Processing Medieval Wool


A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the wool trade in the fourteenth century. I listed some of the processes the fleece underwent on its way to becoming cloth. Although I have a fairly good idea what happens to wool before it finds itself on my knitting needles, I hadn’t even heard of some of the things that happened to medieval wool.

The list of processes comes from Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450, so I can’t be entirely certain that they were all used in the fourteenth century. The authors also point out that not all of the processes were used in all parts of England.

The first process on the list stumped me. I had no idea what willowing was. Fortunately, I found the blog of Josefin Waltin, who explained that you beat the wool that has been shorn from a sheep with two willow sticks. The purpose is to get the vegetable matter out of the wool. If you’ve ever seen sheep in a field, you’ll know that it has bits of sticks, leaves, grass and other (even less appealing) things stuck in its fleece. You don’t want any of that in a fabric that you’re going to wear. Waltin says the other reason for willowing is to open the locks (the small bits of wool that stick together after the sheep has been shorn).

Here’s a video Waltin made of her willowing some wool.  It looks like an enjoyable process.

The next process is washing. As we’ve just seen, fleeces are not clean, even after they’ve been willowed, and they need to be washed. When it comes from the sheep, the fleece is full of lanolin, which is a wax secreted by the sheep. This was a delicate process, since the water used had to be hot to get rid of the lanolin, but agitating the wool in hot water would cause it to felt.

Once it was clean,  the wool could be dyed, or used with its natural colour. Some monks, for example, wore habits of undyed wool. I’m planning on doing a separate post on dying, as it’s a huge subject.

After it had been dyed, the wool could be blended with wool of another colour. This meant combing wools of different colours together. Despite the willowing and the washing, there could still be dirt in the wool. Combing removed more of it, but its main purpose was to remove imperfect fibres and to make all the threads run in one direction ready for spinning. The combs have evil-looking spikes set in rows. The wool is placed onto the set of spikes that isn’t going to move, then combed at a right angle with the second set.

There are images of the processes on my Pinterest board here and there’s a video of Josefin Waltin combing and spinning in the fourteenth-century style below.

Carding is a similar process to combing, except that the spikes are shorter and are arranged all over a square paddle. The carder holds one in each hand and uses them like brushes, pulling the wool from one card to the other until all the fibres goe in the same direction, so that it can be spun. Cloths were often woven from a warp that had been combed and a weft that had been carded.

Bowing was another process like combing and carding. If wool was too short for combing, it could be bowed. The bow was a specialised instrument, with a cord stretched between two points. The cord was placed in the wool and the wooden frame was struck to make the cord vibrate. The wool became fluffy and could be spun or felted. This method wasn’t used very much after the thirteenth century in England.

I’ve written about spinning before. Although wool could be dyed earlier in the process, it was usually dyed after it had been spun. This was often so that the whole batch of thread that was going to be used for a particular project could be dyed to a uniform colour, not that that was always important.

Once the wool was spun it was ready to be used, but there were still many processes that it underwent before it before someone had the fabric in their hands in order to make a piece of clothing. We’ll look at some of those next week.


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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Filed under Medieval Clothing

40 responses to “Processing Medieval Wool

  1. Such a clart on! Excellent post and videos, you’ll be topper after the apocalypse!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Oh I really want to willow! Such a long process from sheep to needle, quite amazing. As always a really interesting post April.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I do, too. I was tempted to watch the whole video again this morning, because it’s so relaxing.

      Waltin has done a video about the whole (modern) process. It took her two years from shearing the sheep to the finished jumper.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The stars have aligned exquisitely today. I am currently reading a Pride and Prejudice sequel that mentions gig mills. So after Googling and reading some book excerpts I learned about gig mills and shearing frames, which became more widely used in 19th Century England for turning/processing wool into cloth. You have given me even more excellent information and resources to understand the process.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. lydiaschoch

    Wow. I had no idea there were so many steps involved in turning wool into cloth.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. The thing that fascinates me is that people figured this out. I assume there was much trial and error involved, but still, it’s a huge accomplishment.

    Liked by 3 people

    • To be honest, it surprises me less than people working out how to make ink, or thinking that an animal hide would be good to write on.

      You quite often see bits of sheep wool tangled up in hedgerows in a way that might suggest its usefulness. I can imagine children playing with them and producing a rudimentary thread. We still know that beating things can (sometimes) get the dirt out of them and washing speaks for itself.

      Ink, on the other hand, involves a parasite of the oak, a rusty nail and gum arabic, amongst other things. However much I think about it, I can’t work out the train of thought that put those ingredients together.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I have read much about this process, from the modern point of view. The steps involved are very intricate still. Removing the lanolin is a nasty process. But willowing looks like fun, I just don’t know if I would like it after a couple of days. 😉 And you haven’t gotten to the dying process yet. More steps. It makes you appreciate the work and the cost involved in a hank of wool or a handmade wool sweater. You have provided great info as always April.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. A fascinating, intricate process. Thanks for shedding light on medieval wool-making, April!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Jhunni

    What about fulling? Used to remove the lanolin?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I did read that some woolens, such as outdoor wear, kept some of the lanolin for better waterproofing. Can’t imagine that most medieval woolens could be
    completely “de-lanolinized”. Yet the fatty residue was prized for many purposes, even medicinal. It was not wasted, however yucky the process to obtain it.

    Read an interesting item about lanolin from the Royal Society of Chemistry in “Chemistry World”, cue word “lanolin”. Not very medieval, but gives great insight about the value of this byproduct of the woolen trade.

    No wonder clothing was so valued! The time it took for a spinster to spin enough for one kirtle! The hands must have become so calloused. I can see why spinning wheels were prized. They cut the spinning time drastically. But it didn’t help the other processes like cleaning, fulling, carding, etc.

    Little wonder England was later revolutionized by water & steam mills. I think England changed more quickly and dramatically than other European nations due to the applications of water & steam to process & weave wool.

    More! More!

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s lanolin in the cream I use on my hands. I’m sure it has, and had, lots of uses.

      I read something recently about closely-woven woollen cloth being more waterproof or water-resistant, but I don’t know how closely they could weave in the fourteenth century. Some of the fragments of cloth in the illustrations look fairly loose.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. That does look like a fun process! And one that could be done while keeping an eye on the kids, too. I’ve often seen hand-knitted sweaters at craft fairs and the like made from undyed wool – coloured sheep’s wool added interesting shades. They were very popular in the 1970s, when there was a lot of interest in traditional crafts. Some sweaters still felt a little greasy to my fingers, though I was assured that they were great for outdoor wear because the lanolin provides a degree of waterproofing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That raises another question. If they couldn’t get all the lanolin out of the wool in the fourteenth century, that would mean that the grease got onto the linen chemises and shirts. I wonder what they did to get the grease out of them. They would have become rather unpleasant fairly quickly.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Likely they wore woolens as clean as they could get them. Little wonder then that if one could afford silks and linens, especially for underclothes, they were preferred. I’m sure they washed cleaner and more easily.

        Wealthier folks could and did pass worn out garments to servants. Probably included stained & dirtied woolens that would not come clean.

        Embroideries could cover some spots, and cleverly placed patterns of patches might also help. Pretty sure lots of ingenuity went into keeping fabrics serviceable and attractive.

        And we must remember England is a land of chalk-a-plenty! I have old recipe books that include ways to remove greasy spots with pulverized chalk. One lays a thick, wet paste of chalk on the spots, allows it to thoroughly dry, and is then beaten out. Several applications might be needed to make presentable. Perhaps this was known to medieval lavenders (laundresses).

        Another method was to lay the garment on clean paper, strew chalk liberally under and over the spots, and apply flatirons. The heat made the chalk absorb quickly and more thoroughly. Beat out as before. I don’t think this would have worked back when paper was so dear or made of parchment. But it might have been done directly on a wooden surface used for ironing. Thing is, I can’t find information if flatirons were used in medieval times.

        I would think the ability of chalk to absorb grease would have been understood by medieval folk, but no real proof beyond the last two centuries in the U.S.A.

        Uncovering the secrets of women’s history is far more challenging than anything involving men. So little of women’s everyday life were recorded, especially menial chores and health matters!

        You do us a great service, April, in bringing these matters to light! So grateful for your deep research & hard work! ♥

        Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t think the sweaters I fingered would have been greasy enough to mark anything – they just had a certain feel to them. Felting certainly makes wool both rain and wind resistant – I have several felted merino jackets. Feather-light and super warm.

        I learnt the habit of wool-fingering from my mother. In the days before products were so stringently labelled she would gently rub a piece of cloth between her thumb and index-finger and say sagely, “That’s not pure wool, it’s got something in with it.” Or, “That’s not good quality wool.” I’ve no idea where she learnt the habit – probably from her own mother. I wouldn’t mind betting medieval cloth merchants were champion wool-fingerers – they could probably have pronounced on what part of the country the wool came from.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I’m sure they were experts with regard to the cloth. I suspect most people could tell good from bad fairly easily. I wish I could, then I might knit a jumper out of something that didn’t pill.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Wonder what adulterants would be added to make wool inferior in medieval times? Maybe just by poor spinning, weaving, felting, or using coarse fleeces with little of the finer quality?

            Modern woolens can be spoofed with synthetics. But besides flax and silk, what other materials were used to produce medieval cloth? Did they have hemp? I read that Arab traders brought cotton to Europe in the 800’s AD, but it must have been a sleeper until colonization took hold.

            The more we learn, the more questions we ask! ☻

            Liked by 1 person

  11. I didn’t realise just how much work was involved. Fascinating read as always. I’m looking forward to the dying post too.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Pingback: Making Medieval Fabric | A Writer's Perspective

  13. Losing the Plot

    Sorry for the late reply, it’s taken me till now to remember this word. rolleg, that’s the name for the sausage shaped roll that comes off the carders, that can be used for spinning. It’s been a long time, I haven’t thought about rollers for about 20 years, so it wasn’t on the top of my tongue

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve heard the term and I’ve probably seen them in videos. I don’t think I’d worked out that they come off cards like that. The wool that came with my spindle isn’t like that. It’s a long length of wool. I know now that I didn’t prepare it properly for spinning. I ought to give it another go.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Losing the Plot

        Yes there is a way of combining two lengths, they may have to twist to each other – so one going each way, when you combine them they make a yarn that can be knit

        Liked by 2 people

        • I remember helping my aunt and uncle card their wool. Well, maybe I wasn’t that much help, as though they were able to somehow attach each roll (they didn’t have a word for it) to another, I could not. I just made small rolls & they attached one to the next in a way to make it look like a long, loose, woolen rope. This was very loosely, but carefully, wound around the spindle.

          I remember watching how easy it seemed to be for them to draw the wool into thread. I was so ham-handed with carding that they never offered to teach me anything else. It did seem that my sections of cardings tended to break more readily.

          If I was a medieval girl I would probably have been apprenticed to a fuller! ☻

          Liked by 2 people

          • Losing the Plot

            I enjoyed carding – but I wasn’t a child, I was in my 20’s when I learned. Happily I could transform a washed fleece into a basket full of fluffy rollegs in a few hours, I was pretty good at that, but that’s where skill left me. I could spin a little, using the ‘long draw’ technique, but it wasn’t up to much. I suppose it’s like anything, if I practiced more I would have got better but I stuck at what I was good at – carding rollegs for someone else to spin.

            Liked by 2 people

          • If you were a medieval girl you’d probably have been beaten if you couldn’t get it right 🙂 You’d have spent hours on it, though, until it became second nature.

            Liked by 1 person

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  16. TL Clark

    Thank you. This was most insightful. Sheep shearing day is featured in the medieval romance novel which I’m writing. It’s great to get an idea of the process after – willowing now gets a mention 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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