Note From the Editor: When I sat down and began writing this piece I intended it to be a basic guide, the starting point for someone new to the hobby or this time period in particular. As I was sifting through my research it became clear to me that I could easily expand each topic discussed in the following post as its own blog post chock full of important details on the how’s and whys. At a later date we may choose to expand on fabrics in much greater detail but for now this basic rundown on the what’s and the where’s will have to suffice.
Hey all! Welcome back after that brief Turkey Day break, we’re ready to get back into our Thrifty Reenactress blog series with our final post before we begin working on actually putting together our basic women’s kit. Today we’re going to be talking about fabric and notions, or the stuff you need to make a thing. In our last post we talked about patterns and some ways you can cut corners and still turn out a great piece that will meet authenticity standards set for a majority of events. This post is going to cover what types of fabric you should be looking at with some specifics on weights, fiber content, and drape. We will also discuss prints and why scale and color matters when looking at pretty fabrics. Finally we’ll close with tips on buying fabric online, in store, and in some unusual locations like Goodwill and IKEA. So let’s jump right in!
Fabric, you can’t make anything on your wish list without having at least a scrap of it lying around. As you begin brainstorming for your new 18th century wardrobe the first thing you need to consider is Who are You? The majority of us will fall into the realm of middle class and lower class, from tradesmen to servants and everything in between. As a general rule of thumb a persona based in these two classes should shy away from silk except for in small accessories like a handkerchief, mitts, or a bonnet. A silk gown would be quite out of place for someone like a cook or laundress. We’ll save our discussion on the secondhand clothing market for another day 🙂 It should go without saying that fibers should be all natural meaning no polyester or other manmade fibers. The most current research is showing that wool was king in the 18th century and that we should have a larger quantity of people wearing wool than other fabrics such as cotton. Linen seems to be second most common and then lastly cotton. We won’t discuss blends too much like Linsey- Woolsey because there are yet to be any affordable sources for the material but natural fiber blends did commonly exist at this time.
Wool was one of the most common fabrics being worn in the 18th century. Made from the fleece of sheep it is sturdy, readily available, and could be woven into a variety of weights and patterns. Unlike linen, wool takes dye color better meaning the sky’s the limit on color choices. Weights can vary from light tropical weight wool that’s silky to the touch or heavier broadcloths suitable for cloaks and redingotes. When considering wool fabrics you may see words such as worsted and woolen being used to describe the material. Worsted wools are combed to remove the short fibers and are tighter spun with the long fibers lying parallel together creating a stronger and smoother fabric. Woolens are carded back and forth to create an airy and plush springy fiber when spun, creating a fuzzy looking fabric when woven. Gowns, petticoats and jackets can all be made from worsted wools in almost any color and can also have stripes or cross bars. For cooler weather events shifts, under petticoats, and quilted waistcoats could all be made with wool flannel to add extra warmth. We recommend looking at the large selection of wool available at Wm. Booth, Draper and Burnley & Trowbridge. Order samples and familiarize yourself with their various weights and textures and refer back to them when considering wool for your garments.
Linen fabric is most commonly woven from flax plants, but also sometimes from hemp. It is a sturdy and strong fiber commonly used to make undergarments because of its ability to withstand the harsh washing practices of the time. Linen comes in a variety of weights from handkerchief weight perfect for caps and shifts to heavy weights more suitable for bed tickings and sacks. Unlike wool, linen doesn’t take dyes very well and was rarely found in shades other than blues, browns, and whites. Striped and check linens were quite common and even stamped linens were seen. When considering linen for a gown it seems that stripes were the most common fabric used, a large selection of medium weight striped linen can be found at Wm. Booth, Draper. For undergarments you should be considering handkerchief or lightweight bleached or natural linen. A common way to save some money in the 18th century when making clothing was to make a shift body out of a cheap, unbleached linen and then using the fine handkerchief weight linen for the sleeves which could be seen peeking out of gown sleeves. Hayley will talk more about this money saving hack in her post on shifts later this week.
By the end of the 18th century cotton and cotton printed fabrics were finally becoming an affordable option in the New World. We’ll spare you the history lesson on cotton processing since others have talked about it at length all across the web, but know for our intents and purposes it’s finally an option for gowns and other outer garments! Plain white cotton printed with a single color design was a popular choice amongst the working class, Burnley & Trowbridge have a wonderful selection of single color prints perfect for gowns, jackets, and bedgowns. Speaking of printed fabrics I think we need to take a moment to discuss what makes a print appropriate for our time period. First look at the overall design, most printed cottons were floral designs emulating expensive silk brocades. They often included European flowers like roses and carnations worked into traditional Indian motifs over a white background. More popular amongst the working class were simple sprigged designs which required minimal worked compared to most printed fabrics. Most modern chintzes and toiles found at chain fabric stores are incorrect for 18th Century use. Another important thing to consider is the scale of the print. Larger scaled prints were often reserved for upholstery and curtains, generally not clothing, an exception is the large scaled prints seen on gowns in the first half of the century. A recent trend has taken hold of making gowns from Waverly curtains found at Lowes and Home Depot. They have great color and the print design is correct for the 18th Century however the scale of the print makes them more suitable for drapes and upholstery projects rather than gowns. When considering authenticity it is our opinion that while the Curtain Gown is a great way to cut costs we don’t believe it is appropriate for a living history setting. However we have found some ways to save money while still having those pretty fabrics that will be better suited for an event where authenticity plays an important factor.
As we’ve mentioned in the previous paragraphs Wm. Booth, Draper and. Burnley & Trowbridge are some of our favorite resources for purchasing fabrics. We also recommend Renaissance Fabrics, Reproduction Fabrics, Liberty Linens, 96 District Fabrics, and Dutch Fabrics. These retailers are all top of the line and cater towards costumers and reproduction fabric enthusiasts. These are the guys you want to save your pennies up for and splurge on when you’re making that gotta have piece. In the grand scheme of things their prices are very reasonable and are worth the investment but we realize that not everyone can afford $12+ yard for fabric. For discounted linen prices we recommend fabrics-store.com specifically their medium weight linen IL019. They also offer a handkerchief weight linen at 3.5 oz which while we haven’t had the chance to try personally it has been recommended by others. For discounted wools we occasionally see stuff come up on eBay and Etsy but thus far we wholeheartedly recommend Burnley & Trowbridge or Wm. Booth, Draper as the most reliable and affordable options for wool. They have done the research and are presenting the closest wool that you can get to what was used in the 18th century. The only other retailers I’d recommend considering would be Kochan & Phillips (K&P) sold through Najecki Reproductions but their stuff will definitely cost you. The previous recommendations are mostly online retailers, and unless you run into them at an event you’re more than likely going to have to ask for a sample swatch if you’re unfamiliar with the material before making a purchase.
If you’re one of those people who like to feel and handle a fabric before committing to a purchase you may consider saving your pennies and hitting up a Trade Fair where a speciality vendor will be in attendance. These are most often held over the winter and early spring months and can be found online at Facebook and retailers individual event schedules. If you prefer to try your hand at sourcing material from a chain fabric store we recommend shopping sales, clipping coupons, and paying attention to fiber content labels. Unfortunately not every fabric is labeled correctly and in some cases the law allows up to 2% other fibers be included in a fabric blend without being labeled. I find that bringing a lighter and asking a clerk to do a burn test can sometimes help me decide between fabrics if I’m uncertain on blend content. Right now at JoAnns and most other chain stores it is nearly impossible to find 100% linen, especially at a rate that’s less than what you’ll find online. Most of their linen now comes in a linen rayon blend which isn’t terrible – rayon being a man made fabric from natural cellulose fibers it won’t melt to your skin like polyester or nylon but at their asking price you’re just better off getting it elsewhere. Occasionally you can find great deals on remnant and clearance linen so it never hurts to look. Generally speaking stay away from their quilting cotton prints, most of them are more suited for 19th Century garments. Likewise avoid any of the upholstery weight toiles and chintzes, while the design may be correct or really close the weight of the material will vastly affect the drape and overall look of the finished garment.
So where else can you source materials that isn’t a fabric store? Hayley’s favorite place to search for deals is at local thrift stores. She’s found entire lengths of worsted wools and cotton voiles perfect for costuming needs. Her favorite trick is to search for linen sun dresses or white linen trousers which can make perfect handkerchiefs, caps, and shift sleeves. One white sundress could easily produce a cap and two shift sleeves at a fraction of the cost you’d need to purchase from a retailer. Vintage linen tablecloths and bed sets can also be great finds at thrift stores or estate sales. Right now my favorite places to find fabric is through IKEA. They offer a range of printed duvet sets that are a reproduction of 18th Century prints which are the perfect scale for gowns another outer garments. I recently purchased the LJUSÖGA king size set for 39.99 and it contains yards of printed fabric for a fraction of the cost of ordering from a fabric store. If your heart is set on a printed garment an IKEA set is the way to go. Check out the 18th Century Notebook for more information on IKEA prints and the various gowns that have been made with them. I also LOVE Etsy and the wonderful Indian blockprint fabrics that can be found. They require a little bit of training of the eye to pick out correct prints but many of these fabrics cost only $5 a yard and sew up like a dream making wonderful late 18th century gowns.
So there you have it folks! Selecting a fabric is by far the most important part of the sewing process. We hope that with our little post here we can help make your life a little easier by pointing you in the right direction. If cost is your biggest concern we highly recommend saving up for a good quality material because it will last and wear better than something of lesser quality. Please tell us in the comments below if we missed anything and what is your favorite trick to save money on fabric!