One-Hundred-and-One Clothing Facts (Some You Never Knew, Some You Never Really Wanted To)


1. It takes ten times as long to weave a piece of fabric by hand as to sew a garment from that fabric, and ten times as long to spin the thread needed for a piece of cloth as it does to weave that piece of fabric.

2. Linen is the oldest continually used fiber for fabric, followed closely by hemp.

3. Nettles (the weeds that sting) make a softer, finer, silkier, and stronger fiber than linen, and have been used in northern parts of the world for just as long.

4. Cotton was first domesticated in India, but was expensive until Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in the early 1800’s.  Until then, linen was the cheap  fabric, used for everything from linings to wads for cannons.

5. Wool is exclusively the name for the fiber obtained from sheep, and refers either to the hairy top coat or the soft undercoat of a sheep.

6. Llama, alpaca, cashmere, and camel are not wools—they are fine fibers or hairs that can be used like wool.

7. A typical sheep, shorn once per year, yields about three to five pounds of wool.

8. Silk is obtained from the cocoons of silk worms, and is harvested by dipping the cocoons in hot water and unwinding it.  It is then spun, or even sometimes used as-is, as some cocoons will yield silk fibers up to a mile or more long!

9. Silk has been raised or imported into Europe since before the times of the Romans.  It did not come in with Marco Polo.

10.  Rayon was invented in the 1880’s as a cheap substitute for Silk.

11.  Nylon was invented in the 1930’s and used primarily for women’s stockings as a substitute for silk.

12.  During the Second World War all Nylon available was used for parachutes, and very little was available for women to wear as stockings.

13.  As a substitute for stockings, leg make-up was invented during World War II, complete with a pencil to draw a line up the back of the leg to imitate the seam on a stocking, and stencils to produce the effect of a knit pattern.

14.  Velcro was inspired by Burdock seeds, which have soft stickers that cling to clothing.


15.  One of the oldest items of women’s clothing ever found was a mini-skirt made of fringe, similar to a Hawaiian grass skirt, with bronze ornaments on the lower edge to jingle when one walked.  It was worn by itself or with a fitted blouse or shawl.

16.  Fringed aprons similar in style are still worn over the skirts of married women of the Ukraine and Macedonia in their traditional folk costumes.

17.  Spiders came, so the Greeks say, from a young girl named Arachne who boasted that she could weave better and faster than Athena.  She wove the escapades of the Gods and Goddesses on her cloth, while Athena wove the story of the end of the world.  Of course, Athena won, and transformed poor Arachne into a hideous spider and doomed her to weave in dark corners for all eternity.

18.  What was Venus de Milo doing with her hands and arms?  She was spinning thread, a symbol to the Greeks of creating new life—fitting for a fertility goddess!

19.  The Greeks believed in three “Parcae”, or Fates, who spun the life-thread of every human.  They were Clotho, who held the distaff (her name means as much), Lachesis, who spun the thread (her name means “to assign by lot”), and Atropos, who cut the thread (her name means “Inflexible”).

20.  One of the oldest pieces of Greek cloth in existence is an elaborate tapestry showing scenes from the Iliad.

21.  One of the oldest Egyptian garments in existence is a linen shirt, finely pleated, which still has creases in the elbows from the last time it was worn, nearly 3,000 years ago.

22.  In The Odyssey, Helen gives Telemachus a golden basket on wheels and a golden spindle to give to his mother.

Greek Vase Detail of Women Weaving

Greek Vase Detail of Women Weaving

23.  Yards of cloth were used as a trade item along with tin in ancient Mesopotamia, in exchange for raw wool and silver.

24.  Fine linen was used as a form of currency in Ancient Egypt.  Any man who used his wife’s cloth for trade or profit without her permission could be brought to court.

25.  Fine linen in Ancient Egypt was finer and had a larger threadcount than the most expensive linen sheets available today.  Some of it was so fine, it was almost transparent.

26.  Dragon’s Blood, featured as a magic killing potion Medea dips her rival’s robe into in Euripides’ Medea, is an actual dye that produces a bright red color.  It was often used as a method of assassination, as it contained large quantities of Arsenic.  A robe dyed with Dragon’s Blood and worn nearly continually would kill someone in about a week.

27.  In ancient Greece and the Mycenaean/ Minoan world, the color yellow was most often obtained from Saffron.  It was considered a color appropriate only for women as saffron was often used for pain relief from cramps and childbirth.

28.  In Greek comedy, Aristophanes made the political figures that he hated wear yellow when portrayed in his plays, to make them appear less manly.

Roman Lady

Roman Lady

29.  In ancient Roman times, purple was a color so valuable that it was against the law for anyone other than the emperor or his family to wear a garment dyed completely purple.

30.  Young free boys in Rome wore togas with a narrow band of purple at the edge to show they were free, but still a minor, despite the high cost of purple dye.  This entitled them to complete protection in all courts.

31.  Young Roman girls wore a similar band of a color to match their dress on the edge of their pallas, to show they were yet unmarried.

32.  Purple dye was made from murex shells, which were nearly completely wiped out to meet demand.

33.  Red dye in ancient times was usually made either from madder, which would create a bright red that easily faded, or from cochineal, a kind of beetle that was ground to produce bright red dye that was relatively colorfast.

34.  (Cochineal is now used as a colorant in Sobe energy drinks.  Natural, yes, but who wants to drink beetles?)

35.  Dyes were set by using a mordant, usually made of stale and fermented urine.  Signs have been found near dyers’ shops in Pompei above large jars asking people to contribute to the supply on the spot!

36.  Bleach could also be made from urine, and would leave a distinctive odor on clothing when used.

37.  Some of the first items traded to Native Americans for furs were strips of red cloth, from the Vikings, about the width of one’s hand, which the Natives then tied around their heads as decoration.

38.  One of the primary trade items from Viking Greenland and Iceland was lengths of woolen cloth, which was noted for its durability and quality of workmanship.

39.  The spinning wheel was finally invented in the middle ages, but was not considered an improvement at first, for the spinning was only sped up a little by the walking wheel, and women now had to walk when spinning, rather than having the choice to sit or stand still.

40.  Soon after, the first foot-treadled spinning wheel was invented in Scandinavia.

41.  Until the mid Middle Ages, clothes were usually fastened with ties, a bead and a loop, or toggles.  Lacing was still favored as the best way to create a fit that could grow or shrink with one’s figure until the late 1600’s.

42.  The first buttons as we recognize them appeared in the middle ages as pure decoration.  The first buttons on the cuffs of sleeves were implemented to keep pages from wiping their noses on their sleeves.  Up to this point, it was considered perfectly good manners to wipe one’s nose on one’s sleeves.

43.  During the Middle Ages, sumptuary laws forbade the wearing of cloth of gold or purple by anyone other than the royal family.

44.  Joan of Arc wore both cloth of gold and purple.

45.  The Scots and Italians were known to dye their clothes yellow with a cheap dye and then maintain that it was dyed with costly saffron.

46.  No one was fooled.

47.  Lengths of cloth or clothing could be used as a trade item or even to pay taxes.

48.  Clothing was often bequeathed to particular people to whom one was close in wills in Elizabethan times, especially family, as it was so costly.

49.  A typical Elizabethan Noblewoman wore ten items of clothing or more at one time—a nobleman wore just as many!

The Kyoto Iron Corset

The Kyoto Iron Corset

50.  The oldest garment on display at the Kyoto Fashion Institute is a wrought iron Elizabethan corset.

51.  A fardel is a bundle of raw silk that has not yet been spun or woven.  (“Who would fardels bear/ To grunt and sweat beneath a weary life. . .?”)

52.  A bodkin is a large, blunt or rounded-point needle used for lacing corsets, doublets, dresses, etc.  (“[H]e himself might his quietus make/ With a bare bodkin?”)  Killing one’s self with a bodkin, as Hamlet suggested, would be a sheer act of desperation, and barely even possible.

53.  In American Colonial times, a common woman’s corset was made of leather or rough fabric, and never taken off, except in the case of pregnancy.  People did not bathe regularly, so these corsets were often worn until they literally rotted off!

54.  In the 1700’s it was not uncommon for a rich lady to receive visitors in the morning while still in bed, wearing nothing but her low-necked chemise.

55.  When these rich ladies finally decided they wanted to get up, the gentlemen in the room would play just as large a part in helping her dress as her maids—especially in lacing her corset.

Lacing Up A Corset

Lacing Up A Corset

56.  Preachers of the 1700’s were known to have discourses on the evils of wearing white stockings.  In their minds, wearing white stockings was too close to having a nude leg, and colored stockings that matched one’s dress should instead be worn.

57.  After these discourses, white stockings became immensely popular among young ladies, and some young gentlemen.

58.  The high-waisted Empire fashion as we know it became fashionable after ladies at court grew tired of the strict, tight, stiff fashions of the Baroque and Rococo and decided to emulate the loose and flowing fashions of the Greeks and Romans.

59.  Napoleon, in order to boost the economy and make his court more grand, decreed that ladies were not allowed to ever wear the same dress to court more than once.  Eventually there were no more rich people, due to the expense of such dresses, and the economy collapsed.

60.  The ladies at the French Court of Napoleon were known to wear nothing but a white empire gown, wetted down, to balls and other evening social events.

61.  British ladies still wore corsets, after a fashion, under their Empire Gowns.  So did the Americans.

62.  Nearly all fashionable ladies who followed the Empire fashion wore Roman sandals without any stockings—scandalous to the older ladies of the time.

63.  From the 1800’s to the 1810’s special corsets were made for pregnancy that allowed the abdomen to expand but still confined the breasts.  This was possible due to the loose, high-waisted fashion.

64.  In the Victorian era, there was no such thing as maternity dresses for ladies of fashion.  Instead, they would go into ‘confinement’ and sometimes even take to bed.

65.  Common women, on the other hand, did have maternity dresses, similar to the plain loose “prairie smock” we often see depicted.

66.  The term “crinoline” comes from the French word for horse-hair.  The first crinolines, before the days of hoop skirts, were quilted petticoats stuffed with horse-hair, sometimes worn in multiple layers, even in summer!

67.  White wedding dresses were not often worn until after Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840, as such a color was hard to clean and quite impractical unless one was quite wealthy.

68.  Most Victorian Era wedding dresses were colored, made to be one’s best dress after the wedding.  However, the precedent for white dresses was set, and would be followed among those who could afford it until the present.

69.  A typical hoop skirt of pre-Civil War America was made of white muslin with wire, whalebone, or caning hoops to hold the skirt stiff.  A young fashionable girl could expect to go through several hoop skirts a week!

70.  Later, hoop skirts that were hoops suspended by twill bands were introduced, the hoops being made of heavier steel or wires.  Although these were still not washable, they were certainly more durable, and could be worn for months without wearing out.

71.  A Victorian-era corset was often laced so tight that it would cause the wearer’s organs to rearrange themselves inside their abdomens.  The main reason ladies were often so short of breath was not just the tightness of their corset, but also their organs pressing against the bottom of their lungs.

72.  When pantalets, or drawers, the predecessors to modern underwear, were first worn, their crotch was left open so ladies could use a chamberpot without completely disrobing, as a corset extended below the waist and pantalets were worn under the corset to create a smoother silhouette.

73.  Pantalets were not worn until the 1830’s.  Until then, women simply wore skirts and petticoats.

1876 Polonaise With Bustle

1876 Polonaise With Bustle

74.  When the Victorian bustle first came into vogue, older ladies were shocked and scandalized by such a fashion.  They felt that the swaying of the derrière would be too provocative, and that the slimmer skirt showed too much of their figure.

75.  This was not the first time that bustled skirts came into style, having been fashionable just before the advent of the Empire Gown.  However, the bustle of that time was a brief fad, overshadowed by the Empire Gown.

76.  As the turn of the century neared, bustled skirts fell out of fashion for more ‘healthful’ skirts that had less drapery and embellishment.  Although these skirts were shorter, neater, and easier to wash, they still swept the floor, and ladies still wore several petticoats beneath.

77.  In the old west, proper ladies wore special split ‘riding skirts’ in order to ride astride yet still be decent when they dismounted.

78.  Any lady who went without her corset in Victorian times was considered ‘loose’ ‘fast’ and a ‘woman of the town’, despite what modern novels would have us believe.

79.  Women were quite capable of moving in full Victorian clothing, despite corsets, and would often play tennis, ride horseback, and even jump and dance.

80.  However, women did have special clothing for acrobatics at the gym and swimming, which were male-female segregated activities at the time.

1860's Swimsuits

1860's Swimsuits

81.  Women also still wore special, cheaper corsets when they went swimming.

82.  Amelia Bloomer, the first proponent of trousers for women, was often run out of town in the 1860’s whenever she appeared in her ‘unladylike’, very full, almost skirtlike, Turkish Trousers. (Also known as bloomers.)

83.  In the 1890’s, Turkish Trousers were finally accepted as a proper item of women’s clothing when Bicycling became popular.

84.  Women’s trousers as we know them today would not be accepted for public wear until the Second World War.

85.  In the 1920’s, women seemingly abandoned their morals by suddenly wearing shockingly short skirts and dresses with no sleeves and nude or sheer stockings with garters.  Old ladies were scandalized again.

86.  Another shocker of the 1920’s was the fashion to cut one’s hair incredibly short—this was considered unfeminine and unladylike.  Old ladies were scandalized yet another time.

87.  However, ladies in the 1920’s still wore corsets, although of a different cut designed to smooth the hips, not to constrict the waist.

88.  In the thirties, clothing was rather drab and plain as a rule, favoring plainer colors and styles to cut down on cost.

89.  However, housedresses and aprons were amazingly brightly colored, as the cheaper material used often came in bright calicos.

90.  Girdles were still worn up until the early ‘60’s, and only helped the slim waisted figure of the ‘50’s.

91.  Jeans were developed as heavy-duty work trousers in the 1870’s by Levi Strauss.  They were originally brown.

92.  When jeans were first developed, among the other rivets there was one in the crotch of the pants to hold the meeting seams together.  Complaints from cowboys who were burning themselves in a very delicate place by squatting by the campfire and subsequently heating this rivet caused it to be removed.

93.  Jean comes from the name of the French town where denim was first produced.  Hence, “denim jeans” is redundant.

94.  Corduroy comes from cord du roy, or cloth of the king.  It was also originally developed in France.  It is also a term for really bad log roads.

Kelsey’s Sewing:

95.  I have used over 302 yards of fabric in a little over 6 years of sewing.  That’s about 50 yards of fabric a year!

96.  I have 12 complete historical costumes of all different eras, including a Roman dress, a Medieval gown, a Viking dress, a Renaissance gown, a 1756 ballgown, a 1750’s Frontier Costume, a 1806 Empire gown, an 1840’s Ballgown, an 1840’s work dress, a Civil War Afternoon Dress, a silk 1876 Polonaise, and a silk 1886 Gown.  My next project will be fighting garb for me to use in Skjaldborg.

97.  My most challenging, yet most fun, garment to create was a 1750’s corset.  It contains nearly 90 feet of 3/8” spring-steel boning, two yards of monks cloth, two of regular corsetting coutil, one of linen for lining, one of brocaded coutil for the shell, and a 14-inch wooden busk.  (The busk is placed down the front to provide stiffness.)  This corset was top-stitched with coral thread and trimmed with coral ribbons to match the ballgown it is intended to be worn with.

1750's Undergarments

1750's Undergarments

98.  For my 1886 Gown, I chose red Dupioni silk and black velvet as my two materials.  It nearly killed me—velvet creeps!  I had to baste the silk to the velvet and pin it with about twelve pins to the inch before I could sew the two layers together and have them match up.

99.  For my 1876 Gown, the pattern was drafted wrong and the sleeves did not match up with the armhole, so I had to create my own sleeve pattern.  It turned out better than the pattern envelope showed!

100. For several of my later costumes, I drafted my own patterns from to-scale drafts of original costumes.

101. I first fell in love with historical clothing as a small girl when I read the Little House series.  I have wanted to make costumes ever since, and hope to make costumes for Hollywood someday soon.

Published in: on September 9, 2009 at 7:53 pm  Comments (5)  
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