Improving Authenticity in Your Early Period Fabrics

by Beth Patchett

This article is an attempt to help those interested in improving the authenticity of their early period costumes. There are many definitions of “early period”, but the one I will use for the purpose of this article is 600 to 1100 AD. I specialize in Saxon and Norman, but most of the things in this article can also apply to much of Northern Europe, including the Norse culture.

The most authentic, would be of course, to weave your own fabric. However, most of us don’t have the time, skill, or inclination to do that. If anyone is interested in pursuing this avenue, please feel free to contact me. We will, instead, concentrate on commercially available fabrics.

I think there are four major things to consider. They are fabric type, weave, colour, and sett.

Fabric Type

The mainstay fabrics of this age were wool and linen. Wool was the everyday fabric of most people. Linen processing is more involved, and as a result it is more expensive.

Silk was available, but only in very small quantities. Silk is recorded as costing two ounces of pure silver for each ounce of silk at one point. (That’s about $15 per ounce in modern terms) Because of this cost, try to limit your silk use to small items such as veils, caps, and hats. Also, avoid the use of “raw silk” or silk noil and dupioni silk. It really isn’t anything like what was available in period.

So, what if you’re allergic to wool? Or can’t stand the way linen crinkles, even if crinkles are period? Well, there are a great many good blends on the market today. Take a look at pure linen and wool and then find a blend that looks the same. It’s not as authentic as linen and wool, but it’s better than shiny polyester.

Weave

What follows is a pictorial representation of the most common weaves within period. There are some specialty weaves available, but I doubt you would find them in a commercial bolt of fabric.

I wanted to say a couple of words about stripes and plaid. Be careful. There is evidence of different coloured thread in the weave but they are normally only a few at a time. This would make the stripe very narrow. I’ve not found any evidence for stripes in both directions, though most of the samples that have stripes are so small that if it were a large enough plaid, we just wouldn’t have the other stripe. Caution should be exercised — don’t make your tunic look like a car blanket.

The following pictures are taken from Lise Bender Jorgensen’s North European Textiles until AD 1000.

Tabby_weave_blue_border2
Tabby weave

This weave is called tabby, or simple weave, and is the most basic and most commonly found weaves. It is created by alternating the weft over and under the warp.

Each of the weaves that follows is considered to be a twill, even if it doesn’t say so in the name.

These are basket weave and half basket weave. These are created by passing the weft under two warp threads.

Another fairly simple weave that is often available commercially is diagonal twill, both 2/2 and 1/2.

Other variants of warp and weft can create the following documentable weaves:

Colours

I don’t do much in the way of dyeing, but the textile coordinator for Regia Anglorum, Hazel Uzzell, has written an excellent article on the subject. Matching colours is a highly subjective art, and you can never really get a perfect match between a commercial dye and a natural dye. Having said that, using the colour chart below, you can be reasonably certain that you have a good approximation of what was available in period.

Dye Equivalents

Chronicle, Regia Anglorum quarterly magazine, Vol. 11, Issue 4 (No. 60) Winter 2000–01

dye_chart_blue_border

Sett

Sett is a measure of coarseness and fineness in fabric. It is the count of the number of threads in each direction — the higher the number, the finer the fabric is. The lengthwise threads are called the warp. The shorter direction, which weaves back and forth, is called the weft. When speaking about threads in a warp, they are often referred to as ends, and the weft threads are called picks. Collectively, they are referred to as thread per inch (or centimeter in most European books.) The least expensive way to measure sett is to cut a 1 inch by 1 inch hole in a piece of cardstock. Lay this square on the fabric, and count the number of threads. You can also invest in something called a linen tester, which has a one-inch hole, but also has a magnifying glass to aid in counting. They are about $20 at weaving supply places.

Most of the tabbies I found have had very fine weaves, in the neighbourhood of 25 to 50 ends per inch, with one as fine as 60 × 153 inch. Twills are also fine, being in the range of 20 to 50 ends per inch, and 18 to 45 picks per inch. (Jorgensen 29–33)

I would love to see everyone using authentic fabrics all the time, but if you are feeling overwhelmed don’t worry. Take it one step at a time; even doing just one will improve your authenticity.

Happy sewing!

* * *

Beth Patchett is Wulfthorpe’s membership officer and an experienced historical reenactor, specializing in Anglo-Saxon history. Her extensive knowledge of authentic materials and dyes has been acquired through her ongoing involvement in Regia Anglorum and the Society for Creative Anachronism.

 

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