Clothing in the post-industrial age is cheap and disposable. If we grow tired of something or outgrow it, it is easy enough to get something else, usually the same day we make the decision to get new clothes. This is a loooong way from clothing in the Middle Ages. Cloth was precious. For most folks living in Medieval Europe, a couple sets of underclothes, one work outfit, and one nice outfit existed in their wardrobes. The undyed underclothes were washed more often than overclothes to preserve the nicer outer garments. There were various ways to prevent damage from clothes, like removable or tie-back sleeves.
Why were people so precious about their clothing? Well let’s take a walk through the process of wool (since it was the most common fabric type) – before mechanised looms, before sewing machines – “sheep to shawl” (as recreators say) – a field-to fashion-guide.
Shepherd: the person who raises the sheep, or herds them if you want to be pedantic about the word.
Shearing: – in many cases shepherds hired skilled workers who travelled around shearing sheep during shearing season (there’s a tongue-twister in there somewhere).
Sorting: – fleeces get grouped into grades, worsted (long top hairs) and woollen (short underhairs) as well as sometimes by type of sheep or if it is good for warp or weft. A process apparently so boring no one bothered to capture an image of it, so here’s a battle sheep:
Washing: – the wool gets a bath in soap and water. Depending on if this is happening at home or for market it might be a quick bath, or super scrub. Quick washes leave much of the lanolin intact, which the super scrub option tends to strip it all out.
Beating: – the wool is flogged with willow sticks because it’s a dirty, dirty, fluffy cloud of fibers . This removes any bits of grit that washing missed.
Dye-in-the-wool: – sometimes the wool is quick dyed at this stage, providing a base colour for later. Often no mordant, the chemical used to make the dye hold fast, is used. Here’s some damp, dyed roving ready to be combed:
Greasing: – if all that lanolin was stripped out during washing then some oil was added back to the wool, often something like butter or olive oil.
Combing/Carding: – this is the bit you get to do whenever you go to living history places when they give you two dog combs and you brush the wool back and forth between the two. But, some medieval tools for doing this were KILLER. Combing was used for the longer worsted wool and carding for the shorter woollen. This was to straighten and fluffify the fibers. Before iron was common and even after because it was effective but cheap, people used teasels (we’ll come back to them in a minute).
Spinning: this is when you turn all those fibers into thread through the magical process of twisting! Spinning wheels start showing up in Europe around 1300 CE (arriving by way of the Middle East from the Far East). Before that there was a variety of ways to spin and women did this often – sort of a very early fidget spinner. There’s basically distaffs…
…and drop spindles (of which there are many types). Estimates say that there were on average 7 spinners needed for every 1 weaver. Men were spinners, women were spinsters, even if they were married. Just the job title, folks.
Weaving: basically that toy we all played with that was a plastic square with knobs over which we stretched what seemed to be slices of plantyhose. Standing looms were a thing for a long time, then they became horizontal, then they got more and more automated, but the principle is all the same. You have the warp which are the long, tension-providing threads and the warp which passes perpendicular to the weft with an under-over motion.
Fulling: also called walking (or waulking) or tucking, is basically washing, but for fabric. This gets oils and dirt out and prepares the fabric for taking dye. Once a garment was made it would be walked periodically to clean it of the daily grit and grime it accumulated. It also thickened the fabric (hence, the term “fulling”). Walking and tucking come from the motion used. Instead of soap and water, at this point a clay called fuller’s earth mixed with water was used.
While out of our time period, not much changed between the middle ages and 18th-century Scotland, so here is a clip from Outlander showing women waulking: https://youtu.be/wgT3Fo5BLTs
Shearing 2: the de-fuzzing! The sequel to shearing includes 100% less wiggly farm animals. This was a method of removing all those little fuzzy bits of fiber which escaped the weave (the bad type of fuzzy that we DO NOT want). Battle sheep again…
Napping: it’s been a helluva lot of work up until now and I think we could all use I lie-down. Actually, this process used tools called teasels which were dragged across the fabric to raise the nap (the good type of fuzzy that we DO want). Teasels are also the dried heads of dispascus plants, aka thistles. These heads were placed in wooden frames and that’s what made a teasel.
And back to those teasels…this is a teasel, filled with teasels. And, now, don’t you want to casually drop ‘teasel’ into some random conversation? Just me then.
Dyeing: this is pretty self explanatory really, except instead of heading to your local craft store you went into nature and squeezed the life out of it then made a soup of it’s leached soul and and a mordant, like alum, then bathed fabric in this blood of nature (sometimes literally – look up cochineal).
Pressing: this is basically, ironing. All sorts of cool tools to flatten fabric have existed for awhile, but irons first started appearing in the 1300s. At this point you have workable or sellable fabric! This is a glass linen smoother, for linen, but you get the idea:
Draper: mostly fabric was then purchased by fabric merchants, or drapers, who would travel the wool circuit. Then, as today, that circuit was the hotbed of fashion and people from all the fashion-oriented cities went to the big markets to look for the best options; places like Milan, Paris, Barcelona, Antwerp…and Winchester. Wool was BIG BUSINESS. There were so many laws, and levies, rules, and regulations regarding the industry. And every country had their prime wool that they were trying to dominate the market with.
Cutting/Tailoring: now, the clothing has to get made. Tailors might buy fabrics which their customers could pick from, or customers might bring in their own fabrics.
As you can see fabric was labour intensive. It’s processing and creation spanned gender and class. But the time it reached the consumer, it was a pricey commodity. Men and women tended to know at least how to do basic repairs to a garment and garments tended to be altered to fit changes in body size and shape and handed down to younger siblings, children, vassals, etc. If they were beyond wearing then it might be stripped for parts to be used in making embroidered purses. “Waste not, want not” was the name of the game when it came to fabrics.
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