Intro to Renaissance Costuming


What’s This?

These are my speaking notes for a class I’ll be teaching at Avacal Winter Crown 2017. This is a class about how to start moving away from having a pretty costume and towards having an authentic medieval or renaissance wardrobe.  If you are happy where you are at, don’t worry about all of the DOs and DON’Ts I’ve set out below; all the SCA requires of you is an attempt at pre-1600 clothing.  If you are hoping to steer your game in a more authentic direction, then I hope the DOs and DON’Ts will help you out, but remember everything in here is a guideline and not a rule!  The only rule I think everyone in the SCA should follow is to BE EXCELLENT TO EACH OTHER; AND PARTY ON, DUDES!


  • Western Europe, approx 1400-1600
  • I assume you can find your way around a sewing machine, a fabric store and a commercial pattern
  • patterns can be even further customized by fitting them to the individual and by flat pattern manipulation – these techniques are beyond the scope of this intro course


What Do We Need Garb For?

Event conditions in Avacal and elsewhere:

  • hot
  • cold
  • rainy
  • muddy
  • windy
  • snowy

Other Considerations:

  • get dressed by yourself?
  • how long does it take to get dressed?
  • chasing after kids?
  • cooking?
  • setting up or taking down tents?
  • going up or down stairs?

Pretty costume vs real clothes

  • medieval people wore functional clothing, not pretty costumes – but different outfits for different tasks just like us
    • working in the field
    • formal public occasions/court
    • social class
  • consider “what kind of garments would a medieval person have worn for this task” and “what kind of fabric would a medieval person have chosen for this garment”

Outfit planning

  • What do you need to be able to do in your garb?
  • start from the underwear and work your way out
  • otherwise you might find that your outside layer is too small

Important note!

  •  it is OK to use a sewing machine.  You do NOT have to sew everything by hand.  Sew your long seams by machine and save your hand work for more important stuff like nice fastenings and seam finishings.

Shopping for Fabric

How is fabric made?

  • harvest and prepare fibers
  • spin
  • weave
  • dye
  • finish
  • each a time consuming process – either done by women of household or by trade guilds in larger centres
  • fabric proportionately MUCH more expensive and time consuming to produce than it is today

Medieval fabric

  • Wool
    • choose lightweight wool suiting or the heavier Woolrich wool
    • polyester wool blends also OK but aim for at least 50% wool
  • Linen
    • many colors available at
    • “linen look” sometimes OK
    • aim for 60% linen or more; anything less won’t behave like linen when you work with or wear it
  • Fustian
    • (linen warp x cotton weft)
    • more common than 100% cotton
    • often available in drapery & upholstery section
    • Good to use for interlining
  • Silk – including brocade and velvet
    • more commonly available and in larger pieces toward later end of period
    • slubby/dupioni silk not so great – would appear “poor quality” to a medieval eye because of the uneven texture
    • silk broadcloth (can buy in a large variety of colors at Three Star Fabrics), satin or taffeta better choices – also OK to choose polyester satin or taffeta
    • shot/changeable is OK
  • Velvet
    • generally made of silk – expensive and hard to find today
    • cotton upholstery velvet is best commonly-available modern equivalent in terms of pile length, pile density and sheen
    • look for softer thinner type, not thick stiff type
    • many more kinds/patterns were then available than are generally common today
    • velvet pattern on satin or other voided ground is nice
    • flocked taffeta an OK substitute, sometimes available in upholstery/drapery section
  • Brocade
    • generally made of silk
    • shiny/satiny polyester brocade is ok substitute for silk brocade
  • Satin
    • generally made of silk
    • peau de soie or matte satin are best modern alternatives
    • don’t use high sheen cheap polyester satin or satin-backed crepe
  • Cotton – sometimes
    • rarer and more expensive
    • cotton much shorter staple than linen, Western Europeans lacked the technology and know-how to spin cotton long enough and strong enough to warp with
  • hemp
    • less nice for clothing, maybe harder to find today

Why use natural fibers?

  • #1 reason is because they breathe better, wick away sweat better and help you regulate your body temperature better
  • also safer around campfires
  • artificial fibers do not behave the same way as natural fibers – might not hang right or fit right

Ok to use modern synthetics

  • budget reasons
  • particular weave or pattern only available in polyester (often the case for fancier brocades)
  • BUT we are in this class to learn how to look less costumey, so let’s try to use natural fibers whenever we can

What about modern natural fibers?

  • modern techniques have produced a variety of other natural fibers, like bamboo/rayon (I even have a textile in my stash made of pineapple fiber!)
  • some other natural fibers come from sources that may or may not have been available in Europe in the late middle ages and renaissance, like alpaca
  • though they come from natural sources, they were not available in Europe during SCA time period – use sparingly as discussed above for modern synthetics

What not to use

  • acetate lining – very frustrating to work with
  • polyester broadcloth – does not match weight or drape of any medieval fabric
  • printed fabrics – Western Europeans lacked the technology to print fabric until the later 17th century
  • anything with a plasticky background – yuck!
  • anything that uses lycra or spandex for stretch
    • Medieval people did not have these and your garment will not look right
    • 100% wool and 100% linen have natural stretch to them when you wear them (like a pair of jeans)
    • if your garment needs to be stretchy you can also cut on the bias – more advanced technique

A note on thread choice

  • Silk
    • comes in a limited variety of colours
    • nice and strong, suitable for hand or machine sewing
    • does not melt when you iron at high temperatures
  • Polyester
    • comes in a wide variety of colours
    • nice and strong, suitable for hand or machine sewing
    • likely to melt when you iron at high temperatures
  • Cotton
    • comes in a medium range of colours
    • snaps and tangles easily
    • does not melt when you iron at high temperatures

Colour Choices

  • only natural dyes are available in this period
  • not all colors “read” to a medieval audience the way they do to a modern audience – for example, prior to about 1550 a set of crimson red garments reads the same way that a black or navy blue business suit would read today
  • evidence that an entire household might dress in matching colors/fabrics (either their heraldic colors or some other nice color)
  • wool and silk take dye MUCH better than linen does
    • Maistreas Sadb’s linen dyeing experiments with madder and weld – very, very pale colours

Prestige colours

  • crimson (pink – bluish red) – comes from kermes or cochineal insect – expensive and time consuming to produce
  • indigo

Non-prestige colours

  • weld – range of yellows
  • urban legend that yellow was only worn by prostitutes – I have not found any evidence to this effect
  • madder – range of oranges – orangey reds – browns
  • woad – range of blue colors, inferior to indigo
  • hedgerow colors – reds, pinks, yellows, blues, greys, blacks, browns
  • “sheep colour” – undyed white/cream or brown wool

Popular SCA colours

  • would require a combination of dyestuffs
  • do not appear especially common in portraits of this period
  • should you let this stop you?  up to you, but presumably you are in this class because you want to learn how to aim for a more period look
  • Green/turquoise
    • Combo of weld/indigo?
  • Purple
    • endangered sea creature – reserved for royalty
    • combo of crimson x indigo – prestige dyes, not super accessible
    • orchil (a lichen) – available in some areas
  • Black
    • combo of crimson x indigo – prestige dyes, not super accessible
    • wool from a black sheep?
    • after about 1550 logwood – first colorfast black dyestuff (from the new world)
    • after this black becomes very popular color

Sumptuary Laws

  • in most places “Sumptuary Laws” restricted who could wear what fabrics or colors, and on what occasions
  • usually in Avacal we don’t get too excited about period sumptuary laws, but it’s an avenue of research you might want to pursue if you are very enthusiastic about costuming and persona development



  • slightly different styles for men and women (shirt, shift, chemise, camicia, etc.)
  • even poor people would have owned several
  • almost all linen; a few references to silk
  • outer garments are difficult to launder, so need something next to the skin that can soak up sweat, grime, sunscreen etc. and be easily washed
  • urban legend: medieval people didn’t bathe – not sure how true this is, but in 16th-18th centuries they developed a theory that the best way to be clean was to wear clean linen and change it frequently because the clean linen would suck impurities and disease out of the skin (see “The Dirt on Clean”)
  • underpants?
    • men almost certainly wore them
    • after about 1550 women started to wear them, but possible evidence of loose morals or secret Muslim faith
    • a good idea at camping events in Avacal!

What you can do:

  • don’t skip this layer!
  • shift should only be white
    • I am not aware of any convincing evidence for shifts in any color other than white.  If you come across any evidence supporting another color, I would love to hear about it!
  • best fabric choice is linen
  • cotton also an OK choice
  • linen and cotton are comfiest and most breathable
  • linen look polyester or poly blend may also give an appropriate look, but you will get sweatier and smellier and it’s less safe around open flame
  • some evidence for silk shifts – up to you, but I don’t think this would be very breathable or comfy either
  • embellishments
    • white fabric with a woven-in pattern or with an all-over embroidery design (especially in black) can look more decorative for a more upper-class look
    • the neck band and cuffs of your shift are a nice place to show off your embroidery!
    • after about 1550 you can also add lace at your neckline and cuffs

Foundation Garment

  • in modern times, we wear a foundation garment, then a loose shirt, and then a jacket or sweater
  • in medieval times, the foundation garment goes outside the shirt
  • all different kinds
    • bodies/stays/corset
    • doublet
    • kirtle
  • some are fitted and padded/stiffened, some are just fitted

What you can do:

  • it’s a foundation garment – as well as lining, try to interline/flatline torso portion with fustian, heavy canvas or heavy cotton for extra structure
  • If you have time – make a sample out of practice fabric first (including all stiffening) and get someone to help you fit it to yourself instead of just using the off-the-rack pattern
  • camping or informal garment
    • emulate lower-class garment or garment that upper-class person would wear on informal occasion (inside their own home)
    • ok to wear only this layer plus your shift
    • just like us, your persona is not going to spend their top dollar on clothes they are going to use for surveying the estate or working in the stillroom or the garden
    • use plain, hard wearing fabrics like wool or linen
    • use lower-prestige colors
  • formal/court garment
    • on formal occasions this layer is only the middle layer
    • but it is not optional!  you have to wear all of the layers if you want to achieve the right silhouette
    • ok to pick pretty, fancy fabrics in pretty colors! better to pick nice prestige colors like reds/pinks and blues than cheaper colors like orange, yellow, brown, green
    • if only part will be seen, can use pretty fancy fabric only on this part and less nice fabric on the part that won’t be seen
  • Doublet vs. Jerkin
    • Mistress Issabbella’s research indicates that a “doublet” is a padded or stiffened upper garment while a “jerkin” isn’t padded or stiffened
    • unisex garment


  • most formal, outer layer
  • noble person or patrician would probably never appear in public without this layer
  • sometimes fitted, sometimes loose – many styles

What you can do:

  • sort of tricky.  Many patterns don’t include this layer, or include only one layer that uses a false underlayer.
  • usually a good idea to line in a substantial fabric so it will drape nice
  • can make in a plainer, lower-prestige fabric and color for everyday/informal wear
  • can also make in a nice fancy fabric and prestige color for court and feasts!
  • embellishments
    • most commercial flat trims bear only a passing resemblance to period embellishments.  try to use other solutions
    • lace very unlikely to be used on outer garments, save it for your shift
    • flat metallic braids are a good option
    • make your own bias tape out of a contrasting or complementary fabric to use as trim
    • fake fur…looks fake. use velvet instead if you want a differentiated texture
    • but…don’t mix fancy embellishments with plainer fabric (sort of like wearing cuff links with your cowboy shirt)


  • accessories can make the difference between something that looks costumey and something that looks like a medieval-style set of clothes
  • accessories can also help change a basic outfit so it better resembles one or another cultural group – eg. Italian vs German Renaissance


  • it’s quite uncommon to see someone depicted in only their shirtsleeves unless they are in the middle of an active task
  • in some cultures, sleeves are a separate garment that can be switched out between outfits
  • in other cultures, sleeves were set in to either the foundation garment or the gown layer


  • most people would have worn hats or other head coverings at most times during this period
  • head coverings combat a multitude of ills:
    • hide a modern hairstyle
    • help prevent heat stroke in hot weather and chills in cold weather
    • make up for the fact that you haven’t washed your hair in three days at Quad War
  • Men
    • lower down the social scale, simple white linen coif probably ok
    • further up the social scale, a variety of formed felted hats
    • many hats in Tudor England were knitted and fulled
  • Women
    • best current evidence is that most women were not wearing structured hats but were wrapping their veils in various ways
    • check youtube for tutorials
    • Tudor Tailors have a variety of good hat patterns


  • wear with upper or lower class informal attire – protects your skirts from coffee and dirt and gives you something to wipe your hands on
  • linen is best because of its absorbency
  • lower class – any plain colour seems to be ok
  • upper class – a good place to show off your embroidery or lace; ok to make out of fabric entirely impractical for a working apron

Partlets and Gollars

  • Late 15th century onward
  • Covers the neckline of your kirtle or gown
  • Varying levels of fanciness
  • For warmth and/or modesty and/or fashion


  • socks that go to or above the knee are best – hold up with garter just below the knee
  • “16th century woolen stocking” pattern by Mathew Gnagy on Ravelry – my test knitter found some technical difficulties
  • for the more adventurous, could try making stockings of bias-cut linen, silk, or wool


  • it IS, in fact, possible to wear your modern orthotics inside your period-looking shoes.
  • even if you are wearing a floor-length skirt, your shoes will on occasion show
  • round or square toe better than pointed for this period
  • black or dark loafers are good for men
  • ballet flats or flat mary janes are good for women – plain for informal/lower class attire; ok to be embellished for formal/upper class attire but stick to same guidance as for fabrics
  • boots are also fine
  • if you want to spend a bit more there are online retailers that sell period reproduction shoes, I also like a brand called Cydwoq that you can get at Gravity Pope
  • heels on shoes were not developed until about 1550.  Even then they were quite low by modern standards


  • Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, told her husband that black was the only color that could be worn without jewels
  • SCA custom of wearing every single award and favor you’ve ever received around your neck does not match this time period – consider picking and choosing, hanging some off your belt or pinning to your upper arm or the front (off centre) of your gown or kirtle
  • pearls were popular and fake pearls were readily available.  Probably no such thing as too many.
  • try to avoid sparkly faceted stones, a smooth cabochon cut looks more period

Fastenings and Finishings

  • Eyelets and grommets
    • if you use a grommet press to punch metal grommets into your beautiful garment, you will cut be cutting holes in your fabric and not doing anything to finish the raw edges
    • this will weaken your fabric and increase the chances that it will tear apart, probably at an inopportune time
    • much better for structural integrity (and also more period) to make eyelets by hand
    • use thin satin ribbon or fingerloop braid with a leather needle/bodkin for lacing
    • lace in spiral direction, not criss cross
  • Buttons and buttonholes
    • period buttons are spaced much more closely together than modern buttons
    • self- or contrasting cloth buttons
    • pewter buttons
    • thread-wrapped buttons
  • sometimes, the correct method of attaching things is with straight pins!

Finish your seams


Intro to Intermediate level later period costuming books:

  • The Tudor Tailor (also The King’s Servants, The Tudor Child, and The Queen’s Servants)
  • The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant

Color swatches:

  • Natural Dyes (Gwen Fereday)

More advanced info on fabric choices and stitching techniques

  • Clothing and Textiles 1150-1450 (Museum of London finds)

Visual sources

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