Time Travel Textiles
Cotton and 18th C re-enacting
Home | Store | Authenticity | Essays & Tips

Misunderstandings about the role of cotton in the 18th century and efforts to avoid using it incorrectly have probably led to an under-representation of cotton in 18th-century re-enactor dress.

Printed cottons may be the most prevalent textiles in modern fabric stores, and are among the least expensive. Lightweight, colorful, washable, comfortable to wear and unfussy to sew, cotton is so popular today that we take it somewhat for granted.

So when interest in the Revolutionary War era and 18th-century re-enacting burgeoned at the time of the Bicentennial in 1976, the first fabric many re-enactors reached for was cotton. Often, it was not the most appropriate choice. In encouraging greater historical authenticity since that time, there’s been a tendency to discourage the use of cottons, rather than see them used incorrectly.

While there are some outstanding examples of high-quality painted and printed cottons in museum collections, the range of cotton fabrics available in the 1700s is not well represented there. (By the way, based on a reading of textile merchants' advertisements from the Revolutionary period, which featured dozens of fabrics that were most probably pattern-woven dress worsteds, neither is the range of wools.)

Not only were everyday clothes not regarded as worthy of saving for posterity, they were often remade, used as linings, worn to rags, and eventually the rags sold for paper-making. (According to textile historian Natalie Rothstein, moths got the worsteds.) We may never really know enough about the cottons that were available and in use in colonial North America during the Revolutionary period to be sure we are correct in our portrayals.

But we do know printed cottons, both from India and mimicking Indian techniques and motifs, were popular and available. English manufacturers were printing cottons, linens, and mixtures of the two, and were sometimes vague about the content to evade restrictions and tariffs on cotton. France, Holland, and Germany were printing cotton fabrics by the time of the American Revolution, and smuggling of those manufactures, as well as of India goods, was widespread.

The unscrupulousness of some of the trade -- English and European manufacturers trying to imitate more exotic designs, smugglers being less than forthcoming about the provenance of their wares -- also clouds our knowledge of what prints could be had.

The prints currently in the the store look like dress and handkerchief prints available in England and English America in the 18th century, but none is identical to any document print I've found so far. Some are surprisingly close, however.

Because of the dearth of middling cotton costume artifact, my inclusion of many of the prints is based on a set of pieced bed hangings in the Victoria & Albert Museum's Textile Collection that appears in Design for Printed Textiles in England from 1750 to 1850, pages 54 and 55, plates 26 and 27, Accession number T 242-1908. The pieced hangings are dated to the last quarter of the 18th century, and the fabrics are thought to be mainly cotton dress prints from the decade or so before. Unlike an individual gown, or a particular advertisement or manufacturer's sample, it gives a range of patterns from various sources over time.

Other sources for prints include A Lady of Fashion: Barbara Johnson's Album of Styles and Fabrics for the appropriate years, and Sharon Ann Burnston's Fitting and Proper. If you're seeking exact reproductions of the prints in Fitting and Proper, Renaissance Fabrics has begun to stock the beautiful fabrics from Duran Textiles in Sweden.

To get an idea of the variety that may have been available outside of high fashion, I've also looked at what was being produced in India for export during the time period. The Victoria & Albert Museum collection includes examples of 18th-century Indian wares for non-European markets that show a lively spectrum of technique and color was possible.

Although cotton was popular in the 18th century for many of the same reasons it is today, it was not the inexpensive, all-purpose material that it is now. In the 18th century, that role was occupied by wool -- so much so that the word "cloth", when used without a modifier, meant what we would call "wool cloth" today. (In period, the distinction between "woolen" and "worsted" was still significant; today the majority of wool textiles are worsted.)

Woolens and worsteds were available at every level, from high-quality damasks, brocades, superfines, and dress goods in woven patterns, to low quality, utilitarian wools. Wool fabric was used for aprons and pot grabbers, where today we would almost certainly use cotton.

Think for a moment what it would mean to have wool as your default fabric. It shrinks and felts if washed in hot water. Although when worsted and woven fine, it is breathable enough for summer wear, it tends to absorb sweat, growing heavier, and smellier, in the heat. Worsteds were patterned and sometimes even printed, but they tended to be dark or muted in color, characteristic of the way wool fiber takes dye.

The main alternative was linen. It could be washed, and its texture improved if washed in hot water. It was light and comfortable in the heat, and most people in European cultures wore linen next to the skin. But linen is difficult to dye with natural dyestuffs, especially without mordants, and does not hold the color. (The colored stripes in many of the striped "linen" fabrics from the 18th century were woven from cotton threads for this very reason.)

Silk takes color brilliantly, but it has always been a luxury fabric, and Europe did not have the technology to print on it. Patterned silks were created through brocading, which required meticulous work by skilled weavers, and took time, adding expense. The products were beautiful, and a number of them survived to end up in museums, but silk brocades were out of reach for many, perhaps most, in period. They are not easily available, or cheap, today, either.

It's into this context that painted and printed cottons from India arrived in Europe and England at the end of the 17th century. These cottons were bright, light, patterned, washable, and colorfast. They were cheaper than silks and less fussy. They quickly became very popular -- more than a million pieces were imported to England in 1684, according to Beverly Lemire, writing in the Cambridge History of Western Textiles.

Although these cottons came in a full spectrum of grades and levels of expense, they still weren't used for everything. They were expensive and exotic enough that they were primarily objects of conspicuous consumption -- show-off pieces.

Lemire cites a 1696 London source that lists decorative aprons, petticoats, gowns, headdresses, hoods, sleeves, and pockets among the women's garments made of India goods; among men's wear, India cotton was used for shirts, cuffs, night shirts, robes, neckcloths, and handkerchiefs.

The popularity of the new fabrics led to bans on their use across Europe in the early 1700s, in an effort to protect the domestic wool and linen industries. England banned nearly all East Indian fabrics in 1721. France had already banned them, enacting 30 pieces of legislation against them between 1681 and 1716.

But the popularity of the fabrics continued unabated. English manufacturers worked to produce comparable fabrics -- adopting Indian dye and mordant technology, and using, variously, imported Indian plain cotton fabrics, threads, and fiber in an effort to duplicate the banned imports at each stage in their production.

Meanwhile, the Dutch continued to import, sell, and use India cottons without restriction, and this provided a base for the widespread smuggling that occurred throughout the ban period.

So we know that cottons were available, and quite probably in wide use. Based on written records, available artifacts, and generalizing from these on matters of taste, it’s believed that big patterns were more popular earlier in the century and that smaller flowers were more popular by the 1770s. Prints on light grounds were most fashionable, but prints on colored and dark grounds were available, and were used.

In re-creating the past, however, it's important to use cottons in the right places. They remained showy, luxury items, even if they were luxuries available to nearly all economic strata. Taxation and legal restrictions kept them relatively expensive.

There is not much evidence for cotton shifts or shirts in Revolution-Era North America, at least not outside the southern colonies, where some cotton was grown and processed for domestic use. There is not much evidence for printed cotton petticoats that did not match the jacket or gown with which they were worn -- there's more evidence for the reverse, printed jackets worn with solid petticoats.

Prints such as the ones in the store might be used for gowns and jackets, bed gowns, banyans, and neck-handkerchiefs. Cotton probably was not used for the most utilitarian purposes – work aprons or cleaning rags – but rather, scraps would have been used for linings, pockets, and other uses where the unique properties of the fabric could be exploited.

What I hope, in offering these cotton prints, is to expand the range of what’s available for re-enactor use. It seems to me that having a wider variety of appropriate designs adds to the overall authenticity of group efforts to re-create the past. As I continue my research, both into what was available then and into what I can source today, I hope to refine my offerings and their documentation. The current collection is a starting point.

Back to fabrics by era: 18th Century.