After looking at all this information, perhaps you're so intrigued by the idea of historical costume that you'd like to try your hand at making your own. This page is not intended to give step by step instructions for doing so; it's something that's best learned by doing and showing. However, there are some points that are worth covering that may answer some general questions.

What Kind of Fabric?

Of course, all the fabrics used in the period before 1600 were natural fibers obtained from plants and animals. Linen was extremely common, as was wool. Cotton and silk existed in the East for a very long time, and appeared in in Europe around the 12th century. They remained imported fibers for most of this period, however, and would have been limited to clothing worn by people who could afford it.

Some modern fabrics use fibers that are perfectly period, but are woven in patterns that are decidedly modern. Many weaves have been around for a surprisingly long time, however. Brocade fabrics were among the first silk weaves to arrive in Europe, as well as Samite, which bore a close resemblance to the heavy, dull fabric we know now as bridal satin. Cotton was woven into a fabric with a short, dens pile much like non-wale corduroy. Shot silk (silk woven with a different colour for warp and weft so that the fabric was a different colour depending on the light) was available as early as the 13th century, although not with some of the iridescent colours that are seen in that weave today. Blended fabrics were also popular, with silk/wool and linen/wool fabrics being among the most common. Wool, especially, was very popular because it was woven in many more weights and textures than we see today; it could be woven and felted heavy enough for a cloak, or fine enough to be used for a veil.

Patterns were generally woven or embroidered into the cloth; printed fabrics are a fairly late invention, and would not have been seen. Patterns were often quite bold, with different fads for stripes, checks, and diamond patterns that seem very gaudy to our modern eyes. Intricate patterns and patterns based on heraldic designs gained in popularity throughout the period, since the more complex the weave, the more luxurious the fabric.

In general, stick with fabrics that are either natural fibers or very close to it. Not only will your clothing be more accurate, but it will probably be more comfortable to wear because it will breathe. Keep the fabric appropriate to the design, as well; most early to middle period garments depend heavily on draping for their silhouette, while much 16th century clothing needs a stiffer fabric to hold its shape in a heavy and bulky garment. (In fact, some of the later period clothing may need additional stiffening in the form of buckram or boning to hold its shape and also to reshape your own body slightly.)

What Colour Fabric?

The most beautiful silk gown in the world will not look authentic if it is neon orange. Determining whether a fabric colour is appropriate is usually fairly simple, but it may be helpful to know what colours are appropriate to which periods of time.

- Prior to the 12th century: Warm browns and golds, ocher, russet, grey, grey-green, soft blue. Among nobility, crimson, purple, bright blue, salmon.

- 12th century: Similar colours, but brighter in the newly introduced silks and cottons, both fabrics which take dye very well.

- 13th and 14th century: Add saffron yellow, deep purple, peacock, deep red, orange, emerald green, black, pure white.

- 15th century: Patterned fabrics more popular. Fashionable colours: violet, burgundy, ivory, many blues.

- 16th century: Blue largely relegated to the lower classes. Deep, warm colours, topaz, dove grey, black, white especially popular in Elizabeth's court. Ornate patterns.

Colours that look like they could only come out of a chemical vat should be avoided.

What Kind of Decoration?

Except among the poorest folk, undecorated garments were rare. Embroidery was common throughout this time period, and especially in the later centuries, was augmented by beading, ribbons, and lace.

Many fabric stores sell trim that can be sewed onto cuffs, necklines, hems, and anywhere else you can think to put it. It can, however, be difficult to find trim that is workable. Of course, bunnies and teddy bears are not useful, and trim that is printed rather than woven should be critically considered before it is used. For some reason, metallic trim is very popular; unfortunately, metallic thread is often used in patterns that would otherwise be very good early-period designs. Use your best judgement, and try to look especially closely for woven trim that does not use metallic thread. A fairly recent upsurge in the popularity of "tapestry" fabric has been especially useful for this.

You can also use other fabric as trim; this is a great way to use up scraps and bits from your boxes of fabric. Use it to edge necks, cuffs and hems; just remember to carefully finish the edges so that your pretty trim isn't marred by raveling thread.

Where Can I Find Patterns?

Although matters have improved significantly in the last decade, patterns for medieval and renaissance wear are still difficult to find in the average fabric store. There are definitely patterns that can be adapted; with a basic knowledge of period shapes and silhouettes, you can adapt many bridal patterns and formal gowns. Several companies make peasant blouse patterns that are excellent for chemises; men's shirts can also be found. Often, the only necessary changes are in fastenings (lacing instead of zippers or buttons) or in elimination of modern fitting details like darts (gather the fabric instead).

There are a number of companies that do make specifically period patterns. Folkwear is perhaps the most well known, although general-purpose stores usually do not carry them. Ask your store if they know of a local retailer. Chivalry Sports carries several lines of period patterns, ranging from simple designs for new sewers to more complex patterns for experienced tailors. The Greater Bay Area Costumer's Guild has compiled the Great Pattern Review, which reviews individual sewer's experiences with a very wide variety of historical patterns, and also provides information on where to obtain these often difficult-to-find patterns. (Mostly mail-order.) The Guild tends to focus much of its research on Edwardian and Victorian costuming, but there is certainly enough earlier material to make it worth the look.

What If I Don't Have A Pattern?

If you are very, very motivated, and have a good sense of three-dimensional space, look through theatrical and historical costuming books, which often have diagrams and scale models of pattern pieces for historical clothing. (Two good ones are Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion and The Evolution of Fashion by Margot Hill and Peter Bucknell.)

However, if you are a little less ambitious, a T-tunic and breeches are very simple, and can be adapted to the lines of many periods. To make a T-tunic, take a piece of fabric that is twice as long as you want the final garment to be (about mid-thigh, at least, or longer). Fold it in half so that the selvadge (finished) edges are on the outside. Place a non-stretch shirt on the fabric and use it as a guide to mark the T-shaped outline of the tunic - you will probably want to cut the tunic a bit fuller than the shirt, since you will be gathering it in with a belt, and it's nice to be able to blouse the tunic a bit. Cut out the tunic, sew up the sides, hem the bottom and cut and finish a neck hole. Trim as desired. If you use 45" fabric, the sleeve ends will be about the same place as a long t-shirt, and will be the finished selvadge edge and will not necessarily need finishing. A 60" wide piece of fabric, folded in half, is wide enough to make a long-sleeved tunic for anyone about five and a half feet tall or less. For longer arms, cut the tunic without arms and sew up the sides far enough to make an armhole. Cut sleeves out of the extra fabric, and sew into the armhole.

For very simple breeches, sew a cylinder of cloth that is as long as your outside leg sem. Cut up the middle to the crotch point, and then sew up this seam to make two legs. Fold the top over twice to make a casing and gather with elastic or a drawstring. For more fitted breeches, take a pair of comfortable jeans and use them to make a pattern. Cut two or three inches wider than the jeans, both to allow for seams and to make the breeches more loose-fitting than the jeans.

Mantles are simply circles of cloth that are finished on the edges and have either a hole to poke your head through or a head opening and a placket down the front so you can put it on without mussing your hair. Veils are rectangles or ovals of light cloth, finished all the way around the edges.

With some imaginative fabric selection and decoration, you can approach just about any pre-15th century silhouette with these basic pieces. Certainly, more extensively researched and elaborate garb can be a lot of fun, but if your objective is in the wearing, not the creating, these pieces of clothing can go a long way towards helping you achieve your goal.

Like all the other pages, this is intended to be a general overview of some ideas for making your own garb. Some of the other costuming links have a fair amount of information on the construction of historical clothing, patterns, and hints that are definitely worth examining if you decide to take a hand at your own sewing. Certainly, anyone who has done any clothing construction will also be able to answer at least some of your questions and get you headed down the right path. If you have access to a local SCA group, see if someone there can loan you The Known World Handbook or help you find a copy. It is a compendium of useful information contributed by many Society members, and has some very useful articles on the making of period costume.

If you have any questions about this pages or the materials contained therein, please contact Carla Emmons, my most gracious maid of honour.

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