Friday, 10 September 2010

Reuse & Recycle: Reclaimed household fabrics become amazing gowns...

So, if there are any budding costumers out there, who happen to also like Renaissance faires, listen up! If you've always envied those ''historically-accurate'' SCA people always have these amazingly gorgeous noble gowns, made with period fabrics that cost a fortune....I have a cheaper solution.

It's called Goodwill, or Value Village, or your local charity shop. If you do your research, look at old paintings of the class and period you want your gown to be from, you can cheat by using old sheets, duvets, curtains and tablecloths from your local thrift store. (By the way, this also works for wedding gowns, prom gowns, suits etc.)

The key is to find cheap fabrics that look and feel similar to all those pricey cotton velvets silks and brocades.
Stay away from anything too metallic or too shiny. Metals, mostly gold and silver threads, were worn only by certain classes, on small parts of their clothing, usually in embroidery, or trims. NOT the whole gown.
Stay away from anything that crinkles too much, is plasticky or is sparkly.
Stick to simple colours and stylized flowers and geometric designs.
Polyester/Rayon blends are usually NOT your friend. Try to stick with semi breathable farics or your gown will be saturated in sweat by noon on the first day. (Unless you're lucky enough to have your faire in late fall or winter and therefore have the same weather conditions as Elizabethan England). These gowns were NOT designed to be worn in 80F weather. It simply didn't happen back then. Europe was in a mini ice age. Remember that, and pick your fabrics and linings (if you use them) appropriately.
Anything with a slightly rougher weave and no pattern is great for peasant/middle class costumes.
NO PURPLE. Unless you're going as the queen and are using it sparingly.

At all costs, if youre going for period fabrics, look up what the fabrics looked and felt like, many times fabrics we know of now, had different names. Everyone knows that no one could spell back then anyways.

Tablecloths are your friend. Decorative curtains are awesome too. Occassionally a duvet cover or a comforter will give you yards of fabulous fabric for often less than $10. Below are examples of gowns I made, what I made them of, and how much they cost...

This is my friend B. She really wanted a Tudor style gown and I had an abundance of gorgeous reds that suited her pale complexion perfectly. Sadly, by the end of the faire, all exposed skin matched her gown. USE SUNSCREEN! The striped fabric of her gown were made from a tablecloth. It cost $5. The sleeves are cotton velvet and are from a throw which was about $6. The decoration on the end of her belt is a Christmas ornament I picked up for $1 The underskirt is from a huge pair of curtains I got for $15, and I had enough fabric to make an entire second gown from! The decorations on her bodice are plastic buttons. Because she is quite voluptuous and has a lot going on upstairs, I needed extra support. That's where a cheap Primark corset came in handy for lining her gown with. I simply cut it, and sewed it into the front of her gown, added some extra plastic boning, and laced her up tight. As tis gown was made last minute, it needed some VERY last minute alterations, but by the 2nd weekend, all was good.

This is my gown. The ruff was made from a sheer gauze ruffled bedskirt, and the remaining white cotton fabric from it was used to make the chemise that supports it. Total cost $4. The oversleeves and overskirt are from a scrap piece of cotton velvet I picked up for $8. The undersleeves and forepart (which I'm not wearing here...) are from a tablecloth that was around $6. The main body of the gown (the lighter blue) is from a cotton remnant that I picked up for $1. The decorations are recycled plastic pearl beads from a cheap kid's necklace and plastic buttons and a prize find of a gorgeous broach that was $.50. I used a lot of black braided trim for this, which is a pain in the arse and I hate to admit, but will use again. Stick to ribbon trim (not satin, the woven ones) if you want to have an easy time of it. Also, then using fabrics from curtains, I learned that you can usually get at least a good 6'' extra fabric if you roll out the hem...I know it's more work to re em everything instead of just cutting pieces on the hem...but if you're short on's worth the effort.

B's sister also wanted a gown, so I threw this together in just a few hours. The bodice of this was a pillowcase. The ruff, a curtain, the sleeves, a sheet and the skirt, a taffetta remnant. Not super period, but boy was it pretty...Total cost for all materials, about $15. the broach was $2, and fell apart so I sewed it on to hold it together. I made a matching purse with the taffetta scraps and bits of trim. The ribbon trim was the most expensive at $3 per yard but I already had it so I didn't have to spend any more.

This is what happened to the rest of the goldish fabric curtain that I used for my friend's red gown underskirt. The green fabric is the rest of a bedskirt I used maily for a paid of Elizabethan breeches for my dad. The most expensive thing I am wearing here is the strand of pearls that cost me £60. The buttons are leftovers and match the ones on my dad's doublet, the trim was on sale (which NEVER happens!) for $1.50 per yard. My daughter's chemise is made from one of her crib sheets as she no longer needs it, since she's in a bed now.

For help on picking fabric and trims for Elizabethan/Tudor era gowns (the era of most Renaissance faires) I find these sites extremely helpful:

Oh, and one more thing, unless it's a costume you will be wearing a LOT and often, don't worry about making the inside look pretty. 2-10 days a year,if you wear it the next year instead of making a new one, is really not worth the extra hassle in sewing French seams and using binding tape, and linings, etc.


  1. Oooh, those are gorgeous! I'm rather jealous; my mother managed to instill in me a hate of sewing when she was trying to force me to like it. To this day its the one craft I can't stand to do, no matter how much I want the end result! I'd love to go to rennfaires in gowns like those though...

  2. Lovely to meet you..gorgeous and are a spellbinding creatrix.....such talent...keep creating your magic..shine on!

  3. Thank you both!! I need to make more things...seriously...most of these photos are of things I made earlier this year, or even before that! And Leathra, if you hate sewing, you can always bribe someone else to do it for you! :-D Or you can use already sewn parts of gowns and just alter them a bit so you're not doing much of it at all, I have a hideous photo of me at 16 in my pride and joy, a green velvet Italian renaissance gown that I made from a rescued 70's prom gown from the attice of our school theatre.