A Brief History of Natural Fibers

Fabric brings all garments to life, from the simplest shift to the trimmed gown. And though fabric serves as a canvas for skilled craftsmanship, it also serves a function to the wearer. Come hot summer days, or cold winter mornings, certain fabrics help regulate the wearer’s temperature.

Introducing the Four Main Natural Fibers

The four main natural fibers are as follows: cotton, linen, silk, and wool. The cultivation of these fibers, as well as turning fabric into garments, has a long-standing history of black craftsmanship in Anglo-American society. This includes free, indentured, and enslaved black craftspeople throughout early Anglo-American history. Many garments, then, have a high chance of black craftsmanship woven into their construction.

Before diving into how these fibers function, the following sections highlight a brief history of each fiber.


A durable and breathable fabric used by all classes, cotton has a long history around the world. Printed cotton tends to be the most recognized cotton when studying dress history. The earliest examples of printed cotton using mordants, or a metal salt that printed dye to the fabric, can be found in a dyed tunic from Peru ca. 700-850 and a fragment of printed cotton from China in the 9th century. India also dominated mordant printed cotton for centuries, and increasingly began trading with Europe through the East India companies. (Linda Eaton, Printed Textiles: British and American Cottons and Linens 1700-1850)

Somehow, likely through the trading process with India, the process of printing cotton transferred to Europe, with textile manufactures popping up in London, Manchester, Glasgow, and Dublin. The earliest known account of printed cotton in England starts in the late 17th century. The UK would then trade British made goods, including printed cotton textiles, for enslaved blacks in Africa until the second quarter of the 19th century. (Linda Eaton, Printed Textiles: British and American Cottons and Linens 1700-1850)

The North American colonies largely produced the raw materials (cotton) with enslaved labor and sent them to the UK where the raw material would then be made into printed cotton in a continuous trade loop. As time progressed into the 19th century, America began producing more and more cotton textiles, with enslaved labor at the forefront of processing cotton.


Cultivated from flax (a plant harvested for its seeds called linseed, and its fiber found within the stalk of the plant), linen fabric has been around for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used linen cloth to wrap bodies in the mummification process. Highly versatile and strong, linen is the most breathable fabric and can withstand multiple washings. Its highly absorbent features wick away sweat and dry faster than cotton. Linen is the top choice to stay cool in the summer months. Pennsylvania Germans relied heavily upon linen in the 18th and 19th centuries. They grew large amounts of flax and processed it into linen cloth. In a more precise estimate, Pennsylvania Germans grew ¼ acre of flax per person per year.

Growing flax in Pennsylvania took up the majority of the year. Pennsylvanians planted flax in April and harvested it in July. After harvesting, they would pull the flax plants through the ripple, or an iron-toothed board. This pulled off the seeds, which Pennsylvania Germans would keep to sell or plant the following year. After rippling flax, retting (or rotting) came next. Using moisture to soften hard outer shell, they submerged flax plants in water or left them out in the morning dew.

After a few weeks, they would use a scutching board and wooden scutching knife to scrape off any of the hard exterior shell remaining on the soft fibers. Hatchelling came next, which separated the long fibers from the tow (short fibers) using an iron-toothed comb. Only then could they spin the fiber into thread. Once spun, the thread could go on a loom to be woven into linen fabric. Finally, the fabric could be made into clothing. This entire process would take them right up to planting season the following year.


Known as the hottest of the four main fibers, silk retains heat, making it the least breathable fabric. Silk is an animal fiber that comes from certain insects that secrete the silken material for webs and cocoons. With its origins in China sometime before the 3rd Millennium BCE, silk production became a dominant industry for thousands of years. Silk production eventually spread throughout Asia and into Europe, with Japan taking a lead in silk production in the 19th century.

Records of silk production occur in America, as well. In 1755, Eliza Pinckney of South Carolina traveled to England with enough silk to make three dresses. This silk was made by enslaved women in Charleston, South Carolina. Pinckney gave some of that silk to the Dowager Princess Augusta of Wales, further solidifying the deep history of Anglo-American trade rooted in the labor of enslaved craftspeople (Dr. Tiffany Moman, “Someone Knows My Name: A Framework for Researching the Lives and Experiences of Under-represented Craftspeople in Early America”). Though silk is known to be an expensive fiber, some 18th century printed cottons were more expensive than silks. Printed cottons sometimes cost more because of the multi-colored dyes found on the fabric.


A highly adaptable fiber, wool can be used in any weather condition. Its natural antimicrobial and antibacterial qualities make it desirable for more than just keeping warm. Wool can wick away sweat. It can also keep people dry, even when the wool itself gets soaked. Wool and worsted (sometimes referred to as “stuff” in the 18th century) are two different types of wool. Wool remains as the fiber we think of when we hear the word. It is heavy, warm, thick, and durable. Worsted came from long-haired fleeces that got combed before the spinning process. It is a durable, thin, and smooth material that was more comfortable and less “itchy” than its wool counterpart. Worsted arguably became the most wearable fabric of middle-class women in the 18th century.

Sheep originated in Southwestern Asia, and humans domesticated them roughly in 10,000 BCE. The presence of wool, then, coincides with the domestication of sheep.

When and How to Use Them 

An extremely simplified guide to using natural fibers looks something like this:

  • To keep cool: linen (mostly) and cotton
  • To keep warm: wool
  • To stay dry in rain, snow, and other elements: wool
  • To wick away sweat: linen and wool
  • For longevity: linen, wool, worsted, and cotton
  • For displaying wealth: silk and some block printed cottons
  • For economy: worsted and linen

But how did these functions actually play out in the garments themselves? Let’s break down a few essential garments.

Linen Shift

This garment takes on many names over the centuries: shift, shirt, smock, and chemise. Regardless of the name, its function remained the same. To the modern eye, the shift looks like a loose-fitting nightgown. Historically, the shift served as underwear. Worn against the skin, the shift covered much of the body, creating a barrier between skin and outer garment. For women, it also created a barrier between the skin and a pair of stays or corset.

Because people wore this garment directly against their skin, the linen fabric absorbed sweat and body oils the most. This protected the outer garment from sweat and body oils that naturally deteriorate fabric. Thus, the shift increased the longevity of the outer garment. Linen’s ability to dry quickly and wick away sweat also kept the wearer cool and less sticky during the day.

Linen also remains as a highly durable fabric able to withstand the harsh process of laundering in the historical era. This meant that people could wash their linen shifts regularly and more frequently than other garments, ensuring cleanliness and hygiene.

Quilted Petticoat

To keep warm, wool and layers do the trick. Combining wool and layers helps even more. Quilted petticoats could come in a variety of fabric choices, like this silk facing, wool batting, and wool backing quilted petticoat found in Colonial Williamsburg’s collection. The silk facing, or exterior fabric, would be the visible part of the garment. The wool batting lining and wool backing provide the layering warmth needed for colder weather. Though the wool is not visible, its role behind the scenes makes the more luxurious silk more functional in colder weather.

What is particularly interesting about this quilted petticoat is the pink worsted extension at the top of the petticoat. The worsted extension could be placed there for a variety of reasons, including decreasing bulk near the waist with a thin wool option, economizing silk, or lengthening the skirt.


Staying warm on cold days is essential, but so is staying dry. Wool achieves both needs, and so, a woolen cloak worn when traveling outdoors does the trick. If rain or snow fell as the wearer traveled, the wool might get wet on the exterior, but it would not reach the skin of the wearer.

Cotton Gown

Though cotton may not seem like an expensive material to the modern eye, it could be in historical eras. With the block print designs of multiple colors, cotton could quickly become an expensive textile. This cotton robe à la Française serves as one example of a more expensive cotton gown. The floral pattern of the gown features red, purple, and brown created with madder dye. The blue color comes from indigo, a fairly difficult and laborious dye to cultivate.

Clothing, whether plain or fanciful, had a function. It provided particular benefits to the wearer depending upon the season. The cultivation and processing of each fiber also had significant amounts of labor just to produce a single garment. Fiber production also is universal. The processing of fiber has roots throughout the world, with makers and craftspeople both free and enslaved at the foreground of production. What’s important, then, is reading that history left behind in the production of textiles and clothing.

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today. 



From History From The House