The first thing to get sorted when making kit is what material you're going to make it out of! Obviously. Basically for most stuff, it'll be wool or linen. The rich can also experiment with silk and furs… When you've chosen your fabric, why not experiment with dyeing it? If you want to be ultra-authentic, iron it with a smooth lump of glass like the one shown on the left (in the Historiska Museet, Stockholm). When sewing your garments, take into account the fabric they're made of: woollen thread is generally best for woollen fabrics, linen thread or cotton for linen and linen thread for leather, sheepskin and fur. For more detailed information on types of cloth and links to more in-depth resources, see our page on making cloth.
Wool is lovely and warm and would be worn by everyone. But unless you were very poor, linen would be the preferred material for anything against your skin- undertunics or underpants. It's less itchy, and doesn't shrink as much when washed. Linen is made from flax; nettle makes a similar material that's also in period. Cotton isn't authentic, but looks broadly similar so can normally be used.
Linen can be purchased for about £5 a metre. Cotton can be as cheap as £2.50 a metre. Nettle is a bit specialist, so will probably cost you more. The cheapest and easiest to find stuff is medium- or light- weight calico. This is undyed cotton (so the perfect colour), costs about £2.50, and should be sold in most fabric shops.
Linen or cotton-pretending-to-be-linen should be off-white or lightly coloured. Linen doesn't take dyes very well, and these clothes would be washed often so colours would quickly fade. So the best colours are undyed, pale yellows, pale yellowy greens, pale orangey reds, pale blues, pale browns. Bleaching linen was an expensive process, so any modern white fabric must be dyed to make it less horribly bright. Wychwooders often make their first set of kit out of a plain army bed sheet dyed with tea. This is fine for most purposes.
Linen feels good against your skin. But wool is lovely and warm, and can be dyed pretty colours. Use it for all your outer clothes and you'll be toasty warm when at fires or camping.
Wool generally costs going on £10 a metre (£6 or £7 at TORM 2007, £8 in Goldhawk Road in 2007). 100% wool is much better than blended wool, try to avoid ones with polyester or whatever in there. It's horribly inauthentic, and looks shiny. And is more flammable. Wool is one of the things that people go to re-enactment markets for, most fabric stores will only have a small selection in inauthentic colours mixed with polyester. Urgh. Another good source is Goldhawk Road in London. There are lots and lots of fabric shops in the area, and if you ask for 100% wool you'll find it.
Look for fabrics where you can see the weave. If you look at it, it should have lots of horizontal and vertical lines like a net. These are the warp and the weft. Sometimes they're the same colour, sometimes they're different colours. Ones with different colours often make patterns, diagonal lines or diamonds or dogs teeth or chevrons or herringbones (check out the diagrams on The Vikings! page).
Try to get natural looking colours, nothing too garish. The brighter or darker, the richer. Some colours from natural dyes include:
- Undyed wool: creamy white, greys, dark browns, blacks (black wool should have some white hairs mixed in with it- solid black is a big no-no)
- Madder: orangey reds, browny reds (and brick red) or pinks
- Weld: yellows
- Woad: blues
- Weld + Woad: pale green, but avoid dark greens
- Others: most shades of brown are possible (using onion, for example). Purple is quite expensive if made from lichen, and hideously expensive if made from seashells.
Silk is like linen-plus. Feels wonderful against your skin, but super expensive (twice as expensive as silver, by weight). Also, it keeps dyes well so can be really pretty. The wealthy could use it for decoration on tunics, and the seriously wealthy (and the church) could sometimes afford to make entire garments out of it. It all had to be imported, from the Byzantines or Arabs or Chinese.
Plain tabby weaves are best. Silk is expensive. Try not to get ones that are *too* shiny.
All the same colours as wool. Silk was expensive, so would be heavily dyed- so choose strong dark or bright colours.
The image of Vikings with fur leggings and big fur cloaks is one to avoid. Fur can, however, be used as a lining (for cloaks or coats) or in thin bands as decoration on tunic cuffs & necks or hats and hoods. It's lovely and warm, really good for cold night-wear.
Rabbit, beaver, fox, wolf, whatever. Anything furry and vulnerable. Fur isn't cheap, sadly. On the other hand, vintage clothes shops sometimes sell stuff that can be cut up to make new items. Note that while reindeer pelts look beautiful, the hair is hollow-fibre and so will break when subjected to pressure or friction. Keep it for trimmings, hood linings, wall hangings - anything where it won't get rubbed.
The same colours as natural animals, fur wasn't normally dyed. Although there is also some evidence sheepskin was dyed in varying colours, to make Viking 'fake-fur' that looked more like fox or beaver or whatever…
There's always a good selection of sheepskins at reenactors' markets, with prices ranging from around a fiver for smaller, odd-shaped or tattier skins (good for shoes) to upwards of £30 for the best and fluffiest sheep. Sheep's wool was nowhere near as heavily processed as it is today, so resist anything bright white. Chrome-tanned sheep skins are supposed to be machine washable. Lamb's wool is more expensive and (obviously) comes in smaller hides. This is extra-warm, extra-soft and the best bet for shoe linings.
Sheep coloured! Cream, yellowish, brown - well, you know what sheep look like. (But see note on dyed sheepskin in the section on furs, above)
Some other guides to authentic fabrics:
- The Vikings! have a Dark Age Textiles page with some nice pictures of weaves. The Vikings! also have a page on wool colours with a nice picture of lots of possible colours (mainly brown…)
- Regia's Basic Clothing Guide is short and sweet.
- Searchable database of Anglo-Saxon fabric finds in the UK, from the Archaeology Data Service