Over the past month we’ve been looking at the manufacture of fabric for outer clothes in the Middle Ages: wool and silk. Now we’re taking a look at the fabric used for undergarments. These were not undergarments as we would think of them, but simple chemises or shirts, whose purpose was to keep the outer garments away from the skin. They kept the body’s oils and sweat from the expensive (and almost impossible to wash) wools and silks. It was the undergarments that would be washed, not the outer ones.
As you can see in the picture above, men also wore linen braies, which resemble what we would consider to be underwear today. The braies were usually covered by hose and tunics.
Linen is made from flax stems. It was harvested before the seeds ripened and soaked in water, often rivers, to rot the core. This polluted rivers and smelled dreadful. It’s another reminder of why so little water was fit to drink in the fourteenth century. Once the core had rotted away, the stems were dried, then beaten with wooden mallets to break them. Then they were scutched, which meant striking them with a wooden knife against a vertical wooden board. This released the fibres. The next stage was combing or heckling. This is a far more violent version of the combing undergone by wool. Everything to do with linen processing seems violent when compared to what happened to wool.
Here’s a lovely video about a more recent, but still traditional, process of growing, harvesting and preparing flax for spinning in Ireland.
Once it had been combed, the flax was ready for spinning. Here’s Josefin Waltin preparing her distaff for spinning flax. If ever you need something to calm you down and breathe more slowly, take a look at one of Josefin’s videos. There’s nothing hurried or urgent about them.
Most linen weaving took place in the countryside, where the flax was grown. It was a profitable business for those who could grow flax, and those who grew it usually spun and wove it. In addition to the thread, there was also oil to be harvested from the seeds, making it a very useful crop.
As you can see, flax is brown. It was usually bleached white before or after weaving. This took months. The bleach was made with lye produced from wood ashes. Sometimes lime was added as well. This soaking was the quick part of the process. Afterwards the lye was washed out and the linen cloth was stretched out in the fields to dry. This took anywhere between eight and sixteen weeks. It was all very seasonal, since the cloths could only really dry during the summer.
Like wool, the finished cloth was glazed with a heated glass ball. The same process was also carried out when the linen was washed, as it must have been fairly frequently.
Since it was easy to wash, linen was made into bed linen, tablecloths, napkins, towels, head coverings and aprons. Scraps were used as sanitary towels and toilet paper. Bits of moss and wool were also used for the latter purpose.
Linen from Champagne was generally regarded as the best in Europe. It was certainly the most expensive. The majority of the high-quality linen imported into England during the fourteenth century, however, came from Westphalia and Flanders. The best quality linen could be almost transparent and was used for veils in the fifteenth century.
In the later fourteenth century cotton was woven with linen to produce fustian. This fabric had the durability of linen and the fineness of cotton.
Textiles and Clothing 1150 – 1450 by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard, Kay Staniland
Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe by Peter Spufford