Meridian Arts and Sciences

Fabric Choice in the SCA

Mistress Sindokht Bayat al-Herati

Fabric choice is one of the most important elements in making great looking garb. The wrong fabric, the wrong color or weave can completely destroy the look of the garb. No matter how talented the tailor, the garb will not look good if the fabric is wrong.

To begin with, it is always best to choose from period fabrics. The fabrics that would have been available change with the time period and culture of each persona. All period fabrics are natural fabrics. This means that your choices will be from linen, wool, cotton, silk or leather/fur. Synthetic fabrics simply rarely match up to the natural fabrics when choosing a period look. Also, synthetic fabrics don't breathe well. This means that you are colder in the winter and hotter in the summer. Mostly hotter in the summer! They also don't hang right. This is the way the fabric drapes on the body and moves when you move. Sometimes they are too stiff and other times they drape too much. Another problem with synthetic fabrics is that it can be much more difficult to clean them. Sometimes it is impossible to clean them! In the SCA this all needs to be considered. Many synthetic fabrics are cheaper than the natural fabrics and for “camp clothes” or “kitchen garb” that may be the main consideration. For the rest of your garb, you have to ask yourself – “Do I want to look neat or have 35 sets of bad-looking garb?”

Now let's say you've decided to go natural. Just because the fabric is made of cotton or linen doesn't mean the weave or weight is right. Cotton, in particular comes in many weaves that weren't available in period. Broadcloth is a perfect example. Many new people in the SCA use broadcloth to make their garb because it is cheaper – I did. However, the weave in broadcloth is too tight for a period look and often an artificial “polish” has been added to the fabric that makes it look wrong. Unless you're making “kitchen garb”, broadcloth should be avoided at all costs. It is inexpensive, but you are wasting your time and effort as nothing constructed with this fabric will look period. So be careful, just choosing a natural fabric is not enough.

Another main consideration is color. Synthetic dyes often just aren't correct where color is concerned. Even looking at museum pieces isn't always helpful as over time, color changes due to age and damage. Sometimes color changes completely due to the break down of the original dye! For instance purple can change to red or green to yellow. So be careful with using extant pieces. Period dyes, however, were able to give deep colors and sometimes, (depending on the fabric) brilliant colors. Different cultures had different dye types available to them. A good place to start is a book with a dye color card in it, which depicts the different vegetable dye colors. However, make note of what type of fiber results in which shade of color. Silk dyes very differently than wool! Also be careful of using paintings to determine color. Artists used totally different minerals to achieve their paint colors than dyers did.

The best advice I can give to someone who wants a really great looking outfit is choose the right fabric. Save your money if necessary, but get the right fabric!

  Copyright (c) 2005 Hollie Williams. Used with permission.