Our group portrays events involving the English settlers in Plimoth Colony between the years 1620-1645. Clothing in the group is “best effort” and our philosophy is inclusive.
New members may rely on borrowed clothing, when available, for their first events. You can purchase some items from merchants who cater to the reenactment market, commission clothing from others knowledgeable in historic tailoring, or make your own. For our portrayals, we are looking at average people here in the colonies, not at high status lords and ladies in England. These guidelines are intended to help you select styles and fabrics that will help you with that. If you have any questions, check with us before making a major investment.
Garments may be constructed using a sewing machine. They will have a more authentic appearance if care is taken not to have machine sewing visible. Visible stitching, including buttonholes, eyelets, topstitching, etc., can be done easily by hand. Hand sewing is not inherently difficult. Even as a novice, if you work slowly and carefully, you can achieve a nice result. (See The Modern Maker, in sources for an excellent description of period sewing techniques.)
Most undergarments (shirts and smocks) and neck and wrist accessories (ruff, collars, etc.) were made of linen, as finely woven and bleached as white as the person could afford. A lot of linen today is coarser and more loosely woven than in the time period. Look for hanky weight linen for your collars and cuffs. Shirts and smocks can be of a heavier weight shirt linen, about 5 oz or so. Linings of garments may be of coarse linen in natural colors (greyish or light brownish).
The term “canvas” applied to hemp, which is a similar plant fiber to linen. It was very commonly used for doublets. Very heavy linen or hemp could be used for sacks, sails, or other heavyweight materials.
Wool was the most common fabric for clothes and furnishings, but there is a tremendous difference in types of wool. A discourse on the names and characteristics of wool fabrics of the time is beyond our scope. We will focus on buying fabrics currently available that most resemble historic ones.
Worsted wool was the type most commonly seen in kirtles and petticoats – worsted means that the raw wool has a long thread that has been combed and spun tightly, making a fairly light-weight but firmly woven fabric. You can buy worsted wool today (it is commonly used in men’s suits), but should avoid anything too “shiny” looking.
“Broadcloth” or just “cloth” was a woolen fabric that had been given a great deal of finishing work that brushed the woolen weave to make a nap that was trimmed to an even consistency. You can buy a historic type of 18th century broadcloth from companies making products for re-enactors, like Burnley & Trowbridge (see suppliers list). It is dense material. An in-between option is wool flannel. This is typically twill woven and has a little bit of soft nap to it. This can be a good choice for woolen garments.
The cheapest type of wool and one associated with farmers and country people was “russet.” Today we use that name to mean a rusty orange color, but in this time period it meant an undyed, natural-colored wool, in plain weave, with a somewhat thick and coarse woolen thread. Even better quality people might have a bit of russet in their wardrobe for practical use. Wool dyes well. Although natural “sheep’s color” was common at the lower end of the scale, evidence from wills and probate inventories and similar documents give a pretty good idea of favored colors.
In general, avoid coating wool. It has a lot of filler and is generally too thick for most projects.
Silk was the fabric that was most coveted by elite people. Ordinary people might have had a bit of silk ribbon or silk edging on their garments, but were unlikely to have had garments made of silk. Rayon is a modern imitation of silk.
The most common fabric today is probably cotton, which is spun from fiber of the plant Gossypium, and which we will refer to here as “vegetable cotton.” In the 1620s in England, “cotton” referred to loose, fuzzy wool, typically used for stuffing. Vegetable cotton textiles were made abundantly in India and the Middle East, but rarely came to Europe. The Italians got vegetable cotton from Middle Eastern trade and made a blended fabric of linen warp and vegetable cotton weft, one of the textiles that goes under the name “fustian.” They also made a napped fabric the resembles vegetable cotton velveteen. You will see terms like “fustian of Naples” to refer to such fabrics. (Fustian is an acceptable fabric for this period, but is exceptionally hard to find in modern times.) Printed vegetable cottons from India kicked off the industrial revolution in the 18th century as Europeans copied them and grew Gossypium in their colonies, but that is far in the future for the Pilgrims. Try to avoid using modern cotton, if you can.
A popular modern fabric for some Renaissance Faire costumes is what people often call “brocade” or “tapestry” although neither term is technically correct. These are patterned and multi-colored fabrics typically made for drapes and upholstery, usually of synthetic fibers and often quite heavy and textured. Patterned and multi-colored fabrics did exist in the time period, but they were made of silk and much lighter and finer than these modern fabrics. They were primarily made in Italy, Spain, and the Middle East, of finely spun silk, of damask or lampas weave, and were the most luxurious fabrics possible. The cost would be far beyond the means of a typical Pilgrim.
Because of their comfort and safety around open flames and firearms, any fibers you use should be 100% natural fibers without any petroleum based synthetic. Beware of wool blends that contain polyester.