Time Travel Textiles
About Authenticity
Home | Store | Authenticity | Essays & Tips

In the absence of an identical sample in a museum collection, it is always a matter of judgment whether a fabric is authentic to any time period except the one in which it was actually produced. Matters of weave, fiber, dyes, and methods are likely to give away modern manufacture long before the pattern motifs, colors, and arrangement come into play.

But in recreating history, we must tolerate compromise or have no fun at all.

In saying any of these fabrics is appropriate to an historic time period, a number of compromises must be understood. Although the fiber will be nominally correct -- linen, cotton, wool, silk, or hemp -- the versions of these fibers commercially available today are very different from their earlier equivalents. Efforts are being made to preserve and recreate historic breeds of sheep and cotton, fabric from these projects is rare, expensive, and mostly not designed for re-enactors.

Beyond that, how the fibers are processed into fabric -- prepared, spun, woven, finished -- is also very different today than it was prior to about 1820. To begin with, the vast majority of fabric was both hand-spun and hand-woven until the 19th century. True, it was often spun and woven by professionals concentrated in commercial establishments -- manufactured -- but both the skill and the power were largely provided by human beings. That began to change in the late 18th century, but revamping an industry as old as civilization took a few years.

In addition, spinning and weaving technique and technology have been through many changes and regional variations in the centuries leading up to the Industrial Revolution. For example, a whole genre of early period fabrics depended for pattern on the difference between S-spun and Z-spun threads. These days it is not so easy to specify the twist even on handweaving yarns. Eventually I may add some fabrics woven from hand-spun yarns using this technique, but that will take time.

Even a relatively straightforward fabric like plain-weave linen can involve serious anachronism. Most inexpensive modern linens are made of flax fibers cut small so they can be processed using equipment designed for cotton. They are softer and more flexible when new, but lack the sheen, strength, and durability of long-staple line flax linens.

So, what do I mean when I say a fabric is "appropriate" to one time period or another? I start with the fiber composition (cotton, wool, linen, etc.) and the weave, weight, and hand of the fabric. I prefer to find handwoven or hand-printed fabrics colored with vegetable dyes, but at present I'm not purchasing them in enough volume to demand that from every fabric I get.

In the plain-weave, block-printed cottons currently featured in the store, it's hard to tell the handwoven pieces from the factory-woven ones. You can often tell the hand-blocked prints from screen or machine prints, but some of the latter are very good copies. Where I'm sure a piece was hand-woven or hand-printed, I've tried to note that in the product listing. I hope to be able to have more information about the fabrics in future shipments.

But since printed cottons of this general type have been produced at least since the 13th century, the main distinction I'm making when I say one print is appropriate to 18th century Anglo-American apparel and another may not be is based on the visual impression given by the pattern and colors.

Even there, however, it's not an easy call. The basic printing techniques involving madder and indigo have been used from the 13th century to the present day, and many of the patterns and motifs have remained surprisingly constant.

The University of Michigan's Kelsey Museum of Archaeology had this to say about the difficulty of dating artifacts based merely by color and pattern in its online exhibit of 13th- to 17th-century Indian cotton trade textiles found in Egyptian sites, From Riches to Rags: Indian Block-Printed Textiles Traded to Egypt:

"However, there also is conclusive evidence that many designs were acceptable in widely different context and societies, and were in use over centuries in virtually unchanged form. Some of the patterns of the 13th-century finds from Quseir al-Qadim have exact parallels in certain large textiles that have come to light in Sulawesi (eastern Indonesia), geographically at the opposite end of the trade network. The cloths from Sulawesi clearly have the same Indian origin as the Egyptian fragments. They are sometimes stamped with a VOC (Dutch East India Company) mark that date them to the 17th or early 18th Century. The continuous use of designs highlights the difficulty of establishing a chronology for the textiles, but it also emphasizes the range of the textile trade over time and space."

Where I have found an image in a textile reference book or museum collection that supports the presence of color or pattern elements in a specific time, I will try to add the reference to the product listing. Where I could find a supporting image I’ve tried to provide a link. But what “looks alike” to me may not “look alike” to you. To be sure of meeting your own requirements for documentation and authenticity, nothing beats your own research.

Finally, archaeological research on textiles is a relatively new field, and the work is ongoing. What seems supported today may turn out to be delusional tomorrow. In specific, carbon-dating of textile finds is changing our estimates of when certain fabric types were made and used; chemical analysis is changing our knowledge about the use of dyestuffs, and thus, the colors of historic pieces. My own opinion is that many of the 18th-century cottons now described as printed in "shades of brown" will eventually be regarded as having been printed with two mordants and dyed with madder, and thus, originally red and black.

-- Lauren