Guide: Kit maintenance – Fabric and clothing

Nobody can deny that re-enactment kit is expensive and most re-enactors invest a great deal of capital into it. With this in mind, it’s definitely helpful to keep your kit maintained so it lasts as long as possible. In this series of posts, we’ll show you how to maintain medieval re-enactment kit so it looks terrific for as long as possible.

A Garrison member by a display of period items of clothing in wool, linen and silk

Fabric Types
Reproduction medieval clothing and other cloth items are usually made out of just three types of natural-fibre material: linen, wool and silk. This post will show you how to clean and maintain fabric items, as well as how to store them.

Initial washing (pre-washing)

Linen and wool fabric should be pre-washed before sewing it into anything you plan to wash in the future. This is because almost all fabrics shrink at least a little when first washed. You want this to happen before making a garment, so you don’t end up with something that no longer fits you.

Pre-washing should be done at or slightly above the temperature you intend to wash it at in future. For example, if you wash your clothes at 40 °C, your fabric should be pre-washed at 40 °C or, if it can stand it, a touch higher.

We wrote a handy tutorial explaining how to pre-wash fabric. However, the general guidelines are:

  • Linen is less delicate than wool, so can be pre-washed at temperatures up to 95°C without risking excessive shrinkage.
  • Wool is very liable to shrinkage so must be pre-washed. Avoid temperatures over 40°C as it is liable to shrink dramatically.
  • Silk typically should not be pre-washed as it is delicate and can often watermark.
    • You can test if it will watermark by dripping water on a scrap then letting it dry fully. If no mark remains, you may be able to pre-wash it by hand-washing it.

After this first wash, linen or wool fabric should not be washed at any higher temperature than its initial wash, or it may shrink further. This is especially the case with wool. If you have a garment made from fabric that was not pre-washed before being sewn, it will almost certainly shrink if machine-washed. Instead, hand-wash it with cold water.

General washing
The first thing you need to consider is whether your medieval clothing needs washing at all. Underwear such as shirts, braies and shifts is in contact with the skin, absorbs body oils and sweat and thus needs washing regularly. In re-enactment terms, this means after every show. However, outerwear such as tunics, dresses and hoods typically does not touch the skin and thus will need much less frequent washing (on par with, for example, how often you might dry-clean a modern wool coat or suit jacket). Generally, outerwear will need ‘full immersion in water’ washing once a season or less, unless you spill something particularly gross on it.

If you think the item of clothing does need cleaning, how you will clean it depends on what it’s made from.

Washing linen
As linen is less delicate than wool or silk, it is usually safe to wash it in the washing machine (provided it was pre-washed). If it was pre-washed at a high temperature, it’s also safe to wash at that temperature again without danger of it shrinking. This is especially useful for removing stains.

Hand-woven, antique or otherwise high-quality linen should be treated more gently, following these instructions.

You should not tumble-dry linen as the high temperatures in the dryer will cause the plant fibers in the fabric to shatter. This will lead to massive creases in your fabric that cannot be removed even with repeated ironing. Instead, linen should be air-dried, e.g. on a washing line or clothes horse or over a banister or chair.

Washing wool
Woolen items such as kirtles, tunics, surcotes and hoods are worn over at least a linen under-layer and therefore do not absorb much of your body’s natural sweat and oils. This means they need much less frequent washing than linen items. Your garments will last longer and their dye will fade much more slowly if washing is kept to a minimum.

Misc blog hose 1
Woolen item which has been machine washed multiple times. Left: original deep blue-grey colour, right: current pinkish colour.

There are a number of cleaning options you can use on woolen items:

  • Smoke smells and general mustiness can be removed simply by airing the garment(s), ideally outdoors. The fresh air will help remove smells and the UV in sunlight breaks down the odor chemicals. If smells are persistent, try airing the garment inside-out as well as right side-out.
  • Sweat smells can be removed using cheap vodka. Put a small amount of cheap vodka in a spray bottle and spray on the area required (e.g. armpits). Let the garment hang overnight to dry, repeat if necessary.
    • (N.B. always spot-test this first – put a small bit of the vodka on an unobtrusive part of the garment, e.g. inside on a seam allowance, and observe. You want to check it doesn’t affect the colour.)
  • Mud is best left in place until it is completely dry. It can then often be simply brushed off using your fingers or a soft brush. Any residual marks can be spot-washed.
  • If only a small area is dirty (e.g. you dropped a bit of pottage down your dress), you can spot-wash the garment – i.e. hand-wash just the dirty spot not the whole garment.

If none of those steps have fixed the problem (or for hose, which tend to get more sweaty and smelly), you can wash the entire garment. Hand-washing is best for woolens, even if you pre-washed the fabric before sewing. Just follow this tutorial.

When it comes to drying, note that wool must not be tumble-dried. Tumble-drying wool causes a lot of static, which risks making your tumble dryer catch fire. It also risks shrinking the garment and/or stretching it out of shape.

Washing silk
Silk is a very delicate fabric which can shrink in high temperatures and be damaged by the conditions in a washing machine. It also tends to watermark. However, even moreso than wool, silk is unlikely to be worn next to your skin. Therefore, it will very rarely need washing.

Try airing silk thoroughly, as described for wool but out of direct sunlight. If it won’t watermark (check in advance!), you can hand-wash it with care in the same way as for wool garments.

The 14th Century did not have irons. However, that didn’t mean everyone wore creased clothes. They typically air-dried garments flat and stored them carefully folded in chests. Additionally, flat linen items such as veils and table linens were ‘smoothed’ using a flat surface and a polished bun-shaped piece of glass or stone. All of these practices meant that people’s clothes were generally fairly crease-free.

In the modern world, ironing is the quick and easy way to get your re-enactment clothes similarly smooth.

  • Linen can be ironed on high temperatures; for optimum effect, try ironing the fabric damp or using a steam iron or water spray.
  • Wool can be ironed on low temperatures and may also be steam-ironed.
  • Silk can be ironed on very low temperatures. It is best to cover it with a cloth (e.g. a clean tea towel or a clean scrap of linen) to avoid scorching the silk. Silk should not be steam-ironed due to the aforesaid issues with watermarking.

It’s best to ensure that re-enactment items which are going to be stored for any longer than a few days are completely clean. Stains, and especially any absorbed sweat and oils from a human body, can damage fabric and also tempt clothes moths and other pests. Therefore, wash dirty linen items and air wool or silk items so that they are completely dry and clean before putting them away.

Unfortunately for re-enactors, clothes moths love natural fibres. Adult moths lay their eggs in it and the hatched grubs eat the cloth fibres as they grow. Their favourite is wool, which is most at risk, although they have been known to attack silk and linen too. They can also get through the tiniest gaps. To avoid moth damage, always put items away dry and clean, as moth grubs are actually after the human sweat and skin particles left in the item. Also, keep items in an airtight container, such as a zipped plastic clothes bag, a sealed storage box or  sealed bin liners. You may also wish to put commercial mothballs or moth-killing cassettes or papers in with your clothing. Traditional lavender or cedar can also be used to deter moths, although these are not as effective as mothballs and cassettes.


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