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Medieval Fabrics for Re-Enacting

Updated on June 27, 2011

Do's and Don't's

After you have picked out the pattern you want for your medieval clothing, you need to select the fabric. But not all fabric available today is appropriate for the middle ages. The following information will help you select the appropriate fabric, colors and weaves/patterns for your medieval clothing.

A Fabric for Each (and Every) Layer

In the middle ages, people made their underwear from linen. The poorer classes made their outerwear from simple wool, while the wealthier classes made their outergarments from very fine, fulled wool or silk. Whenever one could afford it, all clothing, except underwear, was lined with some sort of fur: cat, rabbit and squirrel for the lower classes; mink, fox, ermine and Russian gray squirrel bellies for the wealthy.

In the early middle ages (sometimes also called "the dark ages"), the weather was more or less like Europe today, but by the 12th century or so the so-called "mini ice age" had set in and the weather was much colder in Europe than it is today. In the 13th century it also became very wet. By the 14th and 15th centuries we see women and men wearing no less than three layers of clothing: underwear of linen, undergarments of wool or silk (lined in linen, or in silk among the wealthy), overgarments of silk or wool, lined in silk or fur, and then possibly a decorative cape (called a "mantle") of silk or wool and lined in silk or fur and then, when they actually went outside, a cloak and hood of wool lined in fur. How's that for cold?

Fabrics Used in the Middle Ages

  • Linen
  • Wool
  • Silk
  • Linen/silk blend
  • Wool/silk blend
  • Wool/linen blend (called "linsey-woolsey"--almost impossible to find today)
  • Real fur
  • Cotton (known in Western Europe, but pretty expensive and not widely used; more common in the Middle East and India)

Modern Material Substitutes

  • Fake fur in real fur colors and naps (no exotic animal prints like tiger or cheetah, though)
  • Linen/cotton blend
  • Linen/rayon blend
  • Wool/polyester/acetate blend
  • Cotton (get some that is "linen-look" for outer garments, or use white or off-white cotton broadcloth for underwear)
  • Rayon (an acceptable silk replacement, and the only synthetic fabric which breathes like a natural fabric)
  • Tencel (a new favorite of mine, it has a cotton/silk feel; it is a natural fabric made from corn)
  • Polyester--if it reasonably looks like cotton, silk or wool (and it's not going to be terribly hot outside)

Unacceptable Fabrics

  • Knits and double knits (with the exception of men's pants, which aren't really seen under most tunics)
  • Fleece
  • Polyester that looks like polyester (e.g. odd sheen, gauzy weave)
  • Lycra or any other material that has stretch (no Lycra blends either)

Colors

People in the middle ages loved bright, primary colors. Brown was worn mostly by religious orders, and gray usually only occurred when people wore natural, unbleached linen or wool, or black things faded (which happened a lot; there was no plant dye which would give a long-lasting black).

Even the poor generally could afford madder which produces a fairly bright red (although it is quick to fade, so there probably would have been a lot of pink or brick/brown reds) or woad, which gave a nice blue of varying shade. So it's reasonable to expect colorful outfits from just about everyone from all walks of life in the middle age.

As a note, it is now believed that "royal purple" was actually a wine-red color, and not at all the shade that we think of today as purple. Medieval people probably wore purple, as it would have been cheap and easy to make by dying fabric red with madder, then over-dyeing it in woad blue.

Appropriate Colors

  • White (reserved for underwear and trim/edgings among lay people; only certain religious orders wore white outergarments)
  • Black (this was an expensive color to produce because it requires putting together several different colors, since black dye doesn't naturally occur; it also requires frequent re-dyeing, because it fades easily. Edward the Black Prince earned his nickname because he wore it so frequently; the Dominicans are known as the "Black Friars" because their habits are black)
  • Red and shades of red--including pink
  • Yellow, including golden shades
  • Green and shades of green
  • Blue and shades of blue
  • Purple
  • Gray (not likely to be worn as an outergarment among lay people, unless it is something black that's faded; most likely found as underwear made from unbleached linen and in garment linings made from unbleached wool)
  • Brown (generally only worn by certain religious orders; common leather and fur color, however)
  • Orange (I have not seen any pictorial examples of orange, but you are supposed to be able to get a really bright orange from onion skins, which would certainly have been available; it may not show up in pictures because there may have not been any orange paint at the time)

Inappropriate Colors

  • Gold or silver lame (yes, they had cloth of gold; no, it did not look anything like gold lame; and only kings and bishops got to wear it anyway)
  • Any neon color

Patterns and Weaves

In the middle east and India, block/screen printing was practiced to some extent, but it did not really appear in Europe until after the middle ages.

However, as the middle ages progressed, weaving became increasingly complicated, allowing for three-dimensional fabrics (such as velvet), and for complicated woven patterns.

Unfortunately, it is hard to get good medieval-looking woven fabrics in the U.S.; the best collection of woven fabrics I have ever seen was at a re-enactor's faire in England. Still, there is enough to content yourself with, if you take the time to hunt for it. As brocades are usually quite expensive, you may want to get a small amount and use it sparingly as trim or undersleeves. This was commonly done in the middle ages; it was expensive then too.

In some cases, you can buy a print which is made to look like a weave, and it will pass. Stripes and plaids are the most common prints which will pass as weaves; most other prints, however, do not pass as brocades or anything similar.

(In the picture, I am wearing a brocade of trefoils on my sideless surcoat skirt; my husband has brocade undersleeves.)

Appropriate Weaves and Patterns

  • Plaid/tartan
  • Jacquards
  • Brocades
  • Houndstooth (there is an ongoing debate over whether this weave existed, but most people think that it probably did exist; certainly they had the technology to produce it)
  • Twills (VERY popular in wool in the middle ages)
  • Corduroy (invented in the latter part of the middle ages)
  • Velvet (very expensive; not really used before the 1300's or so; at first only royals could afford complete outfits of velvet--upper class people used it as a trim or for accessories, such as purses--but by the late 1400's, the upper classes were using it for entire outfits; it would have been made from 100% silk, which is impossible to find now)
  • Velveteen
  • Satin (should be fairly dull; polyester is what gives satin a high-gloss look that doesn't exist in satins made from silk)
  • Broadcloth
  • Horizontal or vertical stripes
  • Checks
  • Flannel

Inappropriate weaves and patterns

  • Anything with a printed pattern--especially florals--with the exception of prints which look like weaves (stripes, checks and plaids)
  • Diagonal stripes (only musicians and jesters wore this; they cut striped fabric on the bias to get it)
  • Tapestry (although you can make pillows or wall hangings with it)
  • Embroidered linen or cotton--including eyelet (I have yet to find embroidered material that replicates something they would have embroidered in the middle ages; eyelet was not yet invented)
  • Stretchy/knit velvet
  • Burned-out velvet or any velvet with a printed or voided pattern
  • Anything with metal threads (although you can hand-embroider using metal threads; I've never seen fabric with metal threads, though, that looks like medieval embroidery)
  • Anything fuzzy, like angora, or those yarns made from fuzzy little threads
  • Anything that just looks too much like a couch
  • Anything too lumpy or poorly woven; burlap (medieval people were excellent spinners and weavers, and even poor people would not have worn the terrible-looking material that you see in movies)
  • Brocades with modern patterns, such as geometics, animals, people, etc. Brocades should have fairly simple patterns on a somewhat small scale; overly-elaborate florals and large patterns were not done.

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