Medieval Wool

lamb

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.

 

Sources:

England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh

Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, Kay Staniland

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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34 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing, Medieval Life

34 responses to “Medieval Wool

  1. Maybe that’s why Edward III ordered his Lord Chancellor to sit on a woolsack while he was in council. (The Speaker of the House of Lords still does.) I wonder if he made that decision before he messed up the wool trade or afterwards.

    Any idea why Cornish wool was considered low quality?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Wool was certainly a symbol of England’s wealth, such as it was, so that might be why it’s there.

      I don’t know why some were considered better quality than others, but I’ve got some books that might tell me. I’ve a mind to do a bit more reading about textiles. I haven’t got much, but what I’ve got is very detailed.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Cool info as always, can’t even imagine 30,000 sheep together!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I used to live in Cheltenham and remember being very impressed by the grand ‘wool churches’ in the Cotswolds, funded by the merchants.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It’s hard to imagine shearing so many sheep. Labor would have to be cheap.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Losing the Plot

    I can knit a little but I used to demonstrate natural dying and spinning, not that I’m any great shakes at the latter. Using a drop spindle is ok, and I mastered a long draw technique on the wheel – but when setting a wheel up, I turned the air bluer than I ever managed with a fleece! 😂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve tried drop spinning and I’m useless at it. I think it’s partly because I don’t understand how it works, so I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I also think my spindle is not great. I’m impressed that you can demonstrate it.

      Dying is on my list of things to try.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, there’s quite a few steps involved in turning wool into fabric! Do you know how long it would have taken for the whole process, beginning to end?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I too am a lover of wool, but I crochet, haven’t learned how to knit, yet. Interesting tidbit from our travels in Italy. We took a tour of Pompei with a guide who had worked on the digs at the site and who could read and translate the signs on the buildings. One of the buildings we visited was a wool merchant where they processed the fleece. Inside were three large tubs that were used in removing the lanoline. We had a lively discussion on the process. Love your posts April.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Jo. I crocheted before I knitted. We still have doilies that I made as a teenager.

      That’s interesting about Pompei. I think I would have been more interested in that building than in some of the others.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. My hubby is from Boston Lincolnshire and I didn’t realise how important wool trade had been.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. lydiaschoch

    I would have assumed that knitting was a big thing in the fourteenth century. Interesting. Do you know when it became more popular?

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I’m surprised you don’t mention York. The Ouse used to be big enough for sea-going ships and the city developed as port. I understood wool was a major export. Was this at a different period?

    Liked by 2 people

  11. So much I don’t know…I really thought knitting would have been going on during this period. You just assume things. Another interesting post, thanks April.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Years ago I read Anya Seaton’s “Katherine”. While a lot of her story was romanticized and based on speculation, she did mention that Edward’s moving of the wool staple greatly upset the Lincolnshire merchants. Apparently Lincoln was at one time a staple city. Would be interested in knowing if this was true. Much of Seaton’s work is iffy on reality.

    From relatives who raise sheep to show at our American 4-H fairs, I learned that wools of coarse “quality” have important purposes (example: felting cloths for saddle blankets; heavy felts for hardy outerwear). And fine wools would be reserved for the best garments, especially items directly against the skin.

    I’ve heard that hair shirts for penance came from wearing coarse woolens that irritated the wearer. Some took it even further by having sharp things woven into the wool. (OUCH!)

    All grades of wool were needed and important, but not all brought top price.

    Breeds of sheep developed in different regions, which is why so many sheep have places in their names (example: Romney Marsh, Suffolk, Leiscester, etc.). It wasn’t common to interbreed in the 14th century. Transporting, even rams for mating, was kept local. There simply weren’t the roads or transportation means necessary for diversification.

    Inbreeding was one reason murrains could wreak such havoc. The Great British Agricultural Revolution was centuries in the future. Much hardiness was sacrificed due to the intense localization of breeds.

    My relatives also sheared, spun & wove. But they had the fleeces cleaned & processed. No wonder specialists handled one or more of the important steps! And they were known by their professions, which is why their progeny have names like Fuller, Shearer, Shepherd, Dyer, Coombe, etc.

    The things one learns when their little relatives raise animals for 4H!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about inbreeding making the effects of the murrains worse.

      When I was driving around Shropshire at the weekend I was trying to work out if the sheep there were very different from the ones I see when I visit the Peak District. I can only conclude that I don’t know much about sheep.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I love wool, too. I used to have a fascinating booklet produced by the NZ Wool Board with a page devoted to each breed of sheep. There was a photo, history of the breed, detailed notes on the type of wool grown and its uses. These would only have been the breeds brought to New Zealand, or developed here by cross-breeding. Many of the breeds, alas, are now considered rare.

    I also shared a flat with a friend who spun, dyed, and knitted wool to make herself a sweater. She made the dye from elderberries. Not a task I would have had the patience for, but it was a fascinating one to watch and the sweater turned out well.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t think I would have the patience to make a jumper from scratch. I’m interested in the processes, but I don’t want to wait too long for whatever it is I’m making. I’m quite a slow knitter and adding other steps in would feel quite frustrating.

      Liked by 2 people

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