Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: Fabric Primer

Do you know the difference between silk and satin?

Actually, that's a trick question. And if you didn't know that, I recommend that you read the following before you try to tackle period fabrics.

How Fabrics Are Identified.

There are two basic ways to designate a type of fabric: content and weave.

A fabric's CONTENT is what it's made from. This can be natural fibers or man-made fibers, or a blend of the two. Only natural fibers are really period-appropriate for the Regency, but some artificial ones are good enough imitators, or are present only in a small enough percentage, that it's not obvious.

Natural fibers:

from animals, such as wool (from sheep) and silk (from silkworms);
from plants, such as cotton and linen

Artificial fibers:

from petroleum by-products, such as polyester and nylon

Man-made naturals:

from plants, but only possible through modern manufacturing techniques, such as rayon and acetate; both are made from pulped plant fibers, heavily processed. They behave more like natural fibers than artificial ones, but are not period-correct.

A fabric's WEAVE is how its fibers are manipulated on a loom to create a finished fabric. Most weaving techniques can be used on more than one kind of fiber. Generally, loose weaves feel softer and are more delicate, and tight weaves feel firm and can take more abuse. Also, choosing a finer or more roughly-spun fiber affects the final product.

Examples of tighter weaves:

broadcloth, a standard over-under-over-under pattern of the threads; can be made in silk, cotton, wool, polyester - almost anything
twill, similar to broadcloth but skips over more than one thread at regular intervals, producing diagonal ridges in the fabric

Examples of looser weaves:

satin uses multiple layers of thread, with a tightly-woven back but long threads are allowed to lie on the front of the fabric, leaving them smooth-looking and -feeling; can be made in silk, acetate, or polyester
gauze, a standard over-under like broadcloth, but the threads are not pulled up tight, leaving an airy feel; can be made of silk, cotton, wool, or polyester

Why Does It Matter?

Two reasons, really. One is that you can't understand what people were making things out of in the Regency if you don't understand the equivalents of those fabrics today. And the other is that although a generic satin may look almost as good as a silk satin to you at first glance, and cost a quarter as much per yard, you will soon find out that because the fibers are man-made, the polyester satin is harder to pin, harder to cut, much harder to sew, just doesn't drape the same way, has a plasticky shine the more you look at it, doesn't take color as subtly, and is a thousand times nastier to wear - because artificial fibers don't allow air and moisture to pass through them, so when you sweat, it's trapped against your skin.

I hope this helps!

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