I’m a knitter and I like wool. Knitting wasn’t a big thing in the fourteenth century, but wool was. Some knitted fabrics from the fourteenth century have survived, but wool was usually woven into fabric or felted. I’m interested in medieval textiles and have a Pinterest board devoted to them.
All over Europe, people used woollen fabrics for clothing and bedding, and the best wool came from England. Flanders and northern Italy were the main weaving centres. importing wool from England and exporting woollen cloth back across the Channel.
It’s been estimated that there were at least nine million sheep in England in the first few decades of the century. The vast majority of them were providing wool for export. Some of the great monasteries had huge flocks, but it was worth keeping even a small flock in order to benefit from the wool trade. Early in the century some monastic flocks could contain 15,000 sheep and there are records of many individual manors with 600 sheep or more. 100 to 300 was probably the more usual size. After the Black Death more land was available for sheep and the size of flocks expanded. It wasn’t unknown for a flock to number 30,000 sheep.
Sheep were very susceptible to the various murrains of the Middle Ages and the sizes of flocks fluctuated according to the prevalence of disease. Some large estates lost two-thirds of their flocks in one year during a particularly bad time.
The quality of wool varied and this was reflected in the prices paid for it. Fleeces from Shropshire, Herefordshire and Lincolnshire were usually considered the best quality, while those from East Anglia, Devon and Cornwall were the worst.
The fleece was the most expensive item in making cloth. Labour was cheap, and turning a fleece into fabric was labour-intensive, as were most tasks in the fourteenth century. Wool had to willowed, washed, dyed, blended, combed, carded, bowed, spun, warped, sized, woven, fulled, stretched, teasled, shorn and calendered.
Wool could only be exported through certain towns. One of them was London and about half the wool exported went through it. Another third went from Boston and Hull. The rest went via Southampton and Lynn. Piracy at sea was always a problem, particularly after the beginning of the Hundred Years War.
Customs duties had to be paid on wool. It was probably the most consistent tax of the fourteenth century. Edward III was a great soldier, but a poor economist. He tried to raise funds for his war against the king of France by dabbling in the wool trade, but failed miserably. For twenty years the wool trade was destabilised. By the late 1350s he had given up, but it took time for it to recover.
From 1363 all wool exports had to go through Calais. This was partly to make the English town there viable. Edward III had captured it after a year-long siege in 1347, but it was costing more than it was worth to keep it.
By the 1370s raw wool exports were beginning to fall, but by then England was exporting processed wool in the form of cloth.
England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh
Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, Kay Staniland