[Disclaimer: I’m posting this on travel, and I’ve put in over 10 hours today. My brain is mush. Please forgive and/or ignore any typos, poor grammar, or nxblcs. What? Oh, sorry, dozed off there a second. Anyway, be kind! Thanks! Regina—who will get home tomorrow after another 9 + hour day.]
Marissa’s post on money last week got me thinking. One of the other areas where it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the terminology used in the nineteenth century is textiles, particularly in women’s clothing. The fabrics we’re used to today don’t exactly match up, for a variety of reasons.
One is that the nineteenth century saw the birth of the industrial revolution, which meant that cloth could be woven and knit by machines rather than people. Up until then, fabric was woven, dyed, and even the thread was spun by hand, giving each bolt of fabric a unique look and feel. If you’d like a fascinating, in-depth look at this process, try Elizabeth C. Bunce’s paranormal historical YA, A Curse Dark as Gold.
In the nineteenth century, clothing care was also vastly different from today. Those with money could hire a laundress, but she generally washed underthings and night clothes. Clothes worn during the day were kept as clean as possible with aprons, tear-away trim, and overskirts because getting them clean was difficult and time-consuming.
All that said, here’s a few of fabric names you see most often in historical novels:
Bombazine. The governess, aging spinster auntie, poor relation, or grieving widow is often dressed in this fabric, probably because it’s usually black. The warp (the longitudinal threads in fabric) is silk; the weft (the other threads) is wool. The combination tends to make an all-season material with very little shine. Our washable wool today might be a good approximation.
Lustring or Lutestring. A very fine, glossy silk with a bit of stiffness. Think our taffeta.
Sarcenet, Sarsenet or Sarsnet. A thin silk, often for linings and underdresses (or for those who like draping gowns that, ahem, show more than they hide). Think nylon slip, only nicer.
Spitalfields silk. Silk made in the east end of London. During the Napoleonic Wars it was considered very patriotic to wear because bringing silk from the Orient was difficult and dangerous. I have a scarf of today’s equivalent of Spitalfields silk. It’s light and floaty, and it takes color well, but it’s a bit stiffer than other silks I’ve purchased.
Want some pretty pictures and a great deal more detail? Try Jessamyn’s Regency Costume Companion. Bless you, Jessamyn!