Making Medieval Clothes

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 It wasn’t quite as fast as it is today, with clothes being out of date almost before you’ve bought them, but there were noticeable changes over the years.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

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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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Clothing

24 responses to “Making Medieval Clothes

  1. Blimey I remember learning different kinds of sewing stitch at school and practicing on samplers. Not my best subject. Interesting to see these medieval tools and amazing they survive.

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  2. That needle looks hefty. It would’ve been hard to sew a delicate seam with it–and even hard to sew a delicate material without wrecking it. Makes me wonder how thin they could get them at the time.

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    • Yes. I don’t know if it’s the accretions of centuries or if it was always like that. It’s not necessarily a needle for making clothes. There wasn’t any additional information about it by the display case, but the curve makes me wonder if it was used to make shoes, assuming that the curve is original and not the result of something that happened to it later.

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    • Woolens and linens were often of coarser weaves than we see today.
      Perhaps the sewer sought to push the needle between weft and warp? This would save needle wear.

      Finer fabrics might call for finer needles, which probably didn’t survive much to today.

      I read somewhere that apprentice taylors, servants and girls could be beaten for breakage or loss of a needle. Needles must have been costly and precious. Any proof of them being in wills?

      I remember my mother’s pincushion having a little cloth bag dangle. Inside was stuffed tight with grit, which was used to remove rust and, supposedly, sharpen needles poked thereinto. Certainly Medievals had similar accoutrements.

      The photo shows what might be an awl? Such may have been used for stubborn fabrics as well as leathers. Makes sense to use an awl where today, we often push quite hard with thimble (probably not a good idea with Medieval needles).

      The eye half of the shaft appears squared, like horseshoe nails. Pointed half seems rasped to roundness. Quite possibly for coarse fabrics, but not fine silks and linens.

      Pins were likewise dear in price. I know some American colonists used thorns for pins, but not sure if First Americans taught this or if it was common in Europe.


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      • Textiles are fascinating and I could get carried away. I don’t know that I’ve come across needles listed in wills, but I’ll have a look at my most useful book for that.

        It’s not an awl. It’s labelled as a couching needle, but I’m not convinced, unless they mean it’s a laying tool used for couching. That would make more sense.

        It’s hard to tell what the little needle was originally intended for. Is the curvature original? Was it made that thick, or has it rusted to the extent that it would be dangerous to try to remove it? I don’t know, but I do think it’s marvellous that it’s survived.

        Pins are a good idea for a post. I think there’s something in one of my books about them.


  3. Wow, fascinating post! It does sound rewarding to hand-sew a garment all on your own without the help of modern tech!

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  4. April, I love your blog, you’ve been a great help to me time and again. I wonder if you might know where a fourteenth-century Englishwoman would buy her sewing supplies? I can’t imagine she’d have gone to the needlemaker, the thimbler, etc. all separately. Was there a fourteenth-century equivalent to what we in the States used to call a notions store, selling a range of sewing and embroidery supplies?
    This is a tough one, I know. I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have. And again, thank you for sharing your expertise–and your wonderful illustrations.

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    • Thank you. That’s a very good question and I’m not sure where she would have got them, possibly at markets, fairs or from itinerant peddlers. If I find out, and I want to now that you’ve asked, I’ll write a post about it.


      • Many thanks, and I’ll comment here if I manage to work it out. For my purposes, I’m trying to discover how this would work in an urban setting–fourteenth-century London and York.

        I shouldn’t be surprised by how obscure this is. But it’s a bracing reminder of how little we really do know about the lives of medieval women, especially when you consider that needlework was an inevitable, more-or-less everyday activity for Englishwomen old and young, rural and urban, across every social class, for hundreds of years.

        So nice to take a moment to mail about this with someone who doesn’t think I’ve lost my mind.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s the kind of thing I’d want to get right if I was putting it into a novel, but now that you’ve raised it, I quite want to know the answer anyway.

          I’m sure there are people who know the answer. I’ve got a book about household items that have been dug up in London, the one that I referenced in the post. That might contain some relevant information, but the index isn’t always useful. There’s another book in the same series that’s about clothing accessories which might also be helpful.


        • I’ve done a bit of searching. If it were a small town, they would buy needles from the nearest market. In a large town there would be a shop, but whether it would be the mercer, the draper or something else, I haven’t been able to work out. The closest I’ve got so far is that Ian Mortimer in The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England mentionis that some mercers sold needlecases.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you, April, I really appreciate your help. I think we may have to accept that it might not be able to get complete clarity on this one. My hopes that Threadneedle Street might lead me somewhere useful have petered out. I’m looking through Le Menagier de Paris (wrong country, of course, but just looking for leads), since it’s so specific and detailed. Again, thank you so much for taking the time to do this research. There’s still so much more to be discovered!

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  5. I have inherited a thimble from my mom, and two more from each of my grandmothers – I STILL haven’t managed to use them well – and just put up with ‘pricked’ fingers for most things, and use them only for pushing through tough/thick items – LOL – – That said, your post reminded me of my 9th grade history teacher – – he worked the Renaissance Fair in our state, every year, and he had made his own costume – complete with hooks/loops/dried items for buttons, because, “zippers, velcro and button holes’ weren’t invented/used at that time’ and, being a lover of history, he couldn’t BEAR not to be authentic! He did BUY the material, but tried to keep close to ‘what available/the norm at the time’ and said, “I freshen it through brushing/whacking the dust out” rather than ‘dry cleaning’ it every year – –

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    • I don’t get on too well with my thimble, but I get on even less well with holes in my finger from a needle.

      I suspect your teacher’s lessons were interesting. He sounds like some of the people I watch on YouTube who make historical clothes in a way that’s as historically accurate as possible.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My mother used to use a thimble but I have never mastered it even though they tried to make us use one at school. I found, though, that over time I developed slightly hardened skin, not quite calluses, on the tips of my fingers. I imagine, in the past, it wasn’t ‘ladylike’ to have callused fingertips.

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  6. On a practical front, way outside my comfort zone (I can just about sew a button on), but fascinating. Apart from mechanisation, should I be surprised that the basics haven’t changed much?

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  7. Pingback: Medieval Pins | A Writer's Perspective

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