Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: Fabrics



What types of material were popular in the Regency?
Which fabrics were used for which garments?
Learn here about muslins, printed cottons, silks, and velvets.
To come: linen, wool, and leather.

But first: Do you know the difference between silk and satin?

Broadside in the Library of Congress.
TERMS for REGENCY FABRICS are confusing because some names have gone out of fashion completely and are mysterious to the modern ear, while other names we still use today meant something rather different in 1800. In addition, most of the names themselves are old corruptions of foreign place names - places where the fabrics might or might not have originated, but either way it added a romantic touch for the buyers of several hundred years ago!

For example, modern Americans often call the midweight printed cotton fabric used in quilts calico (named after the Indian city of Calicut) while the British use that word to mean the unprinted, low-thread-count cotton fabric Americans call muslin (named after the city of Mosul in what is now Iraq). But in the Regency, calico could be printed or unprinted midweight cotton fabric, while muslin was a somewhat sheer, very soft, drapey cotton fabric, sometimes with a rather loose weave, and almost invariably white - closer to cambric, or a slightly softer, looser version of what is now sold as voile or fine batiste. Think of a cross between a fine handkerchief and cheesecloth, if you can!



Cotton Muslins.
From a gown sold by
Heritage Studio
.

MUSLIN was the MOST FASHIONABLE of materials for informal and even some formal gowns. Cotton was increasingly available in America and as an import from India, and the diaphanous, flowing white of fine muslin was perfect for imitating Greek statuary. To keep your muslin dress from looking just like everyone else's, you might choose a material with a pattern woven into it or embroidered on it. The muslin at left has a woven-in wavy pattern, the larger stripes consisting of three stripes very close together. It is easy to see how loosely-woven this fabric is; you can see the shadow of the dark background behind the unpatterned areas. Except for the most daring Frenchwomen, petticoats were a must under such gowns.



From the A&E production of P&P.
BECAUSE they were QUICKLY SPOILED by dirt and use, fine muslin gowns helped separate the upper classes from the lower. Even though cotton is more washable than fine silks, these loose-woven muslins tear and stain easily and even without such treatment tend to ravel or even disintegrate in the wash. Despite this, there are always those who cannot resist a new fashion even at its most unpractical, and so in the early nineteenth century some serving girls irritated their betters by donning white muslin gowns, just as their predecessors had irritated their betters in the eighteenth century by donning silk ones.

The gown at left features an all-over small dot, another popular motif that could be either woven in or embroidered. Although this example is from A&E's Pride and Prejudice, I've seen very similar dotted muslins in genuine Regency dresses.



From a pelisse sold by
Reflections of the Past
.

WHITE-on-WHITE WEAVES were perenially popular; this one is an open check. (To give you a sense of scale, the inside square of the check is perhaps half and inch across.) This original Regency-era fabric was used to make not a gown but rather a pelisse (probably for indoor wear). It was in morning gowns in particular that the fashion for white muslin reigned supreme. Other colors were often worn for balls and dinners, and riding habits were always dark and made in more practical materials, but for the period spent indoors sewing, writing letters, and so on, whites were least likely to be ruined and probably the light materials were also comfortable.

I've seen windowpane-checked semi-sheers very similar to this in the fabric store. They're often in the drapery section, meant to be used as a curtains. Try to get one with a reasonable amount of cotton in it.



A silver-embroidered gown from the
Metropolitan Museum of Art
.

GOLD and SILVER MUSLINS were the finest muslins, having gilt threads woven into them. It's easy to imagine how beautiful such ethereal fabrics must have been in the candlelit halls in which they were worn. They replaced the stiff cloth-of-gold and -silver of the previous century, as stiff fabrics and flowing Grecian lines do not mix. A definite luxury item, such fine fabrics not only cost more to purchase but were very difficult to clean - a contemporary advertisement for a mending, dyeing, and cleaning service charges 1 shilling/6 pence to clean a cotton-muslin gown, but 10/6 for a silver-muslin one.

Another Indian import was muslin or mull (a gauzy muslin) embroidered with silver or gold thread, as seen at left. Now tarnished to a dark grey color, the silver would originally have sparkled in the light. Such fabrics can still be found from Indian importers; try to find light, flexible fabrics, as many sari fabrics are too crisp and stiff.



From an infant's gown sold by Heritage Studio.
WHITEWORK was a POPULAR ACTIVITY for ladies dressed in their morning gowns, and it simply means white-on-white embroidery sometimes incorporating eyelets. If not gold and silver muslin, any industrious young lady could have an embroidered gown. Here is a lovely example of whitework hand-done to suit the shape of the garment, but a similar effect could be achieved with purchased eyelet with a built-in border. I have seen several gowns from both the first and second decades of the nineteenth century with eyelet worked on the bodice, sleeves, and flounces at the hem.



From a gown in the V&A Museum, c.1795-99.
TAMBOUR WORK was at LEAST as POPULAR as embroidery and was faster to produce. The fabric to be worked was stretched on a large frame held on a stand, and the lady used a hook like a tiny, sharp crochet hook to punch through the fabric and create a chain stitch. The result is almost indistinguishable from embroidered chain stitch except that it is so very fine and even, and the work goes more quickly. Tambour work is still used on couture clothing today.

Fine muslins were perfect for tambouring because the loose weave was easy to punch through without damaging. Although this early example is tamboured in yellow and thus is easier to see, most work of the era was white-on-white; subtle, but the translucency of the muslin contrasted with the opacity of the tambouring. In addition to tambouring their dresses, fine ladies tamboured fichus (neckcloths), shawls (not very warm, but pretty), reticules, and more.



Printed Cottons.

Detail of a 1795-99 gown at the V&A Museum.
COLORED COTTON FABRICS mentioned by that 1790s broadside at the top of the page include nankeen (a tough yellow denim-like material used for shoes and sometimes breeches) and "chintzes, callicoes, and cottons of various patterns." It also mentions printed linens, which were used in much the same way as the cottons - but cottons were more fashionable. Then as now, chintz was a tightly-woven, moderately lightweight cotton that was glazed to make it shiny, but it was rapidly falling out of favor as a dress material as the nineteenth century arrived.

Printed calico ("callico") is primarily what I will discuss here.

The patterned cottons of the eighteenth century imitated the realistic, open florals popular in silk brocades, and Indian exporters used Western pattern books to create painted cottons that imitated the brocade styles for export. These trendy Indian painted cottons were in turn imitated by English mills producing block-printed cottons! As the nineteenth century approached and skirts and bodices became smaller and narrower, these patterns completely superceded the larger, more dramatic brocades from which they had originated.

The 1795-99 fabric shown at left has flowers with a spiky look, combined with narrow, winding stems and a spare arrangement; this is typical of eighteenth-century designs. The soft, rounded flowers you tend to see on today's flowered cottons are much more Victorian.


Detail of a 1795-1800 gown at the V&A Museum.

PAINTED COTTONS from INDIA also continued to be used up through the turn of the century. This fabric, used in an open robe of 1795-1800, shows how similar the English printed cottons were to the Indian painted cottons they imitated.

Printed cottons reached the height of fashion for daywear in the 1780s. Their relatively crisp body, however, did not work as well with the classically-influenced gowns of the 1790s as they had with earlier styles, and diaphanous muslins began to take preference. By the first years of the nineteenth century, these loose, flowing prints were out of favor. Printed cottons lived on, however, as indispensible and useful materials from which to make gowns that didn't show dirt on their busy patterns and could survive work and washing. And of course they hung on longer in outlying areas, where new fashions took longer to reach and dresses continued to be made from older fabrics because any fabric was valuable. Many people used lengths of fabric sitting around for years in chests, or remodeled older dresses into newer styles.


Fabric from the Museum of Costume,
Manchester.

BLOCK-PRINTED FABRICS were laid out flat and the design stamped on by hand in sections. Designs made this way could be quite complex; it's amazing when you consider that each color had to be printed separately with a different block, carefully registered to stay in line with what had already been printed.

As printed cottons were falling out of fashion, patterns became increasingly dark and dense as the fabrics were relegated to useful work gowns. This pattern is from the 1790s.


Modern printed cotton from
Reproduction Fabrics
.

NEOCLASSICALLY INFLUENCED PATTERNS, controlled and austere, began to take the place of realistic, twining florals as the century turned. The buds in this design, more of a design element than a representation of an actual bud, are typical.

Again, although fashionable early-Regency colors were mostly light, this printed cotton offers a practical wash-and-wearability with its dark, busy pattern.


Fabric from the Museum of Costume,
Manchester
.

"DRAB" was a POPULAR CHOICE as the decade progressed. Simple, repeating, restrained patterns in shades of taupe, brown, ecru, beige, and so on took over.

Although this design seems a little busy up close, from a distance it all blends into a soft beigeness.


Modern printed cotton from Reproduction Fabrics.
ROLLER-PRINTING was a new, automated method of printing fabric. The fabric was fed into a giant set of rollers, sort of like feeding a sheet of paper into a typewriter; but instead of striking the "sheet" with individual keys, one of the rollers continually imparted a design on the fabric as it rolled past.

The designs that worked best with this new, quick method were verticals, because the fabric rolled past vertically and it was now easy to print a continuous line. Colors tended to be simple. However, the engraved-copper rollers were able to produce a fineness and crispness in the design that our modern screen printing just can't achieve.


A day dress in the Killerton Collection.
In the 1810s and '20s, roller-printing became more sophisticated and it became possible to print fabrics on the diagonal. At the same time, the trend in fashion away from classical simplicity toward more constructed shapes and fussy trims resuscitated the popularity of printed cottons. Diaphanous fabrics didn't have enough body to create the cone-shaped skirts and elaborate sleeves that were coming into style.

Fabric patterns also began to get bigger, bolder, and brighter. A dye called "Turkey red" (because of its Middle-Eastern origination) was extremely popular and can be seen here.



Fabric from the Museum of Costume,
Manchester
.

TURKEY RED AGAIN, in this case used as the entire ground color. Throughout the early twenties, designs continued to move to brighter colors and incorporated nontraditional designs like these zigzags.

It's worth noting that in this example and the one above, the dressmakers were not afraid to cut the pieces of the gown at carefully selected angles to the fabric grain, using the stripes to emphasize the design of the gown rather than cutting all the pieces absolutely straight to the grain as a modern sewer would be inclined to do.



Silks.

From A&E's production of P&P.
SILKS were used for FINE DRESS and also, depending on one's status, everyday dress. Today we tend to think of silk as the soft, flimsy material of scarves and blouses, the slubby midweight of duppioni, or the heavy brocades of upholstery-weight materials, but Regency silks were primarily thin, crisp silks of light weight but a reasonable amount of body.

Available in a variety of colors, but not the harsh colors of later chemical dyes, these were silks with a soft sheen - even the satins. Don't use a really shiny synthetic, because it won't look right; and besides, they're hard to sew with! A good source of silk with silver- or gold-thread patterns woven in is Indian sari silk. A sari is about 45 inches wide and five to six yards long, so one sari will make an entire Regency gown.



From a gown in the V&A Museum.
A CREAM SILK GOWN from the 1790s, worn with an open robe made from a silk shawl and bordered in olive silk. The colors and the print on the robe are all extremely typical of early Regency silks.

Notice how thin and yet crisp these silks are; it's important because they give shape to simple gowns with few underpinnings. They keep bodices from drooping and skirts from clinging to the legs. They also don't add bulk to the body. Beware of limp crepes, droopy satins, nylon fabrics, etc.; if you must have a cheap alternative to silk, try a plain-weave acetate, which is made from reconstituted wood fibers (a natural material) and so looks less plasticky than polyester or nylon - plus it "breathes".



c. 1820 gown from Old Sturbridge Village.
LUTESTRING or LUSTRING was one of the most popular silks for gowns, whether a fine day gown or moderate dressy gown. Again, its hallmarks were slimness and crispness, qualities that show well despite the lack of color in this photo. This type of silk gives the gown a light, flowing quality and yet the silk has enough body to stand off from the wearer and have good shape in the sleeves and collar.

Taffeta is slightly stiffer, but also a good choice and easier to find today. Most dealers want at least $20 per yard for it, but Originals by Kay (see my links to sellers) has a number of really lovely taffetas, including lustring, for $16 per yard (54" at that!). Keep in mind that she focuses on Civil War sewing and most of her striped and figured fabrics are inappropriate for Regency.



Detail of a gown made by Jessamyn.
SATIN was the FINEST SILK that one could fashionably choose for a Regency gown. White satin in particular was admired for weddings and state occasions, although white was not yet a requirement for wedding gowns. Colored silks gained ground as the Regency progressed.

Be aware that these were not the droopy, soft satins of the 1940s, but much firmer ones similar to today's duchesse satin. At left is a detail of a circa-1825 ballgown I made of pearly pink duchesse satin. It is not cheap at $35 per yard, but with only three or four yards needed for most Regency gowns, it is still a reasonable choice for a formal gown.



Detail of a waistcoat in the Museum of Costume.
WAISTCOATS, while less highly decorated than they had been during the eighteenth century, remained the one garment with which men could enjoy color and pattern. The simplest were of cream-colored silk (sometimes cotton) with subtle, elegant embroideries; many were of simple geometrics or stripes, usually woven in. Most were of the same thin, crisp silks favored for women's dress, as is this example.

That this waistcoat is early Regency is obvious from it lack of collar. One thing to note is that unlike this example, almost all waistcoats of this period had fabric-covered buttons, usually covered with the waistcoat silk; occasionally, if the waistcoat had contrasting trim or braid, with that. These buttons are metal.

The backs of vests were usually of plain linen (a gentleman never took off his coat, so it didn't matter what the back was made of).



Detail of a waistcoat in the National
Trust's Snowshill collection.

COPPERPLATE PRINTING was sometimes used on silk in the Regency, as seen on this waistcoat, in which the pattern has been printed a disposition, or to the shape of the garment.

There is a transfer pen available in fabric stores that might be used to create this effect. You draw on paper with the pen, then set the drawing over your fabric and press it with a hot iron, and voila! The design transfers to your fabric. I've used this technique for transferring letters onto ribbon, but I've never tried an all-over design like this. Another technique to try would be the new papers that can be run through an inkjet printer and then ironed on to fabric.



Early 1820s evening dress from the National Trust.
PATTERNED FABRICS were LARGELY ABANDONED for formal wear in the nineteenth century; plain fabrics with decorative elements such as embroidery took their place. In the second and third decades, self-fabric appliques and padded bands of fabric known as rouleaux were used to add interest. Although clothes were no longer meant to conform to the shape of the body, light silks remained in favor because these complicated puffs and narrow rouleaux would be impossible with a heavier fabric.



Gown owned by Old Sturbridge Village.
BROCADES and JACQUARDS might have gone out of fashion with the end of the eighteenth century, but that didn't keep American women, at least, from preserving and cherishing them for "best." Although it's black-and-white, the gown at left is worth showing because it illustrates this trend. Worn and remade through three generations for "best," this blue-green jacquard is a well-documented piece of Massachusetts history. In the end it was relegated to a nursing gown, probably because the high waist couldn't be reworked; overall it is more or less in the style of the late 1820s, when waists were dropping.

Note: This photo was taken on a live model in the 1960s, and I believe it's being worn backward. The skirt seems longer in front than on the sides (which would make sense if it was instead meant to be a slight train effect) and the volume of fabric at the center waist would also make more sense for center back. Most telling of all, if it was indeed made into a nursing gown, it would have opened in front, not in back. Nonetheless, it is an excellent example of how a period-correct fabric choice might be different from what you'd expect by reading fashion journals of a certain year!


Velvets.

Mlle. de Senonnes, Ingres, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes..
DAZZLED by FILMY WHITE MUSLIN GOWNS and superfine cloth coats, many costume-makers seem to forget all about velvets. In fact Regency gowns and coats, which emphasize elegant line over fussy decoration, are brilliantly well suited to velvet, and many elegant examples from the period exist. This lovely gown is in a color quite popular for velvet evening wear: a rich red.

Velvet used to be made with a silk pile (the fuzzy part) on a silk backing, or with silk pile on a cheaper backing, such as linen or a blend. There were also velvets made from cotton and even from wool.

When purchasing modern velvets, avoid anything polyester, especially if it stretches or has crushed pile. Nowadays, what is called "silk velvet" is often really rayon pile on a silk backing, which means that you only see the rayon part, not the silk. Still, rayon is at least a fiber-based material, not petroleum-based like polyester. And real silk velvet is unfortunately quite mind-bogglingly expensive.

Cotton velvet or velveteen (the first has a slightly silkier pile, but often the terms are used interchangeably) can be a good budget-minded choice. It's usually found on drapery-type rolls on the wall at the back of the "formal" section in fabric stores, and it's often around $10 a yard. Not bad for a material that offers such excellent drape and sheen, and lovely rich colors. Also, cotton velvet "grabs" better than other velvets and isn't as squirmy to sew. Best of all, if you wash it before you cut it, you can launder the finished garment! (Test a swatch first. Tumble dry low, remove promptly.)



Dress from the collection of the Greensboro Historical Museum.
I APOLOGIZE for the dreadful quality of this scan, but I wanted to show this magnificent silk velvet dress - which belonged to arguably the most elegant and beloved First Lady of the U.S., Dolley Madison. She was avidly admired for her fine style during her years at the forefront of politics, and was particularly noted for her stately appearance. She favored trains (even after they fell out of fashion), turbans, and stoles.

This gown really demonstrates how elegant velvet can be. This example is so lovely that even in a poor black-and-white scan it is admirable - but imagine it in "Pompeian" red. Dolley was fond of velvet gowns, apparently; Mrs. John A. Logan wrote in Thirty Years in Washington, "At the Inauguration ball, when Jefferson, the outgoing President, came to receive Madison, his successor, Mrs. Madison wore a rich robe of buff velvet, and a Paris turban with a bird of paradise plume with pearls on her neck and arms."

What is particularly striking about this gown is that the velvet and a good cut give it all its style; there are no decorative details at all. On the whole, modern reproductions tend to be undertrimmed, but here is a period example to copy with a very modern simplicity.



Col. Fitzwilliam from A&E's P&P.
A frequent accent in men's dress was velvet coat collars and sometimes cuffs, as shown here. These appeared with increasing frequency as the Regency wore on, until perhaps more coats than not sported velvet collars in the 1820s.



Still to come: wools and leathers.


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