When we make clothes in the SCA, we try and find fabrics appropriate to our period- it improves the look and feel of the garments, adds to their authenticity, and usually makes them more comfortable to wear. This means we try and stick to linens, silks, wools and cottons, all of which were know and used during period (pre 17 th century).
Linen is spun from the flax plant, and creates a fabric that is soft, reasonably strong and very cool to wear. At some stores it will only come in modern summer colours (hot pinks, turquois blue), but usually stores stock a good range. It is good for tunics, cotehardies, and general garb though in medieval times, linen was usually white and used only for undergarments (though that shouldn’t stop you using it for other things). It can be rather expensive, so often it is good to start with cotton while you get the hang of things. Linen isn’t as hard wearing as cotton either, which may be a consideration if you’re making trews, or battle gear. Cotton/linen blends are also quite nice. One note, the name “linen” can also be attached to fabric made of polyester and other synthetics. These aren’t what you’re looking for- just check the fibre content and make sure it has “linen” fibre.
Silk is farmed from the silk worm, and just like in medieval times, is very expensive. It’s hot to wear, not very durable, and frays easily. It does look pretty, but its not recommended as a fabric to start with. Modern silk also has a very different feel from other natural fibres. If you are interested, try to look for silk that has an even, smooth weave- by this I mean without the imperfections characteristic of modern shot silk. One exception to the above is the use of silk organza for stiff translucent veils, or other silk in head wear and small accessories.
We all know where wool comes from, and it makes a wonderfully warm fabric. Wool comes in various weights, some being suitable for tunics, dresses or linings (to make things extra warm) and the thicker variety being used for cloaks and hoods. Pure wool is more expensive than wool blends, so you might prefer to go with a mix to start with (which aren’t too bad as long as they’re about half wool). However you do get what you pay for- if you can afford a nice thick, good quality wool you won’t regret it. You will definitely be needing a cloak if you intend to make it to festival, so start looking out for fabric now.
Cotton is made from cotton, and is quite a versatile fabric for use in the SCA. It is a strong fibre, durable, and quite cool depending on the weight. In weight it ranges from cotton voile or lawn (used in chemises and shirts), to cotton poplin, to homespun or broadcloth (used for tunics, cotehardies, skirts, trews whatever really), to drill (good for hard wearing things like trews, gambessons or whatever you like), to cotton canvas (used for stiffening bodices, shield coverings, etc.). Every place you go to should have cotton, so if you like look around first. Unbleached calico (creamy coloured cotton) is everywhere too- often a cheap alternative and is good for patterning, or garments you intend to dye.
Velvet (and velveteen)
Velvet is a fabric rather than a fibre. So you can have velvets made from synthetic fibres, or from natural fibres like silk or cotton. Velvets can be very expensive, or if you go for a plain cotton velveteen, can be quite okay. I’d recommend using ones made from cotton fibre for any garments, since they are more hard wearing and aren’t as difficult to sew (I think). More expensive velvet (like that really plush stuff found in the boutique section) might look a dream, but I’m told it’s hell to sew, and crushes like anything. Also be aware than velvet has nap- if you turn the fabric around 180 o it will look different. So you have to be careful when working out how much to buy.
Brocades are the name I give to upholstery or curtain-like patterned material when used in garments. They’re often strong, heavy fabrics and usually very expensive- so good for smaller pieces, at least at first. I have a nice bodice made from curtain fabric. Have a look at some pictures and try to get an idea of what colours and patterns were appropriate before heading out. These fabrics are usually kept in the curtains or home wears section of the store.
A Note on Patterns
Mostly I’ve mentioned plain fabrics above, plains being suitable for virtually all periods and places. But simple cheques and stripes were also not uncommon. A cheque T-tunic is quite okay, but beyond that you might want to check for a certain period with someone who knows more about it than me.
A Note on Colour
Medieval people could achieve with their dyes a huge range of colours. That being said, some things like a good black were downright difficult, and for that reason more reserved for the upper classes. Accounting for modern taste, usually either bright or moderately dark fabrics are good and practical to begin with.
A Note on See-Through-ness
White really is see through. The same goes for quite a few light weight cottons. You have been warned- just think about what you’re making. For a shirt its fine, for a T-tunic its not.
A Note on Dyeing
Dying natural fabrics like cotton and wool is quite easy, and is great when you get sick of all the colours in stock but still want something cheap. Clothes dye can be found at places like K-mart, and it may cost $5-$10 to dye a simple garment like a tunic (check the weight). You’ll achieve different colours depending on what colour you start with- I find it better to dye a light blue to a dark blue, say, than to begin with white and dye that dark blue.
I Hope this guide has been useful. Plenty of stuff I haven’t mentioned, and plenty more opinions will be offered by others- but you’ll discover your own tastes. Have fun.
Copyright © 2004, Allison Fernandes. Edited by Chris Collins, 2007.