So you want to make historical clothing but you aren’t sure what type of fabric to use?
Hopefully I can shed some light on the subject and help steer you toward more historically accurate fabrics and a more authentic look.
First let’s discuss the four basic natural fibers used in clothing up to the 20th century: Wool, Silk, Linen, and Cotton.
Wool is made from the fleece of certain sheep and was the chief raw fiber used in textiles in medieval times. It was sturdy, could be woven into almost any style of fabric, and could keep heat either in or out depending on the need.
Silk is made from the substance surrounding the cocoon of the silkworm. The thread is unwound from the cocoon and woven into various fabrics. It has a rich, lustrous look and has always been a sign of wealth and status.
Linen is made from the fiber of the flax plant and may be the oldest type of fabric in the world. It is very durable (2-3 times the strength of cotton) and has a unique property of wicking moisture away from the body. This helps keep the body cool and dry.
Cotton is made from the “wool” that surrounds the seed of the cotton plant. It wasn’t used widely as a fabric until the mid-18th century when several inventions allowed cotton yarn and cloth to be produced at a much faster rate.
Now that you have a quick explanation of each fabric, let’s discuss how they were used. These will be generalities and could vary somewhat due to time period and location. But if you stick to these guidelines, you will do just fine.
Linen and cotton
Undergarments such as a chemise, shift, shirt, etc. were primarily made from linen until the late 18th century. This is because linen is very sturdy and wicked moisture away from the body. If you could afford it, your linens would be bleached or whitened.
Starting in the early 19th century, undergarments could be made from either cotton or linen. Cotton is much easier for us to find now but if you can, I still advocate the use of linen. I recommend lightweight or handkerchief linen for your chemise, shift or shirt. Always pre-wash it - it will shrink the first time.
Unbleached linens and/or scraps of linen were often used as lining fabrics for clothing. It would wick away moisture and be a sturdy base for your clothing item.
Wicking - pulling a liquid from one area to another by use of a string or "wick". In reference to linen fabric, it is the action of moisture being pulled from the body along the linen fibers to the outside, where it will evaporate.
Outer garments were most often made from wool up to and including the 19th century. Wool was abundant, sturdy, took dyes well, and kept the body comfortable. It was available in weaves that many of us have never seen except in museums.
Fortunately, we do have some reasonable weaves of wool that we can use for our historical garments. If you want your garment to be loose and drapey (like a medieval tunic or cotehardie), I recommend wool flannel. If you want a more structured garment, you can use wool flannel but you should use something stiff as a lining or interlining to give it more body. You can use a stiff linen or you can use my favorite, hair canvas (the interlining used in modern men’s suits). The hair canvas probably isn’t period-correct but it is a reasonable compromise since we don’t have access to the same types of fabrics as our ancestors did.
The other wool fabric that can be very useful is wool broadcloth. It is thin like wool flannel but it is more dense and stiff. It is perfect for doublets, coats, cloaks, and many dresses seen in the Renaissance period.
Outer garments could also be made of silk. Woven, patterned silks can be used for medieval garments but they should have a soft hand and be a looser weave.
Hand - a term used to describe the feel and behavior of a fabric. If a fabric is rigid, it is said to have a "stiff hand". Silk taffeta would be described as having a "crisp hand" because it is thin but somewhat stiff. A wool fabric that has no body/stiffness and immediately falls from the tip of your hand would have a "soft hand".
Tightly woven silk patterns were more prevalent in the Renaissance period (and beyond) but were used very sparingly due to the high cost. If a lord or lady had an entire outfit made out of patterned silk, they were rich indeed.
In the 18th century, patterned silks were at the height of production and style. They would often have an intricate woven background with a multi-colored brocade pattern also woven into them.
Silk taffeta is a great fabric to use for anything from the Renaissance/16th century forward. You can use solid colored or striped taffetas for the Renaissance and then more patterned silk as you get to the 18th century and beyond.
Be sure not to wash silk in advance because some of the stiffness and the characteristic “rustle” will be lost. Of course, then you will need to dryclean only!
Cotton is our last fabric, being the newest on the historical timeline. Block printed cottons from India became popular starting in the mid-18th century. The weaves were fairly thick at first and then quickly became very fine.
By the beginning of the 19th century (the Regency period), lightweight cotton muslin dresses with either block printed patterns or embroidery were all the rage. If you want to make one of these dresses, look for cotton voile or cotton lawn with a printed pattern. The cotton should be as light and sheer as possible and then use a solid white lining fabric underneath. You will probably also need a white petticoat also due to the sheer nature of the fabric.
Cotton continued to be very popular into the Victorian period (1837-1901) and paisley patterns, geometric patterns, and plaids were used widely. In fact, in the Victorian period, you could make a dress out of cotton, silk, or wool. Patterns and styles varied greatly during the years but there are many great books about this era from the publisher Dover Books to help you. There are also many extant garments, both in books and online, that you can look at for inspiration and information.
The Victorians loved to play with texture and color in their clothing. It was not uncommon to use several different styles of fabric in the same color on a dress, or to mix a patterned fabric with a solid fabric of a different color, or to use stripes running vertically and diagonally in the same dress.
Whatever fabrics you choose for your historical garments I hope that these guidelines will be helpful for you. Good luck!
Diana Habra is our newest expert on the team at YWU! She is the proprietor of renaissancefabrics.net. You can see her full bio amongst those of all our contributors.