Elizabethan Fabrics - A Short Overview
October 31, 2006
London at the end of the 1500s was a large cosmopolitan city, rich in trade with many countries. The social classes were experiencing an unprecedented mobility; there were more noble titles* bestowed during Elizabeth's reign than in the previous two centuries. Men who had started out as farmers could become gentlemen by attending a University or Law School, and those who could made good use of the expanding economy to create as much wealth as possible.1
The English interaction with Spain, Holland and France had its effect on fashion, as did the continual practice of displaying wealth on clothing. Even where no great wealth existed, the appearance of wealth could bring the right social contacts, and the right social contacts could lead to fortune. The top end social climbers and political hopefuls poured vast amounts of money into their clothing, hoping to get patronage at Elizabeth's Court.2
One less acknowledged effect on fashion was the weather. Northern Europe experienced a mini ice-age from 1400-18003, and warm layers of clothing were essential. The rich wore furs, everyone else wore heavy wool. The English economy was built in part on its wool and wool fabric trade, made successful by the huge demand for a sturdy warm fabric that would combat the cold winters and cool, wet summers.
Upper class4 garments were made of any material available to the buyer, which in London was almost anything they desired from the countries that traded with England. Again, clothing was one of the most conspicuous ways to show off wealth, and vast amounts of money were spent on the finest materials. At the extreme upper end of society, the constant jockeying for position at Court prompted some of the less pecunious nobility to wear their entire fortune on their backs. Clothes were made and discarded at an astonishing rate.5
The constant turnover of materials and garments from high society downwards made for a brisk trade in imported fabrics, but also, though the second-hand clothing trade, made all sorts of fine (if slightly shabby-looking) clothes available at reduced prices to the lower levels of society. This meant that people both re-made clothes to fit (so extensive alterations are correct for re-enactors) and wore clothes that didn't fit very well (good news for anyone who isn't an ace at pattern-drafting - claim you bought if off someone else).6
Since the Elizabethans lived long before the age of artificial and transformed fibers such as polyester, tencel, and rayon, there were a limited variety of basic fibers available. The basic materials of cloth-making were linen, wool, silk, fur/leather/hair, and precious (at least most of the time) metals. Contrary to conventional thought, the variety of blends, weaves and finishes was not at all limited; in fact, it was much wider than the natural fiber fabrics available at stores today. The development of cheap artificial materials and efficient manufacturing processes has severely limited our period choices; they have been whittled down to those that are cheap to produce and fit the popular expectations of "natural" fabric - meaning that many of today's natural fabrics would be considered very inferior by Elizabethan standards.
The Stowe and Folger inventories7 of Elizabeth I's clothing list all sorts of fabrics and are an excellent source of information on suitable materials for aristocratic clothing. Knowing more about period fabrics allows for more educated choices when choosing substitute materials from the array of artificial fibers and finishes that have replaced the silk fabrics of the 1500s. The Cleveland Museum of Art has an excellent textile collection, and provdes an additional resource for pattern and colour.
Silk was the most popular fiber for the rich, but some of the fabrics listed in the inventories, such as "cipers" (cypress), "chamlett" (known today as repp), and "Tyffeneye", could be made with linen, or as in the case of chamlett, camel-hair or wool.8 Silk was the base fiber for taffetas, satins, gauze, velvets, and served as the ground for cloth of gold or silver, often in bright colours like red or purple as well as black and white.9 Silk was imported from Italy and Spain, and sold by Mercers, who who belonged to a strictly controlled guild.
Linen was used for undergarments - shirts and shifts. It was also imported, the best from Flanders, and the varying kinds were named for the area where they were produced.10 Most of the linen available today is pretty coarse; even the specialty linens available from high-end shops cannot compare with the delicate translucency of lawn or Holland, the finest linens, but most of the people in London would not be wearing the best - it was expensive, and did not last as long as the sturdier stuff. Linen was also used as lining and interfacing, and blended with other fibers, particularly wool. Linen is not as warm nor as generally durable as wool so it had limited usefulness as outerwear. Most people in England wore wool clothes.
Which brings us to... wool. As a wool-producing nation, the English found it the cheapest and most practical fiber available. The range of wools was vast, however, and the best weaves could be as expensive as silk or linen. Kersey was a common rougher weave worn by ordinary people, while the worsteds and fine scarlets were pricier. Wool was combined with both silk and linen to produce blended fabrics - serge, grosgrain, fustian, shalloon, and others.11 England's primary export even had laws written about it to encourage its use.12
Elizabethan re-enactors in the US tend to use less wool because of climate conditions,13 but wool clothing is more correct for most classes, and with more knowledge of the grades and lightness of fine wools, ways can be found to wear wool and not overheat. It is possible to create authentic-looking outfits from artificial fibers (don't go near any open flames!), but it requires careful choices and work (and avoidance of matches). In general, it is easier to produce an authentic look for a middle-class person, but this should not discourage people willing to put in the time to make artificial fabrics resemble the fine fabrics of the Elizabethan era.14
* As opposed to the ignoble titles Elizabeth bestowed on those who annoyed her. (sorry, I couldn't resist.)
1. Tudor London, Rosemary Weinstein, Museum of London 1994, pp. 44, 45. The "unprecedented social mobility" was more restricted than today's American class mobility; the ride in social classes was limited to people above a certain income level or level of education (Sir Walter Raleigh, though described as being of humble beginnings, wasn't that humble when he started out; his family were yeoman farmers - property owners, his father a gentleman). The poor, estimated at about 25% of the population of London during the second half of the 16th century, were the labourer class, and could not rise above subsistence level.
2. Robert, Earl of Essex: An Elizabethan Icarus, Robert Lacey, Phoenix Press, 1971. The Earl of Essex is an excellent example of spending money on style. Despite being the Queen's favourite for many years and having unprecedented monopolies granted to him, his extravagant lifestyle and maintenance of his household and self's appearance meant that he spent his entire lfe deeply in debt.
3. www.answers.com/topic/little-ice-age. The endless wet summers towards the end of the 1500s left many people victims of failed harvests, and smaller land-holders were sometimes forced to sell their land to survive.
4. Tudor London, p. 44, and The Art of Dress, Jane Ashelford, The National Trust, 1996. The modern division of class levels would not have been familiar to the Elizabethans. John Stowe divided the population into three categories of merchants, handicraft men, and labourers, but leaves out the aristocrats and the destitute, while the sumptuary laws enacted by Elizabeth I divided society into nine levels by income level and owned property. For our purposes, the "Middle Class" refers to the levels of income that incorporated middle level guild members, shopkeepers, independent tradesmen, servants in richer households, and their dependents (women had limited choices, and had to rely upon the goodwill of their male relatives/husbands/sons, often living with them).
5. The Art of Dress, Jane Ashelford, 1996. pp. 27-28.
6. Ibid, p. 51.
7. Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, Janet Arnold, W.S. Maney & Sons Ltd., 1988, chapters X, XI. If you can wade through the spelling, the inventories paint a fascinating picture of a glittering wardrobe that far exceeds the visual record of Elizabeth's portraits.
8. Ibid. Index II.
9. The Art of Dress, p. 27, and Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, chapters X, XI. The sheer amount of cloth of gold/silver must have been awesome to look at, especially by candlelight. Cloth of gold and cloth of silver are technically not colours - the silk woven with the metal provided that. This fabric (also "tynsell", another metal/silk weave) did not look like modern tissue lamé; the closest modern frame of reference would be Indian saris woven with metal and silk thread.
10. The Art of Dress, p. 47.
11. Ibid, p. 47.
12. Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose, edited by Julie Gardiner with Micheal J. Allen, The Mary Rose Trust, 2005. pp. 31-34.
13. The summer temperatures on the US east coast can reach 100oF or higher, and it stays hot for several months; the summer temperatures in England today rarely reach over 75oF for more than a couple of weeks. Due to climate conditions in the 16th century, summers rarely reached 70oF, and wool was essential for survival in the poorly heated houses. When we were in England a few years ago, we talked to an museum re-enactor at the Tower of London who had gone over to Williamsburg VA the summer before for a costumed job. He said people warned him about the heat, but he didn't realize how truly hot it was until he walked out of the airport and realized it had been air-conditioned (a rarity in the UK). He described it as "walking into a wall of heat". Even Americans, who are more used to the heat, can't wear heavy wool in the middle of summer, so some compromises have to be made.
14. My own efforts in this area can be seen throughout this site, but most successfully (I think) with the purple applique doublet in the Elizabethan Gallery II.