Monday, May 18, 2015

How To Choose A Civil War Fabric

It's pretty... but NOT authentic!
My first dress was a lovely solid blue polyester that looked sorta like cotton. I put black soutache trim on it and felt "perty." Later I discovered that my choices of fabric and trim were completely wrong! So, in order to save you some aggravation, I've asked the lovely Jennifer McCardell Green if I can repost her awesome Fabric Overview! So here you go - a summary of how to choose Civil War fabric! ~Heather

Which Fabric To Choose?
In the world of period correct clothing, choosing a fabric can be a bear, especially when you’re just starting out.  It looks daunting, and can be terribly discouraging.  Hopefully, this will help solve your problems, and make starting out a tad bit easier. First, let me start with a quick glossary of terms, put into my own, particular vernacular.

COTTON - Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants.  The fiber is most often spun into yarn or thread and used to make a soft, breathable textile.  While cotton was known in the ancient world, it didn’t become a superstar until the period after the American Revolution.  In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which lead to mass production, and in the early part of the 19th century, cotton was like the biggest thing since sliced bread…   If they had sliced bread…  Maybe I should research that!  But anyway, cotton was awesome!  

By the 1840s, Britain and India could no longer compete with the United States, owing to slave labor, which allowed the American south to produce cotton at around half the cost of non-slave labor plantations.  American Cotton was king.  However, for whatever reason, by the 1860s, cotton simply wasn’t popular for certain styles.  I could get into it and try to do a dissertation on why, but the purpose of this article is to be a short, helpful read.  To steal a phrase, cotton had become sweatpants, and you wouldn’t make an Oscar gown out of sweatpants material.

WOOL - Wool is the textile fiber obtained from sheep and certain other animals, including cashmere from goats, mohair from goats, and so on and so on, but for our purposes, we’re really only worried about sheep and goats.  Wool has several qualities that distinguish it from hair or fur: it is crimped, it is elastic, and it grows in staples (clusters).  Wool's scaling and crimp make it easier to spin the fleece by helping the individual fibers attach to each other, so they stay together. Because of the crimp, wool fabrics can have greater bulk than other textiles, and they hold air, which causes the fabric to retain heat. Insulation works both ways: Bedouins and Tuaregs use wool clothes to keep heat out and protect the body.

Wool fibers readily absorb moisture, but are not hollow. Wool can absorb almost one-third of its own weight in water.  Wool ignites at a higher temperature than cotton and most synthetic fibers. It has a lower rate of flame spread, a lower rate of heat release, a lower heat of combustion, and does not melt or drip; it forms a char which is insulating and self-extinguishing, and it contributes less to toxic gases and smoke than other flooring products when used in carpets. Wool carpets are specified for high safety environments, such as trains and aircraft. Wool is usually specified for garments for firefighters, soldiers, and others in occupations where they are exposed to the likelihood of fire.  Wool is also considered by the medical profession to be hypoallergenic.  Wool is a freaking rockstar!

Most reenactors look for a tropical weight wool or a lightweight worsted suiting when choosing a wool.  Order some samples and hold them up against a quilting weight cotton:  I can guarantee you both wool samples will be lighter weight, and will move better too.  Also, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say, without using any research and pulling random numbers out of my head, that every single person in the 1860s had and regularly used a wool garment, in the summer and in the winter.

SILK - Ah, Silk!  Silk is a natural protein fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The protein fiber of silk is composed mainly of fibroin and is produced by certain insect larvae to form cocoons. The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fiber, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors.  Silk has been used for thousands of years, and was super popular during the 1860s.

However, not all silks were used.  Silk dupioni, perhaps the most commonly used silk today, was not used.  The high number of slubs in the fabric was highly undesirable then, and it wouldn’t have made it onto the market.  Some modern silks sold as dupioni can be used due to a lack of slubs, usually it’s other silk that has been mislabeled, but unless you’re experienced in silks, I wouldn’t recommend bothering to look for acceptable dupioni.  Also, I wouldn’t recommend an online purchase.  Dupioni is expensive, and unless you have amazing good luck, you probably just wasted that money.

Silk taffeta, however, was the most popular silk of the 1860s.  It is lovely, light, crisp, and makes a wonderful swishing noise.  However, most brick and mortar fabric stores don’t carry silk taffeta.  There are several reputable merchants online who do, however, and usually at a lower price than the inferior dupioni!

LINEN - Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant.  Linen is laborious to manufacture, but the fiber is very absorbent and garments made of linen are valued for their exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather.  Possibly, because of the manufacturing cost, linen just wasn’t used in women’s clothing.  You will see some linen undergarments, specialty garments like traveling costumes and habits, and a whole lot of men’s attire, but not women’s dresses, so I’m not going to write a dissertation here.  If you’re starting out and making your first dress, just don’t choose linen.  

RAYON - Rayon is a manufactured regenerated cellulose fiber. It is made from purified cellulose, primarily from wood pulp, which is chemically converted into a soluble compound. It is then dissolved and forced through a spinneret to produce filaments which are chemically solidified, resulting in synthetic fibers of nearly pure cellulose. Because rayon is manufactured from naturally occurring polymers, it is considered a semi-synthetic fiber. Specific types of rayon include viscose, modal and lyocell, each of which differs in manufacturing process and properties of the finished product.  However, Rayon wasn’t invented until 1894, so this will be my last mention.  They wouldn’t have used it if they had it, because they didn’t have it!

NYLON AND POLYESTER - No.  Just no.  Nylon is a generic designation for a family of synthetic polymers, more specifically aliphatic or semi-aromatic polyamides. They can be melt processed into fibers, films or shapes.  Polyester is a category of polymers that contain the ester functional group in their main chain. As a specific material, it most commonly refers to a type called polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Polyesters include naturally occurring chemicals, such as in the cutin of plant cuticles, as well as synthetics through step-growth polymerization such as polybutyrate.

Thank God for Wikipedia, because I didn’t understand any of that!  If you can’t understand the words used to describe the fabric, they probably didn’t have it.  Man-made fabrics are undesirable for a number of reasons.  Firstly, and most importantly, man-made fabrics are HIGHLY FLAMMABLE.  It is not recommended to be in a place with open flames, like in a lantern, oil lamp, camp fire, candle, etc., etc., when wearing a man-made fabric.  I am not kidding.  You will ignite.  Remember that “melt processing” thing above?  The fibers will melt INTO your skin.  Even if the burn is not bad, they will need to remove your flesh to dig out the fibers that have melted into your skin.  I’m sorry, but ew!

Secondly, they are hot and they do not breathe.  They are hot as the fires of Hades.  Seriously, if you’re thinking about cheating and making your ball gown out of a man-made fabric, please rethink.  You’ll be removed from that ball room suffering from heat stroke.  Well, more likely, you’ll just be miserable, but that’s no fun either!  And thirdly, you may think your “faux” satin, taffeta, etc., is indistinguishable from the real thing.  I’m sorry, it’s not.  Those of us who have been doing this for a long time CAN tell.  We can tell by the sheen and by the way the fabric moves.  We can also tell by the sweat pouring off your face!  J

So now let’s move on to my little checklist of sorts.  I’m going to ask a question about your pattern, and discuss your possible answers.

Matching Your Fabric To Your Pattern
Gathered Dress
Charleston Museum
Does your pattern have a darted waist, or a gathered waist?
If you answered gathered, you have many options.  Gathers put less stress on the fabric than darts do, so you are open to use cotton, sheer cottons, or wools.  Silks don’t appear to have been used on a gathered waists as often, but it can still be done in certain circumstances.
Darted Dress
Shippensburg Museum

If you answered darted, you’re more limited.  Darts put more significant stress on the fabric, so sheer cottons cannot be used.  We don’t really know why, but heavier cottons were not used
either.  It may have been a fad, because we see darted cotton bodices in the 1850s and again in the 1870s, but not in the 1860s!  Who knows!  But wools and silks were very, very commonly made into darted bodices, so if your fabric is one of those, have at!  Go to town on those darts!
If you answered

Bishop Sleeves
Ohio State University
Does your pattern have bishop sleeves, coat sleeves, or pagoda sleeves?
bishop, you have many options.  Sheer cotton, heavier weight cotton, wool, and silk can all be made up into bishop sleeves.  They were perhaps the most common sleeve shape in the 1850s, and carry over into the 60s.  They are not a very fashion forward sleeve, but they are still very common.
Coat Sleeves
Kerry Taylor Auctions

If you answered coat, again you have many options.  Cotton, wool, and silk were all made into coat sleeves of varying widths, and were fashion forward, so you will see more fashionable dresses with coat sleeves, as well as working attire.  Sheer cottons can be made into coat sleeves as well, but a tight coat sleeve in a sheer cotton is less common.
Pagoda Sleeves
Mary and Nicholas Winne

If you answered pagoda, you are again more limited.  Cotton dresses were very, very rarely made with a pagoda sleeve.  In fact, they are so rare they are basically non-existent.  However, sheer cottons are frequently made into pagodas, and are frequently worn without undersleeves.  Wool and silk, however, are commonly made into pagodas.  Pagoda sleeves were widely popular in the 1850s, and begin to diminish as the 60s progress.  You will see a lot of silk and wool pagodas during the early years of the war, and they will get fewer and farther between as the war progresses, as coat sleeves grow and grow in popularity.

Do you want a solid colored or printed dress?
If you answered print, you can use any of your fabric options, cotton, sheer cotton, wool, or silk.  In fact, during the era they had some pretty incredible printed wools and silks that are unfortunately not available to us now.  Florals tend to be tricky, matching a modern floral to florals used in the 1860s takes much training of the eye.  In fact, after 27 years in the hobby, I’m still having trouble recognizing a good floral print without running to my books.  You will nearly always (nearly - some are still not right) be safe with a plaid.  Plaids were HUGELY popular during the 1860s.

However, be wary of Tartans.  Clans can get rather persnickety about usage of a registered tartan by someone not a member of the Clan.  Also, most tartans recognized now were not invented until the early part of the 20th Century.  And also again, while plaids and clothing with Scots influence were popular, there was no traditional Scots clothing for women during the 1860s, and again it is not invented until the early part of the 20th Century.

Solid light purple dress
Metropolitan Museum of Art
If you answered solid, you are much more limited.  Solid cotton dresses are vanishingly rare, possibly because cotton fades so much more quickly than wool or silk, leading to strangely splotchy dresses.  In fact, I have yet to find a solid colored cotton dress dating to the 1860s.  Wools and silks, yes!  Hundreds and hundreds of wools and silks were made in solid colors, likely because they take so much longer to fade.  The exception is a solid colored sheer cotton.  Sheers were commonly made in white or very very light colored pastels. 

Do you want contrasting trim, self-fabric trim, or no trim on your dress?
If you answered no trim, and you plan to “dress up” your dress with belts and other accessories alone, you can make your dress out of cotton, wool, or silk.

If you answered self-fabric trim, meaning a ruffle or pleated trim made from the same fabric as your dress, again, you can make your dress from cotton, wool, or silk.

THIS is how I should have
made my blue dress! Wool fabric
and black velvet trim - so striking!
K Krewer Collection
If you answered contrasting trim, you are limited to wool or silk.  It is very, very rare to find a cotton dress with contrasting trim.  This is due to the washing techniques of the era:  a cotton dress can be washed, and will be boiled, agitated, and dried.  Contrasting trim will shrink, shred, and all sorts of other unpleasant things during the washing process, which means you will need to remove the trim before you wash it, and add it again once it’s washed.  If that sounds like fun (no!) well, go ahead!  But they apparently didn’t get their kicks that way, as cotton dresses with contrasting trim is vanishingly rare.

This little guide is meant to help those starting out, and is in no way intended to be preachy or argumentative.  Use it as you see fit (but please don’t reproduce this without my express permission).  If you can think of a question I haven’t answered, please let me know, and I’ll address it! 

Thanks, Jennifer!! Jennifer McCardell Green is a 2nd generation reenactor with nearly 3 decades in the hobby, She is an avid researcher, and a moderator at the Civilian Civil War Closet on Facebook. Jenny is also a devoted wife to Jason, who she sucked into the hobby, and mother to Mac, 6, and Clara, 8 months, who are now the 3rd generation of McCardells in reenacting. In her spare time, she enjoys napping. If you have more questions for Jennifer, you can ask her and other reenacting veterans in the Civilian Civil War Closet group on Facebook. Jennifer and others there will be happy to help you with period-correct advice for Civil War era outfits!


  1. The blue wool dress with black velvet trim is mine! :-)

    1. Yay, another of my favorite dresses ID'd! I just updated the caption to reflect that. Thanks! :)

  2. Very informative thank you! The pagoda sleeve section is a little confusing though.

    1. LOL Yes, thanks for pointing that out! I have fixed the typo and it should make more sense now! :)

  3. Thank you for this fantastic article! It is so helpful to have such a detailed information about fabrics!

  4. Hi could you please tell me if a semi sheer cotton dotted swiss is civil war period correct thank you.

    1. Hi Sue,

      Yes, cotton semi-sheer fabrics were available and some types were dotted swiss.