Woman spining wool by the fire, 1400's manuscript

Medieval fabrics and it’s uses, part 1

At the marked this weekend it came to my attention that I know quite a bit about the shapes of medieval and renæssance clothing but much less about the medieval fabric colours- both how they were used and how they were made – so I decided to educate my self and share what I learned in the process. I decided to investigate both the fabrics used and the colours and dyes.

Read part 2 here

If you are looking for a much less in depth post about the fabrics of the middle ages, I wrote a blog post a few years back.

To understand who would wear which fabrics, it would be wise to start by looking at the medieval fabrics and how they were used. Making choosing the right fabric for the right part of the garment will make your overall look look real or off, so it is worth investigating. I am by no means an expert, but I decided to share the research I have done anyway. In the second part of the post, I post links to my sources.

Medieval fabrics and their uses

Before I look into medieval fabrics colours, it is worth looking at the material them self. How was the fabrics produced, which were the expensive and what were they used for.

Wool*

Elderly woman spinning, 1500's
Elderly woman spinning, 1500’s

Wool were mostly used for outer layers such as: Male stockings, tunics, cottes, jackets, surcotes and hoods, female dresses, hood and stockings.

Wool could be produced locally, but the more expensive fabrics came from English and Dutch sheep. Woolen fabric came in a huge varieties of quality and thickness – with the thinner fabrics being the more expensive ones. Wool fabrics were made from the wool of sheep, goat and camel, though sheep wool was by far the most common in Europe. Sheep farming was a good investment anywhere, but on marginal land, that was unable to be farmed using regular crops, sheep were perfect. When the animal were too old to produce wool and milk, it could be slaughtered for mutton, and its skin could be used to make parchment.

Until the 1200’s wool was spun by hand using a spinning whorl or a distaff. The spinning wheel then spread from the Islamic world to Europe and India by the 1200’s, with the earliest European illustration dated to around 1280.

Wool could be woven into fabric or be knitted. Larger clothes were sewn from woven fabric, while smaller clothing could be knitted. Knitting was common for hoses, hats or children’s clothes. Knitting techniques like the modern knitting using two (or more) knitting needles were know from around 1300. Before that needle binding (nålebinding) techniques were used.

Though not as strong as some vegetable fibers, wool is fairly resilient, making it more likely to retain its shape, resist wrinkling, and drape well. Wool is also exceedingly good at taking dyes, and as a natural hair fiber, it is perfect for felting.

Hemp and nettles cloth

Cheep fabric could be made from hemp and nettle fibers, they were generally less expensive than linen, but they can be hard to come by today. Hemp fabric was mostly used for workaday fabrics such as sails, aprons and undergarments.

Linen

Linen is a plant fabric made from flax by quite a labor intensive process. See a video here

Underwear both the male breaches and shirt as well as the female chemise. Should also be used for veils, aprons, coif and lining. Linen fabric can be made glossy using a stone or a piece of glass by rubbing it. The fabric can be quite stiff, especially when it is newly washed. Most commoners would wear linen for all their inner layers, while the rich would prefer silk or cotton.

Silk*

Women spinning – between 1473 and c. 1480
Image taken from f. 179 of Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens. BL Harley 4375, f. 179

Silk was by far the most expensive fabric of the middle ages and it is still quite pricey. That of course meant that only the nobility, church officials and wealthy could afford silk fabrics. Silk is not only beautiful and high status, it is also lightweight yet strong, resists soil, has excellent dyeing properties and is cool and comfortable in warmer weather.

Western Europe imported silk from Byzantium, India and the Far East. When the muslims conquered Persia and Spain, they brought the secrets of silk production into Europe. It spread from Spain to Sicily in Italy where production and workshops was set up. By the 1200’s European silk was on par with the silk from Byzantium. In the 1400’s factories was also established in France.

The nobles would make everything out of silk, from underwear to veils and surcotes. Unlike other natural fabric silk is naturally glossy which makes it very attractive, it is also soft and both warm and cool, depending on the thickness of the fabric.

Velvet

Velvet is a type of woven tufted fabric in which the cut threads are evenly distributed, with a short dense pile, giving it a distinctive soft feel. Because of its unusual softness and appearance as well as its high cost of production, velvet has often been associated with nobility. Velvet was introduced to Baghdad during the rule of Harun al-Rashid (700’s) by Kashmiri merchants. In the Mamluk era (1250–1517), Cairo was the world’s largest producer of velvet. Much of it was exported to Venice (whence it spread to most of Europe). In the late medieval and Renaissance period that the improvement in draw loom technology lowered the price of production and allowed velvet design and innovation to really take off in Italy and Spain. Velvet was particlarly used in Europe for state robes, wall hangings and ecclesiastical vestments.

 

Cotton*

In Medieval times, cotton was incorrectly identified as a type of wool by Europeans. It had been described by Theophrastus (306 B.C.), the disciple of Aristotle, as a wool-bearing tree with a pod the size of a spring apple, and leaves like those of the black mulberry.

Cotton has been known in the Mediterranean area since ancient Egypt – it is unlike popular belief not a new world plant. While cotton don’t grow well in Northern Europe, a cotton industry rose up in southern Europe in the 12th century. Cotton was a relatively inexpensive fiber, and was incorporated into many weaves with other fibers to reduce the cost of the finished cloth. It was mixed with every conceivable fiber, flax, wool, silk, camel hair, and also with itself. Cotton could be used by wealthier people  for the same things you would use linen for. The Arabs, that among other places lived in Spain for much of the middle ages used cotton extensively. As a luxury fabric, Germany’s earliest record of cotton products was in 1282.  At all times, cotton was used for bedcovers/spreads, coverlets, quilts, pillow and mattress stuffing, mattress ticking, pillow ticking, canopy coverings, curtains, drapes, cotton tablecloths, napkins, towels, sails, tents, funerary coverings, mourning clothes, clerical vestments, outerwear mantles, gloves, veils, hoods, wimples, ribbons, purses, linings, coifs, and doublets. In Italy the poor classes used cotton for undergarments, tunics and summer clothing from 1200’s until the 1500’s it was in common use. The upper classes disliked using it in favour of linen by the 1300’s.

“Aristocratic women no longer wear simple cotes of cotton cloth (pignolato). They prefer instead expensive cotes of exaggerated fullness, fashioned from fine, crimped linen.” – The Moralist, Da Nono, in Padua in first half of the 14th Century

Leather

Illustration of a Belt Maker, Herman Paumgartdener - From the House Books of the Nuremberg, 1441

Leather can be produced from pretty much any animal. Sheep and goat skin was used to make parchment, so it seems unlikely that they were used for shoes and the like, since good parchment was quite expensive. In the Middle Ages, leather was used for shoes, belts, armor, horse tackle, furniture and a wide assortment of everyday products. Leather could be dyed, painted, or tooled in a variety of fashions for ornamentation. I am planing a blog post about purses.

Fur and pelt

Used for lining and borders on gloves and outer garments. As the forests shrank fur became more expensive in Europe, making it a luxury item. Beaver, fox, and sable to vair (squirrel), ermine, and marten was used for warmth and status.

Read part 2 here

 

 


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