We all know that very often it is the fabric that makes The Dress. A wisely chosen set of materials will bring out the beauty of the design, will enhance the tailoring – or even hide some dressmaking mistakes. A less than perfectly sewn dress will look amazing if the fabric is right – and a fantastically well stitched creation can be badly marred by a poor fabric choice.
Naturally what fabrics we chose differs – all depends on the purpose of the garment. If it is a one off frock cobbled together for a friend’s fancy dress party, you may not want to spend a lot on expensive silks; however if you are planning a creation that you are going to wear a lot, or if you strive for authenticity, the correct fabric choice is essential.
In this post I shall mostly concentrate on the historical accuracy and will try to provide a basic reference on which fabrics to use in which period. The list is aimed at providing a very general overview, so I won’t be getting into details like which weight for which garment in which century – would take ages and would make for a very, very long post indeed! I have learnt a lot over the last 20 or so years in the field – but am not omniscient, so if you know of an article or a reference that would be helpful with researching which fabrics were used when, please post in a comment and I will add it onto the article – it would be very much appreciated!
I will also get a list of providers of the fabrics I use most often.
So, there we go!
Linen: for undergarments, shirts, basic tunics, lining, gambesons, etc. Bleached linen for the unmentionables for the wealthy, unbleached, natural one for the less fortunate. Other colours ( reds, blues, browns, pinks etc were used for tunics, kirtles, linings etc. Different weights were used for different garments.
Wool – different weights and types were used – including patterns – herringbone and diamond were apparently quite popular in the dark ages and Viking era for example; fulled wools tend to become popular from 9-10 century, whereas plain weaves were generally available throughout the period. napped and sheared wool start to appear in the 14th century too ( broadcloth, wool satins etc)
Silk – plain weaves and some patterns are used from mid medieval period in the north of Europe, earlier in the south – proximity to Byzantium and the silk route. Available only for the wealthiest, really – and even then was used sparingly considering its great value. Plain weave, early taffetas ( 13-14th century), basic brocades and damasks were used. Silk velvet starts to appear in the end of 13th century, if I remember well, and by 15th has evolved into several styles ( cut, uncut patterns etc).
Raw silk was probably used more by the steppe tribes, and duponi was not used much either, apparently.
Cotton – although there are some references to cotton imported from India, they are very rare – fustian was used however (cotton/linen blend) and there were several fustian manufactures established on the continent. In England cotton as a name is used in the 16th century and most likely refers to woolen cloth!
Great article on the use of cotton in the medieval, Elizabethan and Stuart era – here
Linen – different weights any types ( cambric, lawn, Holland, buckram etc) – for undergarments, linings, ruffs, coifs, interlining, aprons, doublets, waistcoats etc
Wool – lots of varieties by that time, including blends with linen and silk; looks for broadcloth, scarlet, kersey, worsted, stammel, russet, cotton etc ); also, as mocado ( velvet using wool pile instead of silk)
Silk – again, lots of silk types used, in a variety of weights, patterns, blends ( cloth of gold, cloth of silver, tinsel) and grades. Look for satins, damask, velvets,grosgrain, sarcenet, taffets) Different types and patterns were popular in different decades. A good link showing some types- here
Don’t be tempted by duponis ( existed, but very rare as second rate fabrics – contrary to today, slubs were frowned upon apparently), noil, stretch or crushed velvets…. Not period….
(Duponi lovers, do not despair, modern powerwoven duponi has hardly any slubs at all may be used as an alternative to taffeta. just avoid the slubby stuff where it shows…)
Cotton – see medieval note
Linen – underwear, waistcoats, breeches, also dresses in the second half of the century ( especial pattern or printed) – polonaises, jackets etc
Wool – breeches, waistcoats, coats, capes, cloaks, riding habits, travelling outfits, uniforms etc
Cotton – at last! Getting more and more popular – and cheaper (cotton from the West Indies and America) and with the Industral Revolution on its way, the invention of the Spinning Jenny and more advanced mechanical looms meant being ablt to make cotton cloth in Englad too ( 1774 saw the lift of the heavy tas levied on brit produced cotton – it was established in the beginning of the century to protect native textile industry, and its revoking opened the marked for locally made cotton cloth :-); I believe the first cotton velvet is mentioned in 1790 or thereabouts – there is an extant male waistcoat made in cotton velvet in the States.
Silk – taffetas, brocades, damasks, velvets –plain or very specific patterns –famous Spitalfields silks ; used for dresses, petticoats, coats, breeches, waistcoats, frockcoats etc
Linen, as before
Cotton – including muslin, lawn, voile and plain cottons for dresses, pelisses, breeches, linings etc also undergarments including corsetry
Wool – coats, habits, suits, cloaks, dresses, uniforms, – everything goes! A variety of types and weights are used, broadcloth, superfine, shallon, worsted etc
Silks – velvets ( still mostly silks, cotton velvets or plushes used as furnishing fabrics too), tafettas, grosgrain, damasks, brocades, twills, satins etc – a great range of fabrics of different weights, weave and patterns used
A few generic notes –
*avoid man-made, artificial fibres whenever you can. Polyester taffetas may be cheap – and not only do they looks so, but they are a nightmare to work with too.
*Sometimes (well, almost always!) quality will hit your pocket hard – but in the long run, it is worth it. Don’t go for plastic embroidered duponis etc – save up for a month or two and get plain silk taffeta; if you cannot afford a dress in silk velvet, use a cheaper silk, or blend – or wool – a very period thing to do, plus it is easier to clean.
*Hunt for bargains – I have searches set up on ebay looking for different silk fabrics and sending me reports every week – some of the listings are useless, but sometimes you can stumble upon real treasures! Go to sales at silk mills, fabric stores etc.
*If possible, do not skimp on fabric. True, sometimes you get a fantastic end of roll silk – and there is only so much of it – then piece the panels up and of course use it – but if you are at liberty to get the proper amount of the fabric for the project, do so.
Trims and embellishment.
More or less similar things apply – avoid artificial stuff! Elastic plastic lace will spoil any Victorian outfit, rayon guipure lace will clash with proper Elizabethan fabrics. Also mark that different type of lace or braids were used in different periods – putting a cluny lace onto a 12th century bliaud instead of tablet woven braid will not do you any favours.
Again, please mark all those notes are for historical attire – if you are making fantasy, bridal, steampunk, etc garments, you have much more freedom with the fabrics and embellishment choice – I love experimenting with the alternative bridal styles or Steampunk looks as my imagination can run wild and I can go for the trims and interesting fabrics that I cannot use for historical gear!
Suppliers, in no particular order
Historical textiles – great quality broadcloth, superfine and other
Hainsworths – wool
Whaleys – cotton, linen, silk
Bernie the Bolt – wool, linen, cotton – frequents UK and Europen markets – no website:-(
Herts Fabrics – wool, linen –
Renaissance fabrics – wool, linen, silks – lovely stuff!
Sew curvy – corsetry fabrics ( coutil, broche, drill)
James Hare – lovely silks, great lace,- you will need a trader’s account
Silk Baron – silk velvet ( 80/20%), taffetas, duponi
Quartermasterie – lovely silks, also stunning silk velvet on cotton backing – no website though! frequents UK markets
Harrington Fabrics – lace, silks, lovely brocades – trader’s account needed
Watts&Co – church fabrics, absolutely gorgeous but very pricey ( looking at £100 – £250 per metre, many fabrics made to order only)
Sartor – – historical textiles – – great fabrics, do check the fibre composition information, as many of the stunning historical patterns are made in blends – half silk, half viscose:-(! some are 100% silk though and are a great find.
MacCulloch and Wallis – cloth, lace, haberdashery
Duran textiles AB – lovely silks and cotton prints, suitable for 18th and 19th century
Tudor Tailor – lovely wools suitable for Tudor and later costuming, plus linen and calico
Wm.Booth Draper – great fabrics especially for 18th and 19th century