Historical Sewing & Costuming
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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
Beginning Sewing & Historical Costuming Combo
A Combo Guide for Beginning Sewing & Authentic Period Costuming (links to the author's TeachersPayTeachers.com storefront)
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
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.
Grecian or Roman Resources Online
- Fashion-Era .com - Greek Costume History
Provides basic information about early dress during the Greek, Roman, Celt and Saxon era(s).
- Roman Garb and Patterns
Includes (not limited to) Roman era clothing information and patterns.
- Roman Female Costume (Free)
A free Roman woman's dress pattern.
- Roman Civilian Clothing and Shoes
Free patterns for Roman civilian clothing and shoes
Viking / Norse Resources Online
- Vikings Online .org - Viking Shoe Pattern
Instructions for making a type of era-correct Viking shoe.
- Viking Answer Lady .com - Historical Inforamtion on Viking Garb
Provides a knowledgeable rundown on Viking wear, for both men and women. Also covers hair styles and grooming.
- The Horned Helmet Stereotype
Site addresses the stereotype of the horned helmets that Vikings never wore.
- Viking / Norse Information Link List
List of Viking and Norse information links. Last updated in 2005.
Medieval and Renaissance Resources Online
- RenStore .com - Renaissance Sewing Patterns and Supplies
The first online specialty company to cater to Renaissance enthusiasts.
- Tudor Shoppe .com - Patterns and Supplies for Reenactors
Renaissance costumes and accessories in authentic styles.
- 3 Sun Thanksgiving .com - Thanksgiving Holiday Renaissance Hobby
Website membership works together to have fun while restoring the true and original meaning of the late Renaissance American event of 1621.
- Squidoo Lens: 10 Tips to Look More Medieval
Really an excellent resource for Medieval enthusiasts. Covers insider tips for wowing peers at Medieval functions.
- Armour Archive .org - Armour Making
Offers essays, tips and tricks for making armour today.
- Making Maille at Real Beer .com
Finding knowledgeable information on making chain maille is yet a challenge. This site is at least good for starters.
- Leather Working in the Middle Ages
Historical information on leather working in the middle ages, plus what modern reenactors are doing today.
- Free Instructions for a Shade Pavilion
Learn how to make a Medieval (Shade) Pavilion.
Medieval and Renaissance -Related Books on Amazon
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.
Another must-have title for the serious Medieval costumer. Liberally illustrated with scholarly commentary.
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.
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 Online
- Long Ago .com - Men's Patterns of the Colonial Era
Patterns for the Colonial, Revolutionary War, and Fur Trade Eras
- Colonial Williamsburg Online
Website generously offers historical information on the time period, as well as a PDF guide that includes where to find Colonial costume patterns, as well as a listing of merchants who sell other items such as period shoes, hats, eyeglasses and sewin
Colonial Resources Books on Amazon
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.
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.
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 & Edwardian Resources Online
- Historical Sewing .com - Victorian Sewing Site
Specializes in Victorian clothing construction.
- Historical Sewing .Blogspot .com - Victorian Fashion Blog
Showcasing Victorian clothes made today.
Victorian Costuming Resources on Amazon
Providing women's fashion patterns from the 1890's, which was the latter end of the bustle period.
Period source patterns for the years following the Civil War.
This book provides period authentic pattern drafts for men's clothing. This title is geared toward the seasoned sewer, or professional costumer.
WWII and 1940s Resources Online
- Vintage Martini .com - 1040's Era Sewing Patterns
Offers used, vintage 1940s sewing patterns.
- Eva Dress .com - Reproduction 1940s Sewing Patterns
Nice selection of attractive 1940s clothing patterns.
- Google "1940's Patterns"
LOTS of 1940s resources online. Just google, "1940's patterns" and you'll be busy shopping all day!
- Google "WWII Patterns"
Again, LOTS of WWII resources online. Just google, "WWII patterns." Those search terms will also bring up museums and other related resources.
- Swing Me Again .com - Swing Dance Lessons
Although not directly related to costuming, swing dancing and 1940s clothes belong together! Get free swing dance lessons and free music download information here. SwingMeAgain.com is an offshoot of LetsPlayHistory.org.
- Lets Play History .org Store - Inexpensive 1940s Hairstyles Book
Get a circa 1940s hairstyling book for just $1.99 (pdf download). Learn basic finger wave setting, and how to master glamorous victory rolls. More than a dozen beautiful hairstyles in all. You won't find any other primary source document reproduced
Retro 1950s Resources Online
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.
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.
This is a reproduction 1956 period source beauty book. Out of print, but used copies can be picked up on Amazon.
General Period Sewing Patterns, Materials, Resouces
- Historical Sewing Forum .com
Need to talk to someone knowledgeable in historical costuming? Here's the place, 24/7.
- Sewing Central .com - Fabrics
An assortment of fabrics suitable for historical costuming. Purchase by the yard.
- The Costumer's Manifesto (Costumes.org)
A costume research site. Just choose your era, and learn what they wore way back when.
- Old Time Patterns .com - Period Correct Sewing Patterns
Sells clothing patterns for the following eras: Renaissance, Colonial, Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian.
- Mantua-Maker .com - Period Sewing Patterns
Period sewing patterns for the Renaissance, Georgian (Colonial), Regency, and Victorian Eras.
- Nehelenia Patterns .com - Historical Sewing Patterns
Sells clothing patterns for the following eras: Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian, and WWII. Also has a section offering hat and accessories patterns.
- Reconstructing History .com - Historical Sewing Patterns
Offers clothing history information, period fabrics information, and patterns from numerous eras.
- Historical Footware Information
Patterns and free helps for making Viking, Roman, and Medieval shoes.
- Curious Frau .com - Hand Stitched Eyelets
A wonderful, free resource for learning how to hand stitch eyelets.
- WM Booth Draper .com - Historical Sewing Books
Some of these books offer advanced lessons on hand stitching techniques. . .
General Costuming Helps on Amazon
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.
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.
THE must-have resource for entering the costumer's profession.
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.