Making Medieval Fabric


Dried teasel head

Last week we looked at the processes wool underwent before it got to the weaver. Now we’ve arrived at the loom.

Of the processes described in the previous post,  there were two that were quite similar: combing and carding. They each produced a different type of thread, however. The shorter fibres that had been carded were called woollens and the longer ones that had been combed were called worsteds. Woollens were often used for the weft threads on a loom and the worsteds for the warp.  The warp was made by attaching the spun thread to the loom at right angles to the weaver i.e. running away from him. The weft was the moving thread attached to the shuttle.

I’m not sure whether this next process – sizing – was carried out before or after the loom was warped. The warp threads were smoothed by coating them with something so that they would provide less resistance to the weft thread. There was always a danger that the warp threads, which were held under tension on the loom, would snap, and the passing of the shuttle between them would cause abrasions. I’ve seen a recipe on the internet for sizing using gelatine. I don’t know how medieval it is, but it would certainly flatten any fluffy fibres in the thread. It would also be easy to wash it out later.

From the pictures I’ve seen of medieval looms, weaving could either be fairly straightforward or extremely complicated. Simple looms for wide pieces of plain cloth were structured like an open cube, while others were a series of cubes joined together, going up rather out, needing two people to operate them. These latter produced complicated patterns on the fabric.

You would think that once it was woven the fabric would be ready to be made into garments, but, no, there were still more things to be done to it. It could be calendered, which meant a hot press was used on it. Until the late Middle Ages a slickstone or a piece of rounded, heated glass were rubbed over it. You can see one here on my Pinterest board. The purpose of this was to give a shine to the fabric, or to make it thinner.

The woven cloth was usually fulled. This encouraged it to felt, which produced a firmer fabric. It was soaked in an alkaline solution, most often fuller’s earth (a type of clay) and water, but stale, human urine could also be used. The purpose of this was to remove any grease or dirt still in the fabric. The fabric was rinsed, then beaten with hands or feet. An early use of water power was to hammer fabrics as part of the fulling process. Large wooden hammers, which wouldn’t damage the fabric, were used.

Here’s a short video of a fulling mill in action.

Here’s Tony Robinson going a bit over the top as a medieval fuller.

Fulling caused cloth to shrink by a third, so the cloth was stretched as it dried. The frame on which it was stretched was called a tenterframe. The fabric was stretched on small, closely-spaced hooks – tenterhooks.

There was one final process for some fabrics. Teasling made the fabric even softer. The cloth was hung over a beam and dried teasel heads set in a wooden frame were drawn over the surface to raise a nap. You can see this illustrated in my Pinterest board. The nap was shorn and, on good quality fabrics, the teasling would start again, up to four times. This must have been a scary part of the process. The shears were long and one slip could ruin the cloth that it had taken so long to make.

Here’s a clip from a recent episode of Les Feux de Guédelon which illustrates another use of teasels. I’m not sure how efficient this method of carding would have been. The tool itself, however, looks very much like the implement to teasel fabric. There are subtitles.



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, Medieval Life

42 responses to “Making Medieval Fabric

  1. I’ve seen fabric called worsted for so long that I can’t remember when I first saw it, and in all that time I never stopped to wonder what it meant. “Something to do with wool” seemed like enough of an explanation. Thanks for filling that in for me.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The thing that still confuses me is that I listen to knitting podcasts in which American knitters refer to worsted weight yarn. It was bad enough before I knew what worsted meant, but now I’m completely at a loss.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Americans (I am one) are not the best resources for wool terminology. We tend to get things mixed up. I’ve known Americans who spin and weave to use _woolens_ & _worsteds_ interchangeably. Your information make a heap more sense!

        My friends did not treat the warp, and I remember watching occasional stops to reconnect the yarns & adjust tensions. Pretty sure they didn’t know about treatments, of chose not to use them. They used fully cleaned yarns and put their products to immediate use. Pretty, but very rough & rustic.

        The fulling and teaseling must have wasted a lot of wool, and took much more time to prepare, which is probably why the finest woolens are expensive. The best woolens fetch nearly the same prices as silks in my section of the country. Good tweeds are sky-high $$$.

        Stale urine. While I knew it was used, & that certain tweeds were known for a faint tang, didn’t know WHY it was part of the process. :-{

        I can imagine the 14th century dame, who needed yards & yards of fine cloth for her best gown, would take great pains to keep it neat & clean.
        I used to smile when reading old wills that bequeathed clothing & other cloth products. How ignorant moderns are about the sheer work and expense our forebears expended to keep body & bed covered! What a boon it must have been for the poor to be given old, frayed, stained cloths and garments!

        And cedar, camphor, spices; absolutely essential to keep destructive moths and mouldering odors at bay, yet requiring import from far away. Little could be accumulated and stored without ways to protect them.

        Also wondered about teaseling. I knew they were used in the olden days for cloth production (and that today they’re a persistent weed), but had no clue as to how they were employed. Also better understand the woolen mills and how water was necessary for fuel & function.

        Appreciate learning about tenterhooks. Another mysterious phrase explained. Here I was thinking about hooks to hold up the sides of tents!

        Little wonder why wool was England’s lifeline. This series is filling many voids in my brain! Fun, factual, fascinating! ♥

        Thank you, April!!!

        Liked by 4 people

        • Thank you. I’ve learned a lot as well. I think finding out about teasling was the most fun and the very apposite video from Guedelon arrived on YouTube this week.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Cedar and so forth weren’t the only ways to preserve wood. The garderobes in castles (the forerunners of toilets but without water, built out over the open air) were called that because of their role in preserving wool. Presumably the smell kept the moths off. Garderobe is from the French–something along the lines of keeping the dresses. Or, in the French of that time, possibly some larger category of garments.

          History’s a smelly place.

          Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks for the detailed, yet easy to understand explanation. I’m beginning to understand why high quality fabric items are/were so expensive. It’s all in the details.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Thank GOD for acrylics!! 😃

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Oh, April. I am loving this series of posts. There is something so wonderful about fabric.

    I think it is fueled by the fact that my grandmother was a seamstress. I remember going shopping with her. She touched each piece of fabric, running her hand over the bolt, pulling out a section and squeezing it in her hand and then holding it up to the light. If she was going to spend her time creating a garment, she was determined to use the best cloth she could afford.

    The amazing thing is while human labor has been largely replaced by machines, the process is very much the same as in medieval times. Thank you for all of your research.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Absolutely fascinating. So much time and effort before you even get to the making of a garment, wow. I often think how sensitive present day noses are to ‘natural’ smells but we filter out or have become used to so many artificial ones; I guess that is what it was like living in those times, your tolerance for such smells increased. Would the tanners and fullers of the world be more on the outskirts of a village I wonder? Great post

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m a huge wool fan, so I’m thoroughly enjoying these posts. The fulling process in particular has always fascinated me. Lengths of fabric, stretched on tenterhooks, must have been a common sight in medieval England.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I’ve heard that some wool spinners, even in medieval times, could produce yarns as fine as thread, allowing for super thin fabrics. How long it must have taken, and what incredibly fine fleeces (probably Merinos?) must have been used, to get cloth as fine as netting.

    Alpacas, llamas & vicunas are gaining popularity. They look & feel like wool, but no itch! I have an alpaca blanket that is just wonderful! My kitty loves it, too, and is usually found laying on it.

    Such a wonderful topic. Enjoying the comments! ♥

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Teasel is one of my favourite wild flowers. I love the starkness of the seed head, but also the tiny purple flowers as they open up gradually along the flower spike.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Oh my, Robinson’s face as he prepares the vat 😀 Talk about getting into medieval character! I can’t believe he did that. Like Lucy mashing grapes in the Italian vineyard in “I Love Lucy,” only with a much more unsavory vat! :p

    Liked by 2 people

  10. John Kitcher

    Just down the road from us is a stream (and urban area) called “Tanners Brook”. I dread finding out where it got its name from!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. As someone who knits, felts and weaves this all sounds very familiar, although I use a washing machine for fulling and felting

    Liked by 2 people

  12. customprintedfabric

    Truly fascinating and exciting for who knits and weaves fabric 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Medieval Textile Tools | A Writer's Perspective

  14. Pingback: Five Things To Do With Urine In The Middle Ages | A Writer's Perspective

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