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Historical Sewing & Costuming

Updated on November 14, 2012

Historical Sewing & Period Costuming as a Hobby or Profession

This lens offers valuable resources and information for exploring the art and hobby of historical costuming. Get historical sewing tips and inspiration, modern sewing tips and lessons, plus learn how to take the next step in re-creating garments from your era of choice.

This lens is an offshoot project of LetsPlayHistory.org, an organization dedicated to history as pastime fun for families and communities.

Photo provided by SD Stock at DeviantArt.com

Learn how to sew by hand - historical sewing - historical costuming
Learn how to sew by hand - historical sewing - historical costuming

Authentically Hand Sewing... Everything?

Thankfully, no, not usually. Even among avid reenactors today there's little expectation that garments will be hand stitched. Do they admire authentically hand stitched garments? Yes! It's just not expected, as a rule, since It takes eons to hand stitch a single historical costume.

There are things you can do, however, to add authentic touches to machine sewn historical garb. For example, working with all natural fiber fabrics, or working with period-specific prints, patterns, and fabric finishes. You can also add hand stitching to things like button holes, or corset eyelets.

If you should decide to completely hand stitch a historical costume, the greatest patience will be required as only small stitches create smooth, quality seams. If you'd like to learn the most basic, universal hand stitches for old-world garment construction, see A Combo Guide for Beginning Sewing & Authentic Period Costuming, below.

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Historical sewing - historical costuming - hand sewing
Historical sewing - historical costuming - hand sewing

Historical Sewing with Natural Fibers

The basic rule for historical costuming is to use only natural fibers on clothing representative of 1910 or earlier. Natural fibers include wool (dates back to ~3000 BC), cotton (also ~3000 BC), linen (~5000 BC), silk (2600 BC), and leather (undated).

From this basic list have come many varieties through the ages, including mixed fibers, prints, sheen finishes, and more. A run down of historically viable fabric choices is provided in A Combo Guide to Beginning Sewing & Authentic Period Costuming. This section of the book covers leather garment construction in useful detail, plus it covers what garment fasteners and notions appeared when, and it briefly addresses fabric dyes and dying.

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Historical sewing - historical costuming - hand sewing
Historical sewing - historical costuming - hand sewing

Leather Garment Construction

This is one category of sewing that people find really intimidating. For one, it's an unforgiving "fabric," since it is expensive to procure today. For two, people have no idea how much is needed for this or that type of garment. For three, the "sewing" of it isn't like any other type of fabric.

Lacing is typical for attaching leather garment pieces and creating seams. You can machine stitch leather, but it requires special thread since the tannins in leather will rot anything with cotton or natural fibers in it.

Outside of a few scarce or out-of-print Native American resources, there just aren't many good how-to books for leather garment construction. A Combo Guide to Beginning Sewing & Authentic Period Costuming does contain a very good starter section on leather working, including how to estimate "yardage" (hides), what types of hides for what types of garments, and it provides basic lacing instructions.

The garment pictured here is courtesy of Gwin Stam, a federally recognized producer of traditional Native American goods. Gwin regularly has garments available for sale through NativeAmericanStuff.com, on the Regalia page.

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historical sewing - historical costuming - hand sewing
historical sewing - historical costuming - hand sewing

Armor and Maille

This is one area that even the most avid reenactors are forced to fake. While there are several practicing armour smiths out there today, the expense of armour is simply prohibitive for the middle classes. Yet, our continuing LOVE for Medieval and Renaissance faires and jousting has necessitated the development of several types of "fake" armour. You can find free how to information online by googling for armour (or armor).

The ONLY book that I am aware of that has received accolades for beginning, authentic armour-making, is a book titled Techniques of Medieval Armour Reproduction, listed below in one of the Amazon modules.

As for maille, that, too, is difficult and time consuming to make, but not near as expensive as plate armour since it doesn't require a blacksmithing setup. Good maille-making instructions have, up to this point, eluded me. There are some links to free online information, but the quality is suspect as one trained in Medieval attire can easily tell which "weaves" are authentic, and which are not. Still, we've provided some of the free links in the Medieval / Renaissance links list below.

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Learn how to sew by hand - historical sewing - historical costuming
Learn how to sew by hand - historical sewing - historical costuming

Treadle Machine Sewing Today

One area of historical "reenacting" that is gaining favor, is simply sewing on old hand and foot powered treadle machines. Machines as old as 150 years, if they've been properly oiled and stored, are still occasionally found in operation today.

The hardest part about working on an old machine is having no owner's manual. Often they're missing. I personally feel that no manual means the same thing as no machine. The good news is, old sewing machine manuals are available online through antiques dealers, and on eBay. You just have to hunt and put in requests, and sooner or later the manual you want or need may indeed present itself.

You can also check with the Library of Congress, however, their services are not free and can really add up, so save them as a last resort.

Sewing Victorian era clothes on a treadle machine is authentic, and a charming experience!

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Learn how to sew by hand - historical sewing - historical costuming
Learn how to sew by hand - historical sewing - historical costuming

Authentically Representing Your Era

Reasearching period garments, hairstyles, accessories and customs

Some folks enter the historical reenacting field with the idea that those "experts" who have gone before them know everything there is to know about the time period being reenacted. Rarely is that the case. There's always new gems of insight to be found through period source research.

Regardless of which era you're interested in investigating, just start out with a museum visit online or off, and begin taking notes and asking yourself questions as you go. Soon you'll have leads for books you'd like to find on the antiques market, or on public domain sites (in digital format). For example, I have personally discovered that in both the Renaissance era, and the Victorian (my two areas of greatest interest), period cookbooks are a gold mine in that they reveal a great deal of detail on things like manner of language, meal and holiday customs, health remedies, and sometimes hygiene.

In any case, whenever you read a modern book about history, don't just take the author's word for anything. Look at their references to period source documentation. Only then can you be confident that the information in a modern book (or other media) is viable.

Another area of study among historians is period paintings. Period paintings also depict the life and times of past eras, and often with authentic attention to detail.

So, don't underestimate the capability you alone possess in unearthing old-world information. Your path will be unique, and therefore your finds stand a chance of also being unique. Remember, historical study is mystery sleuthing. Though slow-going, the rewards of sleuthing are often astonishing!

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historical sewing - historical costuming
historical sewing - historical costuming

Historical Sewing & Costuming as a Profession

From selling your stock on eBay, to opening your own costume design studio, the business of historical costume designing is both intelligent and creative. Some designers go to school to learn the trade in full, yet others end up in the profession simply because they're good at what they do and manage to attract big name orders.

Historical costuming careers are not limited to just the main clothing, either. One company I am aware of specializes in notions, such as period buttons. Another specializes in period shoes. Yet another specializes in period jewelry.

Any of these historical costuming skills can, of course, be applied to simply opening a general costume shoppe.

If you'd like to learn about the trade, the BEST, most complete book on the subject is Costume Design 101: The Business and Art of Creating Costumes for Film and Television (2nd Edition), available below in the "General Costuming Helps on Amazon" module.

Photo provided by SD Stock at DeviantArt.com.

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Learn how to sew by hand - historical sewing - historical costuming
Learn how to sew by hand - historical sewing - historical costuming

Reenacting as a Hobby or Profession

From themed parties, to acting careers

History reenacting can be as informal or formal as you choose to make it. If all you want to achieve is an authentic-feeling Victorian tea party for an eight year old child, then by all means, have at it. This is a form of reenacting. If, however, you dream of Broadway or the big lights of Hollywood, reenacting can be a foot in the door.

This doesn't mean, however, that you can quickly make a living through reenacting. Your first priority is to develop an authentic period persona. In other words, a period character that you can "master" artfully. For example, a Renaissance reenactor might portray a barkeep or wench, or they might go for a noble man or woman. Very different roles, each. If you manage to develop a historical character that is amusing and historically revealing, you stand a better chance of being called upon - and paid - to perform that character at related events.

If you want to go pro, make yourself a part of a well organized reenacting group. These groups are sometimes sought by movie makers simply because the actors come with their own historically authentic props! This saves movie producers time and money.

Whatever you're level of interest, a beginner's guide to re-creating history is available on our sister lens, Squidoo.com/PlayHistory

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Beginning Sewing & Historical Costuming Combo

A Combo Guide for Beginning Sewing & Authentic Period Costuming (links to the author's TeachersPayTeachers.com storefront)

$6.99 Full color, immediate PDF download

$14.99 B&W interior, 62 pages, softcover (Amazon)

This is a concise, no fluff resource for either or both the beginning sewer, or the beginning historical costumer. It first walks the reader through simple sewing lessons, including all the basic techniques of modern garment construction, fabric preparation, and pattern selection, preparation and layout. (The lessons do require the reader to have an owner's manual for their sewing machine.)

The guide then shows basic historical hand stitching techniques, plus it delves into the basics of working with leather. The leather segment covers not only garment assembly, but estimating "yardage" (hides), and hide selection tips.

From there the guide provides a machine needle selection list for all the various historical fabric choices, and it outlines when each garment notion (types of closures, interfacing, lace, etc.) first made their appearances.

The book is designed as an easy introduction to sewing and historical costuming, and is NOT extensive on any of the content. Thorough for introductory purposes, but not extensive. It does, however, direct the reader to further research and learning resources where needed.

For beginning sewers this resource can be used in combination with our free 5-Step Sewing Lessons sister lens, Squidoo.com/SewingInstructions101

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Learn how to sew by hand - historical sewing - historical costuming
Learn how to sew by hand - historical sewing - historical costuming

Start or Join a Sewing Circle

Support for sewing newbies, and they're FUN!

One way to keep yourself motivated and having fun with the whole historical costuming thing, is to join or start a sewing circle in your area. You can use Meetup.com, Craigslist, or your local newspaper to advertise.

At first sewing circles can be held in homes, but eventually you'll want more elbow room, so as you grow simply spread the word that you're looking for a meeting place. Often churches are willing to let historical sewing groups meet in their buildings on "off" days. You can also check with your local Chamber of Commerce, as they're typically aware of what's available in the way of meeting facilities in your area.

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historical sewing - historical costuming - hand sewing
historical sewing - historical costuming - hand sewing

Medieval and Renaissance -Related Books on Amazon

Techniques Of Medieval Armour Reproduction: The 14th Century
Techniques Of Medieval Armour Reproduction: The 14th Century

THE go-to source for learning how to smith a 14th century suit of armour. Tools and setup, techniques, and historical overview for creating style authenticity.

 
Textiles and Clothing, c.1150-1450 (Medieval Finds from Excavations in London)
Textiles and Clothing, c.1150-1450 (Medieval Finds from Excavations in London)

Another must-have title for the serious Medieval costumer. Liberally illustrated with scholarly commentary.

 
The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Dress
The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Dress

Well researched and beautifully compiled treatise on Renaissance garb. Provides some period patterns, sewing instruction / helps, fabric selection helps, and a valuable segment that differentiates the clothing worn by the lower, middle and upper classes in that time period. A must-have for any Renaissance enthusiast.

 
Lessons in Bobbin Lacemaking (Dover Knitting, Crochet, Tatting, Lace)
Lessons in Bobbin Lacemaking (Dover Knitting, Crochet, Tatting, Lace)

Lace-making was not only a viable cottage industry for lower and middle class women during this time period, but lace was an upper class necessity. Learn the old-world skill with this modern treatise.

 

Colonial Resources Books on Amazon

Costume Close-Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790
Costume Close-Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790

An excellent resource for beginning and novice sewers, this book provides choice patterns and photos of complete Colonial era ensembles for both men and women. Provides information on the differences between classes as well.

 
What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America
What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America

This is admittedly an expensive, out of print title, but one that a Colonial period costumer cannot live without. This book provides a scholarly look at clothing as an expression of the classes. Richly photographed.

 
The Hatters (Colonial Craftsmen)
The Hatters (Colonial Craftsmen)

This book is written with a younger audience in mind, but by no means is it beneath adults. The book does not provide actual hat patterns. It does, however, give an excellent understanding of the American hat trade during this time period. As hats were so fashionable, this resource is of tremendous value to the Colonial enthusiast.

 

Victorian Costuming Resources on Amazon

Authentic Victorian Fashion Patterns: A Complete Lady's Wardrobe (Dover Fashion and Costumes)
Authentic Victorian Fashion Patterns: A Complete Lady's Wardrobe (Dover Fashion and Costumes)

Providing women's fashion patterns from the 1890's, which was the latter end of the bustle period.

 
Reconstruction Era Fashions: 350 Sewing, Needlework, and Millinery Patterns 1867-1868
Reconstruction Era Fashions: 350 Sewing, Needlework, and Millinery Patterns 1867-1868

Period source patterns for the years following the Civil War.

 
Men's Garments 1830-1900: A Guide to Pattern Cutting and Tailoring
Men's Garments 1830-1900: A Guide to Pattern Cutting and Tailoring

This book provides period authentic pattern drafts for men's clothing. This title is geared toward the seasoned sewer, or professional costumer.

 
Blueprints of Fashion: Home Sewing Patterns of the 1940s
Blueprints of Fashion: Home Sewing Patterns of the 1940s

Don't be misled by the title - this book does not provide any sewing patterns. It is, however, an excellent pictorial archive for home sewing of clothes during the 1940's.

 
Retro Knits: Cool Vintage Patterns for Men, Women, and Children from the 1900s through the 1970s
Retro Knits: Cool Vintage Patterns for Men, Women, and Children from the 1900s through the 1970s

Knits became very fashionable at the turn of the century, and were going strong during the 1940's and 50's. This book has numerous knitting pattens, not sewing with knit fabric patterns.

 
Westmore Beauty Book -- A Complete 1950s Guide to Vintage Makeup, Hairstyling and Beauty Techniques
Westmore Beauty Book -- A Complete 1950s Guide to Vintage Makeup, Hairstyling and Beauty Techniques

This is a reproduction 1956 period source beauty book. Out of print, but used copies can be picked up on Amazon.

 

General Costuming Helps on Amazon

Wig Making and Styling: A Complete Guide for Theatre & Film
Wig Making and Styling: A Complete Guide for Theatre & Film

This book is filled with photographs and detailed, step-by-step instructions for every sort of wig and hairpiece imaginable. A must-have for the serious costumer.

 
The Art of Boot and Shoemaking: A Practical Handbook Including Measurement, Last-Fitting, Cutting-Out, Closing, and Making
The Art of Boot and Shoemaking: A Practical Handbook Including Measurement, Last-Fitting, Cutting-Out, Closing, and Making

There are very few valuable how-to books on shoe making, which makes this title all the more important. This is a period source reproduction piece from the Victorian era, but don't underestimate its instructional value to costumers of other eras. You'll have to "interpret" some of the outdated language (which is actually fun), so be prepared to use your head, and to creatively problem solve.

 
How to Make Sewing Patterns
How to Make Sewing Patterns

A must-have resource for those who would like to learn, or brush up on making original sewing patterns. From pre-measuring and drafting, to draping and making a personal fitting dummy.

 

Your Comments Are Always Welcome - If you enjoyed this historical sewing resource, please social us - thanks!

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      ChrisRulton 4 years ago

      A very good lens. One of the most important parts to remember is with a lot of time periods different materials were available to different extents in different places.

      I'm a late 15th centurey English reenactor. In this period there was cotton available but it had almost no useage since linen was so similar but the prices were fantastically different - linen was made in England and therefore relatively cheap whereas cotton was imported and therefore expensive.

      The further East or South you went the more this changed, until eventually you reached the point where it was cotton that was indigenous, cheaper and more widely used.

    • fireauthor profile image

      fireauthor 5 years ago

      very interesting,thank you

    • ViJuvenate profile image

      ViJuvenate 5 years ago

      I can't wait until 1940s wear comes into fashion. They knew how to flatter a figure then. :o)