18th century Fabrics


With fabric, it is of course up to your preferences whether you want the authentic look or take authenticity a step further. If you're content with the former, you can use any fabric that doesn't look obviously modern. Some plastic fabrics can look astonishingly like silk.


Completely unnecessary to say, any artificial fabric such as nylon, polyester etc. is not period. Less obviously, this also goes for certain plant fibres that are nonetheless artificially produced, e.g. viscose.

Cotton is also something to be careful about as it was forbidden in England, France and Prussia (and possibly other countries I don't know about) during the larger part of the century, except the very early and very late period. It wasn't cheap as it was imported from India, while silk and wool could be produced in Europe. In fact, the abolishment of cotton was meant to protect the domestic textile industry. But it seems that it wasn't quite as expensive as some sources say: I've spent some time researching the Proceedings of the Old Bailey and found that a) cotton gowns were stolen in large numbers, which means that they were worn despite the ban, and b) that the values listed were not much higher than those of linen or woolen gowns.
Countries and cities with strong trade connections had a more relaxed attitude towards cotton; sometimes they even had their own cotton printing manufactories (e.g. in the Netherlands, Hamburg, Augsburg). In America, on the other hand, cotton was produced domestically and rather cheaply - which may have disqualified it as too cheap, fit for servants only.

America's upper strata and all of Europe preferred linen for their underclothes auch as chemises, shirts, petticoats. For top garments, silk was the most expensive and accordingly popular, while wool was worn for warmth (including petticoats and stays) and for cheaper clothes. It seems that linen was not very popular for top garments, but not unseen, either.


The three classic weaves - atlas, linen and twill - were all out there, but not in the many fancy varieties you get nowadays. Stick to the plain ones such as satin and taffeta. Period fancy weaves/finishes for silk are ribbed, damask, brocade, moiré. And then there is velvet, of course, and corduroy. Of the latter I'm told that it was different from what you get now, but I've never seen the real thing.


Colours for upper class women's clothes were usually more on the pale side, e.g. ivory, sand, light blue, blue-grey, silver, pink etc. Darkish and middling reds, bright yellows, dark blues and greens have also been seen. I know of two extant brown robes, but that is about it. The middling sort were, apparently, more in favour of bright colours than the gentry, possibly because bright colours were expensive to dye and therefore a status symbol. Indigo blue and various bright reds seem to have been the most popular.

In the early period, some of the large-patterned silk fabrics exhibited some rather bizarre colour combinations, but nothing you could buy today comes close to them, neither in pattern nor colours. Men's clothes could be of the same colours, but darker colours were more frequent than with women and included black and brown. Avoid brilliant and garish colours (e.g. magenta, royal blue) that owe their existence to artificial dyes, and nuances of violet/purple which were associated with clerical clothing. Black should only be used for the clothing of the rich (and protestant clerus) as proper, deep black that stayed black was difficult to produce, therefore a status symbol. The middling sort would use black for exactly that reason, but only for smaller items that didn't require mich fabric, such as pinafores. For lower middle and lower class, colours are generally more muted, pale or dull, owing to the cheaper dyes' bleeding and fading.

As period patterns can hardly be found nowadays (at least not at the department store and not at realistic prices), it is a good idea to stick to uni-coloured fabrics. One exception is cotton, which to my knowledge was either striped, checked or printed with floral patterns. I have yet to find evidence of solid-coloured cottons used for upper garments. Even if you find a suitable pattern, remember that printed patterns were relatively rare until the end of the century, so it should be woven in – except, again, in case of cotton (see above) or linen, which was often printed in the same way as cotton. Some Indian silks were hand-painted.

Choose large floral designs (about 20-30 cm per patch) for the early century, smaller (10 cm) for the mid century, and sprinkling or weaves of small flowers along vertical stripes for the 3rd quarter. From about 1770, Indian cotton and silk with Indian-looking printed patterns were quite popular everywhere. The Greater Bay Are Costumers Guild has a good info site about printed cottons although many links are unfortunately broken.



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