"What fabric should I use?" is a common question asked by people who haven't had much experience with historical costuming. While it would be wonderful if there existed somewhere a 16th century shop selling completely authentic fabrics, unfortunately most of us have to content ourselves with the local fabric store.
When recreating a gown or making something to wear to a renaissance faire, your choice of fabric can make your gown fabulous--or a flop. You can wear all of the correct underpinnings, use a wonderfully period pattern, and sew it so that it fits like a dream, but if you're using the wrong type of fabric or a blatantly non-period patterned brocade, it can greatly diminish your gown's "Wow" factor.
If you're a novice sewer or making a pattern you've never tried before, try making the pattern up in a cheaper fabric first, such as the $1.88/yd. patterned cotton found on the fabric store bargain racks. Commercially made patterns never quite fit, and some patterns' directions can be confusing. There's nothing worse than realizing you just wasted 8 yards of velvet on a gown that doesn't fit anything like it should. Whenever I set out to make a dress from a pattern, either my own pattern or someone else's, I always make at least the bodice out of a fabric like twill, poplin or cheap muslin, try it on, note what needs changing, alter the pattern accordingly, and then cut out the velvet or brocade (with much greater peace of mind, I might add). It does add time onto a project, but the perfectly-fitted end result is worth the effort.
How closely you follow the recommendations below depends on how authentic you want your dress to be. For attending renaissance fairs and SCA camping events, standards are much laxer than those for, say, paid re-enactors or someone entering a garment in a competiton.
Here are some fabrics suitable for the costume of the period:
If you want to make a certifiably authentic outfit for a peasant, laborer, merchant, or even lesser nobility, wool is the best choice. You can use real couture wool, which is quite expensive, or use a "wool lookalike" fabric, usually a wool/acrylic blend. One word of warning--if you use cheaper wool/acrylic fabric and wear the clothing often, small balls of fibre will appear on the surface of the wool, rather like those which appear on sweaters.
Solid color wools are the safest bet for an authentic garment. Some striped or multicolored wool fabrics are permissible as well, if they're woven into the fabric rather than printed on. I haven't seen much documentation for plaid wool weaves, outside of the usual Scottish Highland dress. Modern woven patterns, such as houndstooth, are right out.
For lower-class characters, choose a wool with a rougher, more obvious weave. Heavy coat or cloak wool is usually too heavy for inner clothing, but can be used for a cape, heavy jerkin or a loose coat or gown.
Linen can be hard to find in local fabric stores-at least, here in the Midwest. Friends in Canada and the Western states have mentioned that it is easily obtainable and cheap in their local fabric stores. Many people who can't find or afford linen substitute cotton, which is fine, if you can find the right sort of cotton fabric (see the section below) and you're not a stickler for authenticity.
You can usually find "Linen look" fabrics at the local store from anywhere between 6 and 10 dollars. It is a relatively heavy fabric with an obvious weave to it, made of linen and cotton. This is a good fabric for a peasant smock, a lower to middle class petticoat, or a servant's kirtle. Sometimes you can also find handkerchief-weight "linen-look" fabric made of cotton and linen, or polyester and linen. this is wonderful for very authentic looking chemises and smocks, although it can't compare to the real, 100% linen fabric.
Linen has a different feel to it then cotton or polyester blends, as well as a certain shine and its own particular drape. It is very crisp and clean when new, starches wonderfully, and after repeated washings becomes very soft to the touch. Linen breathes well and wicks sweat and moisture away from the body, another reason why it's a good choice for hot weather clothing.
Many mailorder places carry handkerchief-weight fine linen, though it runs at $8 to $10 a yard. If you can't afford it or find it, however, you can use:
Firstly: Avoid polished cotton and printed cotton fabric. They are both very obviously modern fabrics, although many people use them because they look pretty and are widely available. There are many beautiful printed cottons with period-looking patterns on them, but unfortunately such printing techniques were not used during the 16th century. (they did do fabric stamping and painting, although that's a different story). The pattern on the fabric may wonderfully simulate a brocade or jacquard weave, but in the end printed cotton resembles only one thing--printed cotton.
Many people also use cotton crinkle gauze for chemises. This is a widely available and cheap fabric, cool to wear on hot days. I have used it myself, but if you're going for the authentic look, crinkle gauze is also right out. Uncrinkled cotton gauze, a fine cotton batiste or light cotton broadcloth is a more authentic-looking substitute fabric.
For outerwear, use cottons that are heavy and have some weight and body to them, such as twill or poplin cloth. Although cotton was not used in period for finely woven fabrics like twill, it resembles linen or a linen/wool blend enough to pass casual muster and is often used for middle-class wear.
Small-wale corduroy is another cotton fabric often used for historical costuming. It is not a period 16th century fabric, but has a good body and gives visual depth and richness to a bodice or skirt. From 20 feet away, it looks similar to a fine wool. If you want something middle class, cheap, sturdy, and washable, and are not very concerned with that actual authenticity of the cloth, corduroy is a good choice.
Choose a weave consistent with your character. Poorer folk would have a smock or shirt made of rougher cloth; Nobility would have very finely woven fabric. When using cotton or linen fabric, always pre-wash it before you make your garb. Cotton and linen cloth can shrink up to 1/3 of its length the first time it's washed.
Most period looking blends that I end up buying are cotton/polyester, cotton/rayon, or (for woolly fabrics) cloth involving acrylic in the weave. If you choose carefully, you'll be amazed at what you can find at Wal-Mart for $1.00 a yard. If you're a costumer on a budget, modern look-a-like fabrics resembling wool, silk blends and other period originals are often all you can afford.
The best way to choose a synthetic or modern fabric that appears authentic is to familiarize yourself with the real thing. Does the material feel like linen when you rub it between your fingers? Does it drape like wool fabric? Does it look like taffeta or satin when the light hits it? If you didn't know what this fabric was composed of, would you think it was wool, or silk, or a cotton gauze? Is there anything obviously modern about it, such as a strange drape, or the way it reflects light?
I will often use cheap, sturdy poly-cotton poplins and other heavy fabrics for interlining doublets and bodices to give them more body and substance. Even if they look strange, they won't show when they're hidden between the outer fabric and the inner lining.
If you want to use silk for a gown, stay away from shantung or noil silk, as well as raw silk, all of which have nubby slubs in it. Obvious texture of this sort wasn't popular back then--if you were rich enough to afford a silk gown, you were rich enough to afford one of fine, smoothly woven fabric. Also avoid the thin, sheer silks for outer garments unless you back it with a heavy interlining, such as a substantial cotton twill or similar weight fabric. The silk used for gowns, doublets, and other items of clothing in the 16th century was of a much more substantial nature than the china silk which is often all one can find in a fabric store. If you wish to make a noblewoman's smock or chemise, however, thin china silk is fine.
If you really want to make an authentic garment using period silk fabrics such as silk broadcloth, or silk-wool and silk-linen blends, you'll probably have to turn to the mailorder houses. Thai Silks sells over 400 kinds of silk, including a number of silk/wool and silk/linen blends that are very hard to find. These two combinations, hard to find today, were very commen during Elizabeth's era. Using such a fabric adds a real touch of authenticity to your costume. If you have the money or the desire, you can even shell out $20 to $30 a yard for taffeta, satin and velvet made of real silk, also available through Thai Silks and other mailorder places.
For those of us with a budget, however, here are some equivalent fabrics available at your local fabric store:
If you want to really go all out on your costume, you can use the $15 to $19-a-yard velvet at the fabric store for a truly stunning gown or doublet and trunkhose. Keep in mind, though, that this rayon velvet is hot, expensive, hard to iron, and a real pain to sew. It also gets shiny spots if you look at it wrong. Unless you have costuming experience and/or have sewn rayon velvet before, I recommend getting someone to help or using a less contrary fabric for your gown, such as satin or a good-quality velveteen.
If you do want velvet for your costume, cotton velvet is, in my opinion, a better choice than the ultra-soft and shiny rayon velvet hanging on the racks. It costs the same, but it breathes much better, is sturdier, easier to iron, doesn't turn shiny, and is also machine-washable. In addition, it more closely approximates the velvet worn in the 16th century. It's can be hard to come by; in a pinch, you can substitute good-quality velveteen. Good velveteen and cotton velvet are often confused. In most cases, either will do; velveteen comes cheaper, at $10 to $12 a yard.
Unfortunately, modern acetate-based taffeta is much weaker than the original silk taffeta it resembles. If you plan to use it for anything more than decorative edging or puffs, it should be backed with a sturdier fabric or it will rip when placed under strain.
Brocade can be a difficult fabric to use if you want to make sure your gown or doublet is authentic, as a period brocade pattern is hard to find in smaller local fabric stores. Most of the brocades in the bridal section of fabric stores contain floral patterns which didn't exist until 200 years after Elizabeth I's death. As a rule of thumb, if a brocade has realistic looking roses woven into it, it's probably not period for the 16th century. Unless you've spent time looking at the clothing of the era, it's hard to know which brocade patterns are period and which aren't.
If you're looking for heavy brocades, you can find them in the upholstery section. You can also find smaller pieces on fabric store remnant tables. Brocade can be expensive, but they also make a doublet or gown looks very rich. They can also be enhanced by beading, embroidery, couched cord, and other decoration.