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.)
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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