A Brief History of Textiles: What Not To Wear, the Ancient Edition


Vision 74


A Brief History of Textiles:

What Not To Wear, the Ancient Edition


Nicole Henderson

Copyright © 2014, Nicole Henderson, All Rights Reserved



You’re working on your fantasy novel, set in the early Middle Ages. Your farm hand and tavern wench characters are leaving their homes to go on an adventure. Prudently, they pack several changes of clothing and a few cozy blankets each. Right?

Probably not.

Most common people would own a single full set of clothing (generally consisting of a number of layers), with perhaps a change or two of undergarments. When the clothing grew worn, it was turned (seams picked out and the garment resewn either inside out or reversed front-to-back), mended or patched. When it was too worn to serve the original wearer, the still-solid sections would be used to make clothing for children or made into smaller items. (A vest made from a jacket, for instance.) When the cloth finally wore out, it was used as rags, and, finally, thrown on the refuse heap to eventually fertilize the fields. (Or, in some places and times, bought by a dealer and used to make paper.)

Before the commercial production of cloth became common, textiles were unbelievably valuable. Why? Because of the time and effort involved in making them. According to some scholars, in Europe in the Middle Ages, the average woman spent 65% of her time in the production of textiles for her family’s use. That’s more than everything else (including food production, housecleaning and childcare) combined.

What was she doing for all that time?

Fiber production. Before she could make clothing, she needed raw material (referred to as ‘fiber’). In a European-based world, that would usually be flax (a plant containing fibers in its long, straight stem) or wool.

Wool sheep would have to be tended and fed year round, then sheared in spring. The wool would need to be washed (sheep are not the tidiest of animals, and the wool would also be full of lanolin, a greasy substance that helps the sheep shed rain) and combed or carded to arrange the fibers for spinning. Wool combs are heavy wooden handles set with closely-spaced rows of sharpened metal teeth. Wool cards are paddles covered in what looks like magnified metal Velcro, a sheet of tiny hooks formed from wire.

Flax would be raised, cut down, and ‘retted’, or rotted, to allow the fibers to come free of the rest of the plant material. The rotten stems were then ‘hackled’ (bent and combed to extract the fibers) and cleaned.

Spinning. Spinning is the work of twisting strands of fiber together to make a continuous thread or yarn. Take a look at a piece of your clothing; see the tiny threads within it? In the medieval world, every inch of every thread would be spun by hand. Evidence suggests spinning wheels were in use in China during the eleventh century, and spread slowly westward in the following years. Though spinning wheels were known in Europe from the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, they were not widely adopted in (for example) France until the middle of the eighteenth century.

Before that point, all spinning was done on some form of spindle. A skilled spinner trained in spindle use since before she learned to walk can produce upwards of 300 yards (274 meters) of high-twist thread in an hour if she works steadily. (Most spinners did not have the luxury of an entire day devoted to nothing but spinning.) The need for thread was so urgent that most women could not even go on a foot journey without spinning as they went.

In most places, cleaned fiber was arranged on a ‘distaff’, a special stick that was usually propped next to the spinner, held under one arm, or attached to her body. She would draw tiny amounts of fiber at a time, and draft it out into a fine thread. She would spin a spindle attached to the end of the thread, which would add twist to hold the thread together and give it the structural strength needed for textile use. A length of finished thread would be wound around the spindle. When the spindle was full, the length of thread was wound off into a hank and soaked or otherwise finished, to set the twist. In some cases, before setting the twist, two or more threads would be spun or plied together to make a thicker, stronger yarn.

Weaving. Since one can’t wear hanks of thread, the thread needed to be made into cloth. This involved a loom. First, the loom was ‘warped’, that is, all of the lengthwise threads, each as long as the full length of fabric, plus some extra for fastening at each end, were arranged on a loom, and ‘heddles’ were attached to alternating threads so they could be pulled up and down in sequence to permit the passage of another thread (the ‘weft’, or ‘woof’). Then more thread would be wound on shuttles, so it could be passed easily though the opening between the two sets of warp threads. Each weft thread was ‘beaten’, or pushed evenly up against the already-woven fabric, to make a firm, uniform cloth. When the weaver reached the end of the warp, she would cut the cloth from the loom, secure all the loose ends, then wash or even boil the cloth to finish it. An old rule of thumb tells us that a skilled weaver making plain cloth uses thread five to ten times as fast as a spinner can make it.

Dyeing: If the maker wanted colours other than the natural shades of wool or flax, the fiber, thread or cloth could be dyed. In those days, that would usually involve first treating the fiber with a ‘mordant’, a chemical which helped the dye to ‘bite’ or fix to the fibre. Mordants might be extracted from plants (like tannin from oak galls), manufactured (such as ammonia from stale urine) or mined (like alum.) Dyes themselves came from plants or animals (insects or shellfish). Some could be easily grown almost anywhere, while others were costly imports from far away. The dye process might be as easy as boiling the plant material in water, straining out the solids, and finally boiling the textile in the liquid, or it might be a long and complicated process kept secret by those in the know.

Sewing: Then, and only then, our textile-maker would be able to sew a garment. Most garments were made with wide seam allowances, allowing them to be let out if the wearer gained weight, or if the garment was passed along to someone who wasn’t the same size. Some were made in such a way that the precious fabric didn’t need to be cut at all, except to the correct length; all the extra fabric was carefully and tidily tacked down inside the garment. Sewing was all done by hand (with hand-spun sewing thread, mind you).

In your writing. There are many ways textiles might influence your plot, help with character development, or provide texture for your world.

Think about the endless hours that go into a set of clothing for your working-class medieval character. Think about how many people in his or her family also need clothing. Think about how fast someone doing heavy labour wears out her clothes. And rethink what’s going into his or her pack on the eve of the great quest.

Think about how many people (usually women) your character will see preparing flax or wool, spinning, or weaving as they go about their day (65% of her time, remember!). Think about the skills your female character will have learned in her childhood. Think about how precious each item of clothing is to your character, and how much work it would take to replace it. Think about the consequences (and therefore the ethical weight) of stealing a tunic off a wash line, especially in winter – the owner may very well not have another, and might be unable to keep warm, appear in public or work without a garment they cannot afford to replace. Think of the seriousness of damaging or losing a garment on a trip. Think of the difficulty of obtaining specialized clothing for a disguise. Think of the shock of a peasant character when a wealthy person discards or thoughtlessly ruins a piece of clothing or length of cloth. Think of the self-defense potential of a set of razor-sharp wool combs. Think about the labour and expense sewn up in a set of sails for a ship, a potato sack, or a set of curtains.

Textiles were serious (and seriously valuable!) possessions through most of human history, even when the clothing in question is a farm hand’s well-worn tunic.