Would you like to make your own
for Chinese Sword Fighting?

Let me show you how I made my gambeson. This protective body armour is made of thick layers of cloth. It is thick enough to take a solid hit from either a hardwood sword or blunt steel, without leaving a bruise. It is also thick enough to be approved for Reenactment groups. With some modifications in style, you could use this process to make a European sword fighting gambeson.

Chinese protective body armour

First of all, a little history - the picture above shows the ancient armour of, (from left to right),Vice General and Imperial Prince Čebdenĵab (1705-1782); General Zhaohui, Duke of the First Rank (1708-1764); General Mingliang, originally of the Manchu Bordered Yellow Banner, but risen to prominence (1736-1832) and Vice General Fude, Count of the First Rank (17?-1176). They are wearing dingjia (nail armour), a Chinese brigandine armour made by rivetting small steel plates inside layers of cloth. This made very protective body armour. The gambeson shown in this demonstration, has no steel plates inside, just thick layers of cloth. I have decorated mine with brass rivets to make it look more like the original, but the rivets are optional.

The picture below shows the red gambeson I will demonstrate today. This is a picture of me training with my teacher, who is wearing a blue gambeson and tasset set I made earlier.

Modern Chinese protective body armour

There are two ways to do this - the longer way, and the fast cheat way. I'll give you both.
  • Find a vest (sleeveless body warmer) that fits you well, open it down the side-seams and draw out a front and back piece. Cut it out of the paper about 2-3 sizes larger than your usual fit, to accommodate all the padding. Cut it longer for groin protection.

  • A sleeve pattern. Make it from any jacket that fits you well, again, leaving plenty of room for the padding in your finished protective body armour, and a little length to fit inside the vest armholes. Do not make the arms too tight, especially at the wrists because you will want to put long gloves underneath.

  • A Chinese stand-up collar.
    This needs to be taller than usual to fit enough padding to protect your neck. It does not open at the front and needs to be long enough to fit your vest neck, and overlap to close, above a shoulder.

  • A rhombus for extra padding over the groin. I call this the codpiece. It is not quite square, having a shorter top edge. You can make more for over the kidneys if you like. I chose to make my underarm pieces long enough to double for that function.

  • Horse hoof shaped cuff

  • Underarm pieces

  • Spauldrons (shoulder protection)

Buy a ready-made Chinese single layer jacket as the pattern for your protective body armour and pull it apart. This will give you the vest front and back (you'll have to sew up the front), the sleeves, and the collar. Make sure you buy it in a material you can match if you want to make the horse-hoof cuffs, codpiece, spauldrons and underam pieces for your protective body armour. At least you will have the Chinese button effect already made.

The picture below will give you a general idea of the shapes for the cuffs, spauldrons, underarm pieces, and codpiece.

gambeson pieces for Chinese swordfighting

use the most natural materials possible, for a gambeson. Wool and pure cotton breathe more. I have an ice-vest to wear under mine if it gets too hot, so I didn't mind using silk brocade for the outer and satin for the liner. I chose the satin because it slips off easily (and it was such a pretty gold.....).
  • Outer layer. I used imported Chinese silk brocade - but I'm a girl, so I wanted it pretty. Cotton will do nicely. Just make sure it is something durable and you like it because this is the layer you will see most of the time. Buy enough for the jacket and the tasset you will want to make later. That's in another page. I suggest at least 4 metres

  • Inner layer. I lined mine with gold satin, for reasons already explained. Cotton is good, or linen. You'll need about 4 metres if you want to add the tasset to your protective body armour as well.

  • Stuffing. Use about 5 layers of blanket wool, or the equivalent in other thick materials. You will have to cut out a lot of layers. I suggest sticking layers together with spray on craft adhesive and perhaps even quilting them together before cutting out the actual shape. You may want to do this in two segments to preserve your scissors and sewing machine. I'll explain that part later.

  • Sewing cotton in the right colour.

  • Enough blanket binding satin, or home made binding, to surround all of your pieces.I did mine in Banner colours, so I chose white, and of course, white cotton to match.

  • Chinese buttons. These are for decoration. You do not want your gambeson to open at the front because a sword can slip through the gap, bypassing all your protective body armour. It is very simple to make your own Chinese buttons. If you do, buy enough knotting cord in the right colour, to make about eight of them, with their loops.

  • Fasteners of your choice. I used snap fasteners for the neck. All my other fasteners were eyelets with leather bootlaces threaded through. You could make ties on the sides if you don't want to go to this bother, or another fastening of your choice.

  • Lots of press studs or large rivets. If you choose to decorate the outside with studs, it will take hundreds of them, a lot of time, and will cost about an extra $150, just for the studs. Your choice.... I wanted mine to look like dingjia and match the helmet, which was going to have real brigandine plates inside. Think ahead. What do you really want?

  • A good strong sewing machine with leather piercing needles. You won't be using leather to make your protective body armour, but these needles will work better on thick cloth and cause your machine less stress. I used an overlocker for some of the work on mine and an ordinary machine for the rest.

  • Any other decorating effects. I used fine white ribbon inside the thick white border.

I only bought the outer and inner layers new. All my stuffing material was from second hand blankets, usually bought from the Op Shop for a few dollars each. Choose good woolen ones. You can save a lot of money; you're recycling, which is good for the planet; and you are providing funds to help other people, by buying from charity sources. You could also make your outer and inner layers from sheets or tablecloths bought in the same way. Your protective body armour doesn't have to be expensive.


Do things in this order:

1. Cut out the outer layer and overlock the edges (especially if you have something that will fray).

2. Cut out the inner layer and overlock the edges.

3. Decide whether you want to make the stuffing in one thick layer or divide it evenly between inner and outer halves. This will depend on the strength of your sewing machine. I made mine in two pieces. The parts that were all enclosed, such as spauldrons and sleeves, were made like cushions. I joined the inner and outer layers right side together, sewed them except for one edge. Then I turn them right way out, put in the padding layers and sealed the ends. This can be done with the vest front and back too, but it makes the shoulder joins difficult.

4. Do all decorating before the final connections. For example, if you are putting a false front on your vest, as I did, you will need to sew on the two straight border ribbons before attaching the lining.

5. To prevent your gambeson looking like an overstuffed quilt, all pieces will need to be quilted together. You can do this in two thicknesses, through all of the lining but not the outers, or right through the whole lot. Decide early, how much your sewing machine can handle and adjust according to your own plan when I tell how I made my red gambeson.

6. It is best to hand sew the borders on. There are fiddly corners and a lot of bulk. Believe me, it is much easier to take the time to do the hand sewing. Your protective body armour will last for many years, so it is better to do it slowly and have a gambeson you are proud of.

7. The padding will need to be quite a bit smaller than the inner and outer linings. When you come to parts like putting eyelets down the sides, you want less thickness. Don't put all the layers to the edge on those pieces. Remember there will be extra padding down the side seams, supplied by the under arm pieces.

8. Take it slowly and think about the results of each action and it's implications for the next steps, before you do an irreversible process.

9. If you are putting rivets or press studs all over your protective body armour for dingjia effect, as I did, it will be better to make the pieces in two thickness halves, as I did. This way, you can fit the top halves of all the studs through that amount of material. The inner half of the padding will protect you from the bumps, and the gambeson can be easily fitted together or taken apart by putting a few connecting stud bottoms in the under padding. Now, down to the details......

Gambeson sleeves for Chinese sword fighting

This picture shows how the two halves of the padding have been divided between the outer and inner layers. Press studs have been fixed to the upper layer only. There are a few press stud bottoms on the inner layer to make it one piece of protective body armour when they are snapped together.The third picture in the row shows how eyelets have been put through only one of the parts. The sleeve will be laced together with leather bootlaces.

Make the vest front and back of your protective body armour, first.

  • Cut out the outer and inner pieces and overlock edges.
  • Make the stuffing layers 5 blankets thick.
  • Quilt 2 layers of blanket to the front and 3 layers to the lining. Make sure they do not go all the way to the edge in full thickness.
  • Make the false front by sewing two rows of ribbon from the centre of the neck to the centre of the bottom. Don't sew on the Chinese buttons yet.
  • If you are decorating with studs, measure out and mark the positions, then put in all the studs, making sure none are close to an edge. You will have to leave room for borders and fastenings.
  • Sew together the shoulder you want joined, leaving the other one open.
  • Hand sew binding ribbon to the front and back of all edges (armholes, around the vest, both sides of the open shoulder), so that no raw edges are visible except the neck. You will sew the collar onto that.
  • Mark the positions of enough studs to attach the under section and put stud bottoms in place on the inside of the under vest.
  • Mark positions of all the eyelets that will be used to close the sides and put them in. You will have to position them in pairs on each side of the vest.It really is worth lacing the sides. You have adjustability and breathability. I think I just invented both of those words....
  • Put the eyelets in place for the shoulder closure and lace it (I used a black skate shoelace). Make sure the loose ends are at the neck end so that you can easily undo it to take off and do it up after you put it on.
  • Put eyelets around the armholes for attaching the sleeves when you make them. Once again, it is worth going to the trouble of having detachable sleeves in case you want to train without them in hot weather.

Does this all sound like a lot of trouble? Well it is. My gambeson took 100 hours to make. How much do you want one? Okay, then take the time and do it very well the first time. I'm giving you a lot of information that took me seven gambesons to discover.

The picture below shows the front and back of the vest before they are joined at the shoulder.

gambeson front

The following is a detail of the lower white border and the side red border. It also shows the studs.

Gambeson studs

And this one shows the side eyelets in place with the leather bootlace holding the side together.

Chinese armour lacing

The next step in construction of your protective body armour, is to make and attach the collar. It needs to be a Chinese stand up type that is long enough to go all the way around the neck and overlap for fastening at the shoulder. Make it tall enough to protect your throat.
  • Sew the top and side outer and liner, right sides together, and overlock the raw bottom edges.
  • Turn it right side out and iron it.
  • Make the padding layers, overlock them together, and stuff them inside the casing. Make sure the overlap piece is free of most padding layers.
  • Sew the collar onto the front, making sure you do it so that there are no visible raw edges.
  • Handsew the inside edge. If there are raw edges, sew bias binding over them to cover them and prevent neck chafe. It is a good idea to treat all raw edges in this manner, for neatness, preventing irritation, and preserving the seams of your protective body armour.
  • Sew on any borders or decoration you want on the collar.
  • Make the fastening. I used a press stud for ease of doing it up when I put it on. Sometimes you get very hot sword fighting in a gambeson, especially in the Australian summer. I need to get mine off in a hurry after a bout. So it's - undo two press studs on the spauldron, one on the collar, pull a shoelace, bend over and slide it off - really fast, and I'm cooling down. Functionality is important.

  • The picture below shows the collar attached. This one felt a little too high at first, but it settled and wore in. I'm glad of the extra height. You can see how protective the body armour will be will all those layers. It is quite thick.

    Chinese armor

    Next it is time to make the spauldrons. You will notice that the ones on my gambeson are not as long as the ones on the ancient armor. You could make yours longer if you prefer, as the extra length will help protect your elbows. You can adjust the protectiveness of the body armour to suit your preferences. I made mine a little shorter to ensure maximum flexibility of movement for my arms while sword fighting. Chinese single handed styles involve a lot of movement - far more than German Longsword, for example, where you move from a guard, through a cut, to the next guard.
    • Cut out the outer and inner materials, overlock the edges to prevent fraying.

    • Make the padding layers - perhaps 3 layers of wool. Quilt one to the outer material and two to the lining

    • Measure, mark, and attach all the studs, keeping them far enough away from the edges so that the last few, which will fix the spauldrons to the vest, look naturally positioned. Make sure the padding is back from the edges so that the material is not too thick to put the fixing studs through all the layers near the edge.

    • Overlock the front and back layers together around the edges.

    • Sew on the borders and any further decorations.

    • Position the spauldrons over the shoulders of the vest, tack them in place and test the whole thing for lexibility by swinging a sword in every position you might need to.

    • Adjust for look and feel and put the studs in place - about 5 - 7 of them, to hold it on and in position.

    If you prefer to make your gambeson plain, without the studs or extra pieces. You can do that. The one I made for my teacher, Scott Rodell, in the picture below, does not even have detachable arms. It was so thick I had to do a lot more hand sewing, but it still looks good and works well. He is also wearing a tasset. This piece of protective body armour for the legs will be explained in another page.

    Scott M Rodell in gambeson by Linda Heenan

    Make the underarm pieces. The process is no different from the spauldrons. If you choose to make yours with corners, as I have done, make sure they are sharp and not too bulky. This is not the only underarm piece design possible for your protective body armour. Do your own research for different designs. There are some good pictures online, or pieces to view in museums. I know the Metropolitan Museum in New York has some nice Chinese armor but it is not always on display. If you know of other museums with sets of ancient armour, please let me know and I'll add the details to this site to help people who live close to those museums.

    These pieces should attach to the sleeves of the gambeson to protect the underarm. You can get an accurate shape for the upper curve, by drawing around the shape of your armhole. I didn't attach mine to the sleeves, choosing to use them as extra protection for the sides rather than the underarm. I didn't want the extra bulk or the problem of attaching them to the sides as well. If this was real dingjia armour and had to protect against sharp steel, the underarm protection would be absolutely necessary.

    The following picture shows completed side pieces. They are attached by means of buttons and loops.

    Armour underarm protection

    Make the codpiece. Again, the process is the same as for making the spauldrons and underarm pieces. This piece should also be attached with loops and little brass buttons, if you want a more authentic look. I went for the practical. Since this is protective body armour, I want to maximise the protection by attaching this front padding in such a way that a sword cannot hook underneath it. I tacked mine on with hand sewing. I suppose you could be creative and use it as a pocket to store your dagger for close combat. I might do that next time. the idea just occurred to me.

    See the following picture for the position of this piece at the lower front of the vest.

    Chinese sword fighting vest

    Finally, if you choose to add sleeves to your protective body armour, follow this process:
    • Make the cuffs. By this stage I don't have to repeat the step by step method. Put them together in the same way as you made the collar, except, there will not be an overlap. They will be part of the sleeve and laced together. The "horse hoof" shape is made to cover the back of the hand. There is a loop under the tip which fits over your middle finger. It is made to protect the hand and finger right up to where they bend around the sword hilt. I always wear gloves under them as well, because my fingers seem to break fairly easily.

    • When you have made the cuffs, set them aside with the wrist ends overlocked but not sewn together, and make the main sleeves.

    • Cut out the outer, inner and padding pieces (5 layers of woolen blanket. Overlock and quilt as previously, in two sections. make sure the edges are not too thick because you will have to put eyelets through them.

    • Mark out and put in all the studs.

    • Put in a few stud bottoms on the under layers so you can clip them together.

    • Sew border ribbon around the sleeve but leave the wrist end open. You will sew the cuff onto it.

    • Put all the eyelets into the sleeve, down each side and around the top of the arm. make sure the sleeve ones match on each side for lacing and the sleeve top eyelets match the armhole eylets.

    • Sew on the cuff, making sure there are no rough edges around the wrist. You will sometimes want to fold the cuff back and you don't want any unsightly unfinished edges showing.

    • Lace, the sleeve together, leaving the wrist end free for adjustment. Lace the top of the sleeves to the inside of the armholes, making sure the adjustable ends are under the arms.

    • Put it on, give it a good workout, and make any adjustments your protective body armour still needs.

    The next picture shows a detail of how the sleeve is laced to the gambeson vest.

    Chinese style gambeson

    protective body armour red gambeson

    The finished article. Now that you have made your first piece of protective body armour, you will want to make a matching tasset.

    Do you like your armour ready made by someone else? Check out this:

    Purveyor of Medieval, Renaissance, Viking, Celtic, Japanese and Roman replica shields, swords, armor chainmail, clothing, boots, helmets and accessories that are of interest to the reenactor, collector or decorator.

    I styled my gambeson on the Bordered Red. The picture below shows what the Bordered Red banner armour really looked like. This one is from the Forbidden City: Courtesy Katie Kellert - Flickr

    protective body armour Bordered Red Banner

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