Last week we had a look at what went under the clothes and this week we’ll take a look at the making of the clothes. The fourteenth century was a time of fast-changing fashion. It wasn’t quite as fast as it is today, with clothes being out of date almost before you’ve bought them, but there were noticeable changes over the years. And the women were as bad as the men.
The desire to be fashionable meant plenty of work for those who made clothes for the wealthy. Only they could afford both to follow fashion and to have their clothes made for them. Philippa of Hainault, Edward III’s queen, was a woman who liked clothes and spent a lot of her husband’s money on them. For the majority of women, though, making and maintaining clothes for the family was something they did themselves.
As today, clothes were made with needle and thread, but they were made, obviously, without the aid of a sewing machine. A few years ago, before I owned such a marvellous object, I made a very simple garment by hand and it took forever. Even as a beginner, I could have done it much faster with a sewing machine, but there was a certain amount of fun, and satisfaction, in managing without one. There are and were, however, people able to sew very quickly and neatly by hand. Like everything else, it’s a matter of practice.
Thread could be silk or linen, both of which could be died to match the colour of the cloth used.
Simple needles were made of copper alloy or iron and the eyes were punched or drilled, occasionally both. Drilled eyes were rounder and punched eyes were longer. I’m afraid that the needle in my photograph is not against a contrasting background, so it’s impossible to tell what kind of eye it has. I’ve included a photograph of the part of the display cabinet where it lives so that you can get an idea of its size.
Another necessity for hand sewing is a thimble. By the fourteenth century metal thimbles were used all over England. There is some debate as to whether or not they were in use before that, but that need not worry us. The thimble shown at the top of the post is on display in Winchester City Museum. Each of the dimples would have been drilled by a thimbler as in the picture above. I’m not sure who he’s making them for, though, as they’re rather large.
As you can see from the finished objects on his table, not all thimbles were rounded on top. Some were more like rings that would sit above the top knuckle on a finger. Since I tend to push a needle from the tip of my finger, such a thimble would be little help to me, but practice would probably make it less dangerous.
The Medieval Household by Geoff Egan