Some years ago I read a novel set in the fourteenth century in which the heroine wears silk and satin gowns. I scoffed and read on. In my defence, the book was full of historical inaccuracies, and I thought this was just one more. I was convinced that silk didn’t arrive in Europe until much later. I have since learned that the author was correct and it was my own knowledge that was sadly lacking.
Silk came from the Far East. It was prized for its natural sheen and it even gave its name to the route by which it travelled west – the Silk Road. The method of making silk thread was a closely guarded secret in ancient China, but silk cloth arrived in Europe about 3,000 years ago. The secret of making silk and the means of making it didn’t come until the middle of the sixth century, when a servant of the Byzantine emperor smuggled silkworm eggs into Constantinople.
Silk thread comes from the cocoon of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm. In order for the silk thread to be extracted in one long piece, the larva couldn’t be allowed to mature, because it would eat its way out of the cocoon, breaking the thread into short pieces. It was killed by being dropped into boiling water or having a pin stuck in it.
Italy was the main European centre of silk production in the fourteenth century, although Spain also made good quality silk. Like every other medieval fabric, it took a lot of labour to make it.
The cocoon was first soaked in water in order to dissolve the substance that held it together. Eventually the ends of the threads would float to the surface and someone unravelled the cocoon. A single thread couldn’t be used on its own, so a number of threads were twisted together as they were wound into a skein. Water power was often used in this part of the process to reduce the labour required from hundreds of men to four.
Sometimes the thread would be washed again, but that didn’t always happen. It was these threads that were sold for the manufacture of fabric. The skeins would be dyed before they were woven into fabric.
England had no silk looms in the fourteenth century. Any cloth that was used was imported, mostly from Moorish Spain, but also from Italy.
Silk was tremendously expensive and was only worn by the very wealthy. In her book, Fashion in the Middle Ages, Margaret Scott compares buying silk with buying a hand-built sports car. By weight, silk was more expensive than any other commodity, save pearls and precious stones. Yes, it was worth more than gold. It could be made even more expensive yet by being embroidered. This made it unimaginably costly, putting it out of the reach of even the very rich. Only royalty and a few nobles could afford it.
Satin was made from silk and it arrived in England in the late thirteenth century. By the end of the fourteenth century it was used for doublets, tunics, cushions, bed hangings, girdles and garters. It originated in the town of Quanzhou, which was corrupted in medieval Arabic to Zaitun.
Satin damask was also available in England towards the fourteenth century, when it was worn by Richard II and others at court. It had a shiny pattern set against a dull background. As its name indicates, it came originally from Damascus.
You can see pictures of fragments of fourteenth-century silks and damasks on my Pinterest board here.
The photograph of silk production in Turkey is courtesy of C.J. Hislop. You can find her photography blog here.
Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, Kay Staniland
Fashion in the Middle Ages by Margaret Scott
Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford