- by Trish Lambert -
Most of the woven cloths in the dark ages had a weave pattern known as a tabby. This is where the weft thread (the thread that travels from left to right on a loom), is passed over and under a single warp thread (the thread that travels the length of the loom). This is the most basic of all weaves and the most common. A fairly simple variation on this is to pass the weft thread over two and then under one of the warp threads. This pattern is known as a twill.
The majority of fabrics from dark age Anglo-Saxon England which have been scientifically examined were found to be un-dyed. The variety in fleece colours at the time (brown, black, white and grey), would have made it possible to weave checked or striped fabrics without dying the wool. Actual colours found (or scientifically interpreted) from this time include light and dark blue, red, yellow, brown and indigo. Dyes were made from animal and plant sources including shellfish, blue from woad, yellow from weld, red from madder, yellowish-red from alder bark.
Synthetics will not breathe and this is a big problem when fighting, especially in armour. Stay away from fabrics that have a shiny surface finish. They look very modern and often cheap, although it is possible to get rid of some surface finishes with a good wash.
Raw silk can often be found at reasonable prices ($5-$7/metre), and can be a good substitute for wools. It looks like roughly woven cloth, will take and hold dyes well, is light and breathes very well and best of all can be thrown in the washing machine over and over again. (Despite what the manufacturer's instructions say!).
Not recommended are fabrics or braids that you can't wash in a washing machine, especially if you are going to fight in them. Not only will you sweat heaps but metal armour gives tunics all sorts of disgusting colours and smells! Upholstery fabrics are always worth a look. They can be very cheap if it's a roll end and can give an authentic looking "rough weave". Beware for they can be very stiff and scratchy but a wash in detergent with some wool mix or fabric softener can do wonders.
Small point: ALWAYS WASH YOUR FABRIC BEFORE SEWING, DYEING OR EVEN CUTTING ANYTHING OUT. Not only will colours run and the cloth shrink, but the cloth can also shrink at different rates in different directions (I have a pair of pants that fit me everywhere else, but are now 6 inches too short). It's also a good idea to wash your braids before sewing them on. Another point on washing, always treat fabric softeners with respect. These products soften your cloth by causing a partial unravelling of the tightly wound fibres. This can be great for softening harsh fabrics with an initial wash BUT if you continue using a softener the fibres will continue to unravel causing weakness and probably a premature demise of your costume.
It is best to stay away from materials with applied patterns, (i.e. dyed or batik) - stick to those with a plain weave or very basic woven patterns.
If you are buying or imitating wools or linens don't go for bright modern colours. Bright dyes only came along in the 19th century as did many of the mordants that make the fabrics colour fast and less likely to fade. Any dying done on wool and linens using natural dyes would have faded fairly rapidly, especially the clothing worn by fighting men and women (as opposed to that worn by Kings and Queens).
Earthy or rustic colours are always a good bet. These are the colours that vegetable dyes tend to produce. Stay away from stark whites and avoid strong black.
If you are buying or imitating silks then you have a much larger choice of colours. One of the delights of silk is its natural affinity for dyes. It just sucks up colour and it retains these brilliant hues wash after wash, often without the use of a mordant to fix the colour.