|It's pretty... but NOT authentic!|
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.
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 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!
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
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.
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
Ohio State University
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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!
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!