We have diverse sources on medieval clothing that show a variety of materials was used: animal fibres (wool, silk, animal hair such as goat) as well as vegetable fibres (linen/flax, nettle, hemp, and in some circumstances cotton).
Some of the fibres, such as silk and wool, are still readily available today - however, they can differ significantly from the medieval variations of wool and silk. Other kinds of fibre, for instance goat hair, nettle or hemp only have limited availability, and sometimes can be impossible to get.
Being able to source a specific fibre, however, does not yet mean that suitable fabrics for a reconstruction are available. Historical fabrics were made from yarns with a much higher twist than usual today. The result? A very different kind of fabric. Modern woven cloth usually has much less structure in the surface, a much softer hand and is less resilient and hard-wearing. In addition, historical fabrics develop a shiny surface as they wear down, while modern cloth usually stays matte.
Thus, if your reconstruction is supposed to include the correct hand or wearing experience, it is necessary to use high-twist yarns for the cloth. Due to technical reasons, weaving those yarns into fabric has to be done by a hand-weaver.Should limits in time and budget prevent the use of accurate cloth, industrially woven fabrics have to be used. Be aware, though, that it is not always possible to find something that is close to the original fabrics at least regarding weave type, weave density, thread count and thread thickness.
For historically correct reconstrutions, both undyed textiles as well as textiles dyed with natural dyes can be used. Undyed wool can have a spectrum of colours ranging from white through grey and reddish shades to dark brown that is almost black.
There is a huge wealth of possibilities for dyeing with natural colours. Bright, clear colours were considered better and more valuable than muted and less saturated dyeings. Typical high-quality dyeing materials also result in a colour that is very light-fast and wash-fast. The three best-known of these are indigo or woad (Isatis tinctoria)for dyeing blue, weld (Reseda luteola) for yellow and madder (Rubia tinctoria) for red. Shades like brilliant green require two dyeing processes. Spectacular red colour shades can be achieved by using insect dyes such as cochineal or kermes, both of them expensive dyestuffs compared to madder, today just like in the Middle Ages.
For lower-status colours, many options exist as well. Fabrics can be dyed with birch leaf, walnut husks and many other plants, with a predominance of yellow, green and brown colour ranges. Not all combinations of mordant and dyestuff, however, will result in a lightfast dye.
The process of dyeing requires two steps for most colours, a mordanting process and the dye bath proper. These are labour-intensive processes that require a skilled crafter, especially when dyeing woven fabric. In contrast, costs for most dyestuffs are moderate to low for most dyes. An even outcome of the dyeing, with no spots or discoloured areas, are the desired result for dyeing, though there can be no guarantee given by the dyer. If cloth is hand-woven for a reconstruction, the yarns can be dyed before weaving, which reduces the probability of having visible colour differences in the fabric.
In contrast to modern tailoring procedures, which typically use patterns with grading for different sizes, medieval garments were individually tailored, and the patterns we are familiar with did not exist at all.
My garment reconstructions are based on extant medieval clothing, contemporary images and written sources. Through years of research I have reconstructed a method for cutting and fitting garments; the clothes made in this method show characteristic traits that can also be found in the original garments and on images. This method requires fitting on the body of the person that is to be clothed, resulting in much better fit than just using measurements.Especially garments worn by high-status people is described in medieval sources as fitting well and fitting close to the body. While loose garments such as simple tunics are suitable for workers and peasants, any presentation of rich and high-status people should include appropriate, close-fitting garments from quality fabrics.
For the presentation of clothing on dolls or figurines, their limited flexibility can lead to problems when dressing them - the human body is surprisingly soft and malleable compared to a figure made from hard material that has only limited range of motion in the joints (if there are joints at all). When clothing figurines, it is thus even more important to fit directly on the figure to achieve good results.
Shoes and Accessories
Any set of clothing is only made complete through accessories such as shoes, belts, pouches and possibly headcoverings, jewellery or personal items like knives. I work together with several partners from other crafts who have a deep understanding of their field and use the correct materials and techniques for their parts of a reconstruction.
Timeframe and Budget
The basic rule when reconstructing historical garments: the higher your requirements regarding both the status of the desired reconstruction and the accuracy of the reconstruction, the longer production will take and the higher your costs will be. According to my experience, the timeframe necessary for planning, sourcing materials and making the reconstructions is often vastly underestimated, which leads to problems including compromises that could have been avoided with a little more time.
Reconstruction process starts with a briefing and a discussion to define the aim of the reconstruction. The next step is working out a concept for the reconstruction based on source material and its interpretation.
Once the concept for the reconstruction is finished and approved, the different materials required have to be sourced. In many cases, this will include a certain extent of craftswork. Materials required for the reconstruction can have a delivery time of several weeks up to several months. Craft processes will take time as well, usually a considerable while longer than modern production techniques would require. Depending on the previous workload of the crafter, which can fill his or her schedule for months in advance, start of production may also be delayed by several weeks.
Especially if you are looking into getting a specific piece, such as an archaeological find, reproduced, you may thus have to face a really long delivery time.For the order of a clothing reconstruction of middling difficulty (no fabrics woven on order, no long delivery times for materials, crafters can start right away), experience shows that at least four months production time are a reasonable timeframe. The time necessary just for cutting, fitting and handsewing a single undergarment of medium quality will be about 20-25 hours. Upper garments, especially elaborate ones sporting details such as buttons or lacings, will require considerably more time.
For projects including hand-woven fabrics made to order, sourcing materials and weaving process should be budgeted with at least three more months of time. For every textile reconstruction, you will have a much better result if you get in touch with your crafters as early as possible - more time for these processes is never a bad thing.
For projects on short notice or time-critical projects, it is possible to use coloured textiles from modern productions that are as close as possible to historical fabrics in both weave and colour (though it might not be very close in some cases). For pieces destined to hang behind glass, production times can be cut by omitting the neatening of inside cut edges and simplifying garment hems.