Medieval Silk

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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.

Silk processing in Turkey

Silk thread being pulled in modern Turkey using traditional methods. Glossy silk thread on the wall. Photograph copyright C.J. Hyslop used with permission.

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.

 

Sources:

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

 

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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32 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

32 responses to “Medieval Silk

  1. Fascinating post, as ever, April. Do you know how satin was given its shiny appearance?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I went to a silk making place when visiting Turkey, exactly the same process as you describe here, there’s a couple of pics of the cocoons in water and the weavers in my post here if you are interested, no worries if not .
    https://fragglefilm.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/turkey-1999part-3-out-and-about/

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Wow, no wonder it was/is expensive, and no wonder silk is so absorbent with all those delicate thin threads interlocking. Thinking of the weight and texture of other fabrics made and used at the time, I cannot imagine how people must have felt seeing silk for the first time. You have got me thinking again April, you always do!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I would never have thought silk was used way back then! So interesting April to learn how it was produced. Lovely photo of the Turkish lady. Great post! 😊

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Excellent as ever, April. Really interesting! I’ve often wondered…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You can see why silk was so expensive and still is. Such an interesting post as always!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Insightful post! Loving this series on medieval fabrics, April.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I’m learning that silk production began in Italy in the early 13th century, AD.
    But silk was produced in Byzantium long before, from smuggled cocoons.

    Silk was rare, but available, in even the earliest medieval times. It was so precious only the most elite could afford it. Byzantium silks were available by the late first millennium, but they did not have the centuries of experience known in China, and were considered inferior to the elaborate brocades & gossamer tissues carted on the Silk Road. The same could be said of the early Italian silks.

    Silks were interwoven with other fabrics to make them cheaper, but nothing could beat the lustre & sheen of the real thing. The ability of silk to accept dyes was phenomenal, but much color could & did wash out unless mordants were employed, which if improperly applied, could change the much-desired softness & lushness that was the hallmark of fine silk cloth. Mordants were also closely guarded.

    Chinese silk was supreme. They might have lost the cocoons, but methods of manufacture were guarded on pain of death. It took a long while before western lands could produce comparable cloth. Some of the secrets had to be unlocked by force or subterfuge, which at times created international issues. It was a long time before quantities of Japanese silks reached Europe, due to self-imposed isolation.

    Oh there’s so much more! But I’ll leave it to you and your better resources to give flesh to the bones.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Whenever I wear silk I try not to think of the unfortunate silkworms who gave their all. Those examples of early silk and damask fabrics on your Pinterest board are beautiful. They must have looked amazing in their heyday.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That would, I think, put me off wearing silk.

      Bearing in mind how much medieval people loved bright colours, their silk clothes must have been almost blinding.

      Liked by 2 people

      • The Troilus Frontspiece, a contemporary picture of Richard II’s court listening while Chaucer reads to them, contains a good idea of the colors (somewhat faded), clothing styles, and such, of the time.

        Only one figure, standing directly in front of Chaucer, believed to be Richard II, with Queen Anne standing behind him, wears embroidered cloth (presumably silk) Others wear primarily solid colors, most of which I’ll assume is silk of some sort. After all, Richard demanded only the finest array in his presence.

        While it may just be a way to point out the monarch to observers, the completely embroidered gown of the king, possibly cloth-of-gold brocade, may have been either too costly for others, or forbidden to wear. Richard did not enjoy being cast into the sidelights by anyone. Thus far, but no further!

        One of the onlookers is supposed to be the Duke of Lancaster, only second to the king in wealth and prestige. That he would be in plainer clothes may say something about what was available, or allowable, for even the mightiest of Richard’s subjects.

        The Troilus Frontspiece is at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 61. fol. LV. Chaucer reading his works to the court of Richard II (C) Corpus Christi College Cambridge/The Bridgeman Art Library. I have a picture of the frontspiece in my copy of “Mistress of the Monarchy” by Alison Weir. Also was able to find it in Pinterest, key words “TROILUS FRONTSPIECE; Chaucer reading to the court of Richard II”.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Medieval Underclothes | A Writer's Perspective

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