One of the top questions I get from budding 18th century costumers is “what fabric should I use?” Luckily, there is ample choice for the Georgian era, though not as much a today with all sorts of modern mixes and fibers, so the confusion is understandable. So in the eternal words of Captain Barbossa, let’s establish some “guidelines”…
The Four 18th Century Fibers
These are all natural fibers and all there was for clothing before the 20th century (excluding leather and fur). Ready for the gigantic textile post? Let’s go!
Linen – The most common fabric of the 18th century
Linen was used for just about everything – underwear, linings, caps, aprons, and other millinery, men’s and women’s clothing, you name it. It was cheap, readily available, and came in all sorts of weights. Unfortunately today linen is the complete opposite. Expensive, hard to find in good quality, and often too heavy, slubby, and loosely-woven. However, all hope is not lost – our favorite historical fabric small businesses have good selections of good quality linen. Check out Burnley & Trowbridge and Renaissance Fabrics.
Plain woven works for undergarments, linings, millinery, and outer clothing.
Herringbone/Twill works great for linings and outer garments.
Weight and tightness of weave is important when sourcing linen.
- For shifts and shirts – tightly woven and lightweight as possible without being sheer. Look for “shirt weight” as a search term.
- For millinery – (ruffles, decorative aprons, kerchiefs, caps), a tightly woven, lightweight linen in bright white. Kerchief were also seen in checks and stripes. Look for “handkerchief weight.”
- For linings, – medium-weight, tightly woven white, ivory, natural (brown), or orangey-russety color is ideal. Sometimes linings were also striped or pieced with other linen bits.
- For gowns and clothing – light to medium weight, tightly woven linen in solids, stripes, and checks.
In the 1790s, gauzier, looser-woven linens are seen for gowns, but undergarments and linings remained tight-woven structural fabrics.
Handling notes – wash and dry linen before using it, firstly to remove the factory finishing that makes it stiff, and secondly to shrink it. Starch and iron it thoroughly before cutting to make it easier to handle. Keep caps well-starched to hold their shape.
Wool – The “workhorse” textile of the Georgian era.
Another extremely common and affordable fabric, wool was common for working dress and outerwear. It was worn in all months of the year – yes, summer too! Wool has magical, natural properties of being insulating in the winter, breathable and cool in the summer, antimicrobial, washable (yes, really!), and fire retardant.
We associate wool primarily with working class clothing, but wool came in all sorts of weaves and blends back then too. There are two fantastic wool brocade gown in the Colonial Williamsburg collection, my fave being this black worsted brocade, though it’s very difficult to find such fabric today. Instead, here’s what to look for –
- Worsted Wool – lightweight, good for summer, and available in lots of colors. Worsteds come in twill and plain weaves. Great for gowns.
- Flannels – similar to worsted wool, flannel is a plain-woven wool with a fuzzy texture. It can be used for winter shifts, petticoats, as well as gowns.
- Broadcloth – a dense fabric with lots of body, in various weights. Broadcloth was common for men’s clothing and women’s outerwear and utility clothing such as riding and traveling attire.
- Superfine – an extremely tightly-woven, dense broadcloth used for uniforms, riding habits, and outerwear. This is the magic no-hem fabric and does not fray with a raw-cut edge. The heavy version of this is called “melton” today and used as coating.
Handling Notes – hand wash on cold with a conditioning detergent like Woolite. Roll up in a towel and walk on it to remove excess water without wringing, then lay flat to air dry. Never ever dry in the dryer with any heat unless you want an itty-bitty gown.
Cotton – the fancy new fabric of the 18th century.
Cotton was an expensive novelty fabric when it became popular in 17th century Europe. A fabric of the “orient,” printed cottons from India were particularly desirable and extremely expensive, as were very fine muslins.
In England, imported Indienne cottons were banned between 1721 and 1774, though this was not the case in the American colonies or elsewhere in Europe. Changes in technology, colonization, and trade lifted the British domestic ban as British-produced cotton textiles became available and competitive, made from raw cotton still imported from India.
Single-color, simple prints became readily available to the lower classes and were worn extensively. Cotton, after all, was easy to wash and oh-so-attractive with myriad printed, colorful designs. Here are the basics on choosing cotton for your projects today.
- Floral prints – really accurate or passable ones can be difficult to find. YLook for an open ground most commonly white, and simple graphic flowers and stems in basic colors like red, brown, purple, blue, and green. Dark grounds such as brown, purple, and Turkey red are also accurate. Renaissance Fabrics has a few of the Colonial Williamsburg prints. Reproduction Fabrics has a small collection of appropriate prints. My particular favorite, though, is Ikea (yes!) though their prints go in and out of production year-to-year.
- Simple prints – spots, small repetitive graphic shapes, very simple floral motifs, and shells. It’s surprising how “modern” these fabrics can look, and sometimes you might get lucky in the quilting cotton section of Joann’s. Look for simple, one or two color, repetitive motifs that could plausibly have been block printed. In the 1790s, roller-printed cotton was in production and replaced block printing.
- Plain cotton/muslin – in white or light ivory, but be careful with solid dyed colors until the very end of the century, if at all. Plain white cotton muslin became common for millinery and eventually undergarments. Gowns in extremely fine, light muslin exist but also seem to be primarily white. (I need to do more research on solid-dyed muslins in the 18th century. If you know about these, please comment!)
Handling Notes – wash, dry, and iron before cutting to remove the finishing and shrink it.
Silk – the pretty stuff, but also the most expensive.
18th century silks, along with polychromatic printed cottons, were the most desirable of dress textiles. Highly figured, decorative silks were expensive and displayed affluence, costing far more to purchase than the labor to make into gowns. This is one reason why silk gowns were disassembled and remade again and again for decades.
But not all silks were hugely expensive. Silk was a more common fabric than often thought, and cheaper silks were worn by anybody who could afford them. As a middle-class woman you might not be able to afford Spitalfields brocade, but your best dress might very well be a plain-woven, cheap silk.
Decent silk today is considerably less expensive than in the past, but we have far less variety. Here are my go-to silks and sources:
- Taffeta – My main choice for most historical gowns. It’s extremely lightweight and has great body, comes in lots of colors, stripes, checks, embroidered, and is fairly available from lovely shops like Silk Baron, Burnley & Trowbridge, Fancy Styles Fabric, and Renaissance Fabrics.
- Figured & Faille Silk – These are silks with either a small dot or diamond woven in or woven “ribbed” texture. Modern faille can be a bit too drapey, so be careful with the weight and hand with this one. Renaissance Fabrics has a good selection.
- Satin & Duchesse Satin – heavier and drapier than taffeta, satin gives a particular glossy shimmer. It usually comes in solid colors and is extremely luxurious though can be quite expensive. You want a heavier satin for dress weight, rather than a very thin floaty satin.
- Brocade & Damask – popular throughout the 18th century, in all sorts of patterns. Silk brocades are harder to find these days and are often mixed with rayon or another fiber. The other catch is they are commonly made for upholstery and are significantly heavier than original dress length brocades. However, a good brocade can make a stunning gown. Modern brocades are often called “Lampas” or “Jacquard.” Sometimes there is a decent selection at Renaissance Fabrics and Puresilks.us.
- Organza (“Gauze”) – this light and airy plain-woven silk fabric is stiff, with lots of body. It was very commonly used for millinery – ruffles and trimmings, caps, aprons, kerchiefs, etc.
Handling Notes – never wash it, as the hand and weave will be irretrievably altered. To avoid sweat stains, use dress shields in the armpits.
* A word on blends. Linen/cotton, silk/wool, wool/cotton – yup, all these existed. Go for it.
** About velvet – both silk velvet and cotton velvet were available. Be mindful of the weight.
*** Regarding Dupioni – regular raw-silk, Thai silk, or hand-loomed Dupioni is way too slubby for 18th century dress, but a machine-made Dupioni can be a good stand-in for a cheap 18th-century taffeta, so long as it is relatively low on the slubs. Swatch it before you buy, if shopping online, and be mindful of weight.
And lastly, expense and availability as relate to polyester and man-made fabrics. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making a historical costume out of faux silk. There are pretty good-looking polys out there, and as a beginning costumer it is intimidating and expensive to use real silk when you’re afraid of messing it all up. I have been there!
Because of the properties of the four natural fibers – ease of working with them and breathability – I recommend building up your dressmaking skills by first choosing a cotton or a wool. These are by far the easiest to wrangle. When you’re confident, tackle that silk gown.
Thank you for reading my super-duper long post about fabrics! This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it has helped and given you a better idea and direction for your next 18th century gown.