Fabrics of the 18th century 1

Fibres and Weaves


The choice of fabric can decide whether a piece of clothing looks period – or like a Halloween costume. It's not even about the question of silk vs man-made fibres. Some man-made fibres can fool even the trained eye, while some fabrics made of natural fibres can be seriously off if the weave, colours or pattern are wrong.

Since the subject matter is a complex one, I have split it into two pages, but really all four topics are closely interlocked: The technical possibilities of dyeing the various fibres limit the pattern possiblities; weave structures can also produce patterns (think of damask and brocade), and that impacts who could afford which fabric and what the fabric was used for. While the emphasis is on fabrics for clothing, specifically outerwear, we are going to briefly glance at other uses as well, not just because a reenactor may be interested in, say, table linen, as well, but also because there are fabric swatch collections accessible online that present a lot of fabrics without context and may thus confuse the radar.


1. Fibres and Weaves — on this page

2. Colours and Patterns



Linen was the traditional fibre for white, washable textiles such as shirts, shifts, (hand)kerchiefs, aprons, tablecloths, napkins and bed linens. It was also used for top garments of the middling and lower strata of society, but few examples of those have survived. One of them is a man's coat at the fashion museum in Ludwigsburg. There is even less evidence of it being used for outerwear of the upper strata (the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg has a quilted sack gown, accession #T2594, and a boy's suit, #T2815). Every extant linen top garment seems to have been either working class, solid-coloured with a very limited colour palette (see next page), or white and intricately quilted/embroidered, i.e. upper class.

Hemp was used much in the same was as linen, except that it tended to be coarser, and therefore more likely to be used for e.g. sacks.

Wool appears to have been more popular with the lower-to-middling sort than linen. This often surprises modern people who have grown up to believe that "wool is warm", which is bull. But even if it wasn't, the 18th century was within the Little Ice Age. Outside winter, the most popular property of wool was that it could be dyed easily with period techniques. See the next page for why that was important. Rich people used wool as well, whenever they required warmth and durability, such as travel or hunting clothes and cloaks. There were two distinct qualities of wool fabrics: woolens and worsteds. The difference was in how the yarns were spun. Worsteds were considered the superior quality, made from long-staple fibres harvested from longwool sheep and spun into thin, smooth yarns. Woolens were made from shorter stapled sheep breeds and spun into fluffier yarns that contained tiny pockets of air, making them more suited to warm fabrics e.g. for cloaks.

Silk was expensive, not only because the raw material had to be imported from Asia, but also because the threads were very fine, very thin, so that weaving took more time, but most importantly because it was shiny and could be dyed just as easily as wool. It was the fibre of choice for those who could afford it. While I have seen one child's garment made of slubby silk and heard tell of another, slubby silks ar not a good choice for the discerning reenactor. Some people go for dupioni if it has no or few slubs, but it's not just the slubs that make dupioni not be historically accurate – it's the choice and combination of yarns*. In recent years, many reenactors have used siks organza for caps and kerchiefs as a substiture for the very fine linen that is almost impossible to find nowadays, but it is not a historically accurate (HA) choice. If you feel that you must have a semi-transparent cap or kerchief, but can't find fine enough linen, you'd be better off using cotton, which is available in very fine varieties.

Speaking of cotton, there is a legend that "cotton was forbidden". Bullshit! There were laws prohibiting the import and production of printed and painted cotton fabrics in England, France and Prussia. Up until the late 17th century, colourfully patterned fabrics had been the prerogative of the rich, because they could only be achieved with complex weave structures such as damask, brocade, samite etc, and using silk because it took dye so well and could be spun into the extremely fine threads that made intricate patterns possible. Enter the Indians, who had spun, woven and dyed cotton for ages before the East India Company found out that they had delevoped methods of printing or painting cotton fabrics with colourful patterns. European merchants and dyers invested a lot of work and money trying to find out the secret recipe, and they succeeded. Printed cotton fabrics, known as chintz, were produced and worn in the Netherlands, Hamburg, Augsburg, Switzerland and the Provence – the latter despite the prohibition1. But apart from the printed chintzes, there were also white cotton fabrics used in the same way as linen, i.e. for washables, including caps – so why does anyone feel the need to use silk organza again? – as well as striped and checked fabrics which were mostly used for aprons, table and bed linens.

tl; dr Linen, wool, silk and cotton are authentic... as fibres. But the weave plays a role, too.


Weave Structures

There are three classic weave structures: plain (aka linen), twill, and atlas (aka satin). They were all known and in use. However, there are combinations of fibre and weave that were commonly used, and others that were not. There were combinations of fibre and weave that were commonly used, but not for garments. For instance, herringbone was used for mattress ticking and diamond twills for table linens (both linen) and under-petticoats, but no other clothing items, or any hint of either being woven out of anything but linen and possibly cotton.

Special variations of those three basic weaves that were in use in the 18th century include rep, velvet, corduroy, moiré, dimity, calimanco and many, many more. Some have survived, others have fallen out of use. Three weaves deserve special mention because so many surviving clothing items are made from them, because so many people, including fabric shops, get the terminology wrong, and because the unwary costumer may easily be led to believe that any fabric printed with a similar, colourful floral pattern is suitable for 18th century clothing when it is so very much not.

Damask is a variation of satin. Satin has a shiny side (right side, usually the outside of a garment) and a dull one (wrong side). In Damask, the pattern is formed by switching them: On a shiny background, the pattern stands out as dull. On the other side of the fabric, you see a shiny pattern on a dull background. If the weft colour is different from the warp colour, the pattern stands out even more because the background shows mostly the warp colour and the pattern mostly the weft colour. Therefore, damask can have two colours at most.

For a multi-coloured fabric, you need additional threads, worked in alongside the normal weft, only showing in certain places and left to hang loose on the wrong side of the fabric. This is how you get brocade. The ground fabric can be plain, twill or satin weave, a variation of those (e.g. rep like Gros de Naples or Gros de Tours, or a damask), but the most popular use of brocading in the latter half of the century was even more complex: A one- or two-tone ground, similar to damask, but actually a type of double weave, made with two warps, and brocading on top of that. Lampas was the fabric of the mid-to-late 18th century if you wanted patterns. The complexity of the weaving made it much more expensive than plain silk or even damask.

Lampas liséré, front and back. The ground fabric is patterned in cream and beige. If you look closely at the background pattern, you will see diagonal lines from top left to bottom right. This how you can tell that the ground is lampas, not damask. The brocade colours have been carefully grouped so that not too many colours are used at a time. This makes industrial production easier. Such grouping can be found in historical brocades as well, but is not the norm. 20th century reproduction or good imitation. (The moiré pattern is an artifact of scanning, not a feature of the fabric.) Lampas liséré, front and back. This is an example of brocade colours used without grouping. This suggests manual weaving and thus, an original, probably 1760-70, judging by the pattern. Not the difference in colour between front and back: The front has faded due to exposition to daylight.The black threads have all but disintegrated on the front, probably because dark threads absorb more light, but also possibly due to iron mordants being used in the dye process (iron salts are known to damage fibres in the long run).
Lampas liséré on a late 18th century pair of stays. Lampas liséré on a late 18th century pair of stays.

1) Collection of fabric swatches by Louis-François-Armand de Vignerot Du Plessis, Marechal de Richelieu, 1736/37. Got to Bibliothèque Nationale de France and search "Echantillons de tissus", filtering for 18th century.
*) There a a few – very few – examples of 18th century clothing that used silk with slubs. It is very unlikely that those are what we nowadays know as dupioni. Not everything that has slubs is dupioni.



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