You should never neglect the home décor section when shopping for costume fabric. You’ll find patterns and colors there appropriate for a surprising swathe of history and some drawn characters too. For instance, when you need emergency princess gear, pintuck taffeta can be a lifesaver. Sheer gauze curtains can provide material for fairy wings. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen home-décor damask and jacquard as the front partlet of an Elizabethan skirt.
However, fabrics created for upholstery and drapery have some challenges for sewing and wearing.
Upholstery fabric is intended to be hard-wearing and long-lasting. On websites, you might see a mention to “rubs” which is an indication of just that – how much contact the fabric can stand before breaking down. Synthetic fibers and synthetic/natural blends are the favorites for upholstery because they can be made tougher and easy to clean than a 100% natural fabric.
As always, synthetic fibers can be a veritable sweatbox to wear, especially when you add in the weight of some décor fabrics. Always bear in mind that the designers of upholstery fabrics have a different set of priorities, and comfort-when-worn is not one of them. Consider when and where you’re going to wear the finished item, and for how long. My former Renaissance Faire of choice regularly went over 100F at midday and I’m not sure how the noble courtiers survived in their yards and yards of velvet and damask. Some of the ladies had sewn pockets into their farthingales to hold reusable ice packs, but I don’t know where the noble gents could have hidden the same! (cue: inevitable jokes about codpieces.)
Some upholstery fabrics look indistinguishable from regular fashion fabrics on the front and back. Others will have a web-backing, or a fuzzy backing, either of which will have been bonded to the surface fabric in some fashion. And when we’re talking about bonded or laminated fabric, there’s a strong chance that the fabric smells – at least at first. Residual adhesive fumes can be seriously inconvenient for folks with asthma. There’s also the small-but-measurable risk of an allergic reaction to something outgassing from newly-acquired fabric. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use, though.
If you fear that your fabric is a bit smelly, air it for a few days, draped over a clothes horse or, at the very least, a towel rack, opening it up as much as possible. If the weather is fine and you’re not worried about airblown debris, hang it up outside. Properly pre-treating your fabric (probably via a trip to the dry cleaners) will also help remove some of the residual gunk.
The fabric backing may add a substantial amount of body, which should be considered before you buy. Pay attention to the fabric’s hand and how it’s going to drape, and if that’s going to work for your purpose. A upholstery damask may be just the thing for your 1860s skirt, spread out over your cage crinoline, but it’ll make lousy trousers if it has difficulty bending at the knee.
Upholstery backings can be heavy, webbed constructs that will require a heavier needle and/or stronger thread to sew. You don’t always have to reach for upholstery thread when sewing upholstery fabric, but be prepared for the possibility, and don’t forget to put a heavier needle on your sewing machine. Upholstery thread is too thick to easily run through the eye of a regular 70/10 needle.
And this where I sob, ever so quietly, over the ruins of my bank account. Upholstery fabric can be pricey – very pricey. Sometimes it’s because of the fabrics composition but, too darn often, it seems to be because you’re paying for a designer’s name. With a bit of coupon-clipping and shopping around, you can find lighter drapery and upholstery fabrics for as little as $8 or $9 a yard. When I’m figuring out the likely cost of a costume, my default rate for upholstery fabric is $25/yard. Some of those faaaaancy designer fabrics can go for $100+ per yard. Ouch!
Although I don’t recommend them for much, get on the mailing list for JoAnn’s Fabric & Craft. They offer coupons every month (sometimes 50% – 60% off one regular-priced item) and frequently mark down their upholstery by half (thus rendering it ineligible for those coupons and don’t think we haven’t noticed that, JoAnns!). The fabric for my Idris bodice was a half-off find from JoAnn’s. Even then, the price made me wince but I only needed one yard – phew!
This one is often affected by backing. How much does the fabric weigh? Is it going to be comfortable to wear for several hours? If you’re looking at fabric in-person, pull a couple of yards off the bolt and hold it up. How’s it feel? How much does your project need? If you’re making a full cape that could require four or five yards of material, how do you think your shoulders and back are going to feel at the end of the day? (One good thing about big, period skirts: big period farthingales/crinolines to support the weight)
If you’re browsing fabrics online, pay attention to the description. Some sites will describe literally how much one yard of the fabric weighs, in ounces – much like how leather is described in ounces per square foot. Other sites will be more general and just say “light/medium/heavy-weight”, which is only somewhat helpful. Don’t be shy about emailing those retailers and asking them to be more specific! Your comfort is worth a couple of emails.
It broke my heart when I found out that multi-colored brocade fabric isn’t period-appropriate for the Renn Faire. I had my eye on some real beauties at one point… If you see a Faire-legal fabric described as brocade, it’s probably jacquard or damask. It’s a common mix-up, and it can lead to misunderstandings.
If you’re craving balls-to-the-wall accuracy for a historical costume, then there’s almost no chance you’ll find what you need in the upholstery section. Artificial fibers and chemical finishes are just too useful for upholstery purposes. But note that I said almost… Every now and then, you’ll find 100%natural-fiber fabric in the upholstery section (caveat: acetate and rayon are generally acceptable for very late Victorian rigs) but, even then, pay attention to the color and the finish, just to be sure.
If you’re participant in a re-enactment event, there should be guidelines in place for costumers, including when (or if) it’s okay to bend the rules a little. Some of those historical fabrics, we simply can’t get any more – or they’re cost-prohibitive. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t got the budget for cloth-of-gold and silk damask! Because rules will vary from group to group, you should consult with the groups’ costume-maestro before committing any money to your project. Odds are they probably have a handy little list of event-friendly retailers to share, too.
As a rule, many costume groups will compromise when it comes to the yarns in a fabric, but they’re going to come down hard on the color. That hot pink velvet might indeed be a silk-rayon weave and thus technically acceptable at your local Renn Faire but I assure you, no-one in the 16th century was churning out a hot pink dye. (If I’m wrong, let me know.). In the case of some historical groups, there’s also the matter of sumptuary laws to be considered, so it’s vital that you check in with the costume overseer before you start shopping.
Upholstery fabrics are often overlooked by costumers, which is a shame as they can be a great resource. Just be sure to keep these caveats in mind when you’re shopping.