorbing crushing damage. This eventually led to the gambeson's replacement by a much lighter garment called the arming doublet, though cloth armour continued to be worn as a standalone defense until the 18th century.
The 14th Century Linen Gambeson from Revival Clothing is based on a combination of surviving 14th century garments and period artwork. Its outer shell is made from heavy linen while the lining is a medium-weight cotton. The gambeson is padded with three layers of cotton batting, which in combination with the natural fibers of its outer shell and lining makes it exceptionally breathable. The gambeson uses solid metal buttons that are securely fastened with strong cord.
True to surviving originals, the Revival Clothing gambeson features an exaggerated armhole, also called "le grande assiette sleeve", which allows for generous freedom of movement.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Revival Clothing, from Oak Park, Illinois.
When purchasing a gambeson, prospective buyers need to ask three questions; how will it fit, how bulky and restrictive will it be, and how much protection will it offer? The order is important, because although the primary purpose of a gambeson is protection, if one cannot move effectively then too high a price is paid for defense. Fit is primary because even the best gambeson will restrict mobility if it is not correctly sized. Revival Clothing offers four sizes and a sizing guide based on chest and waist measurements. Using their suggestions, I was able to select a size that fit me well right out of the box, without feeling as though I needed to break in the item.
Despite being a well-padded garment it does not feel bulky. When worn by itself it is very comfortable and does not feel overly hot due to its excellent breathability. The exaggerated armholes provide almost no interference with freedom of movement.
When worn as part of an all-mail or transitional harness, the best characteristics of this gambeson become apparent. Aside from making the harness more comfortable and not interfering with movement, the gambeson adds a surprising degree of protection. Worn alone, it does little to cushion heavy blows, just as mail alone fails to do so. Combining the two, however, creates a defense that is greater than the sum of its parts.
To test the gambeson I suspended it over a hanging pell and placed a coat of riveted mail over it. I then struck the mail several times with a heavy war sword, attempting to both cut and thrust through the armour. Due to my familiarity with the pell, I was also able to measure the amount of force transmitted through the combined defense. This is a recreation of part of an earlier test I conducted with Revival Clothing's cotton gambeson, and the results were the same. The gambeson provided such a high degree of cushioning that the mail was completely undamaged. Very little force was transmitted to the pell and the sword's edge was only lightly nicked despite the force of the blows.
Satisfied that it would protect its wearer, I donned the gambeson, mail and a few plate defenses and had an observer strike me with a wooden training sword several times, each blow harder than the last. When struck over an area protected by gambeson and mail, the force of the blow was greatly diminished. When struck on a plate defense, there was only the slightest sensation of contact.
Editor's Note: Only trained martial artists should attempt the above testing, making use of extensive training and proper safety equipment.
Fit and Finish
This gambeson is both attractive and comfortable, made with quality materials and an obvious attention to detail. The solid cast buttons are sturdy and very easy to use. The gambeson can be put on and removed quickly and without difficulty. The stitching is nicely done and without evident flaws, and the color is rich and evenly applied. The outer shell is particularly impressive, as it feels tough yet is soft and flexible, bending easily to accommodate movement.
Rather than shape the gambeson like a modern garment, Revival Clothing incorporated such period details as an overall hourglass shape that is drawn at the waist and loose around the chest, sleeves that ride well down on the hand and are sewn with a bend at the wrist, and a dagged hem that adds a touch of period flair. An interesting thing about the dags is that they're sewn in such a way that if one does not like them, they can be tucked in until they all but disappear, leaving the hem completely straight.
There is much that sets this gambeson apart from less expensive alternatives; fit and finish, quality of materials, period details and the use of all-natural fibers. These are all secondary, however, to what truly elevates this garment above its competition; it fits, it's not restrictive, and it works.
The Revival Clothing linen gambeson offers excellent protection, comfort and fit. It does what it is supposed to do and allows its owner to enjoy wearing it. It is not an exact reproduction of a period garment, though. Revival Clothing has wisely chosen to make a few compromises, such as incorporating a cotton lining, in the interest of durability and low cost, but the result is a gambeson that serves its function as well as can be expected of the originals. If I had to come up with what I believe is the gambeson's greatest flaw, it would be that it is far too nice to wear under greasy mail. It almost makes one want to buy two: one to wear and one to admire.
About the Author
Michael Edelson is a writer from New York. Like many enthusiasts, his passion for arms and armour predates his ability to remember its origins. He currently leads a historical European swordsmanship study group focusing on German medieval longsword arts as codified by Johannes Liechtenauer. Michael is also a collector of reproduction arms and armour with a heavy bias for all manner of weapons wielded with two hands.
Photographer: Michael Edelson