Modern Substitutes For Sixteenth Century Fabrics

So what fabric, I hear you ask, do I use? Well, here's where I have to get a little blunt. If you want to look like a sixteenth century Venetian, you must find fabrics that will convey the right look and feel. Before you start jumping up and down and telling me you can't find, let alone afford silk, let me repeat myself: the fabric must convey the right look. That doesn't mean you have to go out and find 100% linens, wools, or silks, unless you want to be much stricter about period materials as well as a period "look". But if it's just an accurate period "look" you are after, then pattern, colour, and fabric weight will be more important than fibre content. There is no point in buying metres of pure linen with cabbage roses printed on it for a gown. Yes the linen will be a period fibre, but neither pattern will be period correct. Add to this mix the oft debated point of whether outerwear garments of the sixteenth century were ever constructed from linen, and you are left with the question of just how accurate is it possible to be with today's limitations.

You will, however, probably ruin the look with most synthetic fabrics. Sorry. But this is a fact. Nothing ruins the look like badly chosen fabric. There are some synthetics that will approximate the look of a sixteenth century fabric - heavy bridal de-lustered satin being one example that springs to mind. Funnily enough, even synthetics can be a financial nightmare. But what about a blend of natural and synthetic fibres?

This is where I probably disagree with many other 'period authenticists'. Many tell you if it's a blend, don't buy it. I think this point of view comes from an early period perspective. Sure, if you're doing very early period garb, you can get away with using only linen or wool, if you can and choose to afford it. But if you're constructing late period clothing, and you are wanting to recreate a specific look like the Venetian love for pattern woven in brocaded velvets, brocades and damasks, and you have to watch the budget (and who doesn't), then a compromise must be made. It's all a matter of moderation. So use a blend if you need to, but use good judgement - if it's only 10 or 20 per cent silk or linen or wool, or even cotton, it's not worth buying, in my opinion. Striving for period authenticity is great - provided it's done with balance and judgement. Even the most staunch period authenticist will take a shortcut here or there. I've seen lots of pics of ermine-trimmed clothing. Somehow I don't think anyone will expect that real ermine fur be used. So don't let it bother you too much. Naturally, using as much 100% natural fibre fabric as you can - cotton, linen, wool and silk - will help keep you cool in summer (yes, even wool if it's the right wool) and warm in winter. Natural fibres breathe well.

What Modern Fabric can I use?

The Camicia, Then:

If you want to recreate a camicia, the authentic fabric to use would be handkerchief weight linen. All the extant camicias I've looked at so far, whether of Italian origin or elsewhere, have been made from linen, and I have so far found no evidence that suggests the use of silk.

The Camicia, Today:

The next best thing to linen would be pure cotton - a lightweight weave such as lawn or voile. As far as I'm aware, there are no extant garments made from a pure cotton fabric, but cotton can approximate the look of the finer linen available in period. I don't see the advantage, except for perhaps a slight financial one, in using a poly/cotton blend. It does nothing to approximate the look of a period camicia, and it will be less comfortable to wear against the skin than pure cotton.

The Underbodice, "Pair of Bodies" or Corset, Then:

There is very little extant in the form of corsets of the sixteenth century. The under-bodice which belonged to Florentine duchess Eleonora de Toledo/Medici, dated circa 1562, is currently in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. It was of red silk velvet, lined with one - perhaps two - layers of strong linen. No boning or boning channels are apparent, so it is possible that strong fabric, perhaps strengthened by the use of a resin or glue-like substance, was the sole means of stiffening. It was fastened in front with hooks and eyes.

There is a pair of bodies in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich which belonged to the Pfalzgrafin Dorothea Sabina von Neuburg, circa 1598. It is made from "lightweight, very finely corded silk" in ivory, and both a busk and boning channels are evident from the lines of stitching on the outer layer of fabric. It is likely that it was lined with two layers of linen, between which the boning was inserted. It is fastened in the back by means of lacing.

The Underbodice, "Pair of Bodies" or Corset, Today:

Foundation layers: the strongest linen fabric you can find. Other possibilites are a cotton canvas, or a few layers of cotton drill. I've even heard about denim being used, but in my opinion it should be bleached to save the colour accidentally bleeding onto your camicia or dress.

For the outer layer: with the two examples above to go by, you could use either a plain or fancy silk fabric. Good substitutes for silk velvet would be cotton velvet; cotton velveteen. It is difficult to determine what substitutes would approximate the look and feel of the "lightweight, very finely corded silk" without seeing it for myself. The word "corded" brings to mind images of corduroy, fine wale specifically, but I have no idea just how lightweight it was. Another possibility for "finely corded" silk could be cotton drill, which is a twill woven fabric - the diagonal lines of the twill weave are very slightly raised.

Other good substitutes for silks could be a heavyweight synthetic satin, especially a de-lustered one; a cotton sateen could also approximate the look and weight of a sixteenth century satin. Patterned outer layers, although not found in extant corsets, are also possible, given the fancy nature of Eleanora's under-bodice. Modern substitutes would be light-mid weight cotton or cotton-blend drapery/upholstery jacquards.

Linings, Then:

Most of the extant garments I've read of incorporated both an inner layer of lining, and an outer one. Usually the inner layer is linen, sometimes wool, and I have also seen velvet as a lining for a satin sleeve. Sometimes padding is also incorporated in the form of wool or cotton "wool". Fustian, a linen/cotton blend was also used as a lining. For the outermost layer of lining silk is most often used, and sometimes linen, also silk shag and fur, usually for lining loose gowns and hanging sleeves.

Linings, Today:

Inner or outer layer: if you are wanting to line the bodice or sleeves of a gown you could use linen or fustian. Both are available today, although the word "fustian" is not in use. Pure cotton would be the next best alternative, although I don't see a huge problem with using a medium weight poly/cotton to save money - unless, of course, you are entering it in an Arts and Sciences competion and are concerned about authenticity. Outer layer: silk. Good substitutes for silks could be a heavyweight synthetic satin, especially a de-lustered one, or a cotton sateen which approximates the look and weight of a sixteenth century silk satin. These are especially useful as the outermost lining in a set of close-fitting sleeves where slickness helps when putting them on. For silk shag I have yet to find a modern substitute. For fur lining you can use real fur as they did, or substitute one of the very good modern fake furs available today.

Outer Wear, Then:

Plain fabrics: plain silks including silk taffeta, silk satins, solid silk velvet. I have not seen much that indicates the use of wool for gowns for the nobility and higher levels of society, but it is a possibility.

Figured fabrics: brocatelle, lampas, voided velvets, or solid polychrome, cisele, or alto-basso velvet.

Outer Wear, Today:

Plain fabrics: To approximate the slight sheen of a period silk, rayon (a natural polymer synthetic) can do the trick. Rayon was invented as a substitute for silk, and despite the fact that it is manufactured, it is derived from a natural substance - most commonly wood pulp - and is much more wearable than polyester. Cotton sateen could also work well. There were even some silks, I am told, that had little to no sheen. These might be approximated in look by plain tightly-woven cottons such as drill (twill) and broadcloth. Cotton velvet is lovely, and will look fantastic. For more 'everyday' garb do consider pure cotton velveteen. It's so easy care you won't mind if it gets a bit dirty. And even if you keep it simple and free from embellishment, and you probably want to in an "everyday" dress, it will still look great. Buy it at the end of winter when it's on sale and it usually won't cost much more than cotton drill.

Should you be looking for a fabric to make a more ornate or "court" dress, you could choose to use several hundred dollars worth of silk velvet or silk jacquard. A note about silk velvet today: what I've seen is usually silk/rayon velvet, with the backing being the silk and the pile rayon. There are some that claim to sell 100% silk velvet reasonably, but quite often these are either intentionally or ignorantly mislabelled. Neither of these types of velvets is as dense in pile as that which was available in the sixteenth century. If you are watching the budget (aren't we all?) you will need to find something that approximates the look. I find that many period-authenticity mavens and I disagree. Some advise against making garb from upholstery or drapery fabric. But if you avoid any design printed on, and avoid those rubberised backings, plus take a little care with choosing appropriate designs and colours, drapery or upholstery fabrics can work extremely well. In many cases the weight of upholstery or drapery fabric conveys the weight and look of period garments much better than modern dress fabrics.

The Bottom Line: Take advantage of end-of-season sales - buy velvet, wool and velveteen at the end of winter; linen, cotton and silks at the end of summer. Keep an eye on the remnant tables. If you can afford it, buy bolts of fabrics you may need a lot of - like handkerchief weight linen for underwear, cottons for linings etc.

Fabric Bibliography

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