When it comes to making your costumes, there is a baffling array of names and terms to describe fabric. Here is an attempt to help you make sense of it, as well as giving a rough guide to what I've found to be the best use for each textile.

All of this is presented merely as a series of suggestions, which you can heed as much or as little as you fancy - you might have more skill or luck with stuff that I've never had any joy with.

Natural Fabrics

Natural fabrics include silk, linen, cotton and wool. We're not re-enactors, so authenticity isn't a major consideration, but in my opinion these fabrics look better, are more comfortable and will wear better than their synthetic counterparts. Often they're no more expensive, and with careful shopping they can actually be cheaper and longer-lasting.

Silk

For beautiful costume, there really is nothing to equal it. Advantages - vast range of available colours, comfortable, easy to work with, wears wonderfully. Disadvantages - can be expensive if you don't shop carefully. Often not machine washable.

For Dawnish gowns and surcotes, you're might start by looking for silk dupion, a slightly roughly woven fabric which is widely available. You shouldn't pay more than about £10 per metre, which makes your surcote surprisingly affordable at £20-30. Silk taffeta is generally more expensive, but you may prefer its smoother look to the slightly "slubby" dupion. Silk satin is almost exclusively a bridal fabric, and as such commands a premium. However, if you're lucky enough to find heavy silk satin on sale, it makes the ultimate in a luxurious statement.

In the Brass Coast, the loose, flowing gowns and elaborate veils are ideally suited to silk habotai, silk chiffon and silk georgette. These can often be expensive to buy in colours, but the great thing is that they are widely available cheaply for silk painting. You can dye them yourself very easily (use cold water or silk dyes for best results) to get some fantastic variagated colours in a pallette of your choosing to make some truly unique and wonderful costume.

Commonly called "raw" silks, silk matka and silk noil are rough textiles woven from the outer husk of the silk cocoon. They look a lot like coarse linen, but are wonderfully comfortable, machine washable and take dye perfectly. For a wandering minstrel's robe, a pious knight's cloak and surcote or a low status yeoman they're perfect, and are often cheaper than smoother silks.

Linen

Linen is the most 'historical' of the commonly available fabrics - its hard wearing and readily available.

Advantages - 'authentic', wears nicely, easy to sew, available in a variety of weights, generally not too expensive (£4-12 per metre), available in lots of colours, takes machine dye very well.

Disadvantages - very "crushy", needs pressing, needs pre-washed before sewing. You can get linen blends, where the fibres are mixed with other materials - linen/cotton blend is perfect and combines the advantages of both. Sometimes a polyester/linen blend looks just like the real thing but crushes less.

You can use linen almost anywhere in your costume - a good rule is to use the finer and lighter ones closer to your skin, and coarser ones the further out you go. In the "posher" countries such as Dawn and Brass Coast you might not want to use it for your top layer, as it can look a bit rustic unless you choose some vivid colours and trim it, in which case it looks fabulous.

Cotton

A great cheap fabric for kit. Like linen, wear the softer, lighter ones close to your skin, and the heavier ones as outerwear. Advantages - availalble in a huge range of colours, weights and textures, cheap, wears well, comforatable, cool in summer. Disadvantages - can look cheap and flimsy. Choose your cotton wisely!

I wouldn't tend to use lightweight cotton for a top layer - flimsy cotton tabards and cloaks are a bit of a cliche in larp costuming, and they can very rapidly look shabby. As an alternative to linen, you could try looking in charity shops for woolen blankets or heavy linen-look curtains - something with a bit more substance to it will look much better in the long term.

Wool

Wool was a staple of medieval costume, and you can get a wool fabric to suit any costume at all. It ranges from lightweight for ladies' gowns, mens doublets and hose, through medium weight into heavy wool melton, which is perfect for winter surcotes, houpellandes and cloaks. You can get polyester blends which are usually quite good, but check first to make sure they're not too plasticky. Lightweight silk/wool blends are wonderful if you can get your hands on them.

As a rule, it shrinks badly in the wash, so don't count on being able to machine wash things made of wool.

Velvet

Velvet is a catch all term for a napped fabric with a woven backing. You can get it in silk, cotton, rayon and other synthetics. Generally cotton velvet is the most affordable (£5-15 pm) and has the right weight for heavy gowns that look like they belong in the medieval period. Technically they used a silk velvet, but modern silk velvet is far lighter and more flowing than its historical antecedent, making it a perfect choice for soft, flowing, "elven" style gowns (almost all of Arwen's gowns in Lord of the Rings were made of it, for example). Rayon velvet looks nice and can be a good choice for a heavyweight gown, but one thing I've found is that it marks badly when it gets wet, and melts if you iron it. Be warned!

Stretch velvets are a bit of a mixed blessing - good ones can look like silk velvet and make fitting a bit easier. Look for ones with a rich, deep pile - ones that don't have much depth to them generally don't look great or wear very well. I personally don't like crushed stretch velvets as I've found they look a bit modern, are a bugger to work with and wear terribly.

Fur and fake fur

Fur trim or lining can look great, and is really cosy.

If you're adding fur trims, you can avoid pelts from animals kept in poor conditions in several ways;

  • Faux furs can be an excellent substitute to real fur, but beware of cheap 'fun furs' which always look like nylon and matt together very quickly. Fabrics Online sell some excellent quality faux furs in various colours, lengths and patterns.
  • Vintage furs are cheap and easily available online, from charity shops (you may have to ask for them) and from car boot sales. One coat can trim a range or garments and torn furs can be bought for a few pounds.
  • Furs can also be bought after licensed culls of animals and you can be sure they have not been farmed.
  • Finally, there are ethical furriers around. House of De Clifford are one who sell a huge range of products online. They can advise you on the provenance of their goods. Their coyote pelts, for example, are by-products of overpopulation culls, and make great substitutes for wolf-furs on cloaks.

Whether working with real or fake fur it's best to cut your pieces out on the wrong side, using a scalpel or razor blade - it stops you chopping into the fur fibres and looks nicer. It's still very messy, so you might want to put dust sheets down and consider wearing a mask (or youll be sneezing furry bits for days.)

Synthetic fibres

In my head, I divide these into three groups - blends, "true" synthetics, and rayon. A natural fabric blended with a bit of acrylic or polyester is generally ok- just check that it moves and behaves the way you want it to, doesn't look too plasticky and be wary that it might be a bit sweaty to wear. "True" synthetics - acrylic and polyester - are basically plastic. Think carefully before spending hours making costume out of something that might be as comfortable to wear as a bin bag. On the whole, they make you sweat, pick up static and look unconvincing. Of course, there are always exceptions - there are some lovely synthetic taffetas that I made a whole series of gowns in, which look and handle much like the vastly more expensive silks - but be careful, even they were pretty hot to wear, and I wouldn't want them against my skin. Rayon is a man-made fibre which is made of processed cotton, and it can actually be quite nice to work with and wear. If you find one, make sure it doesn't look or feel too synthetic, and you might well get a nice bargain.

A few fabrics that I avoid

Anything with much of a stretch. It might save you some effort on fitting, but it will sag and bag and eventually be unwearable. There are a few stretch velvets (NOT CRUSHED VELVET - SEE BELOW!) which fake up nicely as silk velvet, which I've made kit with some success, but generally anything I've used that's got too much lycra in it looks crap and wears badly.

Crushed velvet. I hate this stuff. It's been widely used in larpwear, and it looks lightweight and fake. Don't let me put you off it you want to try it, or you get a great bargain on some - I'd love to be proved wrong. But I've seen it done badly too many times (usually by me!) not to pass on a warning.

Anything with an obviously modern print, or very synthetic colours. Aniline dyes were a late invention, so anything neon, acid green, synthetic pinks just look wrong. There were lots of bright hues available in the middle ages - a good rule of thumb is don't use a colour you wouldn't see in nature, and you won't go far wrong.

In a nutshell...

Getting good fabric is all about shopping around. Take a mate who sews with you the first few times - tell them what you're trying to make, and they'll be an invaluable source of advice and support. Don't be afraid to ask the shop assistants for advice, too - they're a great source of information, and like crack dealers, they want to get you hooked on their product. The best way of doing that is facilitating your early projects. Costuming is addictive. You have been warned.