Medieval Textile Tools

This week we’re back at City Museum in Winchester, but looking at things from a slightly different angle. Earlier this year I wrote a series of posts about how some textiles were produced in the Middle Ages. You can find the first one here. While I was researching the series, I read about the processes and looked at pictures of the tools used, but there’s a world of difference between looking at a picture and seeing the real thing. City Museum houses some textile tools from the Middle Ages.


In numerical order they are:
17 A whorl for a spindle
19 A tenterhook
20 A harbick
21 Shears
22 A thimble
23 A needle
24 A couching needle

The uses of some of the objects are fairly obvious.  The whorl sat on a spindle to balance it when yarn was spun. Spindles were made of wood, so tend not to survive. Whorls were usually made of stone or clay, but this one is lead.

The sewing needle (slightly bent as the description card points out helpfully) was used in the same way that a needle would be used today. It’s thicker than I would like to use, but I suspect it wasn’t meant for fine needlework. Someone using it would have need of the beautiful little thimble.

The shears (21) were probably used for cutting fabric or thread. They look too small to have been used for removing the nap on cloth, although they look too large to snip sewing thread. I don’t suppose the needlewomen of the Middle Ages had a large collection of scissors of different sizes as I do.

According to its card, the harbick (20) was used to secure cloth to a board when the nap was shorn. It’s not an object I’ve come across before in my reading and I can’t find out any more than the museum card told me.

It was the tenterhook (19) that first caught my eye in the display. Tenterhooks were used to stretch fabric on a tenterframe after it had been fulled. I had no idea the hooks were so tiny, but I suppose they would have damaged the fabric had they been much larger. It’s not every day you get to see something that is only remembered through an idiomatic saying, which is why I was quite excited to see it.

I have to confess to being more than a little worried about the couching needle (24). Everything I’ve read or seen about couching indicates that an ordinary needle is used. Couching is an embroidery technique in which a thread is placed on the fabric and held in place by small stitches along its length. In the Middle Ages couching was mostly used to secure gold thread, which was considered too valuable to be wasted on the back of an embroidered piece.  Gold thread was made with gold leaf, so was very expensive. I suppose this needle could be a laying tool, used for keeping threads flat and controlled while the needle is pulling them through the fabric, but I don’t know. If anyone recognises it and understands its purpose in couching, I’d be grateful if you’d leave a comment below.


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.

Available now:













Filed under Medieval Life

18 responses to “Medieval Textile Tools

  1. Fascinating! The thimble is, of course, instantly recognisible even to some one like me who rarely sews.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m also surprised by how small the tenterhook is. I suppose that’s because I’ve seen modern drawings of fabric on tenterframes, and the artists may not have been too fussed about proportion.

    I’d never heard of couching before; interesting to learn how they got maximum benefit out of gold thread.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I wonder if the couching needle is mislabeled? It looks more like an awl or perhaps a laying tool.

    I too am surprised at the small size of the tenterhook, and yes it would take a lot of them. I found this image of a piece stretched on a tenter.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. So fascinating and I love the little thimble. Looks like a tiny soldiers helmet.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I learn something new with each of your posts. Very rough looking needles with what I would imagine delicate fabric not to mention the gold thread.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Another great museum stop! “On tenterhooks” is one of my favorite phrases, so it’s very cool to see the object it originated from.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Great stuff, April. I too loved seeing the tenterhook particularly because of the expression.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. The couching tool looks like something I saw in an 18th century reenactment of American colonial sewing. A long, thin, slightly tapered copper or silver rod was laid over a piece of hooped embroidery. Silken floss was looped over in a way to allow an evenly raised pile. After the rod was covered with close stitches to the length desired, it was carefully removed, revealing a long, cushiony, worm-like silken pile. The slight taper allowed easier removal. To counteract any obvious difference, the rod was laid in the opposite direction for the next row.

    We were informed little girls’ knuckles were slapped with a ruler if the metal showed, “proving” their laziness and inattention. This slapping happened for all kinds of poor sewing. Woe to girls with myopia!

    Great care was taken not to bend the rods. Some were precurved, yet always tapered. This allowed for fancier work.

    Sets of these rods would be imported from Europe. Colonists did not have the means necessary for such delicate metal work. This embroidery was expensive, as it consumed great quantities of floss.

    In the Winchester museum piece I notice the center section is rather even, though the very center appears worn a bit narrower. This could account for years of threads wrapped around, wearing it down. It could very well have been used for the same purpose as the 18th century rods.

    My grandmother used her tenterhook frame to stretch fine sheer curtains.
    She also used it to hold the backing & batts for quilting. I was born to late to witness it in use, but remembered the old frame in her cellar, and asking what is was for. Grandma called it a curtain-stretcher.

    So many of these are still in use or only but recently put aside. Proof that much of women’s work took longer to benefit from the Industrial Revolution.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I recently acquired a book on 18th century embroidery, so I’ll have a look to see if it mentions such a technique. I looked up couching in it and it confirmed what I already knew.

      I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the time it took to do things in the past, particularly with reference to embroidery on clothes. Such things these days are prohibitively expensive, but time and skill were valued differently in the past.

      Liked by 1 person

Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s