Medieval linen


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




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

35 responses to “Medieval linen

  1. Do you happen to know if they’d started ironing clothes by this period?

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    • I think that was one of the purposes of glazing. A hot round object was rubbed over the fabric. It would have smoothed out some of the creases. I shouldn’t imagine ordinary people did it very often, though, if at all.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Fascinating, I love the little Irish guy. I’m very glad people still keep these old skills alive, such a lovely thing to do. Cheers April, this was a nice start to my day.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Losing the Plot

    Needless to say, given how important the linen industry became, there are many architectural features that still remain throughout NI. Our Council offices are on Linnenhall Street, in the Linen Qtr, and the slang name for a working class girls is still a Millie.
    There are still bleaching greens dotted about the place with the little stone huts where a guard would be placed to protect the cloth.

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    • Wonderful. I should have mentioned Irish linen, but I suspect it became important after the Middle Ages.

      I should imagine that bleaching linen is even more of a hit and miss affair in your part of the world than it would be here. The rain must have caused a few problems.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. What a fascinating article and videos. Linen is one of my favourite fabrics – so much cooler in summer than cotton, and who cares that it creases so easily? (Well, some do, and won’t wear it for that reason, but the older and softer, the less inclined to crease.) I had no idea of the effort required to produce it.

    And I would never have recognised those plants as flax, because they look so different to NZ flax! Which isn’t really flax at all, but a member of the lily family, though it was called “flax” by the early European settlers. I always assumed linen flax would look similar, though smaller. Here’s a link so you can see what I mean about NZ flax.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Flax wine sounds a bit unnecessary.

      I don’t wear linen, but I use it for cross stitch. I’m just starting something on a large piece of hand-dyed linen which is rather lovely now that I’ve been handling it and it’s not as stiff as it was.

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  5. It’s amazing how much work is involved in making fabric. It’s a wonder we’re still not all wearing animal skins.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Great post, April. I can only imagine how filthy the wool and silk outergarments must have been after ages without wash, even with protection from body oils and sweat!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Not necessarily. Wool is good at repelling dirt. In later ages, clothes were given a good shake when they were removed at night and, if the same thing was done in the Middle Ages, that would get rid of a lot of the dust and dirt.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Linen is still a very popular fabric!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love crinkly, carefree linen for summer wear. Kudos to whoever decided to gather moistened linen into a bundle, producing the fine lines that require no iron!

    I can’t think that any medieval person would want ironed underclothes. The softness of linen easily becomes scritchy with ironing, especially when starches are employed. The men’s braies look rather comfy!

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  9. Fascinating post April. I love to hear how the things we still use today we’re created & used in history. So interesting. I had no idea Flax is used for linen! 😀

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  11. I didn’t know flax is used for linen. Also didn’t realise how important Flanders was for linen.

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  12. I admire anyone who cross stitches. I used to watch my meticulous sister. The backs of her works looked as tidy as the fronts. She eventually had to go to progressively larger weaves for counting. Once she needed the trifocals, she gave up & went completely for crocheting.

    I made two itty-bitty counted-stitch Christmas ornaments & chucked it. Don’t have the patience. I’ts not for the easily distracted.

    Good for you who have what it takes! ♥

    Watching the video I’m cowed by the sheer labor it takes to get a small spool of linen thread. Little wonder fine linen is up there with silks and Harris tweeds for $$$$! :-{

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to use a magnifying glass to cross stitch, but I think most people would struggle to stitch on 35 count linen without some kind of magnification. It’s tiny and the stitches are tiny. I’m afraid I wouldn’t meet your sister’s standards for the back of the work. It’s quite messy.

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