Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Clothing in Fantasy

Some writers (I am one!) like to come up with clothing for their various fantasy cultures and characters.  The typical fantasy setting, though, doesn't have sewing machines, washers, dryers, or steam irons.  How do people make and take care of clothes?  How do they use the clothes?  How do all these things affect the kinds of clothes they choose?

First, let's get ceremonial clothes out of the way.  The wealthy and noble can choose clothes with very little regard for the time it takes to make and take care of clothes.  Layers of silk and lace, gold embroidery, diamond-studded beads, white fur: sure, it's impractical, but what's practical about a coronation or a royal wedding?  Display is very often an important point of a ceremony.  (It may not show purely personal pride or selfishness, either; people can feel that their king ought to be dressed finely, to show all the neighbouring kings how great he is, and how great his kingdom must be.  This will of course depend on cultural expectations.)  Someone less wealthy might pair an impractical piece with otherwise sensible clothes: e.g., a beaded and embroidered sash with a simpler dress.

So after this, I'm not writing about the princess's wedding-dress, but about the things ordinary people wear, and the things not-so-ordinary people wear on ordinary days.


Sewing a piece of clothing happens once (not counting mending).  Washing, though, has to happen over and over, so people will tend to choose clothes that make for easier laundry, even if those take a bit more sewing.

For very dirty things, hand-washing usually means scrubbing the cloth, either against itself or against another surface, like a washboard; not-so-dirty things can be soaked and swished around a bit.  Then they're squeezed or wrung out to remove as much water as possible, and hung or spread flat to dry.

The more slowly something dries, the mustier it smells.  Sun, wind, warmth, and dry air make for faster drying; rinsing in very hot water helps, too, but heating the water takes time and fuel so is impractical for most things.  Lightweight, simple pieces turn out best, and, if hung neatly, may not need ironing.  Sunlight will take out some stains.

Washing not only takes time and work, but it's also hard on clothes.  Unnecessary washing can be avoided by airing musty clothes and dabbing little spots off otherwise clean clothes.

The key to simple laundry is dressing in layered pieces.  If one petticoat with three layers gets dirty, the whole thing has to be washed and will take a long time to dry.  Wearing three separate petticoats means that only one might need to be washed, and that one will dry faster, too.  A corset (which is difficult to wash) should have a lightweight piece beneath it to absorb sweat.  Aprons are good for cooking, cleaning, and other messy work: they protect the clothes underneath, can be allowed to get quite messy in between washings, and are easily washed and dried.

The layering principle extends to other linens.  Wool blankets and furs can go over sheets, and duvets and mattresses (filled with feathers, grass, or other not-so-washable stuff) can have removable covers.  In cloth diapers/nappies, prefolds (like this) and more form-fitting options have mostly replaced flat diapers, which are essentially lightweight towels; prefolds save time folding, but flats are easier to hand-wash and faster to dry.


Spinning, weaving, and hand-sewing all take time, so people will want their clothes to last a while.  The kind of cloth they use will depend on the plants (flax, cotton, hemp) and animals (sheep) available.  Wool is harder to wash and dry than things like cotton and linen, but layering can keep it from needing to be washed as often.  Lanolin, the wax naturally found in wool, makes it somewhat waterproof; I don't know how well it survives premodern washing techniques.  (Note that wool clothes aren't always itchy.)

I've always sewed with boughten cloth so can't say much about the details of spinning or weaving.

Clothes can also be made by knitting or crocheting.  Knitting is millennia old, and crocheting unattested before the nineteenth century, but there's no reason it should happen that way in another world.  Knitted and crocheted work tends to be much stretchier than weaving, hence knitted socks and gloves.  A tear in knitting quickly becomes a 'ladder' (like this, also called a 'run'); a tear in crocheting tends to unravel a bit more slowly.

Dyes, especially darkish colours like browns and olives, help keep stains and small spots from showing.  Faded clothes can be redyed, but the dye or mordant (used to set the dye) may do strange things to stains.  (I once dyed a towel with tea to hide a small bloodstain; the towel came out nicely brown, but the bloodstain turned black, perhaps because of the iron in it.)  Check patterns or stripes are made by weaving with threads of different colours.  More complex patterns can be dyed using techniques like tie-dye, wax-resist (batik), or printing, which all take extra time, but much less time than embroidery.


Clothes can be made very loose and secured with things like belts or sashes.  Other pre-zipper closure options:
  • Strings, either a drawstring or a plain string sewn to either side of a gap.
  • Lacing, that is, a cord going through loops or eyelets on either side of a gap.  It can cross itself (as on shoes) or simply spiral from one end to the other (a more common mediaeval pattern, I understand).  Eyelets can be sewn, like little round buttonholes.
  • Buttons with buttonholes.  One doesn't really want to do hundreds of buttonholes (or eyelets) if one can help it.
  • Buttons, beads, or knots with loops (also called frog closures).
  • Hooks and eyes.  These need to be washed carefully, to prevent rust and tearing.
  • Buckles.  Same caveat as above.
  • Pins or brooches.  Their advantage is that they can be removed for washing.  Their disadvantage is that they can be lost.

Bits like buttons, hooks and eyes, and buckles can be removed from worn-out clothing and reused.


Hand-sewing takes longer than sewing by machine, but it doesn't take ages.  If I remember correctly, somewhere in the Wheel of Time books, Nynaeve splits two or three skirts in an afternoon and evening (that is, turns them into something like loose trousers for riding); this seems reasonable if she has good light and not much else to do.  I recently planned and made a rather elaborate little doll in about a day, between keeping a toddler's hands out of the pins and doing other housewifely things.

Even a very long hem can be finished quickly with a running stitch.  Seams that will be under any strain may need a stronger (and slower) stitch.  With practice, hand-sewing can be as strong and neat as machine-sewing.  Further details, however, are best learnt by experience.

A bit about tools:  The essentials are a needle or two, a dozen pins (or so; they can be repositioned frequently), small scissors, and a thimble.  With those and some dark and light thread, a character on a questing party can probably handle all necessary mending and sewing.

Pins are usually stored in a pincushion, but any needle shorter than the pincushion's diameter tends to get lost unless a bit of thread is left on it.  Without stainless steel, pins and needles are in danger of rusting; they can be cleaned with sand (e.g., the little pepper on the common tomato pincushion).

Scissors can rust, too, or go blunt if used on things other than cloth and thread, but that questing seamstress still needs them -- biting or breaking thread leaves a rough end that doesn't go easily through a needle-eye.  (Besides, biting thread isn't good for teeth.)

The thimble is not just for looks, nor is it to protect one's fingers from needle-pricks; instead, it's worn on the hand holding the needle and used to push the needle through the cloth.  This is usually necessary.  A prick from a sharp needle is rarely very painful and may not even bleed; the eye-end of the needle, on the other hand, is small enough to pierce one's finger but blunt enough to bruise, hence the thimble.  The dimples in the thimble keep it from sliding off the needle.


Clothes take time and work, so it doesn't make sense to throw something out just because it's torn.  Tears can be mended, and holes can be darned or patched.  Sheets that are worn in the middle can be cut in half and have the less-worn sides spliced together.  If a piece is beyond repair, parts of it can perhaps be reused to make new things.  Patchwork quilts are a bit slow to make but almost free.


And I haven't even mentioned climate (short version: warm, snug clothes for cold weather; cool, loose clothes for hot weather; and cover up in the sun), or the sort of work people are doing (moving arms and legs tends to be important).  But that's probably enough on clothes.

The key thing is to think about what makes sense for the people who don't have a lot of time or money (most of the people in any society).  Of course, people often do impractical things because it's tradition or it looks nice.  But the natural selection of everyday work will favour clothes that are comfortable to wear, fairly easy to wash, not ridiculously hard to make, and long-lasting.  And it doesn't hurt if they look good, too.

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