Plastic?! Zipper?!

A little overview of materials used


I'm saying it often enough on these pages: Give plastic a wide berth! Only use natural fibres! Avoid the sewing machine! But that is largely biased due to my 18th century re-enactment activities. When I was re-enacting 1915 a while ago, I suddenly realised that I was "allowed" to use many things that are unthinkable for the 18th century. So, from when on can one use what?



Sewing machine:
First predecessor 1755 (Weisenthal), 1840 prototypes for double and chain stitch with two threads, 1851/52 halfway modern machines. Widely used from ca. 1880 on, but not in private homes until about a decade later.

Artificial silk:
First technique (Chardonnet) 1885, later copper oxyde-ammonia technique and viscose technique. Burn tests on some damaged parasol covers which dated to 1900-15 (judging from the shape of the parasol) pointed to artificial silk.
Not to be mixed up with plastic fibres such as nylon: Artificial silk was made from chemically altered cellulose, so it's of vegetable origin.

Snaps/patent buttons:
After 1880. Proven (by a sewing book and extant garments) to be quite popular around 1908.

First patent 1914 (Sundback); common from 1930s on.

Despite lots of research, I (and many other people) could not find any proof of its existence earlier than late 19th century. There are hints (but not more) that it may have existed around 1820. I did not find the German word for crochet in German encyclopedias/dictionaries dated 1715, 1732 and 1811. That's not because crochet wasn't interesting enough to be mentioned: There are entries for other needlework techniques such as knitting and knotting. All alleged proof of earlier use have turned out to be mix-ups with similar techniques or based on the existence of crochet-hook-like implements. The implements in question do indeed look like crochet hooks, but they're smaller and therefore most probably tambour hooks. Tambour embroidery, which looks like chain stitch and is technically like crocheting through fabric, was quite popular around 1800. I believe that tambour is the ancestor of crochet in the same way as drawnwork is the ancestor of Reticella lace.

Early versions are said to have turned up in Ancient Egypt, but the artifacts could just as well be made using a different, but similar technique. The earliest proven examples of knitting that I know are 16th century jackets at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile (Paris). In the 18th and 19th centuries, knitting apparently only played a role in the production of stockings: I have neither found extant objects nor written sources that pint to other uses.

There are some 18th century portraits of women holding shuttles, but the shuttles are considerably larger than what is used for tatting and tend to have rounded ends. There are no extant tatted objects earlier than about mid/late 19th century. The same lexica as the ones used for crochet did not yield any entries for tatting. However, both the Frauenzimmer-Lexicon (1715) and Zedler (1732) mention "Knötgen knüpffen" (knotting) which is also done with shuttles and probably is the ancestor of tatting, only without forming the typical rounded shapes.

Proven to have existed in the 17th century e.g. as embroidery on gloves/gauntlets, for the 18th century also on suits. N.B.: Spangles at that time were made from wire rings pressed flat, i.e. authentic spangles have a slit and are silver- or gold-plated. Coloured spangles are very rare, only found in the later 18th century so far, and sufficiently pale in colour to be interpreted as silver-plated with a thin coloured glazing.

According to some sources, it was known in Ancient Egypt, but most sources agree that it was known (by way of long oriental trade routes) during the Middle Ages, albeit very expensive. For a long time, it was impossible to produce all-cotton fabrics since the fibres are only 10-20 cm long (as compared to 30-40 for linen) and therefore too difficult to spin into threads strong enough to be used as warp. So the Middle Ages only knew fabrics made of linen warp and cotton weft. The 17th century, however, is known for the use of all-cotton fabrics. It was not until around 1800 that it became possible to spin a cotton thread strong enough to be used as sewing thread.

Food & Herbs

Many of the victuals we know today have been imported from the Americas, so they're not suitable for medieval portrayals. Many of them were still not common long after 1492.

Aztec "patatl". The Frauenzimmer-Lexicon of 1715 mentions it as a dish for the common people, so apparently the potato was well known and cheap by that time. Friedrich the Great of Prussia is known for his efforts to establish the potato within his domain.

Cocoa and chocolate:
Aztec"cacauatl". The Frauenzimmer-Lexikon mentions it as "Choccolate": "cooked with water, milk or wine" as drink or sauce. Chocolate as a firm bar for knibbling wasn't common yet during the 18th century. 18th century chovcolate drink can be made from water and dark, pure cocoa poweder or bitter chocolate and possibly made more palatable with cream and sugar. In 18th century Europe, it was an expensive luxiry food, whereas in America, it is said to have been used to spin out more expensive foodstuffs.

Considered a botanical curiosity in the 16th century. Apparently it was first planted as a crop in Turkey and later in the Balkan (which was at least partially under Turkish rule during the 17th and 18th century, so I assume that that's when maize spread there.)

Aztec"tomatl". Believed to be poisonous at first – probably because its most common European relative, bittersweet, is quite toxic – amd therefor not cultivated for food. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the tomato was widely discovered as food. As the tomato is usually associated with Italian cuisine, it is interesting to note that the 1715 recipe for "Italian Salad" (see below), does not mention tomatoes.

Often mistaken for a relatively modern invention, salad is in fact mentioned in the Frauenzimmer-Lexicon with a number of recipes and recommended as a summer meal. There are recipes for salad made from lettuce, endive, artechokes, cress, celery, apples, radish and onions, fresh cucumbers, pickled cucumber, beans, hops sprouts, cabbage, portulaca, broccoli, beetroot, chicory, turnips, asparagus, and Italian salad.

Used in Spain since the early 16th century, France from the mid-16th century (as snuff). For smoking from 1570 on (Dutch sailors), from 1586 in England (Raleigh). Distributed across all of Europe in the course of the 30 Years Wars. Early forms of the cigarette in the early 17th century in Spain. A c. 1700 engraving shows Ladies smoking long-stemmed clay pipes. First tobacco factory in Prussia established 1720 (King Friedrich Wilhelm II liked his pipe of an evening). Until the 19th century, tobacco was usually either smoked in a clay pipe, chewed or snuffed. In the late 19th century, cigarettes caught on (cf. Bizet's opera "Carmen" where the protagonist works in a cigarette factory).

Introduced to Southern Arabia from Ethiopia between the 13th and 15th century. First mentioned in Europe in the last third of the 16th century. After the Turkish siege of Vienna (late 17th century), coffee houses were first opened in Vienna, then all across Europe. Only available for the well-to-do until the 19th century, it remained a luxury item well into the 20th century.


Chemically altered natural materials: Vulcanised caoutchouc 1839 (Goodyear), calluloid (1869), artificial horn (1897), cellophane (1910).
Fully synthetic materials: Bakelite (1909, Baekeland), melamine (1935), vinyl (1930-35), nylon (1937).


Mostly Meyer's Enzyklopädisches Lexikon, 1974 edition, otherwise mentioned in the text.

Wednesday, 24-Apr-2013 21:47:21 CEST



Content, layout and images of this page 
and any sub-page of the domains,,, and are copyright (c) 1997-2022 by Alexa Bender. All rights reserved. See Copyright Page. GDPO

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.