Wednesday, July 08, 2015


From Elizabeth Chadwick:
I was asked to write the introduction to the above rather marvellous reference book and was truly delighted to do so.  As I say in the introduction, if I'd had this around during my long apprenticeship in finding out what I needed to know to write my novels, my path would have been considerably less burdened!  It really is worth having on your bookshelf.
I  asked the two authors involved - Gillian Polack a friend of many years, and Katrin Kania, a new friend, if they would write a couple of guest posts for my blog.  I lef the subject matter up to them and I'm delighted to put Katia's up first. Some words to the wise with reference to medieval textiles and clothing.
  Gillian's post will follow next week.
It’s said that clothes make the man – so logically, historical clothes would make the historical man. When we’re trying to reconstruct historical clothing, however, it’s not as easy as going to the shop, getting a pattern, and sitting down to do some cutting and sewing…

The problems already start with the pattern. Our modern clothing industry is geared towards mass production of cheap items, conforming to current fads and to current ideals of fit. A few years ago, for instance, low-waisted trousers became fashionable, and I’ve had even more trouble finding proper trousers for myself since. They are also cut to fit the average body, and while averages and sizing patterns will change from country to country, or at least from subcontinent to subcontinent, if you are not very average in your body shape – you might be out of luck to find something that fits and flatters.

Take this whole mass production aspect away, and you are left with a much more personalised industry: individual tailors who make things for individual customers, ensuring that the garment they make actually does fit. (Of course, if you cannot afford new clothes, you might have to wear ill-fitting hand-me-downs, but that is another story.) This results in a clothing industry that may show individual tailor’s hands, even if the general fashion trends change in a similar way in large areas. Fashion plates or other means of spreading the news of what’s hot and what’s not, such as a travelling VIP of any kind, dressed nicely, make sure of that.

Variability was thus much, much higher than we are used to today. You can buy the exact same jeans of a certain brand, with the exact same name, number, sizing and fit in London, in Berlin, in New York and even in the small semi-rural little town where I grew up. We are used to this conformity just like medieval or early modern people would have been used to getting their cloth to a tailor and getting things made from it, and the almost-lack of identical items that goes with this.

Since there’s no mass-produced historical clothing items these days, why am I going on and on about this? Living History people and costumers work on a similar basis today when making historical dress, that’s true – but our whole basic set of assumptions and expectations is formed by our modern industrial experience of buying clothing, so it is something to keep in mind.

However, I can name you a few more other, and more important problems. The first of them, and often the foremost? Materials. There has been a huge development in both the fibre materials available (man-made fibres are almost everywhere these days) and spinning and weaving machines, resulting in fabrics that are very, very different to these used in the Middle Ages and still considerably different from fabrics available until, let’s say, those produced in the 20th century and later, when new, different and faster constructions of looms, such as shuttle-less looms, come to the fore – with changed fabric characteristics. Spinning machines make a different thread from hand-spinners, especially historical hand-spinners, too. Fibre preparation has also changed over time, with newer methods more suitable to industrial production taking over from older methods.
Gripper Loom built 1980 - Katrin Kania
So even if you find fabric in the correct colours and the correct weave, even if it should be wool and the label says “wool”, it will most probably still be a different fabric. (Have you made a pained sound right now? I’m sorry. Also, welcome to my world.) This is especially a problem if you are trying to do reconstructions for instances where visitors are able to touch the garments – getting it really right can often prove to be impossible given budget and time restrictions, and getting it only half-right will perpetuate wrong assumptions about historical fabrics.

Colours can be a problem, too – in both directions, too little and too much. There are instances when visitors might not believe that a bright pink was actually dyed with natural dyestuff, using a late medieval recipe; those are the people that were indoctrinated with the “everything in the Middle Ages was drab and brown” belief. On the other hand, those who happily accepted the love of colour that the Middle Ages had are sometimes tempted to use fabric dyed with modern chemical dyes, which can come close to the huge range of shades possible with plant and insect dyes – but sometimes really doesn’t.

And finally, the further we go back in history, the less information we do have. What did a well-off peasant wear in 1250? What did a poor one wear? How affordable and how available were used clothes for those that could not or would not afford new ones? Good quality clothing, well-fitted to the wearer, was an important means to show one’s wealth and status, so there would have been a temptation to overspend for some people – but how widespread was that temptation? We do know that showing one’s status was important in the medieval society, but how important was status and showing it off to that individual person? There would have been differences from person to person.

There would also have been local differences in clothing, local fads and trends, local preferences. We can still see this today when we travel: even in our globalised, unified society, there are different trends in how to dress in London and Paris and Copenhagen and Munich at the same point in time. There’s also the influence of key people in individual circles, who might start a mini-fad for a certain type of shoes or a certain type of bag, restricted to a clique or similar group. (I still remember being made fun of in school because my trousers were shorter than fashionable… and then entering that first lecture in Archaeology, just to find out that everybody there cared about trouser length just as much as I did. Which is to say: not at all.)

Many of these things are problems not easily solved, if they can be solved at all. With enough money and enough time, it is of course possible to exactly reproduce an existing piece of fabric, and there are specialists offering exactly this service. (Usually they are employed by museums for reconstruction or conservation purposes, where an exact reproduction matters.) When it comes to source material, however, we cannot just go back in time and make sure enough information will survive the years until our present, though that would be a wonderful thing. We’re stuck with what we have: a few real garments, many more scraps of fabric too small to guess what they originally were, pictures and images of people wearing clothes, wills and inventories and similar lists, and literary texts with descriptions of clothing.

None of these sources is perfect. For the Middle Ages, there’s way too few surviving clothes to give anything like a good picture; there’s always the question of what underlying symbols and artistic conventions have influenced a painting or drawing of clothes, just like a writer describing someone’s clothes may have taken artistic license in ways we cannot reconstruct. Wills and lists are more reliable in some ways, but are usually not including descriptions that would help us to really define or identify the listed pieces. We can use all of these sources together, though, to try and reconstruct an image of historical garments.

And even though all this may have sounded like I’m trying to rain on every costume enthusiast’s parade - I’m all for taking up that needle and thread and going for that set of clothes. I know, from my own experience, that sometimes you have to go and do things to actually understand how something works, and why. I’ve been sewing garment reconstructions for more than a decade now, and helping other people cut and tailor their garments is part of my day job. I know full well how often and how many compromises have to be made, and that the one hundred percent authenticity is not attainable. But I’m also a firm believer in knowing about your compromises, and knowing about the backgrounds and crafts details, and making those choices of pattern and technique and material with as much information on the original versions as is possible.

After all, if we dress up in reconstructed historical garments, we are teaching people things about historical dress. We’re challenging, or reinforcing, their previous concepts and ideas about it just by standing there and being looked at. Our decisions when making garments matter – we will always have to speculate, and compromise, and guesstimate when making a set of clothes based on sources. Having detailed information about historical materials, however, can help us pick the best compromise possible.

Dr Katrin Kania is a freelance textile archaeologist and teacher as well as a published academic who writes in both German and English. She specialises in reconstructing historical garments and offering tools, materials and instructions for historical textile techniques. Find her website at and her blog at