The Writer’s Guide to Historical Fabrics

As a writer, clothing holds so much possibility. What a character is wearing can tell your readers a lot about them from their social status to the care and attention they give to their personal appearance to where in your world they are from. Being accurate is important if you are writing historical fiction, especially if it involves dressing or undressing, such as in a romance novel. However, having a basic understanding of historical clothing can come in handy for the fantasy writer as well to use as inspiration for worldbuilding.

Today I will be covering some basics and over the next few weeks will be taking a close-up look at medieval, Renaissance and 18th and 19th century clothing.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

Common Fabrics

If you are sticking with real-world fabrics instead of worldbuilding your own, here are some important things to keep in mind. Fabric varied in cost and availability depending on location and historical period. Also, there were varying levels of quality with each type, from fine to course. Some fabrics were expensive during certain time periods only to become cheap and common during others. Also, due to industrial manufacture crowding out hand production, there are types of fabrics that are no longer available.

Wool – Made from the hair of sheep, wool has been a common and widely used fabric throughout history, prized for its warmth. The earliest woven woolen garments come from Iran and date back to 4,000-3,000 BC. [1] Historically, there have been several grades of wool from finely woven stuff from selectively bred sheep to course fabric produced by the peasant class from their own livestock. The wool trade stretched from Europe to Asia and was widespread and lucrative up until synthetic fibers were introduced in the mid-20th century.

Linen – Woven from the fibers of the flax plant, linen was an incredibility common fabric especially favored for any layer that touched the skin. The flax plant is native to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Linen is exceptionally breathable, a big benefit in hot and humid climates. It can be woven incredibly fine, almost transparent. It also wicks moisture away from the skin and releases it, which means it doesn’t stick to you like cotton does. Linen was used heavily by all social classes in Europe and the Middle East for centuries and was also popular because it stood up to frequent and vigorous washing.

Cotton – A fabric made from the fluffy fiber around the seeds of the cotton plant. The plant is native to the Americas, Africa, Egypt, and India. [2] Fragments of cotton fabric have been found in the Indus Valley dating to the fifth millennium B.C. and in Peru dating to 6,000 B.C. Cotton fabric was common in the regions where it is native for most of history. The first Europeans to encounter the fiber were the Greeks led by Alexander the Great. Cotton was slowly introduced to Europe, beginning as a luxurious and expensive commodity. Over the centuries, it became cheaper and more common until becoming the unexpensive ordinary fabric we know today.

Silk – Made from the fibers of the silkworm’s cocoon, silk has always enjoyed a spot as a valued and expensive fabric. The Chinese developed the method of collecting the fibers and weaving them into fabric, a secret they closely guarded for centuries. The earliest example of silk fabric dates to 3,630 B.C. and was found in Qingtaicun near Xingyang, Henan. [3] India also has a long history of silk production and the country is the largest consumer of silk today. [4] The Roman Empire had a thriving silk trade and beginning in the 12th century, Italy became the primary supplier of silk to all of Europe. [5]

Linsey-Woolsey – A fabric made by combining linen and wool fibers. Although it has existed from ancient times, the fabric was most common in 18th century colonial America due to a scarcity of wool. [6]

From left to right: wool, linen, cotton, and silk.

Clothing and Social Class

Throughout history, it has been common to be able to tell a person’s social standing and wealth by their clothing. The two biggest indicators are the cost of the fabric and whether the style follows the latest fashion trends. However, there have also been laws limiting people’s ability to wear certain styles, colors, or materials. For example, ermine became associated with royalty and several countries throughout the centuries passed laws forbidding anyone not of the royal family to wear it.

Sumptuary laws have been enacted throughout history in various parts of the world such as ancient Greece and Rome, Japan under the shoguns, China, and Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They laid out rules on what a person could or could not wear based on their social status, including fabric, embroidery, and colors. Some of them could be incredibly picky, dictating the size of sleeves or whether you could wear lace. Most of these laws could be sidestepped by paying a fee although they were often widely ignored.

Portrait of Louis XIV, King of France, in his coronation robes trimmed with ermine. Painted in 1701 by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

 [1] Smith, Barbara; Kennedy, Gerald; Aseltine, Mark (1997). Beginning Shepherd's Manual, Second Edition. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press. ISBN 0-8138-2799-X.
 [2] The Biology of Gossypium hirsutum L. and Gossypium barbadense L. (cotton).
 [3] Vainker, Shelagh (2004). Chinese Silk: A Cultural History. Rutgers University Press. pp. 20, 17. ISBN 978-0813534466.
 [5] "Italy – Calabria, Catanzaro". Office of Tourism. Archived from the original on 21 August 2015.
 [6] Baumgarten, Linda: What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America, Yale University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-300-09580-5, page 96. 

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